Sunday, September 22, 2013





James Russo in YELLOW ROCK

Some people never stop working.  Here it is, just over a week to the Almeria Western Film Festival, and the folks behind it, the gang at Chip Baker Films, fresh from shooting SIX BULLETS TO HELL in those great Spanish locations and sets, are in pre-production for their next Spaghetti Western, REVEREND COLT!  James Russo, one of the cinema’s most intimidating presences, will star as the titled Reverend. 

Russo, who appeared in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and just played gangster Anthony ‘Red’ Cervelli on VEGAS, is no stranger to the western form.  Most recently seen in DJANGO UNCHAINED, he was also one of the stars of YELLOW ROCK, SHOOT FIRST AND PRAY YOU LIVE, BROKEN TRAIL, OPEN RANGE, and BAD GIRLS. 

Co-producer and co-writer Danny Garcia is very excited at the prospect of working with Russo.  “James loves the genre and he not only he worked with Sergio Leone in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA; he loves 'Leone type westerns' as he puts it. So for us to work with him in Leone's turf is not only a perfect plan but also an honor as you can imagine.”  Danny tells me they’ll be shooting in Almeria in the spring of 2014, with much the same crew and some of the same cast as SIX BULLETS TO HELL (if you missed my write-up on that one, go HERE.)  

Russell Quinn Cummings will be directing with a script by Garcia and Jose L. Villanueva, from an idea by Chip Baker. The rest of the cast includes a number of actors with a history of westerns, Spaghetti or domestic, including Cal Bartlett, whose western credits go back as far a BONANZA and THE VIRGINIAN; Antonio Mayans of A TOWN CALLED HELL and many others; Saturno Cerra of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and many others; Aaron Stielstra chilling in the recent THE SCARLET WORM; Norberto Morán of the most recent PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN; and Peter Tahoe.  I’ll have more details shortly. 


Article and DVD Review

With what would have been Gene Autry’s 106th birthday exactly one week from today, it’s a perfect time to look at the recently released last season of his delightful TV series.  Among the special pleasures in season five, all thirteen episodes are in stunning color, and filmed on beautiful locations like Lone Pine and Pioneertown that take full advantage of the camera’s possibilities. 

Gene’s show, which ran for 91 episodes from 1950 to 1955, was a product of careful study and research.  Gene spent more than two years studying the difference between movies and television before shooting his first episode under the Flying A Productions banner, which he created for his television business, analyzing questions like what is the best way to show action on a tiny, blurry screen.  He concluded that his television movies would have less long-shots, more close-ups, and more side-to-side rather than head-on action. 

Why was Gene, just back from the war, eager to get into the new market?  Here’s the answer in Gene’s own words.  “Like everyone else in show business, I had become very much interested in the possibilities of television. And, in addition, I had a special reason for wanting to hit the video channels. During my three and a half years in the service, a whole new generation of children had been born. These youngsters are still too young to attend many movies (if at all), but they’re not too young to watch television. And in these days, cowboy fans, like charity, begin at home.”

Gene wanted to build a pipeline of new fans from the TV series to his films at the movie theatres.  But movie exhibitors, whose venues were disappearing with the competition of the new medium of television, were not at all pleased when he decided to make shows directly for TV.  Some even cancelled their contracts to play his pictures, saying no one would buy a ticket to see him when they could watch him on TV for free.  To show how different the show-biz world of the 1950s was from today, Gene correctly countered that by-and-large, only rural areas played his movies, while only big cities had TV stations, so his films and TV shows were serving almost completely different markets.  He further pointed out that his new Columbia-produced films were not getting the playdates they should, because exhibitors, to save money, were instead booking his pre-war Republic films, which he didn’t own (yet).

One thing that set THE GENE AUTRY SHOW apart from its competitors was that the episodes were approached as self-contained mini-movies.  In THE ROY ROGERS SHOW, THE LONE RANGER, or HOPALONG CASSIDY, the identities and relationships of characters were always the same.  In Autry’s series, just like in his theatrical movies, Gene could be a lawman or a ranch hand or a well-known entertainer, and sidekick Pat Buttram could be an old compadre, or someone he just met.  It made for a wider variety of story possibilities.  And also consistent with Gene’s features, there is always music, and in the last season Gene’s singing is backed by the personable and talented Cass County Boys.  And there’s plenty of fighting and riding action, a not preachy but clear core of morality, and comedy supplied by Pat Buttram.  The one exception to the last was when, during season one, Pat was nearly killed by a prop cannon, and for the next several episodes actors Fuzzy Knight, Alan Hale Jr. and Chill Wills took turns donning Pat’s duds and filling in for him (you can learn more about this HERE  in my review of PAT BUTTRAM, ROCKING CHAIR HUMORIST).

Here are some of the highlights of season five:

The first episode of the final season, MILLION DOLLAR FIDDLE, centers on a character every kid can identify with.  A violin prodigy with a priceless Stradivarius, he’s every one of us who just wanted to be a kid, when our parents made us take music or dance lessons or do our homework.  And instead of the usual low-brow approach to classical music that would have been easier, Gene, no snob, is a fan of classical, but also thinks a kid should get to be a kid from time to time.  And although he’s not used to his fullest potential, it a kick for fans of The Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello to see Joe ‘Stinky’ Besser as the train conductor.

It will surprise locals that STAGE TO SAN DIMAS does not involve water parks, but a stagecoach that must get through regardless of angry Apaches or white bandits after an actress’s diamonds, and features Myron Healy, one of TV Western’s best sardonic outlaws.

PORTRAIT OF WHITE CLOUD has a clever plot about the timing of hold-ups, and an itinerant portrait painter – and Chief White Cloud is played by the original Butch Cavendish and GUNSMOKE’S Sam the bartender, Glenn Strange.  It’s written by pulp mystery-turned prolific western movie scribe John K. Butler.   
When Gene finds a village so corrupt that the minister is forced to hold services out of town, Gene makes sure that LAW COMES TO SCORPION, and he gets framed for murder for his trouble.  This episode features lovely Lisa Montell, ever-villainous Myron Healy, weak lawman Arthur Space, and the great perennial drunken and/or corrupt judge, Earle Hodgins.

In THE GOLDEN CHARIOT, Pat and the boys are trying to raise the money to build a school by taking part in a chariot race, and heavy Harry Lauter gets to switch his western garb for charioteer duds.  Radio star and Disney voice artist Junius Matthews is the school teacher working out of a barn, Byron Foulger is the official set to de-certify the school.  Directed with style by action pro Ray Nazarro, it’s highlighted by a pair of chariot races through the Alabama Hills around Lone Pine, in breathtaking color. 

In GUNS BELOW THE BORDER, Pat, working for brothers Myron Healy and Keith Richards, is helping a padre bring a replacement bell to the San Angelo Mission in Mexico, hoping to evade Mexican renegade Gregorio (Leno-jawed Lane Bradford).  American lawman Gene and Mexican lawman Capitan Fernando take turns crossing each other’s borders to track a shipment of guns headed for the renegades.   Striking Eugenia Paul is Fernando’s guitar-strumming daughter who is in need of a chaperone, especially looking as nice as she does in those off-the-shoulder tops.  Fernando is played by Jallisco-born George L. Lewis, who played the traitor Collins on TV’s THE LONE RANGER, and would soon be famous as Guy Williams’ father on Disney’s ZORRO series.

And three episodes in a row, SADDLE UP, RIDE RANCHERO and THE RANGERETTE, known to fans as ‘The Flying A Trilogy,’ break the mold by being a three-part story involving Gene’s attempts to establish a boy’s ranch for underprivileged kids.  And the lead villain is none of than the very frightening and creepy Emile Meyer, Alan Ladd’s nemesis from SHANE.

The final episode, DYNAMITE, features Glenn Strange, mine cave-ins, and a man whose skill with dynamite would reveal his identity as a wanted man.

Special features on the Season 5 DVD set include an episode of the Melody Ranch Radio Show from 1955, a selection of  Gene’s movie trailers, and a color photo gallery. 

But wait, there’s more Gene Autry home video news!  You can now buy THE GENE AUTRY SHOW season by season – actually season three and four are in a set – or if you want to wait until December 10th, you can buy a new 15 disk boxed set that contains all five seasons, complete with all their special features.  And this set also includes a bonus disk, with episodes of the four other Gene Autry produced FLYING A series, ANNIE OAKLEY, THE RANGE RIDER, BUFFALO BILL JR., and ADVENTURES OF CHAMPION.  And if you pre-order at the Autry website, you get it at the discount price of $70. 
Also, on November 12th, the GENE AUTRY COLLECTION #4 will be released, featuring THE OLD BARN DANCE, BLUE MONTANA SKIES, SIERRA SUE, and COWBOY SERENADE, all pre-war Republics.  Special features include Gene and Pat discussing the films on the MELODY RANCH THEATRE series.   The pre-order price on this set is $15.50.  In addition to ordering merchandise, you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about Gene at the GENE AUTRY OFFICIAL WEBSITE


STARZ ENCORE’S WESTERN CHANNEL will celebrate Gene’s birthday Friday, September 27th through Sunday, September 29th, with a 42 film marathon, beginning with his first feature, TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS, and ending with his last, LAST OF THE PONY RIDERS.  The WESTERN CHANNEL has renewed their exclusive contract with Gene Autry Productions through 2018!

On Saturday, September 28th, the Autry Museum will screen a free double-feature of Gene’s movies, STARDUST ON THE SAGE and CALL OF THE CANYON.  And on Sunday, September 29th, there will be a birthday celebration at the Autry, a special birthday display, and from 2 to 4 pm, curator Jeffrey Richardson will be making a presentation about the Autry’s Colt firearms collection, then discussing and signing his new book, COLT: THE REVOLVER OF THE AMERICAN WEST.


We all know that Gene Autry was a great entertainer, but not everyone is aware that he was a phenomenal businessman, who spotted trends and predicted changes in the entertainment business years before others did.  He built an empire of not only movies and TV shows, but of radio and TV stations, and baseball.  Karla Buhlman is the President of Gene Autry Enterprises, and has been with the company for over two decades.  Having worked with Gene for years, and having helped steer his company successfully since his passing, she has a unique perspective on Gene the businessman and his approach to the then burgeoning field of television.  She was kind enough to share her thoughts with me.

HENRY PARKE:  I know that you were not born when the TV shows were running,  but do you know if  William Boyd’s character Hopalong Cassidy’s surge of popularity, after his old movies played on TV, influence Gene to go into the new medium?

KARLA BUHLMAN:  That in particular I don’t know.  But what I can tell you is that Gene Autry was very, very savvy into how the public consumed his product.  Because he toured extensively across the United Sates and Canada, he knew how people were accessing his many different outlets of entertainment.  Whether it was buying sheet music or going to the movie theatres, or however.  He really understood how to reach his fans.  So my best guess is that as he toured the country, he saw the development of television.  He realized that that was a medium he needed to be involved in.  Also remember that Gene started researching this in 1948 and ’49.  Gene was also purchasing broadcast outlets in addition to radio stations, television stations.  So he saw the value of television.  And he was the first motion picture star to make the leap; to produce band new product for television, where Hoppy was showing his old movies.  Gene was specifically making new product, and he did extensive research.  They went out and they did a lot of test shooting to see how things would be.  Look at a long shot – you’re going from a big screen to a small screen.  How are you going to use the economy of your shots? We have some wonderful things in the Museum Archive from Flying A Productions.  These file cabinets that have little film frames on them, of specific stock shots, that they could reuse.  If you watch the shows, Gene’s pretty much wearing the same uniform of the dungaree shirt and blue jeans.  Pat’s pretty much wearing the vest and flannel shirt.  Because they could reuse the long shots, the horse races, things like that.  Gene Autry was very frugal, saying ‘I’m going to produce this.  I’m going to use my own stock.  I’m going to use my own company.  How am I going to make this work best when we go out to these locations?’  He didn’t just kind of step into this.  He fully understood what his audience was, and then decided, ‘How am I going to make this work for me?’ 

HENRY: In the early 1950s, he was starring in movies at Columbia, he was touring, he was doing his radio show, and starting in television.  Did he ever sleep?

KARLA:  You know, it’s so funny, he would fly his own Beachcraft airplane to get to get to different touring events, and there are some interviews I’ve recently read in Boyd Magers’ book, GENE AUTRY WESTERNS, of one of the actresses kind of freakin’ out because Gene would put the plane on auto-pilot and go back to sleep!  But he was so in tune to what he was doing, and he had such good people working with him.  He would do his weekly radio show, he would have his touring schedule, forty shows in forty different places, and all this balancing at once.  Now, his movies that were released in ’53, a lot of them were shot in ’52.  And the radio shows, they were starting to taper down for a lot of different reasons.  Because of the advent of television’s popularity.  As we restore the radio shows, we see recycled scripts.  We see that was really tailored down, where it went from being a full orchestra to an organist.  So there were changes.  But he was definitely using the technology of the day to benefit him, to be in all these place.  So he was using his private airplane.  He was using radio and television to cross-promote his other products.  At the end of his TV show he’d say, be sure to go see me in my latest Columbia release.  And I’m sure, from the road, on his personal appearance tours, he’d be plugging his movies and other things.  He had synergy before the word was invented. 

HENRY: While his work was accessible to everyone, his Columbia movies seemed aimed at a more mature audience than the TV series. 

KARLA:  I think you can say that.  Now if you look at movies as a whole, the American audience had changed, because of World War II.  When you compare the Republics to the Columbias, Gene still plays Gene Autry, there’s still music, comedy and action, except the ratio is different.  The Republics had more music.  They took place at that time and place – 1940, 1941.  But now when you go post-war, America’s a little harder.  We’ve been through a lot.  We still like music, but we don’t want as much of it because we’d rather have some more action.  So there’s more hard riding.  There’s more fist-fighting.  In fact, I joke when I screen BLUE CANADIAN ROCKIES that they must have had a five-minute fist-fight rule, because it seems that every five minutes there’s a fist-fight.  The humor is a little bit different, because the humor is provided by Pat Buttram, not Smiley Burnette.  How we want our escapism, when we go to the movies, it did change.  So there is a difference between a Republic Autry and a Columbia Autry.  Now with television, it’s a shorter amount of time, thirty minutes, but it was still regarded as a film; that’s the language they use in the documents from ’50, ’51. They would refer to these not as television episodes but as Autry films for television.  And each of these episodes has a beginning, a middle and an end, with the exception of three films in the last season.  They’re not story arced; you don’t have to see the last six to understand the next seven.  They’re stand-alone.  There are more children in the television episodes – Johnny runs away because he wants to be on Gene’s ranch or whatever, and that is because I think Gene understood that the audience was his original fan, the mom or the dad, who’s now sharing Gene with their children.  So I think they did understand that their audience was younger for TV, and the movies were still fulfilling that original Gene Autry fan, who discovered him in the 1930s, and now is older, but still accommodating the second generation of fans. 

HENRY: When he started the series, Gene had been off fighting the war, and hence off the screen for some time.  Was he having trouble re-establishing himself?

KARLA:  What he did when he came back was realize that he needed control of his product.  He did eight films for Republic when he came back from World War II, and in a couple of films, it’s like Gene just walks through them.  They don’t have Smiley in them.  They do have the Cass County boys.  He shot them real fast, and he was looking for an exit so he could have more control of the content of what the scripts were, and how they were shot.  He comes back and he does eight films, and then he shifts over to Columbia.  And when he makes Columbia films, those are ‘A Gene Autry Production’.  He’s more financially invested in them; he also has much more control in them.  It’s not so much that I think Gene had a problem coming back to the audience; it’s that the audience had changed.  He couldn’t do the exact same formula he had before, because it’s a more mature audience, and also a little older.  And that’s why he comes out with ‘Here Comes Santa Claus.’ He’s changing up his music a little bit because his original fans now have children.  Here Comes Santa Claus’ which was based on the Hollywood Christmas Parade.  He got the inspiration for the song because he was so popular, he and Champion were just before Santa Claus, and he would hear the kids on the side saying, “Here comes Santa Claus!  Here comes Santa Claus!”  And that was the inspiration for the song.  Well, seeing the monster hit with this holiday song, Gene Autry then started to record songs for children, and then he comes up a couple of years later with ‘ Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’ , so as his audience changed, he changed, and found that fit.  He was very very good at that, and not being stuck in, ‘This is what my success is, this is what I’m going to continue to constantly reproduce.’  He observed who his audience was, what their entertainment need was, and adjusted. 

HENRY:  That really is rare, to be that good an artist, and that good a business man together. 

KARLA:  And he’s right there at the dawn of this new thing of television.  And remember, too, he had comic books, so kids were picking up his comic books.  He also had a couple of chapter books, adventures books.  Every aspect that you could be a Gene Autry fan; he covered those bases and made himself accessible.  And again, he grew as his audience grew.  Now, when television did come about, you had brand new kids discovering Gene because they were seeing him on TV, and not so much in the theatre.  They would have a different affection for Gene, because it would be specifically that television Gene.  Then maybe they’d see the rodeo and see the personal appearance tour.  Whereas the parent may be huge fans of BELLS OF CAPISTRANO or SOUTH OF THE BORDER, which is a little different flavor of Gene Autry. 

HENRY: How did movie exhibitors feel about Gene doing television films?

KARLA:  Well the story goes that they just went ballistic.  The movie exhibitors completely panicked.  How can you do this to us?  You’re just destroying us!  They were so panicked that Gene had gone to an exhibitor’s conference and in person explained to them, look guys, television is here.  At the end of every episode I’m telling them to go to the movies and see me.  I am sending them back to the theatres.  The movie exhibitors were hurting not just because of Gene, but by everything else that was happening.  And that’s why the theatre around this time, the cinema, brings you 3-D sci-fi films, trying to figure, how to we bring people back to the theatres.  What can we give them on the screen that they’re not going to get at home? 

HENRY: How did Columbia Pictures feel about Gene doing television films?

KARLA:  From ’49 to ’53 is when he was with Columbia.  And his television show was ’50 to ‘55.  If you steadily look at those films, as he was putting them out, Gene knew when it was time to stop making movies.  The box office was changing.  The genre of the singing cowboy was changing.  And he could see, he himself was getting older.  And television was smarter, and at the same time he had FLYING ‘A’ PRODUCTIONS.  He was coming out with THE RANGE RIDER and ANNIE OAKLEY, these other programs where he’s doing more behind the scenes as a producer, instead of in front of the camera.  And I think it’s very telling that he realized, ‘I’m done being in front of the camera.  At a certain point I have had my success, and I need to go on to the next thing.’  Which for him was broadcasting, and then baseball.  So he made that transition.  Actors today, they’ll be some that can make that transition that gracefully age, take on the appropriate roles.  But then there are a lot trying to hang onto that year when they were a success.  And they get the plastic surgery; they only want to take the younger roles.  It’s a rare person who can look at themselves and say, I’m not what I used to be, and I need to find a new way! 

HENRY: In fact, when I look at the careers of all the great Western TV stars of that era, I’m thinking of not just Gene, but William Boyd, Clayton Moore, Roy Rogers, virtually none of them did any more acting. 

KARLA: I think it was that professionalism, knowing the genre’s going on the wayside.  And I need to now just enjoy life differently.  It’s like Abbott and Costello had success in movies, on radio and in television, and that kind of buddy comedy also fell by the wayside, replaced by something else (the sitcom), and here the westerns themselves changed: you went completely darker, you had more violence, you had just a different take on it.  People ask me all the time when it’s going to come back.  Well, I don’t think it’s going to come back, because it’s not the time and place for it.  Music and movies will still exist; it will just be presented differently.  It’s got to assess the audience at that time, and please them.  What’s going to excite them?  That’s why you have something like MOULIN ROUGE, Baz Luhrmann, who takes contemporary music, spins it, presents it a different way, and tells a different story.  That’s music in the movies; it’s just done completely different; it’s not the same as an M.G.M. musical.  Here’s how today’s audience wants to enjoy it. 

HENRY:  Was there ever any doubt that Pat Buttram would be Gene’s sidekick in the series?

KARLA: Well Gene had, at that time, Pat Buttram on the radio show, and there was just a super-camaraderie.  And Smiley (Burnette) did do a few appearances on Gene’s Melody Ranch Radio Show.  But once the war had ended, Smiley was under contract with Republic, doing films with other cowboy stars, so when Gene came back, he couldn’t get Smiley right away.  Now the last couple of Gene Columbias, he does get Smiley, and that worked great for the films.  But for TV, I never talked to Pat about that, but I think because of their camaraderie, with the radio show, it just made sense to make the transition to the TV from ’50 to ’55.  Now of course Pat was absent from several episodes because he’d had a horrible accident on the set.  And once that TV show ended Pat had success in other television series. 

HENRY: I can remember at least one episode of GREEN ACRES where both Pat Buttram and Smiley Burnette appeared, but I don’t remember if they had any scenes together. 

KARLA:  Crossover probably because of PETTICOAT JUNCTION, because Smiley was in PETTICOAT JUNCTION. 

HENRY: I’ll always remember the first Sunset Carson movie I ever saw. Smiley Burnette was his sidekick, but he was billed above Sunset.  Only time I ever saw credits of ‘Sidekick and Star in…”

KARLA: Oh, how funny!  Smiley, Pat and Gene.  I think the guys you saw, the guys you heard on the radio, I think that was the guys in real life.  And I say that because they just didn’t have time to be anyone else.  Because they were constantly on radio, filming, out there on the road touring. I think it would be really hard to have a double life, to be anyone other than that friendly, personable fellow. 

HENRY: Do you know what sort of budget and shooting schedule the episodes had?

KARLA: They were very frugal in their filming.  So they would film episodes that maybe had the same actors, same kind of locations.  They might film six of them like that in a row, but they wouldn’t broadcast them that way.  They’d be interspersed.

HENRY:  Like the way Glenn Strange keeps popping up.

KARLA:  They were very scheduled, strict, smartly laid out, filming schedules, for the economy of the actors and the economy of the locations. 

HENRY:  Gene bought Monogram Ranch in Newhall, and christened it Melody Ranch.  Later he filmed THE GENE AUTRY SHOW in Pioneertown.  Why did he need another western town? Were things just too busy at Melody Ranch with all his other shows?

KARLA:  I think it was a couple of things.  I think it was location and convenience.  And the fact that he needed a place to keep his horses; it just made sense.  Remember, he had stock for his rodeo.  When he would tour, those were his Flying A Ranch cattle.  It was like, why pay rent when I can utilize the place for multiple purposes?

HENRY:  The 5th and final season of THE GENE AUTRY SHOW was shot in color.  It looks just beautiful, and I’m sure the color gave it a longer life in syndication.  Gene had done two episodes in color in season one, and had announced the show was going to be in color from then on.  Any idea why he changed his mind?

KARLA:  If I recall correctly, it’s budget.  It’s getting the labs, having access to all that.  Because when he was doing his feature films for Columbia, he really wanted to do them in color, but literally, the line was too long at Technicolor to make them.  So that’s why his two, THE BIG SOMBRERO and STRAWBERRY ROAN were done in Cinecolor, and so when it came to doing the TV shows, he did the early two, and it was a matter of budget and availability. 

HENRY:  There is no sense of finality to the final episode, DYNAMITE.  Was Gene intending to make more shows? 

KARLA:  I don’t believe he was because, again, for the series as a whole, it was not a continuation of episodes.  The series as a whole, each episode was a self-contained adventure.  Except for the three that made what the fans call ‘The Flying A Trilogy,’ that had a story-line that held over the three.   So it wasn’t intended to have a big ‘Tadah!” kind of (finish). 

HENRY: ANNIE OAKLEY starred his frequent co-star, Gail Davis, and continued into 1956, a year later than THE GENE AUTRY SHOW.  The first, probably the only feminist western series.  
KARLA:  Making a girl the lead; making it the girl who was the smart one, and making decisions, was really important.  And I think a lot of that comes from the fact that, again, Gene Autry was out there, and really interacted with his fans.  And he could see that girls needed their cowboy heroes, too.  And it’s funny,because when you look at Gene Autry’s movies as a whole, the leading ladies in the Republic Pictures films are intelligent, fly planes, own printing companies, own ranches; they’re kickin’ ass and takin’ names.   Well, postwar they turn into what I call the ‘prairie princesses’.   They’re in gingham from their ankles to their neck.  And they no longer have that strong character role; they’re school-teachers or daughters.  And they’re always in trouble and need rescuing and I think that’s a reflection of the time.  During the war the women were in charge.  They were Rosie the riveters, they were out there, being the accountants, building ships, doing everything when the men were off to war.  Now the men come back, and they need their jobs back.  And then women, if you look at other movies and TV shows, they’re kind of pulled back to their place, as it were.  I always said a Republic leading lady could take on a Columbia leading lady, and win.  I really love the leading ladies of the ‘30s and the ‘40s because they were these strong dynamo characters.  And I would have to say that, the ANNIE OAKLEY TV series, a lot of her heart comes from the leading ladies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. 

HENRY: I never thought of it before, but the Republic women were a lot more like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks women.

KARLA:  Oh yes; they’re smart.  And then maybe you’ll have the goofy sidekick to the leading lady.  But 
when the girls in the Republic Pictures get into a pickle, it’s of their own doing.  Or they’ve gotten into a way where Gene can untangle the situation, but it’s not that they’re helpless.  In the Columbia Pictures ones, there’s a great movie, WHIRLWIND, with Gail Davis as the lead, and as she starts off, Gene mistakes her for a man; because she’s wearing gauchos, she’s got a fringe jacket and a dark hat.  By the end of the film, she’s in a gingham prairie dress, covered up from neck to ankle, and she’s lost some of that spirit.  And she’s become, in my eyes, a little more helpless.  But it’s ‘happy’ at the end; she’s been tamed, as it were.  Now Gene has used this ‘Taming Of The Shrew’ story-line in other films, but it’s not the same way.  And I think that’s a really good reflection for what the early 1950s leading lady roles were.  They just didn’t hold up as strongly as they did in the Republics.  So perhaps some of that Republic-era leading lady strength showed up in ANNIE OAKLEY.  And of course you have Annie Oakley herself, the true historic character, to influence this character.  Which Gail embraced and was wonderful at.  And she not only was in the TV show, but she went on tour with Gene, as Annie Oakley, and she went to London in 1953 as Annie Oakley as well.  There’s some great photographs of that on the photo gallery from the TV episodes that come from ’53. 

HENRY:   How about THE RANGE RIDER, starring Jock Mahoney and Dick Jones? 

KARLA:  You know I’ve only seen a few episodes of THE RANGE RIDER.  Gene Autry sold his copyrights, his intellectual ownership of these in 1972 because he needed the money to buy the remaining rights to his feature films.  He wanted to put his feature films on the television stations that he owned. 


KARLA:  Because he wanted the rights to his feature films.  And I think he just assessed, what did he need and what could he get, and I think that was a very good business move.  I don’t know really of  movie stars of his era who have the rights to their work.   So it’s unfortunate;  you can’t see every single Bing Crosby movie, because they’re owned by different companies.  So the control of packaging them and promoting them and doing that, it’s difficult, because you have to deal with so many different entities.  But Gene, he saw the light.  One of the favorite things I’ve ever come across in this office was a letter from 1972, when Gene was explaining why he was getting the rights to the motion pictures.  And that was because he saw a time when people would have these movies in their homes.  So he was talking about VHS and DVD before the concept existed.

HENRY:  Well my gosh, he was always so forward-thinking. What did Gene think of competing western series, like HOPALONG CASSIDY, ROY ROGERS, LONE RANGER, and CISCO KID?

KARLA:  I haven’t ever run across any discussion of that.  I just know that he had a pretty high standard.  If you are to compare the production values of say, THE LONE RANGER, which was done on a soundstage, and Gene’s stuff was done outside. 

HENRY:  On beautiful locations.

KARLA:  The locations, the west, was a very important character of his television shows.  It was part of that escapism people really wanted.  They want to take their thirty minutes and enjoy a different time, a different place, and that’s what he was giving them.  That’s not to say you couldn’t do that with a soundstage; it’s just that Gene took it to a higher level. 

HENRY:  Do you know of any Western series that he watched for enjoyment?

KARLA:  No, I don’t.  I’ve been working for Gene’s companies for twenty-five years.  And I started working directly in his office about nineteen years ago.  At that time Gene had satellite systems set up at his home, so he could catch the baseball games when the team was on the road and he couldn’t travel.  He was very savvy, very well-versed in television of that time, so he could have access to just about everything.  I know he just really, really enjoyed baseball; he was very much engrossed with that.  So in terms of what he was watching for recreation, we’d have to ask Mrs. Autry. 

HENRY:  What should I have asked you that I didn’t know to ask?

KARLA:  I think about the importance of restoration.  It’s really, really important, and the outlet that we have taken at Gene Autry Entertainment is to preserve the medium and present it as it was at the time.  And that’s why we’re not going to colorize black & white.  And that’s why I’m not going to correct things like if a boom-mike shows up, something that I could digitally erase, I’m not going to do that.  I’m not going to drop out words that somebody might think are politically incorrect.  In some of the movies there is some blackface, done for comic relief, usually with Smiley.  I’m not going to cut that out.  I need to present entertainment in its original form to today’s audiences.  Because if you don’t see how comedy was presented back then, if you don’t see how drama developed, if you don’t see how leading ladies were portrayed, you’re never going to understand where our entertainment is today.  And the songs are presented as they were; we don’t sweeten them, we don’t put extra music behind them, we don’t make them hipper, we just present it as it was so you can enjoy it in its time and place.  When I make the DVDs, I try to create a little time machine.  That’s why I want to provide bonus material, like a radio show, or the photo gallery, so you can see what Gene was doing at that time, or the movie trailers.  This is entertainment in 1951, or this is entertainment in 1953.  And it always kills me when I read some reviewer who just rails on a DVD boxed set.  ‘Where are the commentaries? Where are the behind-the-scenes?’  That stuff didn’t exist, and the people involved are all dead.  You can’t ask for something that never existed.  And I think when you watch one of these story-lines in a TV show, some of them are pretty simple and pretty silly, some of them are complex.  They deal with issues that relate today; of water rights, kids wanting to be something that they aren’t, mistaken identities.  Different kinds of things.  And you’ll see that in some of the motion pictures.  You’ll see some of the story-lines about going and voting so you can make a difference.  Well, that stuff holds up today.  Time and time again we see where Gene saw the truly bigger picture of his work.  He may not have been the best singer.  He may not have been the best actor.  But he knew what his talents were, and he knew how to reach his audience in every way. 
This one snuck up on me, and it’s not one you want to miss!  This Friday night, September 27th is the 16th annual SILVER SPUR AWARDS at the Sportsmen’s Lodge, 12833 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City, CA 91604.  The Silver Spur, following in the tradition of the Golden Boot Awards of yore, celebrates Western movies and television.  The evening features a delicious meal – chicken marsala, ribeye, or a vegetarian selection – musical entertainment, and presentation of the Silver Spur to honor some terrific talent. 
As in the past, the event salutes both the Western actor, and the stuntman that makes him look good.  Among those presenting at this event will be Earl Holliman, Mike Connors, Joely Fisher, Kyle Chandler, Bob Minor, Mickey Jones, and Lee Diebold.  Those being honored include Connie Stevens, Jon Voight, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert Wagner, Andrew Prine, Chuck Hicks, and Ewing “Lucky” Brown.  
And Master of Ceremonies will be Tommy Cook, who was the original ‘Little Beaver’ to Don ‘Red’ Barry in the great Republic serial, THE ADVENTURES OF RED RYDER; he played ‘Little Beaver’ on the radio as well.
As it was last year, this year’s event is a benefit for the MVAT, the Military and Veterans Appreciation Trust.   Doors open for the silent auction at five p.m.  Tickets are $125, but for $175 you’ll be seated in the VIP section, in the first three rows.  To purchase your tickets, get out your plastic and call Sharon Evans at 818-352-7665.  For more information, visit the official website here:


Marshall Brickman, a wonderful writer and frequent Woody Allen collaborator, will write a musical based on the life of Roy Rogers -- the last one he wrote was JERSEY BOYS!  I’ll have more details in next week’s Round-up!


Just heard from Chris Casey about the passing of the great screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, who wrote FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE; THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY; DUCK, YOU SUCKER; DEATH RIDES A HORSE, and so many others. A great talent, and a great loss!


And that’s it for this week’s Round-up!  I’d have more pictures, but I want to see the Emmys, and BREAKING BAD, just like everyone else!  Have a great week!

Happy trails,


All Original Contents Copyright September 2013 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating read as always! What a terrific interview with Karla! Happy Birthday, Gene, and all the folks at Autry Entertainment!