Soldiers in Stetsons: Article on B-western figures in WWII

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
User avatar
George Kincaid
Posts: 505
Joined: Sun Dec 30, 2007 1:19 am
Location: Southern Ohio

Soldiers in Stetsons: Article on B-western figures in WWII

Unread post by George Kincaid » Thu Dec 03, 2009 1:52 pm ... terns.html
[A bit longer than usul; but an interesting study. ]

Soldiers in Stetsons: B-Westerns go to war.
Journal of Popular Film & Television| January 01, 2003 | Loy, R. Philip

Abstract: From 1936 to 1941 B-Western stars battled to uphold American neutrality laws, and after December 1941 they became soldiers in Stetsons waging war on movie location sets. Cowboy stars underscored the identity and nature of the enemy for their juvenile viewers and urged all citizens to do their part to help win the war.

Key words. B-Westerns, cowboy stars, motion pictures, Nazi, political socialization, World War II


The formal entrance of the United States into World War II on December 8, 1941, precipitated an often-difficult dialogue between agencies of the federal government and motion picture producers over the role of film in the war effort. Actually, how the United States should respond to the international crises was debated within the motion picture community before December 1941. Robert Young and Lillian Gish were prominent members of the America First Committee, while illuminati such as Robert Montgomery, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Helen Hayes were prointerventionists (Shull and Wilt 14). Even before Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, opponents of United States aid to the Allies condemned what they believed were prowar themes in motion pictures. Spurred on by Senators Gerald Nye and Burton Wheeler, in September 1941 the Senate held hearings on what isolationists declared were too many Hollywood-produced films that urged United States intervention into the European conflict.

In a statement to the committee, Senator Bennett Clark of Missouri accused the industry of making movies that "infect the minds of their audiences with hatred . . . and arouse their emotions, and make them clamor for war. And not one word on the side of the argument against war is heard" (Mast 484). Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, who represented the motion picture industry, charged Senators Nye and Wheeler with creating prejudice against the motion picture industry to discourage "factual and accurate" reporting of Nazism. Willkie claimed that isolationists wanted to stir up the American people racially, ethnically, and religiously to divide them over foreign policy (Schatz Boom and Bust, 40). The motion picture industry escaped the hearings unscathed due to a combination of Willkie's adroitness as counsel and the ineptness of committee witnesses (Jowett; Koppes and Black; Doherty).

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor offered the motion picture industry a golden opportunity to escape such interventionist criticism; it could now turn its public-influence-wielding facilities to making films that molded popular perception of and support for the war. However, difficulties quickly arose. Were motion pictures to be made primarily for popular entertainment, a view that appealed to profit-oriented producers, or were films to reflect the government's war aims, regardless of their entertainment value (Koppes and Black, Jowett)? During much of 1942 and 1943 the Motion Picture Board (MPB) of the Office of War Information (OWL) battled Hollywood producers over those questions. OWI wanted films to show restraint in depicting the enemy (according to OWI the United States was fighting Nazi and Japanese militaristic ideologies, not individual leaders or the German and Japanese peoples); to depict the Allies, including Russians, in the most favorable light; and to refrain from producing any films that mig ht cause people around the world to question the reality of democracy in the United States or the efficacy of its political institutions.

The Office of Censorship compounded the motion picture industry's problems (Schatz, Boom and Bust 142). The MPB had oversight responsibilities for domestic film production and distribution; however, it lacked much authority. It could preview scripts and suggest changes in them, but producers were mostly free to do as they pleased. While the MPB might irritate studio decision makers, it could not control them. The Office of Censorship was another matter entirely. It had control over which films could be distributed outside of the United States. Many of the elements to which OWI objected, but which it was powerless to prevent in domestically distributed films, were incorporated into Office of Censorship guidelines. When the Office of Censorship prohibited an American-produced film from being distributed abroad, it prevented the studio from gaining access to the lucrative Latin and British markets, which by 1944-45 provided one-third of all studio income (Schatz, Boom and Bust 155).

Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black in Hollywood Goes to War note that the Office of Censorship did not permit films that depicted unpunished lawlessness or class and racial conflicts to be shown abroad (126). That would seem to eliminate the two quintessential American film genres: gangster and Western films (Warshow). However, Westerns were an exception to the rule. Koppes and Black note, "Since the law and the hero and his good American horse always triumphed in the end, the Westerns were accepted as good, though innocuous, screen salesmen of the American way" (126).

Also, Westerns were able to remain above the conflict between OWI, the Office of Censorship, and producers because, with a few big-budget A-Western exceptions, they were made by smaller studios such as Columbia, Republic, and Monogram or by independent producers. Those studios and most independents produced fewer and less prestigious films, and the OWI's time was consumed trying to influence policy at the major studios that made the bigger box-office feature-length films. B-Westerns seldom played first-run urban theaters; they were consigned to second- and third-run urban neighborhood houses or rural and small town outlets.

Westerns may have escaped the censor's stamp and remained above the struggle between the federal government and Hollywood studios, but B-Westerns did not ignore war-related themes (White). With a handful of exceptions, the major studios had discontinued producing low-budget Westerns by 1930, and the smaller studios and independents did not make big-budget A-Westerns. The smaller studios and independent producers, such as A. W. Hackel, churned out dozens of low-budget, so-called B-Westerns each year. From the earliest sound B-Westerns, studios incorporated current events into the plot and action. Depression, dust bowl, and New Deal themes were featured in plots and dialogue, and cowboy stars such as Ken Maynard, Gene Autry, and Rex Bell chased on horseback sedan-driving, machine-gun-toting gangsters. Not surprisingly, as the world geared up for war, scriptwriters used international intrigue and crisis as material for Western film plots.

Between 1938 and the end of 1941, cowboy actors, such as Johnny Mack Brown, John Wayne, and Ken Maynard, fought to enforce neutrality laws by preventing important war-related materials from being smuggled out of the country. In Pals of the Saddle (Republic, 1938), John Wayne, appearing as Stony Brooke of the popular Three Mesquiteers, prevents agents of an unnamed foreign country--but ones with heavy German-sounding accents--from smuggling "monium," an important ingredient in making poison gas, out of the United States. The film opens with scenes depicting military conflict in Europe and newspaper headlines declaring that the United States Congress had passed neutrality legislation in response to the international crisis (Shull and Wilt 96). Johnny Mack Brown stops foreign agents from shipping guns and ammunition to an unnamed foreign country in Chip of the Flying U (Universal, 1939), and Ken Maynard in Death Rides the Plains (Colony, 1940) thwarts foreign agents as they seek possession of a ranch with a larg e helium deposit.

Conversely, Gene Autry starred in two films that urged military preparedness and sought to keep foreign influence out of a mythical South American country. In In Old Monterey (Republic, 1939), Autry convinces a group of ranchers led by George "Gabby" Hayes to sell land to the army for a bombing range. The devastation Spanish people suffered from Nazi dive-bombers and high-altitude bombing during the Spanish Civil War was surely in the minds of scriptwriters as they prepared In Old Monterey.

Duncan Renaldo plays a Latin American revolutionary in South of the Border (Republic, 1939) who, if he gains political power, will grant an oil concession to a foreign power hostile to the United States, a not-too-subtle attack on Mexico's decision in 1938 to sell oil to the Axis powers. Autry and his sidekick Smiley Burnette are the United States secret agents who must stop Renaldo (Shull and Wilt 31).

Tim McCoy endeavors to prevent saboteurs from entering the country illegally through Mexico in Arizona Gangbusters (PRC, 1940). The film contains an imaginary radio broadcast in which listeners are alerted to be on the lookout for fifth columnists. The radio announcer warns that democratic institutions could be undermined in America just as they had been in other countries.

During all or part of the years that the United States was formally at war, United Artists released the popular Hopalong Cassidy series, Universal produced a few B-Westerns starring Johnny Mack Brown, Tex Ritter, and Rod Cameron, and RKO continued to produce Tim Holt films until he entered military service in 1943. However, four producers made the vast majority of B-Westerns: Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures, Producers Releasing Corporation, and Columbia Pictures. Since the films of those producers were very popular weekend entertainment in rural areas and small towns of the South, Southwest, and Midwest, it is not surprising that patriotic themes were quickly incorporated into their plots and dialogue after Pearl Harbor. However, only a handful of Westerns included war themes.

The majority of B-Westerns ignored war themes and offered audiences escapist entertainment that featured traditional cowboy heroes fighting recognizable villains in an Old West setting. When B-Westerns included war subjects, they did so in three ways. Some films contained only a casual reference to the war, such as a "Buy War Bonds" sign in a supposedly frontier store window or Gene Autry singing a war-related song, as he did in Home in Wyomin' (Republic, 1942) when he crooned "Any Bonds Today" (Mathis 26). In other Westerns, such as The Night Riders (Republic, 1939), Son of Davy Crockett (Columbia, 1941), and Deep in the Heart of Texas (Universal, 1942), Hitler-like villains exercised dictatorial control over frontier towns. However, about a dozen B-Westerns directly and extensively incorporated war-related elements into their plots and action.

War-themed Westerns did not feature combat; cowboy stars did not fight Japanese, German, or Italian soldiers. Rather their concerns were the homefront: They sought out saboteurs, encouraged women to get involved in the war effort, worried about war production, and modeled rationing practices. In all of these films, B-Western stars appealed most directly to children and younger adolescents, particularly young males. Surely adults went to see B-Westerns; nonetheless, the war messages in B-Westerns were aimed at a juvenile audience. (1)

Low-budget Westerns were but one source of war information for younger people. Most children knew someone in military service: a parent, sibling, relative, neighbor, or a parent or sibling of a close friend. Children belonged to youth organizations, such as the Boy or Girl Scouts, that participated in scrap drives or helped their members learn how to identify enemy aircraft. When children came home from school their afternoon radio heroes, such as "Terry and the Pirates," "Hop Harrigan' "Torn Mix' or "Dick Tracy," were engaged in life and death struggles with Germans and Japanese (Lingeman 230-31). Most of the literature on the homefront during World War II gives little attention to those motion pictures, comic book heroes, and radio programs aimed primarily at children. In this article, I address part of that neglect by considering the dialogue, themes, and iconography of the dozen or so B-Westerns that dealt with the war. However, before discussing those films, some brief consideration of how motion picture s assisted in the political socialization of children during the war is appropriate.

Political Socialization of Children

Political socialization is "the process by which people learn to adopt the norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors accepted and practiced by the ongoing system" (Sigel xii). As persons develop from childhood through adolescence to become adults, they acquire political attitudes, cultivate political loyalties, and articulate political ideals. Most adults reflect their attitudes and loyalties in some form of political behavior, such as expressing an opinion on a current public policy issue or voting, and in some rudimentary fashion adults are able to use their political attitudes to evaluate political institutions. Children have less-developed attitudes, loyalties, and ideals than do adults. Certainly one of the key educational functions of elementary and middle schools is to assist young people in the political socialization process (Greenstein; Easton and Dennis; Adler and Harrington; Hess and Torney).

One study of children's political socialization observed that prior to adolescence a child's political world is erratic and incomplete, a mixture of sentiments, dogmas, personalized ideas, platitudes, and partial information (Adler and Harrington 50). For example, studies in the early 1940s found that younger elementary school students attached no particular meaning to the United States flag, but as they progressed through school, children were more likely to prefer it to all other flags (Adler and Harrington 97). Piaget and Weil found that after 11 or 12 years of age children could articulate ideas such as "homeland" and "foreigner" (Sigel 26).

During World War II, schools encouraged patriotic sentiments by engaging schoolchildren in war-related activities. Individual grades or classes were exhorted to buy war stamps, and often a contest was held to see which grade or class could purchase the most. Frequently the goal was to raise enough money to buy a piece of military equipment such as a jeep. Other activities included school-organized scrap drives. A school in a small south Texas town stopped class every morning at 10:00 during the war, and the students bowed in a moment of prayer or silence. During that time the town fire siren would sound for one minute. (2)

Two studies done during World War II discovered that gender played a key role in the political socialization process. Young males possessed more information about and were more interested in the war than were young females (Greenstein 114). It is important to note that those young males who were just beginning to form political opinions and develop a national identity were the gender and age group most likely to view B-Westerns.

Unlike recent years when videocassette recorders, computers, and other forms of technology transformed education, formal schooling during World War II depended on the written and spoken word. Students learned by reading books and listening to teachers' explanations and instructions about daily lessons. That pedagogy shapes learning about the world indirectly (Johnson and Bone 34).

Movies shape perceptions visually and directly. In Richard Maltby's words, watching a motion picture involves the "play of emotion" (35). Patti Zimmermann, a film historian, makes that point in Cartoons Go to War. Cartoons, Zimmermann contends, are folktales that function to "mobilize children to good ends." When applied to World War II, the purpose was to develop "feeling patriotism" (Cartoons). Movies, including B-Westerns, helped children to understand the war and made them feel a part of it by including war themes in the motion picture genres most appealing to children. At the same time movies reinforced in a direct visual fashion the themes and symbols of nationhood that elementary and middle school children were gleaning indirectly from school textbooks and classrooms.

B-Westerns Go to War

During World War II, Hollywood producers sought to cultivate the "feeling patriotism" of which Zimmermann spoke by making motion pictures that warmed the heart and stirred the spirit. But their efforts dared not be overly propagandistic or boring; they had to be entertaining films that drew audiences to the theaters (Jowett 309). Motion picture audiences were most familiar with film genres, such as mysteries, Westerns, comedies, and musicals, that featured single-dimension characters, a limited range of themes, and standard plots (Schatz Hollywood Genres). According to Thomas Doherty, "Genre is the movie we've already seen" (86). Because patrons expected films to conform to genre norms, war subjects had to be integrated into the standard themes, plots, dialogue, and iconography that shaped traditional film genres.

Because B-Western screenwriters drew ideas from current events of the 1930s--even though the setting was supposed to be in the Old West prior to the turn of the twentieth century--it was not as improbable as one might suppose for World War II subjects to appear in low-budget Westerns. Employing genre elements familiar to those who attended such films, B-Westerns incorporated war themes in a number of ways. The cowboy hero continued to be mounted on his well-known horse and accompanied by his recognizable sidekick, but he was transformed into an agent sent by federal or state officials to track down saboteurs or black market racketeers rather than traditional B-Western villains. Drawing from a stock of well-known character actors who played B-Western villains, scripts merely changed them into Nazi agents, industrial slackers, or racketeers of some sort. When those actors appeared on the screen, everyone in the audience knew they were the "bad guys."

Traditional B-Western themes such as cattle and horse rustling continued, but they were war-related. According to several B-Westerns, the army needed horses so the outlaws did not rustle them for money; Nazi agents stole or killed the horses to thwart the war effort. Furthermore, traditional Western symbols were used to identify the enemy. Nazis were compared to Comanche Indians or to rattlesnakes and wolves. Saboteurs, racketeers, or slackers dressed in black or dark brown, colors normally associated with villains in B-Westerns, and the main villain, the so-called "brain heavy," was often a respected community leader just as he was in other B-Westerns.

B-Westerns dealt with diverse war subjects, so many that an article of modest length cannot deal with all of them; nor is it necessary. It is not the number of war subjects that is striking; rather, it is what those subjects had in common. B-Westerns fought the war on the homefront, not on foreign battlefields. As cowboy stars fought homefront battles, they communicated two central ideas: It is important to know the identity and nature of the enemy, and each person must contribute to the war effort because national survival is at stake.

Studios were unsure how to portray the enemy. Was it acceptable to promote hatred? Nelson Poynter, OWI liaison with the Hollywood moguls, replied, "Properly directed hatred is of vital importance to the war effort" (Doherty 123). But OWI wanted political systems and ideology, not persons or peoples, to be the object of that "properly directed hatred" (Doherty 124). B-Westerns could not do that because they personalize the fight for justice and law and order. Low-budget Westerns are about the "good guys" bringing the "bad guys" to justice. Not surprisingly, B-Westerns made individuals and peoples their objects of hatred. But even within that context, B-Westerns differed in their treatment of Japanese and Germans.

Viewing B-Westerns today, one is immediately struck by the contrasting racial portrayals of Germans and Japanese. Irrespective of their national origins, Asian people living in the United States experienced racial discrimination. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor and with China as an ally, it was necessary to particularize and focus racial hatred on Japan (Doherty 134). B-Westerns included numerous comments about fighting the "Japs." At the conclusion of Black Market Rustlers (Monogram, 1943), the Range Busters dump the villains' guns in a barrel clearly labeled "Blast a Jap." In Raiders of Sunset Pass (Republic, 1943), the ranch owner's son is fighting in the Pacific. A proud father comments that his boy "is out in the Pacific rounding up Jap Zeroes instead of steers."

A 1942 Range Busters Western, Texas to Bataan (Monogram, 1942), appears to question the loyalty of Japanese Americans. A group of fifth columnists has been caught with a large cache of rifles labeled "Made in Japan." Dusty King, one of the Range Busters, remarks that there were enough rifles "to arm every alien in the country." Earlier in 1942, California citizens and public officials alike had insisted that many in the Japanese American community were disloyal and that all persons of Japanese descent should be removed from the California coast (Daniels). This Monogram Western reinforces that prejudice.

On the other hand, the war against Caucasian Germany is not presented as a war against the German people or Nazi ideology; rather it is a personalized war against Hitler and his Nazi followers. Two Range Buster movies make that point. In Texas to Bataan, Max Terhune, playing Alibi, leaves his two pals and rides to the ranch. The camera focuses on him as he jumps from his horse, runs a short distance, and begins to shoot at some unseen object. Dusty King and Dave Sharpe, his two pals, hear the shots and come to help. They too dismount and fire their revolvers at the same object. The camera then pans pencil-drawn caricatures of Hitler and Mussolini. Both portraits are full of bullet holes.

Johnny Bond is the deputy left in charge of the office while the sheriff is away in Cowboy Commandos (Monogram, 1943). While sweeping the office he looks at a bulletin board full of wanted posters, including one with Hitler's face labeled "Wanted for Murder." Bond then sings, "I'll get the Fuhrer sure as shootin," a B-Western version of the Spike Jones World War II hit "Der Fuhrer's Face." Those visual images are accompanied by comments about the man with "a toothbrush moustache" and the "little man with a moustache."

Other than Texas to Bataan, B-Westerns did not include Japanese villains, Caucasian henchmen working for Japanese agents, or allegations of Japanese domestic sabotage. Other genres, including a number of serials made by some of the same production companies, featured Japanese villains, but they are nearly absent in B-Westerns. That certainly was not the case for Nazis. They appear prominently as ruthless foreign agents who kill and blackmail without hesitation or remorse and as men and women who have contempt for Americans.

Valley of Hunted Men (Republic, 1942) is set just before the United States enters the war and features three German prisoners who escape to the United States from a Canadian prisoner of war camp. As they cross the border, one of the Nazis tells his friends that they are now in the land of "peace loving Americans who are easy to fool." Later he describes Americans as an "inferior race too soft to stand pain."

Wild Horse Rustlers (PRC, 1943) has a group of German saboteurs invading a Western ranch to kill a horse herd destined for army use. When some of the henchmen express doubts about their ability to kill the horses, the leader declares that "no job is too big for the Fuhrer." Later in the film when one of the gang claims he was forced by the hero to divert a wagon load of poison hay intended for the horse herd, the leader tells him, "For such an imagination, you would be placed in a concentration camp in Germany." And when Robert Livingston and his sidekick Al St. John capture that same henchman, he warns them, "Beckmann will kill you, you don't know them Nazis." Al St. John replies, "You don't know us Yankees."

In The Phantom Plainsmen (Republic, 1942), the ranch owner will not sell horses to any nation's army, and when he discovers that the agent to whom he sells horses has been sending them to Germany, the rancher refuses to sell any more animals to him. Unfortunately the rancher's son is studying in 1937 prewar Germany. The Gestapo arrests the boy, and German agents blackmail his father into selling them the horses. The German agent assures viewers that "when you have a system and efficiency, the results are never in doubt." Bud Buster, playing the German agent in Cowboy Commandos, appears to echo that sentiment when he observes that the Fuhrer has said that there are only those who destroy and those who are destroyed.

Two comments by characters playing loyal citizens reinforce the ruthless nature of the Nazi enemy. As a store clerk unknowingly sells guns to escaped Nazis in Valley of Hunted Men, he compares Nazis to Comanche Indians and reckons that there is no difference between them. After the rancher's son is out of Germany and back home, he warns his father and the Three Mesquiteers, the heroes in The Phantom Plainsmen, that Europe is an armed camp and "Germany is coiled like a rattlesnake." His father responds, "I reckon we know how to handle rattlesnakes."

Yet, as two different versions of King of the Cowboys (Republic, 1943) illustrate, military censors were concerned about how enemy agents were portrayed. The military controlled what and which versions of songs and motion pictures were available to service men and women. For example, a different version of the 1940s popular song "Pistol Packin' Mama" was played for GIs than for stateside listeners. In King of the Cowboys, a Roy Rogers programmer, Lloyd Corrigan, plays the head of a sabotage ring blowing up war production facilities and transportation infrastructure. The governor of an unnamed state persuades Roy Rogers to leave the rodeo circuit to track down the saboteurs.

The saboteurs are able to strike quickly because Corrigan, as the governor's administrative assistant, has inside information and can protect them from being apprehended. When Republic Pictures submitted King of the Cowboys to military censors, they apparently objected to portraying a public official as an enemy agent because Republic modified Corrigan's character in the version shown to military personnel. Instead of the governor's assistant, Corrigan is head of Acme Trucking Company and serves on the governor's war production advisory committee, thus giving him access to vital war production information.

The visual and verbal B-Western film images of Nazis seem clear. They are ruthless, fanatical people willing to engage in any act to further their cause. They are people to be taken seriously and treated with caution. But that is not the whole story. As in other genres--Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator (United Artists, 1940) and To Be or Not to Be (United Artists, 1942)--Nazis are depicted as easily duped buffoons. B-Westerns reflect that viewpoint in one particular manner. Often during fist fights or when the hero wants to expose the real Nazis, someone will shout "Heil Hitler" and the Nazis will immediately and unthinkingly give the Nazi salute. In that manner they will either self-incriminate or drop their guard so the hero can win the fight.

B-Westerns did more than identify the enemy; they urged all citizens to get involved in the war effort. The statement, or some variation, "it's time to give Uncle Sam a hand" is often repeated in B-Westerns. The sign "Do Your Share to Help Win the War" is prominently displayed on a wall near the beginning of Rolling Down the Great Divide (PRC, 1942). Doing one s share to help win the war was expressed as buying war bonds, urging women to get involved in war work, highlighting war production, and honoring rationing policies.

Several films urged viewers to buy war bonds. At the conclusion of Cyclone Prairie Rangers (Columbia, 1944), after the Nazi saboteurs have been rounded up, Charles Starrett, the hero, tells the grateful townsfolk that he wants them to invest more of their income in war bonds. In Sundown Valley (Columbia, 1944), Starrett had tried to buy out the owner of a local nightclub whose gambling and liquor were curtailing war production at a local factory. Starrett tells the nightclub owner, "I'll give you $2,000 in cash provided you put the money into war bonds."

Evelyn Finley, a well-known heroine in B-Westerns, opens Cowboy Commandos by doing some trick riding. At the conclusion of her performance, part of an act she is planning for the Madison Square Garden rodeo, Finley admonishes viewers to buy more war bonds and stamps. And, at the end of Black Market Rustlers, Ray Corrigan, appearing to step out of character, faces the audience and urges them to buy more bonds.

Several B-Westerns included a cowgirl version of "Rosie the Riveter." In Black Market Rustlers, Dennis Moore, one of the Range Busters, rides up to Evelyn Finley's ranch as she is doing some trick shooting. When Moore comments on her skill with a six-gun, Finley replies that the boys were off to war and the cattle were being rustled, "so I thought I needed a little practice."

Linda Johnson, playing the heroine, Ellen Walden, in Wild Horse Rustlers, offers to help Smoky, the ranch foreman, round up the horses while her father is in Washington. Smoky thanks her for the offer but tells Ellen that he will get some men. Clearly Smoky does not believe that women ought to help round up horses. However, at the film's conclusion, Ellen has helped Smoky and Robert Livingston, the hero, round up the horses and ship them off to the army. Livingston tells Ellen, "Women like you are going to help win this war."

Jessie Arnold, as Mom Johnson, owns her own ranch in Sundown Valley. When Charles Starrett pleads with ranchers to go to work in a local factory manufacturing gunsights now that the cattle roundup is over, Mom Johnson, declaring, "I am for anything that will lick the Axis," volunteers herself and her men to work in the factory. As the film unfolds Mom Johnson is shown working at a tooling machine right beside the men.

By far, however, the best portrayal of women's war effort is found in Raiders of Sunset Pass (Republic, 1943). With the younger men off to war, older cowboys can't stop the cattle rustling. When the men are in one part of the ranch, rustlers strike at another location. As Eddie Dew, the hero sent to clean up the mess, tries to figure out how to catch the rustlers, he sees a line of posters advertising various women's military branches. He and Jennifer Halt, the heroine, agree that they need to organize a "Women's Army of the Plains." The young women act as a military unit riding patrol and carrying walkie-talkies. When the women spot suspicious groups of men, they call Dew and the other cowboys. Various girls on patrol follow the suspicious group until the cowboys can investigate. In keeping with World War II public opinion that women had no place in combat, the young women were to report trouble, not fight it.

Three B-Westerns admonished citizens to do their part by engaging in war production. In Cowboy Commandos, Nazi agents try to disrupt magnesium production at the Craig Mountain mine. When the Range Busters ask how the Nazis learned about the mine, the owner replied that he tried to keep it a secret, but somebody talked (another war concern). The saboteurs not only disrupt magnesium production at the mine, they also use a tavern to entice workers away from their jobs. When Ray Corrigan, the sheriff, visits the tavern, he tells the owner that she is "selling too much liquor to Bartlett's miners, keeping them off of the job." Corrigan threatens to shut down the tavern because "manpower hours are too important."

Cyclone Prairie Rangers emphasizes food and meat production. Cyclone Prairie grows food for southern coastal cities and the destruction of crops and animals threatens workers' health and cripples war production. Ultimately food shortages could affect the entire war effort because American produce and meat feed the whole world. According to Starrett, the destruction of beef and fresh produce is as serious a threat to national defense as an attack on a defense plant. This Western is interesting also because it is one of the few B-Westerns in which a Nazi agent is a woman. She runs the local restaurant and is able to relay information about the shipment of produce and cattle to her superiors, who then make plans to destroy the agricultural products.

Forrest Taylor as Gunsight Hawkins is the real hero of Sundown Valley. Hawkins is an inventor who has perfected a highly accurate gunsight for machine guns. When Hawkins, who is in Washington, reopens a local factory, his granddaughter cannot find enough workers to fill the war contracts, but Charles Starrett is able to convince the local ranchers, including Mom Johnson, to go to work in the factory. Even one of the men whom Starrett had fired from his ranch agrees to work in the factory because the man does not want people to think that he is a "slacker." However, a local nightclub owner, whose motive is never clear, lures workers away from their jobs. Absenteeism becomes a problem, and key people often don't show up for work. When they do come to work they are sleepy or hung over from too much alcohol and cause accidents. All ends well, however, when Starrett is able to close down the nightclub, and the army and navy present the factory with their "Production E."

Ironically, a B-Western that might have best exemplified concern for war production never made it past a plot outline. Republic Pictures hoped to make a movie with Gene Autry while he was on furlough from the Army Air Corps. The plot outline had Autry returning to his ranch only to discover that gamblers and drunks were overrunning a nearby town, the location of a large defense plant. Autry then offers some of his land to the army for a glider training camp, which would provide authorities an excellent excuse to shut down the saloons and gambling halls (Mathis 113). The film was never produced, however; one suspects that Gene Autry was unwilling to make any additional motion pictures until the war was over.

B-Westerns also encouraged people to do their part by observing regulations about rationing stamps and points. Black Market Rustlers was sure that loyal Americans would not support black market racketeers. A number of characters, including Ray Corrigan, the hero, remark several times throughout the film that black market rustlers would soon discover that patriotic Americans wouldn't support their illegal activities. Good, loyal Americans obeyed the rationing system.

A1 St. John, in his familiar role as sidekick Fuzzy Q. Jones, highlighted rationing in Wild Horse Rustlers. St. John gives Robert Livingston a cup of coffee, but as Livingston starts to drink it, St. John stops him. Reaching into his pocket, St. John pulls out a sugar cube tied to a string. He quickly dips the cube in Livingston's coffee two times. Sugar, after all, was rationed, and it should not be wasted. Later, St. John stops a wagon full of hay. When the driver, really a Nazi saboteur, objects, St. John responds that he might be hoarding sugar. Back at camp, St. John carefully removes coffee grounds from a pot, dumps them into a handkerchief, wraps them up, and places the handkerchief in his shirt. Again coffee was rationed, and St. John was saving the coffee grounds for later use. It is slapstick, silly humor to be sure, but humor that modeled an important point about rationing to B-Western audiences.

On September 21, 1944, PRC released Gangsters of the Frontier. Although the film contains no direct references to the war, it surely is an allegory on World War II. The film opens as outlaws ride into the town of Red Rock, confiscate its mines, ranches, and banks, and enslave its population. Tex Ritter and Dave O'Brien, the two heroes of the film, engage the outlaws in a gun battle, but being vastly outnumbered they are forced to flee from the town. As the two hide out and make plans to free the town from its outlaw tyranny, Ritter delivers lines that are a Western parallel to President Franklin Roosevelt's "four freedoms" speech. When Patti McCarty, one of the heroines, asks Ritter what they can do, he replies, "Our forefathers decided that for us a long time ago." Ritter reminds viewers of the principles on which the country was founded and the values for which the country was fighting by noting that this is a free country where nobody can set themselves up as absolute dictator and have other people do thei r bidding.

The two heroines of Gangsters of the Frontier are Old West versions of Rosie the Riveter. Patti McCarty reminds O'Brien and Ritter that women are in the fight as well as men, and Ritter responds that as the country grows more and more Americans will find men and women marching and fighting side by side. Betty Miles, playing a woman whose husband had been murdered by outlaws, insists on being sworn in as a Texas Ranger. For the rest of the film, the two heroines fight along side of the men, sharing the same potential fate if the outlaws catch them.

The citizens of Red Rock and the surrounding countryside resemble the population of countries occupied by Japan, Germany, and Italy; most are too frightened to resist their enslavement, but others are ready to oppose the outlaws and quickly become Ritter and O'Brien's underground freedom fighters. In scenes reminiscent of the invasion of France or Saipan and Guam in the Marianas, battles that had just concluded before Gangsters of the Frontier was released, the freedom fighters attack the town after they have been told, "Folks, we're headin for Red Rock, and I might as well tell you they are waiting for us."

After the outlaws have either been killed or captured and the town freed, Tex Ritter assures viewers that when evil men try to take over the rights of honest citizens they will always fail, reflecting American sentiment of the time that the "four freedoms" would prevail throughout the world as a result of the impending Allied triumph.


For the eleven B-Westerns discussed here, cowboy stars were soldiers in Stetsons. Rather than fighting the enemy in North Africa, Italy, France, or the Pacific, cowboy soldiers waged their wars on movie locations familiar to B-Western audiences. Cowboy soldiers underscored the identity and nature of the enemy, and they urged everyone to do their part to help win the war.

While no empirical studies exist to make the case, one suspects that those lessons were not lost on young viewers. The notion that Nazis were evil people was reinforced for the younger set when character actors such as Frank Ellis, Bud Geary, and Karl Hackett, men who made careers out of being B-Western villains, appeared as Nazi agents and henchmen.

The importance of war production was underscored when childhood heroes, such as Charles Starrett, labored over the production of gun-sights, or when Roy Rogers gave up a lucrative rodeo contract at the behest of a governor to track down a gang of saboteurs wrecking war production facilities. When pretty, but tough, B-Western heroines, such as Evelyn Finley, Patti McCarty, and Betty Miles, argued that women had a role to play in war work, it is likely that young male viewers of B-Westerns listened. Surely when Al St. John, one of the all-time favorite B-Western sidekicks, modeled rationing by preserving coffee grounds, younger children could better identify with their mothers' struggles over rationing points.

B-Westerns visually and verbally reinforced lessons younger children were learning in school, gleaning from radio news, or struggling to understand during dinner table conversation. B-Westerns along with radio programs and comic book heroes were valuable components in the political socialization milieu of children during World War II. They deserve more attention from scholars than they have received.


Arizona Gangbusters. Screenplay by Joseph O'Donnell. Dir. Sam Newfield. Perf. Tim McCoy, Pauline Haddon, Lou Felton, Julian Rivero. and Arno Frey. Running time: 57 minutes. PRC, 1940.

Black Market Rustlers. Screenplay by Patricia Harper. Dir. S. Roy Luby. Perf. Ray Corrigan, John King, Max Terhune, Evelyn Finley, and Glenn Strange. Running time: 58 minutes. Monogram, 1943.

Chip of the Flying U. Screenplay by Larry Rhine and Andrew Bennison. Dir. Ralph Staub. Perf. Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Baker, Fuzzy Knight, Doris Weston, and Karl Hackett. Running time: 55 minutes. Universal, 1939.

Cowboy Canteen. Screenplay by Paul Gangelin and Felix Adler. Dir. Lew Landers. Perf. Charles Starrett, Tex Ritter, Jane Franzee, Vera Vague, and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams. Running time: 72 minutes. Columbia, 1944.

Cowboy Commandos. Screenplay by Elizabeth Beecher. Dir. S. Roy Luby. Perf. Ray Corrigan, Dennis Moore, Max Terhune, Evelyn Finley, and Johnny Bond. Running time: 55 minutes. Monogram, 1943.

Cyclone Prairie Rangers. Screenplay by Elizabeth Beecher. Dir. Ben Kline. Perf. Charles Starrett, Dub Taylor, Constance Worth, Jimmy Davis, and Clancy Cooper. Running time: 56 minutes. Columbia, 1944.

Death Rides the Range. Screenplay by William Lively. Dir. Sam Newfield. Perf. Ken Maynard, Fay McKenzie, Ralph Peters, Julian Rivero, and Charles King. Running time: 58 minutes. Colony, 1940.

Gangsters of the Frontier. Screenplay by Elmer Clifton. Dir. Elmer Clifton. Perf. Tex Ritter, Dave O'Brien, Guy Wilkerson, Patti McCarty, and Betty Miles. Running time: 56 minutes. PRC, 1944.

King of the Cowboys. Screenplay by Olive Cooper and J. Benton Chaney. Dir. Joseph Kane. Perf. Roy Rogers, Smiley Burnette, Peggy Moran, Lloyd Corrigan, and Gerald Mohr. Running time: 67 minutes. Republic, 1943.

In Old Monterey. Screenplay by Gerald Geraghty and Dorrel and Stuart McGowan. Dir. Joseph Kane. Perf. Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, June Story, George Hayes, and Stuart Hamblen. Running time: 73 minutes. Republic, 1939.

Pals of the Saddle. Screenplay by Betty Burbridge and Stanley Roberts. Dir. George Sherman. Perf. John Wayne, Ray Corrigan, Max Terhune, Doreen McKay, and Josef Forte. Running time: 55 minutes. Republic, 1938.

The Phantom Plainsmen. Screenplay by Robert Yost and Barry Shipman. Dir. John English. Perf. Bob Steele, Tom Tyler, Rufe Davis, Lois Collier, and Robert O. Davis. Running time: 65 minutes. Republic, 1942.

Raiders of Sunset Pass. Screenplay by John K. Butler. Dir. John English. Perf. Eddie Dew, Smiley Burnette, Jennifer Holt, Roy Barcroft, and Maxine Doyle. Running time: 57 minutes. Republic, 1943.

Rolling Down the Great Divide. Screenplay by George Milton. Dir. Sam New-field. Perf. Bill "Cowboy Rambler" Boyd, Art Davis, Lee Powell, Wanda McKay, and Glenn Strange. Running time: 59 minutes. PRC, 1942.

South of the Border. Screenplay by Dorrell and Stuart McGowan. Dir. George Sherman. Perf. Gene Autry, Smiley Burnette, June Story, Lupita Tovar, and Duncan Renaldo. Running time: 71 minutes. Republic, 1939.

Sundown Valley Screenplay by Luci Ward. Dir. Ben Kline. Perf. Charles Starrett, Dub Taylor, Jeanne Bates, Jimmy Wakely, and Wheeler Oakman. Running time: 55 minutes. Columbia, 1944.

Texas Manhunt. Screenplay by William Lively. Dir. Sam Newfield. Perf. Bill "Cowboy Rambler" Boyd, Art Davis, Lee Powell, Julie Duncan, and Frank Hagney. Running time: 60 minutes. PRC, 1942.

Texas to Bataan. Screenplay by Arthur Hoerl. Dir. Robert Tansey. Perf. John King, David Sharpe, Max Terhune, Marjorie Manners, and Escolastico Baucin. Running time: 56 minutes. Monogram, 1942.

Valley of Hunted Men. Screenplay by Albert DeMond and Morton Grant. Dir. John English. Perf. Bob Steele, Tom Tyler, Jimmie Dodd, Anna Marie Stewart, and Edward Van Sloan. Running time: 60 minutes. Republic, 1942.

Wild Horse Rustlers. Screenplay by Joseph O'Donnell. Dir. Sam Newfield. Perf. Robert Livingston, Al St. John, Linda Johnson, Lane Chandler, and Frank Ellis. Running time: 55 minutes. PRC, 1943.


A version of this article was read at the conference "World War II after 60 Years" sponsored by the Department of History, the Alumni Association, and the Siena Research Institute of Siena College, Loudonville, New York, June 1-2, 2000. The author is particularly appreciative of the comments by Larry Wilcox of the University of Toledo who served as commentator on the panel in which the paper was presented.


(1.) Conventional wisdom suggests that B-Westerns were for children only, but any child of the 1940s will remember that the theaters of his or her youth were full of adults on Friday night or Saturday when B-Westerns were shown.

(2.) Raymond White told me this story in a conversation we had about this research in 1999.


Adler, Norman, and Charles Harrington, eds, The Learning of Political Attitudes. Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1970.

Cartoons Go to War. New York: New Video Group, 1995.

Daniels, Roger. Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Doherty, Thomas. Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture and World War II. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Easton, David, and Jack Dennis. Children in the Political System: Origins of Political Legitmacy. New York: McGrawHill, 1969.

Greenstein, Fred I. Children and Politics. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.

Hess, Robert D., and Judith V. Torney. The Development of Political Attitudes in Children. Garden City: Anchor, 1968.

Johnson, Ron, and Jan Bone. Understanding the Film. Skokie: National Textbook, 1976.

Jowett, Garth. Film the Democratic Art: A Social History of American Film. Chicago: Focal, 1976.

Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Lingeman, Richard R. Don't You Know There's a War on: The American Home Front, 1941-45. New York: Putnam, 1970.

Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995.

Mast, Gerald, ed. The Movies in Our Midst. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

Mathis, Jack. Republic Confidential. Vol. I, The Studio. Barrington: Mathis, 1999.

Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s. New York: Scribner's, 1997.

-----. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1981.

Shull, Micheael S., and David Edward Wilt. Hollywood War Films, 1937-1945: An Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature-Length Motion Pictures Relating to World War IL Jefferson: McFarland, 1996.

Sigel, Roberta S., ed. Learning about Politics: A Reader in Political Socialization. New York: Random House, 1970.

Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

White, Raymond. "Hollywood Cowboys Go to War: The B-Western Movie during World War II." Under Western Stars 25 (Sept. 1986): 23-66.

R. PHILIP LOY is a professor in the Department of Political Science and associate dean of the Social Science Division at Taylor University. His current research focuses on Westerns and American culture from 1955 to the end of the twentieth century.

Post Reply