Christmas in the West
In the 1951 Christmas standard “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” composer Meredith Willson pays tribute to the popularity of Westerns in that era with the line “A pair of Hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots is the wish of Barney and Ben…”
Thinking about that lyric recently, I was surprised to realize that there are very few Westerns of the ’40s or ’50s which feature Christmas as a significant part of the story.
I was initially inspired to search and see if there’s a Christmas-themed Hopalong Cassidy film, but so far have only found a 1952 episode of the Hopalong Cassidy radio show titled “The Santa Claus Rustlers.” It’s readily available online.
Looking beyond Hoppy, the best-known example of Christmas in a Western is probably John Ford‘s 3 Godfathers (1948), in which John Wayne‘s character arrives successfully and delivers a baby boy rescued in the desert to a frontier town on Christmas Day.
Otherwise, the Christmas pickings in Westerns are fairly slim. Happily, though, both Roy Rogers and Gene Autry made movies featuring Christmas. Here’s a look at this pair of films, which Western fans might wish to incorporate into their holiday viewing:
This Columbia Pictures film starring Autry is refreshingly different from many movies of the era, presenting a story which is enormously sympathetic to Indians. It’s worth noting that this film preceded by a year Universal’s better-known Broken Arrow (1950), which also presented a fresh viewpoint on Indians, a change of pace from their longtime use as stock villains in Westerns.
The film begins with the narrator explaining the historic battles of Indians vs. Western settlers from the Indian point of view, as defenders of their homeland.
From there we arrive in modern day and meet Gene Autry (playing…Gene Autry!), who is plainly annoyed to discover Indians grazing their sheep on his newly acquired ranch land. He grumbles “Why don’t they stay on the reservation where they belong?” and then heads off to see the chief, entering his home without so much as a knock.
Gene’s irritation quickly changes when he sees an elderly Indian woman in the home is very ill, and he helps arrange her medical care with Nan (Sheila Ryan), the local doctor. Gene is shocked when he learns the woman is suffering from malnutrition, as are many others in the tribe.
Gene tries to interest a local newspaperman in the Indians’ plight, only to be told it’s not newsworthy: “Interest in the noble red man died with Geronimo.” But Gene is determined not to quit and contacts a friend (Roy Gordon) in Washington.
Meanwhile Gene and the tribe contend with an unscrupulous trading post owner (Frank Richards) who cheats the Indians and conspires with others to steal from the tribe. Attempting to see justice done, Gene works closely with Lakoma (Jay Silverheels), an Iwo Jima veteran who will one day be chief. Silverheels portrays Lakoma as a smart, educated man who speaks perfect English, unlike his famous Tonto character from the Lone Ranger TV series.
In a twist Western fans are sure to love, one of the bad guys in The Cowboy and the Indians is played by Clayton Moore, Silverheels’ Lone Ranger costar; seeing Silverheels and Moore shooting at each other in the climactic gunfight is quite fun. It’s a rather remarkable coincidence that the first episode of The Lone Ranger aired the exact same date that The Cowboy and the Indians was released, September 15, 1949.
There’s some fun irony that when the “cavalry” shows up to save the day near the end…and it’s the Indians!
If all this doesn’t sound very Christmas-y, that’s true! There’s no sign of Christmas in this film until the finale, but those scenes are such heartwarming examples of seasonal cheer that they’re worth the wait.
After successfully lobbying Congress for help, Gene turns up at the reservation with trucks of supplies labeled “Gifts from America to the First Americans.” Gene rides horseback ahead of the trucks singing his great 1947 hit “Here Comes Santa Claus.” His foreman (Hank Patterson) rides alongside him, dressed as Santa.
From there we move to the final scene, as the Indian schoolchildren sing a beautiful rendition of “Silent Night.” As the final notes fade out, the movie ends with a shot of a star atop a Christmas tree.
The Cowboy and the Indians is a strong Autry film which is interesting on multiple levels and has good supporting performances from Ryan and Silverheels. The Christmas scenes are the icing on the proverbial cake.
As a postscript, in 1988 Gene Autry would found the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, described by one source as “dedicated to exploring an inclusive history of the American West.”
Trail of Robin Hood (William Witney, 1950)
Forget the title, which strangely has nothing whatsoever to do with the film, and just enjoy this fun movie from Republic Pictures. Roy Rogers plays a U.S. Soil Conservation Service agent named…Roy Rogers, of course! Roy is friends with a retired movie star named Jack Holt, played by…Jack Holt. I find it amusing how frequently characters in these “B” Westerns go by their real names.
Jack owns a Christmas tree farm (filmed around Southern California’s Big Bear Lake) and sells his trees at cost, wanting any family desiring a Christmas tree to have one. He feels it’s a way to help express his gratitude to people who “made it possible for me to become a star.”
Jack’s business plan doesn’t sit well with businessman J.C. Aldridge (Emory Parnell), who’s out to corner the market on Christmas trees. He sends his daughter Toby (Penny Edwards) to try to close a deal to buy Jack’s land, but he’s not selling.
Unbeknownst to the Aldridges, J.C.’s employee Mitch McCall (Clifton Young) is going to great…great criminal lengths to ensure that his boss can put Jack out of business. However, Mitch hasn’t counted on the determination of Roy or Jack’s friends.
This charming, somewhat goofy little film takes place in what I like to call “Roy Rogers Land,” where there are modern conveniences such as cars and telephones, yet the gun-toting cowboys are much more likely to travel by horse or wagon than a gasoline-powered vehicle! The use of Trucolor, with its washed-out pastels, adds to the movie’s somewhat otherworldly, “place out of time” atmosphere.
Adding hugely to the fun are the appearances of several Western stars who arrive to help Roy and Jack, including Tom Keene, Crash Corrigan, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Rex Allen, Monte Hale, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler. These scenes will put a smile on the face of anyone who loves “B” Westerns.
Comic relief is also supplied by Gordon Jones as “Splinters,” with Carol Nugent playing Sis, his younger but wiser sister. Sis has a pet turkey named Sir Galahad, who might (or might not) be in danger of being eaten for Christmas dinner.
Needless to say, with the Christmas tree theme Christmas is front and center in this film. Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage join Roy for two Christmas-themed songs, “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny” and the lovely “Ev’ry Day is Christmas Day in the West.”
This film’s music and sunny good nature will definitely help put viewers in the Christmas spirit.
Both The Cowboy and the Indians and Trail of Robin Hood are available from varied sources, and Trail of Robin Hood is on the Turner Classic Movies December schedule this year as well.
I’d love to learn about any other Westerns featuring Christmas in the comments!
Merry Christmas to all!
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.