Western motion pictures once controlled Hollywood the way comic book films appear to do right now. NPR’s Audie Cornish converses with Brooks Hefner of James Madison University about how Westerns faded from fame, and whether the same thing will happen to superhero movies.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Are you sick of superhero movies? Well, that’s understandable.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”)
NICHOLAS HOULT: (As Hank McCoy) The world needs the X-Men.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”)
CHRIS EVANS: (Captain America) Sorry Tony. You know I wouldn’t do this if I had any other choice.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “DEADPOOL”)
RYAN REYNOLDS: (As Deadpool) I didn’t ask to be super, and I’m no hero.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”)
JESSE EISENBERG: (As Lex Luthor) Bruce Wayne, meet Clark Kent.
CORNISH: That was a bit of “Batman V Superman” and “Deadpool,” and before that, “Captain America” and “X-Men,” which come out next month. Now imagine for just a minute what it was like in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE”)
CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Monco) Tell me, isn’t the sheriff supposed to be courageous, loyal and, above all, honest?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “SHANE”)
ALAN LADD: (As Shane) I heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hallelujah.
CORNISH: Back then, the Western was his prime. Streams Hefner, who instructs at James Madison University, says from the mid-’30s to the mid-’50s, around 20 percent of the movies made in the U.S. were Westerns. In other words…
BROOKS HEFNER: Most years, it was a hundred or more.
CORNISH: Wow, OK. So I’ll quit grumbling about the about six (giggling) comic book films.
HEFNER: Right, right. I believe there’s seven comic book films this year.
CORNISH: And what was going on there, what was kind of driving that boom?
HEFNER: Well, I think there were two or three unique things that you could ascribe it to. I think one is this Western sort of interest in American expansion, sort of the American empire, the idea of American values.. Thus the way that, you know, in the late ’30s and during World War II the Western is really popular makes a lot of sense because there’s a kind of reinforcement there.
They likewise kind of rose in the ’30s at a moment that the Hollywood studio framework could truly bolster a ton of films. Westerns could be cheap. In the event that you have the stallions, right, and you have the area, you could produce a great deal of these motion pictures pretty routinely.
CORNISH: So when did it appear just as that tumbled off, where moviegoers began to say, OK, we’ve had enough?
HEFNER: Well, the genuine fall is in the 1950s. By 1960, it’s drastically dropped. There’s just perhaps 30 Westerns delivered in 1960. I think that audiences became just exhausted with the genre. Two other reasons come to mind. One is, in the 1950s, particularly the late 1950s, studios began focusing more explicitly on the youth market and on teenagers. And teenagers were not interested in movies about the Old West, they were interested in movies about other teenagers.
The other is the ascending of the TV in 1959, which is most likely the peak of the television Western. You could stay home and watch Westerns each night of the week. So why go to the film theater to see a Western when you had better than average Westerns on TV?
CORNISH: What do you think will need to happen for superhero motion pictures to leave?
People have to stop going to them I think is the simple answer to that because right now I don’t necessarily see a way out of it for people who may be weary of the superhero movies. And the Western, for example, in the late ’50s as it was declining, the stars were aging and the kinds of stories that were being told – they’re often called the psychological Western – in the 1950s were really stories about protagonists that had demons, had a dark side, or they were very weary and just kind of tired of being cowboys.
So there are lots stories that really are about the end of the West. And that was a sign that the Western was in its first decline. So with the superhero movies, it’s interesting because it seems like everything’s happening simultaneously. We have the TV shows and the movies. We have the sort of upright moral heroes and we have the self-critical, sarcastic, weary heroes like Deadpool or Jessica Jones, right? But that doesn’t seem to be a symptom of the superhero movie’s decline. It’s merely part of a larger landscape where some of the movies are for adults, some of the movies are for a broader age group.
CORNISH: If you’re not a fan, you’re basically saying we’re stuck with it.
HEFNER: Pretty much, yeah.
CORNISH: (Laughter). Brooks Hefner. He teaches at James Madison University in Virginia.
Thank you for speaking with us.