If you had asked me back then, I would’ve said Gene Autry was the owner of the California Angels and Roy Rogers was the fast food restaurant. Even when I discovered who they were beyond those roles, I can’t say I cared much; westerns were what my parents watched. Now, many years later, as I re-examine westerns, it occurs to me that my education would be incomplete without a foray into the sub-genre of the western musical, and the two guys who dominated the field like oil rigs on the plains of Texas.
Here’s a top ten list of singing cowboys and cowgirls featuring some names you may not know. Here’s a history of the sub-genre, with a heavy focus on Autry and Rogers. With this post, I’m mostly interested in seeing their movies (and a bit of their TV shows) and seeing which one of them I like better. I realize I’m working from a small test sample, given the breadth of their careers, but I’m guessing their movies followed a formula and rarely strayed from that formula. My small sample will probably be enough.
In Dance, “Gene Autry” (yes, both Autry and Rogers play versions of themselves in their respective movies) is a singing horse trader who comes to town and hopes to make some business by throwing a barn dance and auctioning off his horses, but he has to contend with modern technology, in the form of a tractor company competing for the same audience of potential consumers, using the female manager of a local radio station as a pawn.
|Autry w/Smiley Burnette|
Autry’s horse was named Champion. He doesn’t really stand out in Dance, so I looked for him in other clips. Here’s one. Did you know this horse—or at least his successors—had his own TV show (yes, I watched an episode; it’s as corny as you’d expect), his own radio show, his own comic book, his own IMDB page?
The Gene Autry Show was more of the same, only with better fight scenes. No Smiley, though; the new sidekick was much dumber and didn’t sing.
As a singer, Rogers is decent. I wouldn’t say he was all that different from Autry in his prime. They were both silky smooth, though Autry, being from Texas, sounded a little more like a cowboy than the Cincinnati-born Rogers. At least Rogers could yodel! Plus, he had The Sons of the Pioneers to back him up. In Valley, they appear as ranchers who get run out by Evans’ father for loafing but get drawn back as part of a scheme by her sister when Dad reluctantly hires a group of women ranchers. I liked the songs in Valley better too, especially the duet between Rogers and Evans during their first meeting.
|Rogers and Evans|
It’s his pairing with Evans, though, that makes all the difference. They had a Fred-and-Ginger feel to them, and their chemistry is unmistakable, even—maybe especially—when they’re bickering. I had expected Evans to be more of a Annie Oakley type, and maybe she is in other movies, but in Valley she’s the traditional spunky, beautiful and witty love interest in the mold of, well, Ginger Rogers: a compliment to her leading man but a star in her own right. And her place in movie and music history is firmly secure because of the song she wrote, “Happy Trails.” Evans started out at Fox and met Roy Rogers in 1944 on the set of Cowboy and the Senorita. Valley was the fifth of six movies they made together that year. Pre-Virus, there were plans for a Broadway musical about Rogers and Evans for a 2021 release.
The Roy Rogers Show was in a similar vein to Autry’s show in that it had standard western-style action-adventure, but less interesting than the movies. I’d prefer watching the Champion show. Evans is there, along with Trigger and another needless comic sidekick. The episode I saw had a strong religious element, which was a major turn-off for me. Evans in particular was a real holy roller; in later years, she cut some solo Christian records and even hosted a religious TV show.
I could go into much more about Autry and Rogers, but this post is long enough as it is. I think overall, I prefer Autry as a singing cowboy specifically and Rogers as an entertainer, which includes his partnership with Evans, his inclusion of the Sons as part of his act, and his overall showmanship.