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Retro : Singing Autry's Praises

October 23, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Folks nowadays may think of Gene Autry as owner of the California Angels or a museum namesake, but he was Hollywood's first "singing cowboy" and one of Tinseltown's biggest movie stars.

Autry, 87, is the subject of a new documentary, "Gene Autry: Melody of the West," premiering Sunday on AMC during the cable network's Second Annual Film Preservation Festival. AMC also will air restored copies of Autry's only Technicolor films, "The Big Sombrero" and "The Strawberry Roan."

The one-hour documentary is narrated by country great Johnny Cash, who happens to be a huge Autry fan. Also featured are reflections from Autry; actress Ann Rutherford, who received her first on-screen kiss from Autry; actress Gail Davis, TV's "Annie Oakley"; stuntman-actor Richard Farnsworth; Dick Jones, Autry's frequent co-star; country legend Patsy Montana, and Autry's musical sidekicks, "The Cass County Boys" (Fred Martin and Jerry Scoggins).

Producer-director Len Morris hopes to "bring Autry back for audiences who did experience that popularity and enjoyed those films. We are also trying to introduce them to a new audience who wouldn't have had that experience. And we are trying to explain why he was so hugely popular."

Autry, whose career has spanned 60 years, was working as a telegraph operator at a railroad depot in Oklahoma when the great humorist Will Rogers heard him sing and encouraged him to give show biz a try. Autry began his career in 1928, performing cowboy songs on the radio. By 1931, he had his own show. Coming out to Los Angeles, he starred in Mascot Pictures' bizarre 1934 serial "Phantom Empire," Hollywood's first and only singing Western/sci-fi adventure. He made his feature debut the next year in 1935's "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds,"

With his comic sidekick Smiley Burnette and his horse Champion, Autry made 94 Westerns for Republic and Columbia Pictures and starred in the 1950-56 TV series "The Gene Autry Show."

He also made 635 recordings; he wrote or co-wrote more than 200. His records have sold more than 50 million copies, including the first certified gold record ("The Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine") recognizing sales of more than a million copies. And these days his Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum is a popular Los Angeles tourist attraction.

Morris believes audiences have loved Autry for many reasons. "I think it was the voice," he says. "It was not the first time a radio personality had made movies, but since cowboys were going to sing, it was going to help to have a real musician. People forget that Gene Autry is a musician of considerable gifts. He brought that and the popularity of his radio career and his recordings to the movies. Cowboys had sung before--John Wayne even sang, but it was just beyond awful. Gene could sing."

Beyond that, Morris says, there was Autry himself. "There was something boy-next-door, something very trustworthy, something very reassuring about him. He had principles that he stood up for. He wasn't cynical."

And audiences of all ages responded. "You've got to keep coming back to Gene Autry," Morris says. "As Gene Autry would say, 'If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.' Many other people tried to do it and only Roy Rogers succeeded. It comes down to the individual and how people sitting in their seats and buying tickets perceived him. They perceived Gene Autry as concerned--concerned about them."

"Gene Autry: Melody of the West" premieres Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. on AMC. "The Big Sombrero" airs Sunday at 7:30 a.m.; "The Strawberry Roan" airs Sunday at 9 a.m.

MUSEUM IS THE 'FULFILLMENT OF MY DREAM'

Though Gene Autry was not available for an interview, he did respond by fax to several questions about his life and career.

What do you see as your legacy as a cowboy movie star?

For over 60 years, my 93 movies, 91 TV movies and 650 recordings and 16 years of the "Melody Ranch Radio Show" entertained several generations of kids and their parents. I deeply appreciate the loyalty of my fans and thank them from the bottom of my heart for their support all of these years. To give something back--with the wonderful help of my wife, Jackie Autry, and Joanne Hale--we built the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, which is an accredited historical and education museum showing the history of the American Western from the days of the Conquistadors to the modern cowboy, as well as Hollywood's history of Western movies. ... it is the fulfillment of my dream in leaving a legacy for my fans, young and old.

How do you feel about the resurgence of Western films on the Hollywood screen today?

The first "story" movie was the 1903 "The Great Train Robbery," a Western, and there have been Western movies ever since. The Western was the backbone of the film industry for 60 years, and in the late '30s and early '40s, as many as 200 Westerns were produced in a year. It is logical that there would be a resurgence of the Western--all it needed were some good ones like "Dances With Wolves," "Unforgiven," TV's "Lonesome Dove" and more.

GENE AUTRY'S COWBOY CODE

A cowboy never takes unfair advantage--even with an enemy.

A cowboy never betrays a trust.

A cowboy always tells the truth.

A cowboy is kind to children, old folks and animals.

A cowboy is free from racial or religious prejudices.

A cowboy is helpful and, when anyone's in trouble, lends a hand.

A cowboy is a good worker.

A cowboy is clean in person, thought, word and deed.

A cowboy represents womanhood, parents and laws of the country.

A cowboy is a patriot.

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