Considering that the entirety of my family on both parents' sides grew up in Nebraska the name of Gene Autry is rather prolific, whether it be one grandfather who adores him along with every other thing offered for television in the western genre, or a cousin who is, amongst other things, a part time bull rider, with a penchant for the more lavish of western garb. I am well aware that my knowledge of Gene Autry extends beyond simply being aware of him as the guy who made famous Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. However, I was also foolish enough to assume that he purely existed as a radio and television personality, never really engaging to any degree with film. When I was compiling my list of western films for this month, I decided to go all the way into the back catalogue of what Netflix had to offer within the genre, and found a set of films starring Gene Autry, The Singing Cowboy included and I knew, although it was relatively short, running just under an hour, it was a necessary addition, partly due to my desire for an expansive consideration of the genre, as well as a bit of nostalgia. I was, however, dreading the viewing, because the ever dubious Netflix rating system assured me that I would not enjoy the film, nor did any of the middle-of-the-road ratings on other sites. Yet, upon popping in this small gem of a film, I quickly became enamored with its charm and somewhere between the sheer musicality of Autry and the commitment to slapstick and vaudevillian humor, I found The Singing Cowboy to be thoroughly watchable and quite excellent. Sure the film has some moments of racial performance that are less than stellar, but Autry seems to be a figure with an eye on desegregation and inclusiveness...even proving to have an ear for jazz, despite being an out and out country music star. When one is able to step over the technological issues of the time, primarily dubbing, and the clear attempt to recreate a Shirley Temple like character, it proves to be incredibly engaging and some pretty solid filmmaking, especially considering the likely small budget and technological limitations. Also there is something comedically brilliant about Autry, on multiple occasions, busting into a room while inexplicably still on his horse.
I hesitated to give this a full review and decided to go with "For Your Awareness" status to the post, primarily because it is a rather short film, but also because it is not a film in the most traditional sense. The Singing Cowboy seems to exist somewhere between the radio show of Autry's early career and what would become his television serial a few years later, in fact, it really plays out like an extended episode of what one would assume to be a western show, complete with kidnapping, a villian whose presence seems well established before the film begins and a healthy dose of product placement throughout. Where it is far less like a television western is in its continual bursting into song throughout, sometimes suiting the narrative structure, while at other times fitting more into a stage piece. While viewers are shown Autry riding a horse in and out of pretty much every location he is rarely shown doing other "cowboy" activities, even abandoning a gun altogether, although he does possess bullets on his belt. The cowboy image in this context is both incredibly traditionalist, in that Autry is clearly pulling from the "up by your bootstraps lone gunman" mentality for his look and ethical framework, however, given that he is a performer and a showman, he navigates the world with the desires and concerns of others in mind as well. He understands, at least in the constructs of this film, the nature of struggle and desires to help all those in need of a hand, whether they be up and coming jazz cowboys, or a girl with a traumatic brain injury in need of surgery. Furthermore, unlike his cowboy predecessors, he has a particularly welcoming reaction to modernity, embracing the magic of radio and what appears to be early television to get his message across, as well as the role the advanced technology can play in saving lives and, subsequently, making living easier. Of course, this embrace could lead one to assume that Autry is somehow lessened by this reliance on the non-natural, but as his wild chase shows in the last few moments of the film, he is capable of both lounging in the comforts of a recording studio and bitting down to out run a fleeing stagecoach. As a character, within the western framework, Autry is somewhat of an anomaly, because he is neither a gritty Wayne or a bedazzled Conway Twitty. He is both star and simpleton a combination that likely helped him to gain such a cult following in a struggling midwest of the era.
The DVD is a must own, however, it is quite expensive and hard to come by, although it is available on Netflix and I suggest checking it out soon, especially since its length affords a viewing at pretty much any occasion. Also Gene Autry was kind of a bad ass, even if a bit flamboyant, he managed to make being a cowboy look a quite cool. Furthermore, he has an impressive five different stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a feat only he has completed.