Monday, December 9, 2013

Gene Autry is Back in the Saddle Again

Classic TV Western fans can rejoice that Timeless Media has released all five seasons of The Gene Autry Show in a deluxe boxed set. A shrewd businessman, Autry saw the potential of television in 1950 and launched his TV series while still making his popular "B" Westerns for theatrical release. The half-hour series ran on CBS from 1950-1955. Its popularity led Autry's Flying A Pictures to produce other TV series, such as The Adventures of Champion, Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill, Jr.

The Gene Autry Show follows the same formula as his big screen Westerns. Gene sings a song or two, sometimes accompanying himself on guitar. He and his bumbling, but likable, sidekick Pat (Pat Buttram) work to maintain law and order--whether it's investigating gold shipment robberies ("The Doodle Bug"), helping out a pair of orphans ("Danger! Warning"), or investigating a murder ("The Sharpshooter").

Pat Buttram as Gene's sidekick.
Gene and Pat don't always play the same characters. For example, Gene might portray a ranch hand or a marshal. In most episodes, he and Pat play partners; in other episodes, though, their characters don't know each other. Likewise, some episodes features a contemporary setting (e.g. the sheriff drives a car in "Head for Texas") and others are set in the Old West. (By the way, if Pat Buttram's voice sounds familiar, then you probably remember him--less the beard--as Mr. Haney on Green Acres.)

Gene serenading Champion.
The other regular cast member in The Gene Autry Show is Champion the "Wonder Horse." Autry rode three horses named Champion throughout his film and television career (there were also "special" Champions used in live appearances). The original Champion made his film debut in 1935 in the film Melody Trail. Autry's second horse, typically known as Champion Jr., appeared in Gene's films from 1940-50. Finally, a third Champion (sometimes referred to as "Television Champion") joined the cowboy star for The Gene Autry Show. A handsome sorrel-colored horse with a whitish mane and tail, he later starred in The Adventures of Champion. Occasionally, the TV series also featured the equine guest star, Little Champ, who was actually a trick pony.

From a technical standpoint, the 91 episodes in The Gene Autry Show boxed set look impressive. The prints, restored from Autry's personal archives, are devoid of the numerous scratches and excessive fading found in most 1950s TV series. As with many older black and white films, the dark shades lose a little definition. The set includes the two color episodes from the first season--"The Raiders" and "Double Barreled Vengeance"--that were produced as part of a CBS experiment with color television. Additionally, all 13 episodes in the shorter final season appear in color.

Young Lee Van Cleef as a baddie.
There are numerous bonus features on the discs, ranging from Gene Autry film trailers to photos from Autry's 1953 British tour to a Melody Ranch radio show. And, while the casual TV fan won't spot a lot of familiar guest stars, there are still appearances from Chill Wills, Alan Hale Jr., Lee Van Cleef, and even Clayton Moore (though not as The Lone Ranger). Best of all, there's a bonus disc featuring two episodes each of other Flying A Pictures' TV shows: The Range Rider, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Jr., and--of course--The Adventures of Champion. As stated in a disclaimer at the start of this disc, the quality of these prints is variable. For example, Annie Oakley looks near-pristine, while The Adventures of Champion is visually washed out.

Gene Autry fans--who have been waiting for the definitive, complete TV series boxed set--will no doubt treasure this collection. Now, if someone would just produce a similar boxed set of The Roy Rogers Show (1951-57), then Western fans could cherish the complete small-screen exploits of the two cowboys who--along with The Lone Ranger--pioneered the genre on television.

You can more learn about Gene Autry by visiting the excellent web site Timeless Media provided the Cafe with a review copy of The Gene Autry Show boxed set.


  1. Rick, I didn't know much about Gene Autry before reading this post. He certainly sounded like a wise businessman. It was especially interesting to learn that Pat Buttram was his sidekick. Buttram certainly has one of the least forgettable voices one could hear. Why anyone would purchase anything from his Mr. Haney on "Green Acres" was always a mystery to me! But I especially enjoyed reading about Champion and Little Champ, the equine stars. This was a very interesting and educational post for me.

  2. Toto, I always enjoy your comments. If not for the distinctive voice, I wouldn't have recognized Pat Buttram!