The western, often viewed as an unusually stable form, did not in fact achieve definition as a film genre until around 1910, when it became one of early cinema's most familiar and successful products. Although Edwin S. Porter's (1870–1941) The Great Train Robbery (1903), produced for the Edison Company and based on an 1896 stage melodrama, is often identified as the first western, film historians have demonstrated that the generic category itself was not yet firmly in place, so Porter's film can only be identified as a western in retrospect. Alongside other early "cowboy pictures" and "western romances," a vogue for often sympathetic "Indian films" throughout the early silent period revealed the lingering attachment to Cooper's Indians rather than to the cowboy who would soon dominate representations of the West. Films designated as "westerns" began to be produced regularly by the growing film industry in the actual West as film companies such as Selig-Polyscope and Bison began to relocate to California, and in 1910 the genre found its first star in the actor (and cofounder of the Essanay Company) Gilbert M. Anderson (1880–1971), who as "Broncho Billy" appeared in hundreds of short films, often as a good-hearted outlaw. Thomas Ince concentrated on the production of westerns in authentic locations for Bison 101 (which combined Bison and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show), including films featuring the stage actor William S. Hart (1870–1946), who later was crucial to the development of the feature-length western for the Triangle Company. Hart's films often featured him as a morally ambiguous "good bad man" whose severe demeanor and attention to realistic details was eventually challenged by the former rodeo performer Tom Mix, whose stunt-filled films featured the kinetic actor in flamboyant costumes. The contrast between the grim morality of Hart's films and Mix's action-packed romps persisted in the genre's development, with the western's bid for historical realism regularly challenged by less authentic but often more popular examples.

The promotion of other silent cowboy stars such as Hoot Gibson (1892–1962), Tim McCoy (1891–1978), and Buck Jones (1889–1942) in series westerns produced throughout the 1920s suggests that the western marketed male stars to a largely male audience, but the number of early cowgirl films and stars demonstrates that the early genre had significant appeal for female audiences as well. Louise Lester (1867–1952) starred in a series of "Calamity Anne" films directed by Alan Dwan for the American Film Company between 1912 and 1914, and Marie Walcamp (1894–1936) played cowgirl Tempest Cody in a series of nine films for Universal in 1919. As early as 1917, the screenwriter and director Ruth Ann Baldwin was parodying the genre in her film 49–17 . Perhaps the most important silent cowgirl was Texas Guinan (1884–1933), "the female Bill Hart," who starred in westerns directed by Frank Borzage and Francis Ford, as well as in movies from her own production company. The fact that few of these films survive has perhaps perpetuated the common misunderstanding of the genre as an almost exclusively "male" form.

A number of westerns produced late in the silent period for major studios demonstrated the mature genre's

William S. Hart in Tumbleweeds (King Baggot, 1925).
epic ambitions: The Covered Wagon (1923), William S. Hart's final film, Tumbleweeds (1925), and The Iron Horse (1924), directed by John Ford (1894–1973), all treated the western as a sprawling national history lesson. These, and even cheaply made series westerns, relied on extensive location shooting and thrilling stunt work, elements that would be difficult to sustain when immobile microphones and heavy sound equipment arrived to limit filmmakers' options in the great outdoors.

Critical accounts of the western film often begin with the appearance of Stagecoach (1939), neglecting the steady production and popularity of the western in the decade preceding Ford's first sound western. Like other genres, but especially given its reliance on exteriors, the western struggled with early sound technology, although In Old Arizona (1929), The Virginian (1929), Billy the Kid (1930), and the early Oscar ® winner Cimarron (1931) all found inventive ways to incorporate the distinctive sounds—of galloping hooves, gunshots, and jangling spurs—that soon became as fundamental to the experience of the genre as its iconic images. Universal's striking Law and Order (1932) and Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936) invoked actual events (the shootout at the OK Corral) and figures (Wild Bill Hickok [1837–1876] and Calamity Jane [1852?–1903]) with little concern for accurate detail, a practice that has motivated some critics to bemoan the genre's persistent distortions. But the early years of the sound western have been neglected mostly because of the critical aversion to the hundreds of formulaic series westerns ("B" westerns) produced throughout the decade. Series westerns exploited the sound film's ability to feature the singing cowboy, most famously embodied by the affable Gene Autry (1907–1998), whose films for Republic Studios (frequently written by women) usually had the radio star playing himself in the present, allowing for the use of automobiles, airplanes, and radio stations in narratives that often addressed the immediate social problems of the Depression despite their western trappings. In fact, Autry's films often function as populist parables, directly engaging with contemporary issues in cleverly self-reflexive ways. Perhaps inspired by Zane Gray's popular novels featuring mythic horses, the series western also emphasized the talented steeds of cowboy heroes such as Autry (Champion) and Ken Maynard (1895–1973) (Tarzan). Throughout the period, B westerns were enormously popular among boys, rural audiences, and women, the latter apparently charmed by Autry's smooth voice and gentlemanly demeanor.

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