Ever since the advent of the mass distribution of silent films in the early 1920s, western movies were tremendously popular with the American public. People in Eastern cities flocked to the cinema to see the myth of the West played out on the big screen. All Western movies contained the same basic formulaic elements: the heroic cowboy expunged all traces of evil from a frontier town, then won the girl in the end.
Americans realized that the frontier and the age of the living cowboy were dead, yet they were enthralled by the cowboy persona. The movie cowboy fulfilled the dreams of every American man and boy. The mass marketed cowboy was bold and virile. Each Western movie depicted the cowboy fulfilling the typical masculine ideal: he destroyed all evil forces, conquered his enemies, possessed tireless strength and physical skills, and always found love with a beautiful woman. The superficiality of the cowboy's image was the secret of his appeal. Americans idealized the Western hero because he did all that they fantasized about, but had no prospects of accomplishing.
Stars like Will Rogers and Tom Mix acted as "deputies of the American conscience, idealism, and honesty." They had the courage to stand up to their corrupt wealthy overlords and effect change. For Americans forced to cope with an erupting industrial society, the feats achieved by such Western heroes were refreshing and inspiring. Americans admired cowboys in a voyeuristic way that enabled them to better accept and adapt to their rapidly changing environments.
American women were attracted to Western films for many of the same reasons that men were. Women viewed the unrealistic cowgirls and western heroines as fantastic extensions of themselves. When frustrated by urban life, demanding children, and over-worked husbands, American women could envision themselves in the place of Eleanore Stewart or Dorothy Malone. The notion of standing up to male authority figures, then ultimately succumbing to the charms of a rugged hero appealed to countless American women in the 1920s.
  After the debut of "Birth of a Nation," several independent production companies were launched by African Americans.  Films featuring black cowboys failed to succeed at the box offices for several reasons.  Whites who owned the majority of theaters were reluctant to show black Westerns.  Those movie houses that did exhibit films showcasing black cowboys often lost money.  Whites were unlikely to pay to see black actors, and black audiences did not have a significant amount of disposable income to spend at the movies.  The most decisive factor that contributed to the failure of the Most Americans scorned black Westerns because they believed that the films were "too consciously imitative of their white counterparts."
The Western film genre was abundantly successful in the U.S. because it catered to the needs of an urban audience. Americans were initially eager to get a glimpse of the legendary cowboy on screen. Once they entered the fantasy world of the mass marketed entertaining cowboys, most Americans were hooked. Just as Americans had envisioned the West as an escape valve a century before, patrons of Western movies in the 1920s viewed the cowboy as their vicarious link to the mythical untamed land of opportunity.

More Images of Cowboys in the Movies


"The Cowboy That Was"
The Literary Digest, July 2, 1922
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"The Real, Not the Reel, Cowboy
The Literary Digest, May 20, 1922
1 2


The Silent Western: Early Movie Myths of the American West
Silver Screen Cowboys

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