Stars on the Tarmac: 1950s Air Travel & the Global Commodity Intertext
by Michael Kackman — University of Texas at Austin
November 29, 2007 – 04:01
The earliest steps toward globally-distributed US television came from an unlikely corner of the nascent postwar television industry. Well before the development of international distribution companies and syndication divisions within the major networks, a handful of independents began circulating inexpensive US television programs abroad in the early 1950s. Among the very first of the programs they sold were “B” Westerns, including both those shot specifically for the new medium and recut matinee serial films. Two of the earliest, and most successful, were the series The Cisco Kid and Hopalong Cassidy, both developed from popular film series that were themselves derived from turn-of-the century Western novels.
Neither Hoppy nor Cisco can be understood strictly as television programs, or as films, or as fiction series; instead, they were among the very first global transmedia commercial intertexts, the precursors to the global brands that now suffuse our media culture. In the case of Hopalong Cassidy, star William Boyd had consolidated full copyright and trademark rights, placing William Boyd Productions at the center of a single-property multinational transmedia empire. Cisco Kid’s ownership was more dispersed, and its reach more indiosyncratic; star Duncan Renaldo provided the face and body of a character conceived and controlled elsewhere.
But rather than narrate that larger history here, I want to draw attention to one aspect of the international promotional campaigns for both Hopalong Cassidy and The Cisco Kid. When Renaldo and Boyd traveled abroad, they were invariably met by photographers for a series of shots of their arrival at the airport. The “tarmac shot” is, to me, a fascinating site of discursive encounter – it blends Hollywood glamour, stardom, and the nostalgic Old West of the children’s Western with the striking modernity of jet air travel, global capital, and the rapidly spreading media culture it circulated. It’s no coincidence, I think, that figures like Hoppy and Cisco were among the most prominent indices of globalization – for through them, what would soon come to be seen as culturally and economically imperialistic US media were clad in the garb of warm tradition, quaint nostalgia, and childhood.
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