Stars on the Tarmac: 1950s Air Travel & the Global Commodity Intertext

Curator's Note

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.

Comments

Avi Santo's picture

Nice piece, Michael. is this

Nice piece, Michael. is this what Manifest Destiny looks like in the mid-20th Century? Cowboy stars riding jet airliners westward and eastward in an attempt to tame the savage global TV market?

Most interesting to me in these publicity stills are the ways that local sponsors/agencies play along, providing stereotypically clad Natives or Mexican sidekicks to lend credence to the fiction.

While these cowboy heroes often served as symbols of corporate citizenship at home, promoting the roles their big business sponsors played in building America, and linking past and present into a harmonious fluid sea of consumerism and pioneering, I wonder how they were perceived overseas? Were they harbingers of modernity? Signs that the first world had taken notice of its third world counterparts? Were they active anti-communist propagandists and proponents of development rhetoric?

Michael Kackman's picture

I suspect they were indeed

I suspect they were indeed seen as harbingers of modernity — though I think it’s noteworthy that they were also coded as essentially looking backward, toward an idealized/romanticized past. Their great achievement (both economically and culturally) is their ability to efface the contradictions in their claims to both tradition and modernity. The shot of Boyd with the British boys of different races is especially striking to me in this regard — it elides the complex cultural differences in this encounter, in favor of a US-enabled modern global economy.

These appearances were also, however, interestingly localized. The shot of Duncan Renaldo with a Pancho-like character is taken with Jose Miguel Agrelot, a popular Puerto Rican comedian and TV star who stepped in as Cisco’s sidekick just for the duration of this trip.

Christopher Anderson's picture

It's a wonderful achievement

It’s a wonderful achievement to elevate Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid from their second-class status in the American entertainment industries by pointing out their wild success in the global markets that developed after World War II. There wasn’t a single big-time star or director or producer or studio during the 1950s that would have touched either property with a ten-foot pole. This really is a wonderful example of how the tide turned with television.

Now, I hate to get all bibliographic on you, Michael, but I tend to be dubious whenever I see a claim like “they were among the very first global transmedia commercial intertexts.” You’ve hedged a bit with the inclusion of the word “among,” but I think you’re saying that the were essentially the very first. What would you say to those who would beg to differ by arguing that Hoppy and Cisco merely rested their boots on the shoulders of a true giant — Buffalo Bill?

In the book, Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922, historians Robert Rydell and Rob Kroes describe Buffalo Bill’s European tours (among other American-made entertainments and amusements of the time) as avatars of American cultural influence as it began to spread around the globe.

It’s not to diminish Hoppy and Cisco as emerging icons of American cultural influence in postwar global markets — merely to point out the precedent of Buffalo Bill and other iconic American amusements that had played the role of cultural ambassador/invader when William Boyd was still playing Easterners in movies.

I love your tarmac shots, which so effectively encapsulate the emerging postwar marketplace, but there also may be precedents in the PR images of celebrities departing or arriving by other modes of conveyance that once epitomized the modern before they were replaced by the airplane. Buffalo Bill made sure the press was aware when his Wild West Show arrived by steamship or train.

Kyle Barnett's picture

Michael, you’re reminded

Michael, you’re reminded me of airports as charged locales in media texts and in modernity, writ large. These tarmac photos are so evocative. Chris and Avi have already addressed most of my initial thoughts, but I’ll express my continued amazement at the stubborn persistence of the Western as genre and the Cowboy as icon in the most unlikely of global locales.

Do we know who arranged the pairing of The Cisco Kid and Jose Miguel Argelot? It could be that the global expansion of these Hollywood products caused enough concern among the show’s creators and exporters that they felt they needed some “insurance.” The presence of local celebrities like Agrelot might have been supplemental in nature, so as to increase the chances of a positive reception for Cisco, the show, and all the aspects of American media, culture and capital he represented. If so, it would be interesting to know which media entity lacked confidence in The Cisco Kid’s acceptance, its U.S. progenitors or its international partners.

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