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The Religious Affiliation of Film and TV's Singing Cowboy
Gene Autry was born and raised in a Baptist family. His grandfather, who taught him to sing, was a Baptist preacher. But Autry was apparently not a churchgoer during most of his adult life. Autry had a well-earned national reputation as a clean-cut, wholesome, highly ethical entertainer and human being. His films were invariably family-friendly, and he deplored the violent, sexual, profane and vulgar content of the Westerns made after his era as a film actor. Nevertheless, he wrote in his 1978 biography that he was "not a devoutly religious man."
A correspondent reports that later in life Autry was an active member of the Thirty-Sixth Church of Christ, Scientist in Studio City, CA.
Gene Autry (with Mickey Herskowitz), Back in the Saddle Again, Doubleday & Company, Inc.: Garden City, New York (1978), page 3:
I was born Orvon Gene Autry on September 29, 1907, at Tioga, Texas, the son of Delbert and Elnora Ozmont Autry. My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, William T. Autry, a practical man who taught me to sing when I was five in order to use me in his church choir. He was short a soprano. Grandpa's family had crossed the plains in covered wagons, coming to Texas with the early setlers (and adventurers) from Tennessee, the Houstons and the Crocketts. An Autry died at the Alamo.
Autry, Back in the Saddle Again, page 7:
Mother encouraged my interest in music, though she never imagined I could make a living at it. She wanted her first-born son to be a profssional man, anything other than a farmhand or a cattle trader. At night she sang to us, hymns and folk ballads mostly, and read psalms. I was practically raised on th Twenty-third Psalm. She played thepiano, and a guitar in the Latin style, and on Sunday she was the church organist.
Autry, Back in the Saddle Again, page 5:
We lost her in 1930 [when Gene Autry was 23 years old] from a disease the family never discussed, but which I suspect was cancer... My father drifted off after Mother died and I became the head of the family.
The year I was seventeen, in 1924, the headlines told of the brutal murder of a little boy in Chicago named Bobby Franks. Two young men from wealthy families, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, were accused and later convicted of what the press labeled "a thrill killing."
Gene Autry was married to Ina Mae Spivey for 48 years, from 1932 until her death on 20 May 1980. From: Autry, Back in the Saddle Again, pages 16-17:
It was in the accounts of the murder trial that my school friends and I puzzled over a reference that was strange to us. None of us had ever before heard of the word "homosexual."
(Ten years later, as a star of the "National Barn Dance" on radio, I did a benefit show at the prison in Joliet, Illinois. One of the inmates was in charge of the entertainment and he went out of his way to put me at ease. He was a quiet, cultured fellow, assigned to the chaplain's office. "Mr. Autry," he said, "I'm Nathan Leopold. I want you to konw that while you're here you have nothing to fear. You are probably safter inside these walls than on the streets of Chicago, If anyone made a move at you, the rest of the inmates would gang him on the spot. They know if anything happens, it would be the end of these privileges.")
My first recording date under that contract was set for early December... I was en route to Chicago in 1932 when I stopped off in Springfield, Missouri, to visit my friend, Jimmy Long. And there I met the girl I was to marry, a coed with blue eyes and skin like rose petals. She was Jimmy's niece, Ina Mae Spivey--eighteen, an Oklahoma girl... she attended music college in Springfield. We had only a few dates in the next month or so, but I was a frequent guest in Jimmy Long's parlor... Three months after I met Ina Mae Spivey... I went off Ina and we agreed to meet the Longs for dinner in a little cafe on the city's south side. We arrived early. As we sat there, I suddenly blurted out, "Honey, let's get married."
Autry, Back in the Saddle Again, pages 32-34:
She said, "Gene Autry, are you out of your mind? We hardly know each other. This is only our fourth date. Beside... I just brought enough clothes for the weekend."
I convinced her we could overcome that problem. The next thing I knew, we had rushed off to get a license and find a wedding chapel or a justice of the peace. A Lutheran minister married us and his wife witnessed the ceremony... She was eighteen. I was twenty-two.
Out in Hollywood, the Western movie was going through a kind of moral spasm in 1934. Mix couldn't make it in the talkies. Hoot Gibson was getting fat. More and more of the old silent Kan Maynard chase sequences were turning up in everyone else's films. The serials were running thin on plot and the popcorn concession was down.
Autry, Back in the Saddle Again, page 36:
Then came the final blow. The Catholic Legion of Decency was howling about violence and filth on the screen. The public, insisted the Legion, was outraged at the so-called "Flaming Youth" films which had come into fashion. They were no worse, I suppose, than the openly sensual flicks that featured Valentino and Theda Bara and other swains and vamps of the day. But the Legion demanded a crackdown and called on Hollywood to begin producing clean, wholesome (sexless) pictures.
The minor league studios like Monogram and Mascot were taking a bath. So it happened one day that a man name dNat Levine, the owner fo Mascot Pictures, was in New York trying to raise money for a Ken Maynard shoot-em-up, Levine had specialized in Saturday morning serials, such as Burn 'em Up Barnes...
[Levine met with Gene Autry, who was a top-seller in the music industry and had a wholesome image, and invited him to do a screen test and be in a film.]
So it was done. The name of the picture was In Old Santa Fe. I was to be paid a flat sum of five hundred dollars, but no one told me until I got to Hollywood. That night an odd thought crossed my mind. I'm not a devoutly religious man. But twice the church had been involved in my future. My grandpa, the preacher, taught me to sing at five. And now, at twenty-seven, the [Catholic] Legion of Decency was sending me to the movies.
[John] Wayne threw back his head and laughed. "Aw, horse bleep," he said, and turned toward the bar. [He probably did not actually say "bleep."]
Naturally, we didn't use language that indelicate in Gene Autry movies. Nor violence, nor excessive gunplay, nor anything that might suggest that men and women sometimes slept in the same room. Today, you see girls doing on the screen what they used to do off the screen to get on the screen.
I don't approve of the so-called adult movies of the 1970s. If that stamps me as a square by today's standards, I can only plead that my values haven't changed. I was just as square the day I arrived in Hollywood in une of 1934. Nor do I feel it necessary to defend the innocence of the films I made, all those sundowns ago. The times were different then, as times usually are. The country was different. So were the people.
Oh, we had sin and mischief and temptation, and a few other things you wouldn't find in any Gene Autry movie. But there was less meanness, I think. People were not so selfish, so cynical. In those days, movies were a way of getting your mind off real life. Today you can't tell them apart.
Webpage created 28 July 2005. Last modified 20 September 2005.
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