Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“You’re durn tootin’, Hoppy!”


Of the numerous movies to which I helped myself from Vault on Demand during our recent Epix freeview, a little over a dozen of these features were B-westerns starring William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy.  Cassidy was a cowpoke created by Clarence Mulford in a series of popular short stories—a whiskey drinkin’, tobacco-chawin’, rough-talkin’ hombre whose wooden leg caused him to walk with a noticeable limp, earning him the nickname “Hop-A-Long.”  Movie producer Harry Sherman negotiated a deal with Mulford to bring his literary creation to the silver screen (beginning in 1935 with Hop-A-Long Cassidy) but a few cosmetic changes were made to the movie Hoppy: his beverage of choice was now sarsaparilla, the wooden leg was downgraded to an injury from a bullet wound, and he was so squeaky clean (honest, forthright, kind to kids and animals, etc.) he threatened to make Gene Autry look like one of the Dead End Kids.  There would be a total of sixty-six Hopalong Cassidy oaters produced between 1935 and 1948, and Boyd’s Cassidy would become not only one of the motion picture industry’s highly bankable box office mainstays but a real hero to the Saturday matinee crowd (despite that Hoppy was often clad in black…white was the sartorial choice of the good guys in westerns as a rule).

Russell 'Lucky' Hayden and William Boyd
Law of the Pampas (1939) and Riders of the Deadline (1943) are the only two programmers of the fourteen I downloaded that I’ve yet to watch—the remaining movies are nevertheless remarkably entertaining, and I can see why the Hopalong Cassidy series was so popular.  The plots may not be original (there’s only so much you can do with westerns) but the strength of the Cassidy films lie in the characters; Hoppy himself, as played by the prematurely graying Boyd, comes across as a father figure—he didn’t engage much in the arena of romance (though more than I had been led to believe), preferring to leave “the wimmin stuff” to the youngest member of his “trio,” Johnny Nelson (played by James Ellison).  Ellison portrayed Johnny up until the ninth of the Hoppys, Borderland (1937), and was then replaced by Russell Hayden as ‘Lucky’ Jenkins.  (Hayden became so identified with Jenkins that he was often billed as “Russell ‘Lucky’ Hayden” in his later films…and many of the characters he played, particularly alongside Charles Starrett [like in Riders of the Badlands], were named ‘Lucky’ as well.)

Hayden, Boyd, and George 'Gabby' Hayes
Flanking Hopalong Cassidy on the opposite side was an older, cantankerous sidekick in ‘Windy’ Halliday (though he also went by other surnames, depending on the movie)—portrayed by the Patron Saint of Garrulous Cinema Codgers, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes.  Hayes was in the first two Hopalong Cassidy pictures, but didn’t begin playing Windy until the third, Bar 20 Rides Again (1935).  Throughout the series, Windy and Johnny (and later Lucky) quarreled with and cussed at one another (Windy thought both “whippersnappers” despite the mutual affection), often requiring Cassidy to play mediator.  Hayes was with the Hoppy features until Renegade Trail (1939) and then, unable to come to terms with producer Sherman over his salary, switched to riding alongside Roy Rogers in a successful series of films at Republic (this is where he acquired the “Gabby” nickname).

Since the earliest of the Hopalong Cassidy films on Epix’s On Demand was Partners of the Plains (1938), I haven’t been afforded the opportunity yet to see any of the James Ellison films.  Plains is a very good introduction to the Hoppy features…even though ‘Gabby’ Hayes is absent from this one (he’s replaced by Harvey Clark as ‘Baldy’ Morton) it’s still business as usual: Hoppy and his friends work on a ranch where Britisher Lorna Drake (Gwen Gaze) has acquired a controlling interest, and Lorna—described by her Aunt Martha (Hilda Plowright) as being “a little willful and spoiled”—clashes almost immediately with foreman Cassidy.  But she’s carrying a torch for our hero (despite bristling at being told what to do); when Hoppy quits as foreman, she has the sheriff (Earle Hodgins) arrest him for “stealing” his beloved horse Topper!  (Hoppy doesn’t have a bill of sale…so in the eyes of the law, he’s a hoss thief.)

Lorna’s romantic designs on Hoppy do not go unnoticed by her fiancé, Ronald Harwood (John Warburton) …who accepts that Cassidy is the better man by taking bad advice from ex-convict Scar Lewis (character great Al Bridge)—great name, by the way—to remove Hoppy as his competition…permanently.  Everything comes out in the wash eventually, with a suspenseful forest fire climax and Lorna’s transformation from spirited filly to meek and docile submissive.

The young ingenue in Doomed Caravan (1941) is billed as “Georgia Hawkins” …but old-time radio fans know her as Georgia Ellis, whose best-remembered role is that of “Kitty Russell” on Gunsmoke.
Female characterizations don’t often fare well in the Hopalong Cassidy films…but I was pleasantly surprised by some of the portrayals, since many of the women are not content to just stand around looking helpless (in Doomed Caravan [1941], one of the top Hoppys, Minna Gombell’s freight owner is locked, loaded, and ready to tangle with the bad guys).  This is occasionally played for laughs; in Range War (1939), Ellen Marlow (Betty Moran) chafes at the thought of having to stay behind while the menfolk go after the outlaws.  She decides to avail herself of the only mode of transportation accessible to her: a broken-down mule who, alas, does not share Ellen’s zeal for her law and order mission.

Russell Hopton, Charlotte Wynters
A good example of a positive female character can be found in the last of the ‘Gabby’ Hayes Hoppys: in Renegade Trail, widow Mary Joyce (Charlotte Wynters) has had her hands full running one of the most prosperous ranches in Cactus Springs—the Circle J.  She accomplished this after the death of her husband, whom she’s told her son Joey (Sonny Bupp) over the years died a hero.  Surprise!  Hubby Bob ‘Smoky’ Joslin (Russell Hopton) has actually been serving a lengthy prison sentence…and now that he’s escaped, he’s threatening to reveal the truth to young Joseph—necessitating the need for many years of therapy in the young lad’s future, no doubt.  Mary agrees to provide cover for Smoky’s illegal activities in exchange for his silence (she tells everyone he’s her brother) …but she’s not particularly wild about the notion of his rustling her cattle, and neither are Hoppy and Lucky—who are in Cactus Springs to visit their old pal Windy (now the town marshal).

Roy Barcroft tangles with Hoppy in a lobby card for Renegade Trail (1939) as John Merton looks on (dis)approvingly.
The material has been done to death, I know…but the reason why I got such a kick out of Trail is that The Baddest Serial Villain of Them All, Roy Barcroft, is the wicked hombre in cahoots with Joslin (Roy’s character is called ‘Stiff Hat’ Bailey…and he not only gives Joey a smack in the kisser but kicks a dog for good measure) …and “Everyhench” John Merton is the chief goon.  It’s solidly paced, and well-directed by Lesley Selander…who directed a metric ton of the entries in the Hopalong Cassidy franchise.

The ‘Gabby’ Hayes deficit was made up in a few Hopalong Cassidy films by a character named ‘Speedy’ McGinnis (comically played by Britt Wood); I’ve only seen Wood in Range War, so I can’t really give you a full appraisal of what his character added to the series (a lot of Hoppy fans feel mostly “meh” about Speedy).  With Three Men in Texas (1940), the Hoppy franchise introduced my favorite of the elderly sidekicks in ‘California’ Jack Carson, played by veteran comedian Andy Clyde.  The fact that I’m such a huge fan of Andy’s admittedly colors my assessment of his contribution to the movie series…but Texas is a first-rate oater, and a beloved favorite among Cassidy fans.

TDOY fave Andy Clyde joins Boyd and Hayden.
The best of the Hoppy features that I’ve watched (so far, of course) is Pirates on Horseback (1941), which finds Hoppy, Lucky, and California on the hunt for a gold mine discovered by Carson’s distant cousin (very distant—like 42nd), Ben Pendleton (played by Britt Wood!).  Upon arriving at Pendleton’s shack, the trio meet his niece Trudy (Eleanor Stewart) …and agree to help her locate the mine, the location of which is gradually revealed via cryptic clues throughout Horseback’s running time.  Trudy is convinced by Ace Gibson (Morris Ankrum) that Hoppy and Company are working against her best interests…unaware that Gibson wants to get his grimy mitts on the mine himself!  Character veteran Ankrum was in a buttload of Hoppy westerns (the [always] reliable IMDb credits him with a baker’s dozen), and I got so used to seeing him play the villain that when he portrayed a good guy in Wide Open Town (1941) I kept suspecting it would eventually be revealed he was up to something criminal.

Years before starring opposite Richard Denning on TV/radio's Mr. and Mrs. North, Barbara Britton was paying her sagebrush dues.  In Secret of the Wastelands (1941), she plays an archaeologist who literally has to remove her glasses and let down her hair before Hayden's 'Lucky' realizes she's beautiful.

Wide Open Town was Russell Hayden’s swan song (after 27 films) with the Hopalong Cassidy franchise; his ‘Lucky’ Jenkins would be replaced by Brad King as “Johnny Nelson.”  (When the Hoppy films resumed in 1946—after star Boyd purchased both his old films and the rights to make more—the ‘Lucky’ character returned to the fold, portrayed by Rand Brooks.)  After King, the Cassidy series then showcased several rotating young sidekicks including Jay Kirby and Jimmy Rogers—in Bar 20 (1943), the sidekick is played by future TV Superman George Reeves!  The presence of the bland Kirby (as “Johnny Travers”) in Border Patrol (1943) didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this film; Hoppy and his crew match wits against an autocratic judge in Orestes Krebs (Russell Simpson), who’s been using kidnapped Mexicans as forced labor in his silver mine.  Judge Krebs puts the three comrades on trial that brings new meaning to the term “kangaroo court”—with Robert Mitchum (billed as Bob) as the foreman!  (Big Bad Bob appeared in several Hoppy westerns, notably 1943’s Hoppy Serves a Writ [which I haven’t seen] and Leather Burners [which I have].)  Patrol was my second favorite among the Epix Hoppys, with fine support from familiar faces like Claudia Drake, Duncan Renaldo, and Pierce Lyden.

The only gripe—and I’ll be honest, it’s a major one—is that the Epix prints of these movies have, to use the horse parlance, been rode hard and put up wet.  Two of the titles, Doomed Caravan and Wide Open Town, have running times of fifty-four minutes (most disappointing, since these are two of the best movies in the series) …leading me to suspect that these versions were the ones that were cut-up for television by NBC when Hoppy’s adventures came to small screens in 1949.  (Bar 20 Justice [1938] was missing its opening credits.)  A complete collection of the Hopalong Cassidy films was released to DVD by Echo Bridge in 2009 with restored prints, and that set, Hopalong Cassidy Ultimate Collector's Edition, was reissued in 2015 (sans collective lunchbox) …so I’m entertaining thoughts of grabbing one of these once the financial picture is a bit rosier here at Rancho Yesteryear.

5 comments:

Mike Doran said...

It's a tad off-topic, perhaps, but your headline reminded me of a tv appearance that Peter Sellers made with Steve Allen, long,long ago.
Sellers was of the opinion that he didn't do American accents particularly well.He went further, stating that whenever he heard most British actors trying to sound American, they usually sounded like sports announcers.
As an example, Sellers spoke this line, which I have never forgotten:

"You're darned tooting, Bud-dy!"

Cold print doesn't really do justice to this; you had to hear Sellers enunciating the daylights out of the line (the hyphen I put in 'Buddy' was deliberate, as was the whole sentence, comes to that).

Just thought I'd throw that in ...

Caftan Woman said...

I seem to travel to another realm of existence when in my Hoppy moods. The family sometimes fears I will not be able to return. Sometimes I get the impression they rather hope I will stay there. Sometimes.

rnigma said...

Of course, as well you know, Andy Clyde would play "California" on the Hoppy radio show.

I'm sure many of the beat-up prints of Hoppy films, not only came from TV stations, but also from those who traveled small villages and rural areas without theaters, carrying projectors and well-worn prints of Westerns.

Anonymous said...

Ivan,

NBC sub-channel COZI TV ran the Hoppy movies and TV show on weekends from 2013 through 2015. I wish they would bring them back.

A propos future prized actors in the series: Lee J. Cobb appeared in 2 of them in 1937. He was 26 years old and had already lost his hair, but had not yet acquired his "I need a Bromo seltzer" expression.

Regards,
Barry

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Barry reminded me:

NBC sub-channel COZI TV ran the Hoppy movies and TV show on weekends from 2013 through 2015. I wish they would bring them back.

I didn't remember them airing on COZI...but then again, my only exposure to the sub-channel is that some of its programming airs on FETV. Friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts was nice enough to let me know via e-mail that the Hoppy DVD set I mentioned in the post is available from Hamilton Books for $19.95...so I grabbed one this week.