Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Cowboy in the Black Hat

George "Gabby" Hayes and William Boyd in 1938's Bar-20 Justice.

On summer days  almost 50 years ago back in Cheyenne, Wyoming we spent our days recreating in detail elaborate cowboy sagas that lasted all day—or even all week.  We was my twin brother, Tim, a rotating cast of neighborhood kids—principally Joe Miranda and his assorted younger siblings—and when she was in town our cousin from Des Moines, Linda Strom.  For authenticity real prairie started abruptly at the end of our block complete with sagebrush, tumbleweeds, and low button cactus.  But the back yards the neighborhood with their lilac caves, wild rose hedges, palisade fences, brick walls, window wells, and the low flat roofs of car ports provided plenty of locations for ambushes and shoot-outs.
We had regular and defined parts.  Tim, handsome and charismatic was always Roy Rogers.  Linda was Bell Starr.  And me? I was Hopalong Cassidy.
On June 24, 1948, a little less than a year before I was born, Hopalong Cassidy premiered on NBC Television.  It was the first western series on the infant medium and it was wildly successful.  So successful that it introduced an era of more than 30 years when horse operas dominated the small screen. 

The character of Hopalong Cassidy was first introduced in 1904 in short stories by 21 year old Clarence E. Mulford, a native of Streator while he was living and working in Fryeburg, Maine.  He was a fan of western lore but wanted to create more realistic stories than the simple daring-do of the old dime novels.  Through research, his tales were filled with accurate details of ranch life, cowboy outfits and gear, and location.  But at heart he was still a Victorian moralist with a hero performing nobly. 
Cassidy started out as a twenty-something ranch hand elevated to foreman of the sprawling Bar-20 Ranch.  He was rude, crude, and slovenly, attributes that hid his finer qualities.  Hoppy, as he was called got his name from sustaining a bullet to the leg in an early story, although any lingering disability did often come into play.
Beginning with Bar-20 in 1906 Mulford churned out 28 novels through Hopalong Cassidy Serves A Writ in 1940.  Enormously popular he was a major rival of Zane Grey, the leading western novelist of the day.  But the Hopalong series was the first in the genre to have continuing characters and story points from book to book.  And unlike other series, Mulford’s cowboy hero and his associates, rivals, and foils age and evolve as the series continued.
In 1935 Mulford’s near contemporary Harry A. Sherman bought the film rights to the book series and set up his own independent production company to make the movies.  Sherman was originally an exhibitioner who had made good money when he became the distributor for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in the Western states in 1915.  He had always wanted to go into production and the deal with Mulford gave him his chance.
Papa Sherman, as he was known, produced more than 50 low budget two reel westerns in the series through 1944.  Although cheaply made cinematography by Russell B. Harlan and others was far above average for Poverty Row and gave the series a more expensive look. 
Sherman employed a regular sort of stock company with many characters and actors carrying over from film to film.  Veteran George Hayes, an early silent leading man who had become a stock villain at other studios, established his new sidekick character, Gabby Hayes by growing a salt-and-pepper beard, removing his false teeth, and donning a battered black hat with a turned up front brim.  Many later stars got their starts in these production and others, like Victor Jory, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Dix, George Reeves, Robert Mitchum, and Albert Dekker.
Although independently produced, the films were released through major studios, first Paramount and later United Artists, which guaranteed placement in better movie houses, usually as the bottom of a double bill with an A picture.  The movies were a bonanza for the distributors who attracted the nickels of millions of kids lined up for Saturday matinĂ©es and early weekday shows that often otherwise ran to near empty houses.
What made the movie series so popular were some key decisions by producer Sherman.  First and most important was the selection of a star.  He turned not to some handsome young stud or a veteran of other westerns, but to a silent screen leading man fallen on hard times.
William Boyd, born on June 5, 1895 in Hendrysburg in Belmont County, Ohio had been a highly successful leading man and a favorite of big time directors like Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.  Under contract to Radio Pictures at the height of his career he was pulling down $100,000.  That came to a screeching halt, however in 1931 when wire services picked up a story from the Los Angeles newspapers about the arrest of another actor, William “Stage” Boyd, on gambling and liquor charges.  Unfortunately the wrong actor’s picture accompanied the article.  Citing the morals clause of his contract, Radio Pictures dumped him and he found himself virtually black listed in Hollywood.
Having lived life large with a big house, fancy cars, and all of the accouterments of stardom along with the loss of his investments in the Great Depression, it did not take long for Boyd to fall into virtual poverty.  He scrounged for work sometimes finding small supporting roles as a businessman or professional under the name Billy Boyd, he was still living hand to mouth when he responded to  Sherman’s casting call. 
Sherman was inclined to cast Boyd in the supporting role of Red Connors, an older hand on the Bar-20 and Hoppy’s frenemy.  Boyd begged to be considered for the lead role despite not having any experience in action pictures and barely able to stay on board a horse.  A screen test earned him the job—unlike other candidates, he could act. 
So instead of a handsome young buckaroo Sherman found himself with a middle aged, silver haired hero.
The second big decision was to completely re-imagine the character.  Instead of the hard drinking, rough talking cowhand in rags, in Hop-Along Cassidy the lead was transformed into a gentlemanly teetotaler who ordered sarsaparilla at the bar, who was unfailingly courteous to women, and always let the bad guy slap leather first or throw the first punch.  And instead of tatters, Hoppy was adorned in close-fitting black from the tips of his handsomely tooled Texas cowboy boots to the Ten Gallon black Stetson on his head.  Boyd was not the first cowboy star to buck the white hat ruleTom Mix and Ken Maynard had occasionally worn them—but he was the first to make it a regular trade mark.
And not just any range pony would do.  Hoppy was mounted on a magnificent white stallion, Topper who made the later TV Lone Ranger’s Silver look like a puny runt.  Of course Hoppy sat comfortably in a handsomely tooled black saddle.
This recipient was enough for the new series to successfully compete against the singing cowboy movies of Gene Autry, John Wayne as Randy, and that upstart Roy Rogers who had come to dominate the B movie westerns.  And unlike the products of Republic and other studios who usually set their films in the modern west with telephones. Automobiles, and radio, the Hopalong series remained rooted in stories of the Old West.
The final decision was to chuck Mulford’s stories and novels as source material.  It was just too hard to adapt the stories to Hoppy’s new personal.  While keeping Hopalong rooted to the Bar-20, he was given more freedom to roam becoming something of a knight errant with pearl handled revolvers righting wrongs across the west.
In the films Cassidy was usually accompanied by either an elderly comic side kick or a hero worshiping youth or, most frequently, both.  These were knot characters, but types whose name and particulars changed as different actors filled the slot.  Hayes was the first sidekick, Windy Halliday billed as Gabby.  Very popular with audiences he left  series in a salary dispute and moved on to Republic where he was soon paired with Gene Autry, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and later at other studios Randolph Scott.  He was replaced first by Britt Wood as Speedy McGinnis and then by comedian Andy Clyde as California Carlson who lasted through the end of the movie series.
The juveniles, eager and well-meaning but trouble prone, were played by James Ellison, Russell Hayden, George Reeves, and Rand Brooks.  Hayden went on to a substantial career in two reel westerns and B gangster flicks.  Reeves, of course, rose to fame as TV’s Superman.
Meanwhile Mulford, the creator of the original character was making out well not only from royalties from the films but from renewed interest in his books.  From 1935 to 1940 he wrote three new Hopalong books reflecting the hero as he appeared in the movies.  He also went back and re-wrote many of his earlier titles adapting them to movie goers’ expectations.
Despite the continuing popularity of the series, Sherman dreamed of becoming a producer of quality A pictures.  He announced he was ending the series in 1944.  By then his star William Boyd had become very identified with the part.  He had learned how to ride passably and how to duke it out with the bad guys.  He enjoyed the adulation of young fans—and the substantial income he earned from special appearances with Topper.  He gambled his entire future on Hopalong Cassidy, mortgaging virtually everything he owned to buy both the character rights from Mulford and the backlog of movies from Sherman.
And then he set out, with his own production company, to continue the series.  He churned out 12 more films.  But he had even less production money than Sherman and the pictures were visibly cheaper.
They heyday of the two reel western was coming to an end.  Major distributors were dropping them.  Unless he had the money to upgrade to color, as Roy Rogers was successfully doing, there seemed little hope.  The principle culprit was the rise of a new competitive medium, television, which threatened to keep all of those Saturday morning popcorn munchers at home.
Boyd, with everything to lose, decided to throw in with the butcher who was cutting the throat of his golden goose.  In 1948 he approached NBC Television which aired a handful of his old films.  The response was so overwhelming that before Boyd could get in production with an original series for the air, the network put up a regular series drastically edited to a half hour format from the 66 original movies. 
The series premiered on June 24, 1949.  It was the first regular western series on television and a huge hit.  By 1950 Boyd was a megastar, his picture as Hopalong Cassidy adorning the covers of national magazines like Look, Life, and Time.
An astute businessman, Boyd was the first western star to see the value in merchandising.  He licensed hundreds of products bearing his likeness as Hopalong.  Most famously the cowboy was the first ever to appear on a school lunch box causing sales for Aladdin Industries to jump from 50,000 units to 600,000 units in just one year.  Hoppy merchandise generated $70 million in revenue for more than 100 companies.  In 1950 Boyd personally earned over $800,000 in licensing, endorsements, and public appearances.
Boyd did get up production of his new originals series with Edgar Buchanan as Red Carlson, the character Boyd had first auditioned for, now upgraded to the comic sidekick.  Broadcast as a separate series from the re-packaged movies, this show was rated No. 7 nationally in 1950.  Boyd also starred in a radio version which began on the Mutual Network in 1950 and jumped to CBS where it ran until 1952 with movie side kick Andy Clyde back to reprise California Carlson.
Fawcett Comics had been running a series of comic books since 1946 which was taken over by DC Comics in 1954.  The now highly collectable books ran through 136 issues through 1959.  Western Publishing issued several coloring books.  January 1950 Dan Spiegel began to draw a syndicated comic strip with scripts by Royal King Cole which lasted until 1955.
In 1950 a deal with Castle Films brought the original movies distributed by Paramount to the home market in 15 mm sound and 8 mm silent versions.  These stone age videos enlivened many a child’s birthday party.
Both versions of the TV series and the original movies were all available in TV syndication until they were withdrawn from circulation in the late 1960’s.
Boyd, now wealthy, retired with his fifth wife to Palm Desert, California where he had significant real estate and development holdings.  Suffering from Parkinson’s disease as he aged he shunned photographs and interviews so that he would not disappoint the memory of his fans.  He died in 1972 in Laguna Beach at the age of 77.
Hopalong Cassidy did not die.  He did become hard to find for a while.  Boyd’s heirs licensed restored prints of the films to the basic cable Western Channel in the mid-1990’s where they ran until they were again withdrawn in 2000.  DVDs for home viewing are hard to find outside of a couple of cheaply made compilation discs and an expensive package of the whole television run.
The character as envisioned originally by Mulford was resurrected in four novels by western novel master Louis L’Amor and in a series of short stories in Follow Your Stars by Susie Coffman in 2005.  Some of Mulford’s original novels have been reprinted, along with a few of the versions he revised to fit the movie character.  Readers are advised to check carefully which they are buying as the originals are considered far better.
And, of course, Hopalong replays eternally in the memory theater of his now aging fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment