THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

BORDER PATROL (Sherman/UA, 1943)

What are the odds that the cast of a B-Western movie would include a future superstar, a future Cisco Kid, a future Superman, and a boss villain (the galoot wearing the suit and tie) portrayed by the former Pa Joad?  Well, as it turns out, the odds are great.  The film is Border Patrol.

(L-R): William Boyd, Claudia Drake, Andy Clyde, Jay Kirby

DIRECTOR: Lesley Selander; PRODUCER: Harry Sherman; WRITERS: screenplay by Michael Wilson based on characters created by Clarence E. Muhlford; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Russell Harlan

CAST: William Boyd, Andy Clyde, Jay Kirby, Russell Simpson, Claudia Drake, George Reeves, Duncan Renaldo, Pierce Lyden, Bob Mitchum

Hoppy and Topper

Producer Harry Sherman possessed the good luck, or great skill, that allowed him to receive financial backing from major studios for his independently produced Hopalong Cassidy B-Western series.  That backing was provided first by Paramount and later by United Artists.  The result was production values not usually found associated with B-Westerns.  The only series that came close were those produced and distributed by RKO, also one of the major studios.

Sherman's series also benefited from stellar casts headed by William Boyd as Hoppy; excellent photography (especially that provided by Russell Harlan, who at one point photographed forty-four in a row); and competent directors at the helm (Lesley Selander, for example, who directed twenty-eight of the sixty-six films in the series).

The Hoppy series, inaugurated in 1935, was the first so-called trio series.  It featured a strong down-to-earth figure (Hoppy), a younger sidekick to handle the romance angle and some of the more strenuous physical action, and an older sidekick to provide the humor. The partnership could be described as a stable big-brother; impetuous younger brother; and older, irascible uncle, who, unlike the other two with their fancy pistols, horses, and tack  was always armed with a plain old pistol and rode a plain old nag with a plain old saddle and bridle.  Such was the lot of the B-Western comedic sidekick. 

The success of the trio alignment would lead other producers and studios to attempt to repeat Sherman's success.  Some of the other series differed in that their trios had names: The Three Mesquiteers (Republic), The Range Busters (Monogram), The Rough Riders (Monogram), The Texas Rangers (PRC), The Frontier Marshals (PRC), and The Trail Blazers (Monogram).  In addition, there were numerous untitled trio series down through the years.

Only Republic's Mesquiteers and Monogram's Rough Riders came close to achieving Sherman's success in terms of quality or popularity.

The Three Mesquiteers underwent a number of cast changes over the years.  This combination starred Raymond Hatton on the left and Ray "Crash" Corrigan on the right along with the tall hombre in the middle who probably needs no introduction.

The Rough Riders (L-R): Buck Jones, Tim McCoy, Raymond Hatton

Like the other long-running trio series, The Three Mesquiteers (1936-43; fifty-one films), the Hoppy series (1935-48; sixty-six films) underwent many cast changes down through the years.  However, the Hoppy series differed from the other series in an important aspect.  While the other two trio members would change hands several times, William Boyd was always Hopalong Cassidy.

The original Hoppy trio (This is a poster for a re-release of an earlier film as indicated by the "presenter," that it is a "Goodwill Picture," and that George Hayes is billed as "Gabby."  He only became "Gabby"  after moving to Republic.

The early Hoppy films found Boyd supported by Jimmy Ellison, who, as Johnny Nelson, was perfect as the younger member of the trio.  Then after a couple of false starts, George Hayes settled in as a cantankerous old-timer named Windy Halliday.  It was in this role that Hayes perfected his "Gabby" persona that would serve him so well when he left the Hoppy films and rode over to Republic where he became the most popular sidekick in the business.

Another re-release
Over the years, others would follow Ellison in the sidekick role, beginning with Russell Hayden, which was okay.  Then things began to go downhill when Hayden was followed by Brad King, Jay Kirby, Jimmy Rogers (Will's son), and finally Rand Brooks.   

There was much less turnover in the casting of the old-timer.  When Hayes left for Republic, Andy Clyde took on the role after a few films and, as California Carlson, remained with the series until its conclusion.  He wasn't Gabby Hayes (who was?), but he was much better than many of the unfunny, buffoonish sidekicks that were foisted onto many a movie cowboy hero.

The three gents in the middle (L-R) are Andy Clyde, Jay Kirby, William Boyd.  The gentleman in the suit is Russell Simpson.  The fellow standing on the far right pointing a pistol is Bob Mitchum. 
BORDER PATROL is a typical Hoppy film, meaning that it is an entertaining B-Western that could be enjoyed by the juvenile crowd and yet have some qualities that could be enjoyed by an adult audience.  As always, the black-and-white location photography was easy on the eye and as was also typical there wasn't a lot of action until the last reel and then all hell broke loose in a flurry of gunfire and fisticuffs.

Boyd, Kirby, and Clyde are three Texas Rangers who are disarmed and taken hostage by a young Mexican senorita named Inez, (Claudia Drake) who accuses them of murder. (I know, I know.  How could that happen?  These are three Texas Rangers; she is one woman.)  She then takes them across the border into Mexico and brings them before the local commandant, LaBarca (Duncan Renaldo).  It is there that the Rangers learn that Mexican laborers are being recruited to cross the Rio Grande in order to work in the Silver Bullet Mine.  But there's a big problem; they are never heard from again.

One of the missing is Don Enrique Perez (George Reeves), the young woman's sweetheart.  He went to investigate the situation, but had never returned.  Neither Cassidy nor the commandant is able to convince her that the Rangers are innocent.  Nevertheless, they are released and make their way back across the border to see if they can discover the mysterious disappearance of the laborers.  She trails them to Silver Bullet City.

When the Rangers arrive, they are once again disarmed and taken hostage.  This time it is by the henchmen of one Orestes Krebs (Russell Simpson).  He is a Judge Roy Beanish fellow who is the mayor, sheriff, and judge of Silver Bullet City as well as the owner of the Silver Bullet Mine.  With the aid of a gang of cutthroats, he rules with an iron hand over his little kingdom.

One of the orneriest of the cutthroats is a fellow named Quinn, who is portrayed by a young actor billed as Bob Mitchum.  Mitchum was in a number of the Hoppy films, always a bad guy at the beginning, but by his fourth appearance appearing in more sympathetic roles.

Bad Bob

Of course, the Rangers eventually prevail.  In the climactic scenes, Hoppy plugs Quinn and rides down Krebs who is attempting to escape and, in a scene that no self-respecting B-Western would fail to include, jumps off the galloping Topper onto the back of Krebs' horse and then the two tumble down a slight, sandy, slope .  At the bottom of the slope, Hoppy knocks Krebs cold with a roundhouse haymaker.  It is amazing how many times such a soft landing is available for our heroes when they need it.

Everything is well that ends well and it always does when the Hoppy trio takes charge. The miners are liberated and Inez is reunited with Don Enrique

Russell Simpson was cast against type and he seemed to have a good time in this film.  Viewers were accustomed to seeing him in films such as THE GRAPES OF WRATH, in which he portrayed Pa Joad, a broken, brooding man who did not have much to say, or as a disapproving Mormon elder in WAGON MASTER.  In BORDER PATROL, he had a lot to say and in some ways his character was the best thing the film had going.

Duncan Renaldo, the future Cisco Kid, had a fairly long scene early in the film, but was not seen again.  George Reeves, like Mitchum, appeared in a number of the Hoppy films during this period.  Unlike Mitchum, he always played a sympathetic role.  In fact, when Kirby left the series, Reeves substituted as the young sidekick in a couple of films, before being replaced by Jimmy Rogers.  In BORDER PATROL, however, he doesn't show up on the screen until the final reel and only has a couple of lines, which he speaks with a bad Mexican accent. It would be almost another decade before his casting as Superman would make him a TV star.

Good George, Hoppy sidekick

Another Three Mesquiteers combo (L-R): Raymond Hatton, Robert Livingston, Duncan Renaldo. Sometimes the old timer didn't even get to ride a horse.

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