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, January 15, 2017

GABBY HAYES, Part I: B-Western Sidekick

"Ya dur-r-r-n tootin, ya flea-bitten varmint"

He was born George Francis Hayes (1885-1969) in the little town of Stannards, near Wellsville, New York. In fact, the third of seven children was born in a hotel, the Hayes Hotel, which was owned by his father.  In 1902, at the age of seventeen, he ran away from home and joined a touring acting company. In 1914 he married Olive Ireland and the couple toured as a song and dance team on the vaudeville circuit.

In the late '20s the couple moved to California where Hayes hooked up with a film producer named Trem Carr, one of the co-founders of Monogram Pictures, which led to steady employment as an onscreen character actor.  Since Monogram specialized in B-westerns, Hayes, despite his eastern background, found himself acting primarily in films starring a number of cowboy stars, but especially Bob Steele and John Wayne.  Already in his forties, one of the first things he had to learn was how to ride a horse.  Over the years, to his credit, he became a competent horseman. 

In these films he was usually cast as a sympathetic character and despite being only in his forties, he often portrayed old-timers who befriended the hero.  In these roles he was given colorful names such as Walrus, Squint, Slack, Altooney, Shamrock, Stingaree and -- well, you get the idea.  But he wasn't always a good guy.  

In RIDERS OF THE DESERT (World Wide, 1932) he is Hashknife Brooks, the leader of a notorious outlaw gang.  In the final reel he and Bob Steele engage in fisticuffs, with Hayes being shot and killed by Steele's sidekick, portrayed by Al St. John, who would later become a prolific sidekick, particularly in series starring Buster Crabbe and Lash LaRue.

He was a ubiquitous presence in the cast of the John Wayne Lone Star/Monogram westerns that were made in 1934-35 under the supervision of Carr and Paul Malvern.  In these films he continued to sharpen and refine the old-timer comedic character that would later make him famous -- but, again, not always.         

(L-R) Three future legends: John Wayne, George Hayes, and Yakima Canutt in RANDY RIDES ALONE

In RANDY RIDES ALONE (Lone Star/Monogram, 1934), Hayes is Matt the Mute, a businessman who communicates by writing out his comments. Secretly, however, he is Marvin Black, who always dresses in black and is the leader of an outlaw gang.  Yakima Canutt, stunt man extraordinaire, is Black's chief henchman, Spike.

In the very next entry, THE STAR PACKER (Lone Star/Monogram, 1934), to the public he is prominent citizen Matt Matlock, but behind the scenes he is a mysterious outlaw known as "The Shadow."

In 1935, Hayes began a profitable association with producer Harry Sherman. Sherman was in the process of launching an independently produced B-western series that would be financed and distributed by Paramount.  The association with a major studio ensured that the series would be far superior to the output of most of the Poverty Row studios that specialized in the genre.

It was the good fortune of Hayes to be cast as Hopalong Cassidy's (William Boyd) old-timer sidekick, Windy Halliday, in the long-running series.  There were some false starts, however.

Uncle Ben looks a lot like Windy and Gabby.
In the first entry he portrayed Uncle Ben, who, unfortunately, was killed off at the end.  In the second film he is a bartender named Spike who is a less sympathetic character, but who also doesn't live to the end of the film. In the third film, THE BAR 20 RIDES AGAIN (1935), he finally portrays a character named Windy (no last name), who makes it through the entire film and is invited to join the Bar 20 ranch. However, in the next release, CALL OF THE PRAIRIE (1936), he is the same old timer, but one who is known as Shanghai.

Despite being only fifty-years old at the time, from the outset the crotchety old-timer"Windy" (later 'Gabby') characterization appeared full blown.  However, it wasn't a characterization that was created on the run, but one that he introduced and refined in earlier films, especially those starring John Wayne and Bob Steele.

Finally, with THREE ON THE TRAIL (1936), Hayes was cast as Windy Halliday, a continuing role that would consist of seventeen more Hoppy features.  Finally, he had the role that in a sense he had been auditioning for ever since his association with Trem Carr began at the beginning of the sound era.  He was on his way to becoming the definitive B-western sidekick.

The poster is for an obvious re-release of the film since Hayes was not billed as 'Gabby' until after he left the Hoppy series

a rather pensive Gabby
Gabby Hayes was ... the measuring stick by which to judge all of the other cowboy sidekicks.  He was the quintessential sidekick before anyone got around to really understanding what a sidekick's role and function were to be in western films. -- David Rothel, Those Great Cowboy Sidekicks

Due to a contract disagreement with producer Harry Sherman, in 1939 Hayes left the series after appearing in the first twenty-two (eighteen as Windy Halliday) Hoppy films, and rode over to Republic.  It might have been considered a comedown from Paramount except for the fact that Republic Studios was a specialist, one that specialized in B-westerns while consistently producing a superior product.

He would remain there for a decade, eventually surpassing Smiley Burnette as the screen's most popular western sidekick.  Not only that, his popularity even eclipsed most of the six-gun heroes of the day.

Of course it must be said that his popularity was greatly enhanced by the fact that the studio placed Hayes in a co-starring role with a young actor named Roy Rogers who was on his way to becoming the most popular B-western star in the business.  The pairing of the "King of the Cowboys" and the "King of the Sidekicks" was a fortuitous development for star, co-star, and studio.  It created a western movie combo that no other studio could hope to match, much less surpass.

First up was SOUTHWARD HO! (Republic, 1939) in which his character was called Gabby Whitaker, which would become the name of his character in most of the Rogers films. From that day forward George Francis Hayes would be forever known as Gabby Hayes. 

"ya flop-eared jug head mule"
SOUTHWARD HO! finds Roy and Gabby as two Confederate Civil War veterans returning to Texas after the war. Gabby has inherited a half interest in a ranch and that is their destination with the goal of settling down to a peaceful existence.

But in a plot involving carpetbaggers and corrupt military officers, one that has seen much service in westerns, the two are not allowed to settle down. Instead they must rally the local ranchers in order to oppose the corrupt military government that has been established.

Were they successful in their efforts?  Well, of course.  Did Roy and Gabby ever fail?

Gabby giving advice to "young whippersnapper" Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) in a scene from MARSHAL OF RENO, the first Red Ryder feature (starring Wild Bill Elliott)

Bill Elliott is Red Ryder and Bobby Blake is Little Beaver

Gabby co-starred with Roy in forty-one films between 1939 and 1946. However, in 1943 Bill Elliott left Columbia and joined the Republic stable of western stars. In order to help guarantee the success of the Wild Bill Elliott series, the studio decided to give him the best possible comic sidekick. Therefore, Gabby supported Elliott in his eight films in 1943-44.  In 1944, Republic launched a new series about the adventures of the comic book hero, Red Ryder. Elliott was chosen to play the lead, with Bobby Blake as Little Beaver, and Gabby as the comic sidekick.  But after two films Gabby was transferred back to the Roy Rogers series.

It was in that return that Gabby was given his best roles in the series. And he delivered by proving once again that he could not only provide comedy, but that he was also a fine actor.

In DON'T FENCE ME IN (1945) Gabby steals the show by giving a memorable performance as a famous ex-outlaw known as Wildcat Kelly.  The film turned out to be one of the most popular entries in the entire series, partly because of the hit title song, but also as a result of Gabby's strong performance.

In MY PAL TRIGGER (1946), Gabby was afforded the opportunity to do some serious acting when he played the owner of a ranch that raised palomino horses. Yes, he did provide some comic touches, but in other scenes he expressed anger and grief.  It was a touching performance.

Gabby could be very funny, but he was never the buffoon, like Smiley Burnette, for example, who hindered the hero more than he helped him. When the chips were down Gabby could be counted on to help the hero out of a tough spot.       

SUNSET CARSON: "He wasn't just a comedian, but he had the ability to turn in some mighty fine acting when needed. Gabby could make you cry as well as make you laugh." -- quoted by David Rothel, Those Great Cowboy Sidekicks

UTAH (1945)

"durn persnickety female"



In 1946, Gabby parted ways with Republic Pictures.  HELDORADO (1946) turned out to be Gabby's last film with Roy. But Gabby wasn't through acting, no siree, bob.  He went on to co-star with the likes of John Wayne and, especially, Randolph Scott in a number of A-westerns.

But that's another story.  Stay tuned. 

Not --- 

No siree, bob!