Hopalong Cassidy — detective?

Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.

hoppy_headLast fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them.  As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.

In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.

Hop-a-long Cassidy - 1shtWilliam Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941.  Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.

hoppyadThat process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.

HoppyTVThere was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.

61Q84PPJXCL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.

hoppy-headerIt’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)

I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple.  Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:

  • Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
  • Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
  • Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
  • Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
  • Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
  • Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.

Hoppy Serves a Writ - 1shtThe one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?

20ce0f649216fe71ddc69babf71e939aWhat prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear.  He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.

cdb2da219c6b80bec78aa253db7ea35cFor fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.

a5f5f7f13c4932f7c488e63ffed9c5b9There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.

Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about.  Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).

People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.

HopalongCassidyFilms.gifAfter further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.

There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.

To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.

983712c1ad67e46193d162211ca9f2b0At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.

So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation.  In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!

Law of the Pampas (1939)

law_of_the_pampas_posterJust lately I’ve discovered the pleasures of a new-to-me TV channel, “Silver Screen”, whose mission seems to be, “Let’s keep the programming budget as close to zero as possible.” So I’ve been experiencing the pleasures of a lot of rubbishy old films that few people other than me take seriously.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of elderly Westerns of no particular merit, including entries in the long-running Hopalong Cassidy series. In 1939, when Law of the Pampas was made, there were no fewer than four Hoppy movies (there were SEVEN made in 1943, which must have been exhausting), and in total there are sixty-six of them. Say what you will about their quality, 66 films equals a long-running and durable brand — and you knew who Hopalong Cassidy was without being told, didn’t you? That’s what interests me.

rm5qzy7xWilliam Boyd plays Hoppy, and Russell Hayden is along for the ride as sidekick Lucky Jenkins. Hoppy always had two sidekicks; one handsome young cowboy, and usually the grizzled old Gabby Hayes as comedy relief. Here Hayes is absent and the comedy relief role is filled by “Argentinian” Sidney Toler.

The story is simple enough. Our heroes to go Argentina to deliver some prize bulls to rancher Pedro DeCordoba; Pedro has been having troubles, what with two of his children dying in “accidents”. Nobody pins down the source of trouble to Sidney Blackmer’s evil American son-in-law “Ralph Merritt”, who is eliminating other potential heirs to the estancia, until Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused. Steffi Duna plays Chiquita, Blackmer’s misguided mistress who thinks she’ll marry Ralph and rule the roost, and Sidney Toler plays Fernando Ramirez, the ranch foreman. Hoppy remembers he’s seen the son-in-law’s face on an American wanted poster and brings him to justice, in an exciting finish that looks like every other Western chase sequence you’ve ever seen — but with bolas as well as six-guns.


William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy

Why is this oater worth your time? Well, you will probably not be intellectually troubled by the mystery plot, which has a kind of inevitability about it from the start. It’s not completely obvious, as is often the case in Hoppy’s outings, but it’s clear who the guilty party is from the start. (Sidney Blackmer could easily have had “Bad Guy” written on his forehead in Sharpie.) There is a tiny bit of originality in that it takes place in “South America” — although everyone speaks English and the sets look exactly the same as all the other American-set Hoppy films. “The King’s Men” do a turn as singing cowhands, which is silly and fun, and B-player stalwart Anna Demetrio has some nice moments as Toler’s big fat wife Dolores.


Russell Hayden, sidekick, and Steffi Duna

Neither will you be troubled by trying to decipher the characterization; there really isn’t any. Hopalong Cassidy at this point was so well known to his primary fan base of children that all he has to do is show up and not do anything evil or mean. The script is written so as to explain to you everyone’s role upon their first appearance and all you have to do is settle back and wait for the inevitable.


Anna Demetrio (L), Sidney Toler (R)

What really interested me was that this film was made in 1939; Sidney Toler was at that time deeply involved in headlining the Charlie Chan series. Essentially he played a South American cowboy and a Chinese-Hawaiian detective in the same year, and to my eye and ear he plays both roles with exactly the same facial expressions and accent, despite his Missouri origins. In fact Toler made eight films in 1939, playing ranch hands, gauchos, Charlie Chan, a shady lawyer, a Chinese racket-buster and an intrepid judge. Quite an accomplishment.


Sidney Blackmer (L), Steffi Duna (R)

Also of interest to me was the performance by Steffi Duna as the Chiquita of easy virtue. When she arrived in Hollywood in 1934 from Hungary — yes, Hungary — she played a long succession of Hispanic characters, slinky Euro-trash, and even an “Eskimo” (in 1934’s Man of Two Worlds). You really had to work hard in those days to submerge your origins and make a living as a B-movie actor!

This film is available in various places for free; it seems to have somehow fallen out of copyright. Free-Classic-Movies.com will let you watch as much of it as you can stand for nothing!


Rocky Mountain Mystery (aka The Fighting Westerner) (1935)

Rocky Mountain Mystery (also released as The Fighting Westerner)

rocky-mountain-mystery-movie-poster-1935-1020198180Author: An adaptation by Ethel Doherty of an unpublished novel (Golden Dreams) by Zane Grey. Screenplay by Edward E. Paramore Jr. Ms. Doherty’s writing career went back to 1925 and this was, in fact, her last screen credit. Mr. Paramore wrote a long list of films including perhaps his most famous, The Bitter Tea of General Yen. And Zane Gray, of course, was a best-selling and extremely prolific writer of Westerns who became an overnight success in 1912, with “Riders of the Purple Sage”. He has 116 writing credits in IMDB alone, his own TV series (Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre from 1956-1961) and a long, long list of published books — which makes me wonder, just what on earth is he doing with an unpublished novel? However, this story appears to have been updated to 1935, regardless of when it was first written, and this seems to have been the work of Mr. Paramore. No source suggests that Zane Grey had anything to do with this film personally.

The unpublished novel Golden Dreams was filmed under that title in 1922 of the silent era; IMDB says nothing about it beyond the cast, but merely by the characters’ names I can tell that it has little or nothing to do with this plot about a radium mine. At least, it seems to be vaguely about Spanish aristocrats in early California.

Other Data:  63 minutes long. March 1, 1935, according to IMDB.  Directed by Charles Barton, who won an Academy Award for best assistant director in 1933 — no, I didn’t know there was such a thing either — and started his directing career in 1934 with a different Randolph Scott/Zane Grey feature, Wagon Wheels. His career included The Shaggy Dog, for Walt Disney, and 106 episodes of the execrable Family Affair on CBS, 1967 to 1971.

rocky-mountain-mystery-ann-sheridan-randolph-scott-1935All extant prints that I’ve seen bear the title The Fighting Westerner. There is no reason cited for this title change that I can find; frequently it has something to do with the sale of the film to a television packaging company in the 1950s, such as Favorite Films, here cited above the title with a credit to Paramount, whose original production this was. I suppose they mean that the hero is a fighting Westerner but really he’s more of a detective than a fist fighter.

Cast: Chic Sale as Deputy Sheriff Tex Murdock. Mrs. Leslie Carter as sinister housekeeper Mrs. Borg. George Marion, Sr. as the invalid father; Ann Sheridan as his daughter Rita, Florence Roberts as his long-lost wife, Kathleen Burke as her daughter Flora, Willie Fung as the mysterious Ling Yat, and finally, at the end of the credits, Randolph Scott as broad-shouldered, clean-limbed hero Larry Sutton.

It seems odd to me but, omitting a few supporting players near the end, this is the order in which the credits were run. If so, Chic Sale had a much larger following than I’d thought. His Wikipedia entry here makes fascinating reading; at one point around this time referring in conversation to his name meant that you were making a euphemism for an outhouse, and there’s actually a reference to him in the Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers. He specialized in “backwater hicks”; in this film he’s mainly the comedy relief.

Mrs. Leslie Carter also had a more interesting career than I’d ever heard of, a précis of which is found here. Frankly, she sounds like a character from the musical Chicago — she used her married name to spite her husband — and they made a movie about her in 1940, The Lady with Red Hair. This is one of her few film appearances and OMG, does she ever look like a drag queen, with a huge jaw, unplucked furry eyebrows, and a deep serious voice. Ann Sheridan of course went on to become the “Oomph Girl” and made The Glass Key the same year; and about a dozen other films, all in 1935. They worked ’em HARD in those days. Even the barely-seen Willie Fung has an interesting biography and resume. All things considered, this would have been a high-powered cast without Randolph Scott, but with him, it’s quite a bit above the usual level of the Westerns of the period.

And of course Randolph Scott is a well-known Western hero who was just getting his career off the ground in 1935 — this film is cited as a turning point for his promotion from B films to the A level. Between 1932 and 1935, he made ten Zane Grey westerns in a loose series for Paramount and this seems to be the last.

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the twist that underlies some events.  If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own. 

imagesI originally decided to investigate this film for a peculiar reason. I mentioned idly elsewhere in this blog that “I can suggest there are a couple of Western series characters whose films were primarily mysteries with Western trappings and characters, albeit at the general level of mystery of Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids.” Of course, when I sat down and tried to think of some, well — I had had the vague idea that what I think of as the “Radio Ranch” genre of movie cowboy series frequently dipped into the standard mystery plot structure as a basis for their activities. For instance, Riders of the Whistling Skull from 1937, featuring The Three Mesquiteers, qualifies as a “weird western” and has both a murder mystery element and a mummy. But I do remember one plot structure that recurred over and over. The kindly old owner of Ranch A was found dead and it shore did look like the owner of Ranch B made good on his threats. Luckily the lovely orphaned daughter of the victim managed to attract the attention of a gallant Western hero, who solved the crime, shot or arrested the perpetrator and kissed the girl. (My recollections here are based on a misspent youth in front of the television in the 60s.)  I may still find some of these; however, I got sidetracked when I found Rocky Mountain Mystery.

To me, this is a fairly standard Western, but I gather from my reading that there are significantly different elements. To begin with, this all takes place against the background of a radium mine — radium being worth an enormous amount per gram in 1935 — and there is barely a horse to be seen, but quite a few automobiles and telephones. We begin as Randolph Scott (playing “Larry Sutton”) arrives at the Ballard radium mine to take over as chief engineer (not ranch foreman, as is more usual) because his brother-in-law has disappeared after the death of the ranch caretaker, Mr. Borg. Randolph Scott teams up with deputy sheriff Tex, the comedy relief, to investigate Borg’s death — gruesomely, crushed in a gigantic piece of mining equipment used to crush rock. Elderly paterfamilias Jim Ballard is bedridden, and his niece Flora and nephew Fritz have arrived to secure their inheritance from his radium mine and accompanying ranch. (His other niece Rita (Ann Sheridan) has also arrived, but she’s only there to provide a love interest for Randolph Scott.) Borg’s widow Mrs. Borg and her scrawny son John, and “mysterious Chinaman” Ling Yat, keep the household running.


After Randolph Scott arrives, things heat up. Soon Fritz is found crushed in the same piece of equipment, and a dark cloaked figure runs around and stirs things up; but everyone seems to have an alibi.  Next John Borg is shot, Randolph Scott is attacked by the cloaked figure, and Flora is murdered by having her throat cut. All these events take a toll on the invalid, it seems. Randolph contacts his ex-wife, who hasn’t been out at the ranch in 30 years, and tells her to come quickly to say good-bye.  When she does, she reveals that the invalid isn’t her ex-husband at all, but Mr. Borg — who crushed the ranch’s owner into unrecognizability and took his place. In an exciting finish, the Borg family and Ling Yat run for the hills, and a number of chase scenes result in the Borgs and Ling Yat being sentenced to 20 years in prison, Tex becoming the sheriff, and Randolph Scott marrying Ann Sheridan and buying a ranch in Hawaii.

Indeed, this is a strict-form puzzle mystery, as I have elsewhere defined it. The film is careful to show us people at the precise moment in time when things happen — for instance, when Flora screams her final scream, we see Randolph Scott amid three or four other suspects, all of whom look up. Everyone is carefully alibied except the invalid, who clearly must be guilty. If you get that far, it’s easy to figure out that the central clue is that someone spirited away the dead body that had been identified as Mr. Borg, and thus the murderer has changed places with his victim.

This did hold my attention. Every once in a while it veers into the cliche-ridden B-movie Western, notably with the “by cracky” antics of  Chic Sale — and yet we see him taking the hoof prints of horses to identify the one ridden by the murderer, which is hardly silly at all. Similarly the black-cloaked villain seems to be a hangover from the fast and dirty days of the B movie, but this movie, with a cheerfully uncaring attitude towards any possible disbelief, offers us all kinds of cliches with an air of not knowing that they are indeed cliches. So we have the swarthy suspicious Chinese servant and the brooding housekeeper and her weird, weakling son. We’ve seen everything here before, more or less, and if the director is not ashamed to include it, I’m not ashamed to enjoy it.

It’s interesting to see how the film changes with the introduction of cars, automobiles and radium; as if there has been some sort of time warp that leaves half the script in the 1890s and the other half in 1935. I imagine they must have had rudimentary identification in 1935 and that it would have been a lot easier to take over someone’s identity in 1895. Similarly, villainous Chinese servants were all the rage in 1900 or so, but rather old hat in 1935, what with the introduction of Charlie Chan and all.

And it’s rather fun to watch this weird crossover between mystery and Western. The director is apparently convinced that there are no problems inherent in fulfilling the requirements of each genre, and he seems to be right. (If you’re interested in seeing how cross-genre Westerns can occasionally fail spectacularly, check out The Terror of Tiny Town some day.) The merging of mystery and Western is quite good here; enough detective work to satisfy the crime fan, and enough Western action for Western devotees. I have to say that the final solution is precipitated by the arrival of the long-lost ex-wife, and it’s not clear that Randolph Scott has invited her to attend with any detective motivation in mind; so the solution is kind of accidental, I think. Not as strict-form a mystery as the purists among us would like, but fun nevertheless.

Notes For the Collector:

This film is apparently in the public domain and can be found here.