GENERAL ARTICLES

HORSE OPERA

The rootin' tootin' heroes of Hollywood's cow classics are pure as Galahad and rich as Croesus. Some of them, like Bill Elliott, can even ride

KATE HOLLIDAY June 1 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

HORSE OPERA

The rootin' tootin' heroes of Hollywood's cow classics are pure as Galahad and rich as Croesus. Some of them, like Bill Elliott, can even ride

KATE HOLLIDAY June 1 1946

HORSE OPERA

GENERAL ARTICLES

KATE HOLLIDAY

The rootin' tootin' heroes of Hollywood's cow classics are pure as Galahad and rich as Croesus. Some of them, like Bill Elliott, can even ride

COME ON, boys. We’ll head ’em off at Eagle Pass!” With these immortal words the hero, wearing a 64-gallon hat and calf-high hand-tooled boots, throws himself onto his pinto and thunders down the dusty main street of a sleepy western town, a posse of 15 stalwart gentlemen similarly clad stringing out behind him, guns ready. The air is filled with the pounding of hoofs; the faces of the riders are grim and determined.

Then someone yells, “Cut!” and the horsemen come to a stop for the day. The hero climbs down from his nag, ambles over to a shiny convertible, and tools happily homeward to a luxurious “ranch,” where he is greeted by a wife dressed in a Paris gown, and children who have returned two hours previously from the most expensive schools in the neighborhood. He spends the evening in his sumptuously furnished living room, sometimes visiting the well-stocked stables which are part of his establishment, and the next morning is before the cameras again.

Such is the life of a Western star. And, take it from me, it’s an existence to pray for. For the kings of the horse opera go on and on, year after year, stashing up dough in blissful chunks, with nary a thought as to where their next script is coming from.

William Elliott, formerly called “Wild Bill,” is a typical movie cowboy. As such, he has built up a following of devoted admirers who mob him when he makes a public appearance, gladly pay to see his pictures even when they are released for the fourth or fifth time, form hundreds of fan clubs, and have put him onto a delightful spot which will net him $800,000 in the next five years from motion pictures alone.

There are two main types of Westerns: the musical and the nonmusical. In the former anything can happen and frequently does. The hero may burst into song even when surrounded by bad men, though he usually waits until the evening sun is going down or there is a lull in the action before gettin’ out his gittar and sounding off. This type of opera is the province of such men as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter, gentlemen who are perhaps short on riding ability but who make up for it by using their pipes.

No “Gittar” for Bill

THE OTHP1R sort of Western, where no one sings, is, however, the more realistic and more durable of the two. It was hallowed by such names as Tom Mix, William S. Hart and Hoot Gibson with such success that they retired when the urge struck them (usually when they were of an age when they could no longer leap into the saddle with ease and grace), and lived handsomely ever after. Bill Elliott is following their trail.

In the nonmusical horse opera there are three main plots, never more, never Continued on page 59

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less. The writers simply take their choice, and, within two weeks at the very most, come up with a new screen play.

First, there is the piece where the cowboy rides into a strange town, finds it in turmoil because of a group of “bad” characters, rights the condition, and rides off into the sunset, never more (theoretically) to view anyone involved.

Second, there is the “mistaken identity” story, where everyone thinks the hero is a heel and he proves in the end that he is the savior of the homesteaders, the townspeople, or what have you.

Third, and last, there is the tale of the good man and his comedy side-kick, wherein the comedian may inadvertently plunge the hero into trouble which the latter must overcome.

The producers choose a story based on one of these plots, cast it, shoot it usually in eight or nine days, cut it, release it, and sit back to await the monetary deluge. Such a film costs in the neighborhood of $80,000. It commonly grosses between $225,000 and $250,000, one of the reasons being that there are 11,000 theatres in the U. S. alone which play horse operas. And it runs forever. For instance, the first cowboy picture Bill Elliott made, produced in 1938, is nowon its fifth release, and was booked solid through April and May.

There is little “romance” in a Western, of course. The hero may get slightly chummy with the ranch owner’s daughter, or his pal may hold hands with the ward of the local banker, but you will never see a clinch between them, never see a kiss. Such things, evidently, are beneath the pride of the Old West, and the girl is only used for plot motivation.

The hero lures his admirers into the theatres by being the very model of justice, mercy, gentleness, honor and personal valor, but never of romance. He is never anything but completely good, never in a compromising position. He hardly ever shoots his adversary, in fact; either someone else does the shooting or he disposes of the villain with his fists.

It is the combination of all these things which make Bill Elliott a great Western star. For he is physically perfect for the part, to begin with. He stands well over six feet, is powerfully built, has a slow, easy way of talking, and is handier on his guns (when he wants to threaten someone) than many an old-time marshal.

He carries these guns butts forward, and uses an unusual cross-draw with lightning swiftness to get them into position. Furthermore, he actually was a cowboy—a somewhat uncommon circumstance for Hollywood—and is rated by professionals as one of the finest horsemen alive today. Too, he has had a large dose of dramatic training, both in pictures and on the stage, and is therefore a more believable actor than most of his colleagues. And, as a final attribute, he possesses a definite dexterity with his fists, which enables him to dispense with a double in fight scenes and to finish off his victims with a peculiar downward clip to the jaw which has become one of his trademarks.

These things are not found in every horse opera luminary. Of the 10 big names in the field, only four can really manage a horse. Only one other beside Elliott was a cowboy before he came to Hollywood, “Sunset” Carson. Six have had experience in other types of films, four are reasonably handy with their dukes. This adds up to the fact that the cowboy stars are men who either just happened into the field or who were shoved into it, whether they were the type or not.

Elliott, however, has always wanted to be a Western star. From the time he was 17 (he is now 42) his eyes were only on boots and saddles and the camera. He gave up a promising career in straight dramatic and comedy shows to hit the trail after outlaws—with the result, as 1 say, that his income tax is a joy to the Treasury Department.

Elliott was horn in a two-room white farmhouse, two-and-a-half miles from Pattonville, Mo., a town which barely makes the map. His father was a cattleman, first raising the beasts and then running a small abattoir which supplied the surrounding countryside.

When Bill was of school age the family moved to St. Joe, where Mr. Elliott tied up with a commission company which bought and sold cattle for outlying breeders. Bill was completely nuts about the stockyards and about horses. He learned to ride his own pony, and learned to swim by submerging himself and the horse in a nearby lake and hanging onto the animal’s tail until they got to shore.

After a time Mr. Elliott moved to Kansas City for his firm. Bill again went to school, and, starting with his thirteenth year, went West in his summer vacations and worked as a hand on ranches owned by friends of his father. At home he also did some time in the Kansas City yards, penning cattle in one of the most difficult operations in the business.

By the time he was 17 he was

enamored of Tom Mix and Bill Hart f'*nd their profession. He decided, being a somewhat serious kid, that any work which made kids put ordinary men on pedestals must be something worth aiming for, and he made up his mind Western pictures were for him. This feeling led him to Hollywood before he was 18. He was magnificently brushed off by every studio in town, ran out of money and was forced to return home.

Back in Kansas City, lie speculated with cattle, buying ’em low and selling ’em high. This brought him enough money to make a second foray on the film capital, with the knowledge that he could ta k e h is t i n i e.

The studios, though they blush to admit it now, could not see Bill as a Western star. He sounded too intelligent, perhaps. At any rate, there followed a period in which he did everything and anything he could lay hold of: bits, dangerous stunts, both afoot and ahorse, extra work, and so forth. At the same time he managed to get some stage experience at the famous Pasadena Playhouse.

W'hile all this was going on he met the gal who ultimately became his wife, a Chicagoan who was acting as hostess and model for I. Magnin—luxury couturier—at the Ambassador Hotel.

“Helen added to the confusion,” Bill says, “but I’m a stubborn man and I swore I was going to have her. I camped on her front porch until she said ‘yes-’ ”

She eventually did, they were married, and they now have an 18-year-old daughter, Barbara, who is attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She is probably the only offspring of a cowboy ever to enter its sacred portals.

Finally, in 1932, Warner Brothers took unto its bosom 17 young men and gave them stock contracts. Of the 17 15 were soon discharged. The remaining two were Bud Flanagan, now known as Dennis O’Keefe, and Bill Elliott. For three years these worthies were “utility men” for Warners, playing juveniles, leads in drawing-room comedies, neu.ro tics in murder mysteries, bits in big A productions, and noises offstage. It was not especially lucrative for either of them, but it was the finest training they could have achieved.

Bill, however, still wanted to be a cowboy. And at last he did small roles in two Westerns, one of them with Gene Autry. He felt certain then that not only had he found his field but that he perhaps might do as well in it as Autry and the others had done. He therefore ordered himself a Western outfit from Turk’s, the local cowboy tailor, and informed his gasping agent that he would not listen to any offers but those to do with horses.

“I’m a Peaceable Man”

A short time later Columbia Studios decided to make a 15-part serial called “The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock.” Bill would have paid the producer to play the part. Instead he was hired for a tasty sum, and it w'as in this production that he latched onto the first of his trademarks, a line which has since appeared regularly with the same results in every one of his films.

The routine goes like this: Elliott appears in a main street of a town, or a bank, or a mountain hideaway. He saunters up to the bad guy and drawls:

“I’m a peaceable man. I hate fighting.”

Then hell seems to break loose. For the next five minutes the screen is filled with a confused aggregation of legs, arms, flashing, deafening guns, and breaking furniture, from which Elliott emerges triumphant and sometimes slightly bloody.

Not much, is it? But the fans wait on the edge of their seats for it.

This was Elliott’s beginning. He stayed with Columbia for four years, making nonsinging horse operas, moved over to Republic and did both the “Wild Bill Elliott” and “Red Ryder” series, and has now been aw'arded the accolade of having his name dignified as “William” Elliott and having his bosses star him in million-dollar epics which are called “adventure dramas.” The first of these, “In Old Sacramento,” starring “William” and Constance Moore, has just been finished. But don’t let anybody kid you; it’s still a W estern !

Well-paid Danger

The business of being a cowboy star is not all studded with 10-dollar bills, however. There is danger attached to it, for one thing.

Despite extensive permanent sets on studio back lots, most Westerns are shot, in part, at least, at a place called “Iverson Ranch,” 40 miles up San Fernando Valley from Hollywood. This belongs to a guy named Iverson, who snatched several hundred acres of every kind of country for himself about 12 years ago and has done nothing but rent it out to motion picture companies ever since.

On his property are huge rocks, country roads, plateaus for chases, woods, cabins, ranch houses, fronts for all kinds of Western towns and the famous “Eagle Pass.” Everything

built on the ranch by a studio automatically becomes Iverson’s property, and there are sometimes three or four companies working on the territory at the same time. Consequently Mr. Iverson is anything but threadbare.

Since the shooting schedule usually demands 30 or 40 scenes per day, there are seldom retakes on cowboy operas. And it is this which causes the danger to both actors and horses. Fights must be both believable and bitter, yet with an actual minimum of broken heads, since the cast must be kept intact for the next day’s work. Chases must go off like clockwork, despite rough terrain. And the stunts which are a part of every Western script must be recorded on film the first time, regardless of the consequences.

Elliott himself does most of his stunts, as against many cowboy stars. He is in reality a sort of Douglas Fairbanks on horseback, and his equipment includes several types of breakaway saddles—used when he is leaping onto the horse from above—special bridles and stirrups for moments when he must leave his mounts quickly, plus a body of his own which is kept in almost perfect condition. He is a fearless trick rider, and trains his own horses, using several matched pintos for his work. One of these is a trick hoi’se, one a chase horse, and one, poor thing, is merely a stand-in.

On stunts involving the risk of life and limb, the studio insists that Bill’s Continued on page 63

Continued from page 60 part must be taken by a professional j stunt man, working on the theory that if he breaks his leg the picture can go on being shot, whereas the star’s injury would call a complete halt for months.

The life of a Western stunt man is not a happy one, I fear. He is called upon to fall from cliffs, from stagecoaches going at top speed, from galloping horses. The horses are, of course, trained to fall on cue, a mere touch on the flank or twitch on a rein sending them and their riders sprawling. For | this a stunt man receives $50 a day, and there are dozens of guys in Hollywood who gladly risk their necks in such a fashion, guys who have made Westerns so long that they can leap in i their sleep from a stagecoach into a net hidden from the camera.

But; there are other stunts which must be plotted as thoroughly as the Normandy invasion, tricks which demand absolute perfection on their first; rehearsal and in which many men could easily meet death. One of these, for I instance, took up perhaps 10 seconds j on the screen and involved four wagons | racing around the corner of a Western j street. Sounds simple doesn’t it? The j catch was that one of the wagons, at j a previously set time and place, was j to crash and that the horses were going j at a full gallop in a space perhaps 50 j feet wide with a right-angle turn. The j boys did it in one take with no lives lost. ¡

Another stunt involved Yakima I Canutt, great in his field in Holly1 wood, whose chore was to drive a stagej coach, two horses, and himself over a ! 30-foot cliff into a river without killing j anybody. There were breakaway lines ! to the horses, of course, but Canutt’s problem was to let the lines go and jump himself so that the horses would be free when they struck the water, would neither hit him nor each other, j and so that the heavy stagecoach wouldn’t kill them all. He, too, kiddies, did the trick in one take—for $500. I wouldn’t do it for $5,000,000. j

There used to be a thing called a j “Running W,” which was frequently used in horse pictures. This was a thin rope or cable which was threaded through the horse’s front legs and which the rider pulled when he wanted I the horse to fall. This was discontinued i on order of the SPCA after a stunt man | dashed down a hill, pulled the “W,” | and caused his horse to do a complete j somersault in the air, breaking its neck in the process.

The peculiar part of being a Western star is that you live your role 24 hours j a day all year round. You are never, j in public, anything but what you are on the screen. You don’t smoke, don’t go to night clubs, don’t drink, don’t used dirty words. You are the epitome of honorable manhood.

Furthermore, you dress the part constantly. Elliott, for instance, does not own a business suit. He has a set of tails and a tux, which he has not worn for years, but no double-breasted flannels are visible in his wardrobe. His cowboy clothes are beautiful, quiet, and look wonderful on him. He does not go in for the embroidered shirts featured by Roy Rogers and some of the others, but claims he tries to dress like a typical Texan, wearing plain garments of excellent materials augmented by a good hat and a superb pair of boots.

$10,000 Wardrobe

Because of his own demands of excellence and because he makes hundreds of personal appearances a year, his clothes are enormously expensive and fill an entire room in his house. At present his outfit consists of the following;

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30 pairs of boots, at $55-$100 a pair; 25 hats at $32.50 each; 50-60 shirts at $20-$45; 50 pairs of trousers at $40; 15 cowboy suits of cavalry twill, for formal wear, at $125-$ 150; 6-8 suede and tweed jackets at $66; 50-60 silk scarves at $30 up; 12 belts at $15-$20; 11 buckles at $50-$60 apiece, plus one gold filigree buckle costing $150; and other odds and ends. The aggregate of all this is on the dim side of $10,000, besides which there is the little item of $26,000 for nine horses and their equipment. Bill pays for all of this himself, by the way.

However, the picture has a bright aspect, for not only do Western stars make money in movies—they make it other ways too. Bill, for example, made eight films in 64 days before he

was tendered his new contract. The rest of the year was his own to do as he liked with. And he liked starring in rodeos at $1,000 a day (usually for four to six days); making auditorium appearances at $500 a day; and visiting theatres at from $200-$500 a day.

These likes of his all paid off handsomely, as you can see, and he spent the rest of his time last year visiting children’s hospitals, making Bond tours, and going to Army camps for nothing.

Now that he will make $800,000 from films alone, in the next half decade, he will do three pictures a year for a total of 180 days’ work, and spend the other six months on a 2,346-acre cattle ranch he has just purchased east of Sacramento, Cal. He has already stocked this little hideaway with 452 cows, calves, weaners, and bulls to the tune of $36,590, and intends to continue there the breeding of quarter

horses as well. Incidentally, the guy does know what he’s doing in this field: he is acknowledged to be one of the finest cattle judges in the country. No other cowboy actor can make that statement!

The result of all this is that his fan mail—like the mail of other Western actors—is tremendous; he is constantly mobbed by both children and adults; his pictures play for years and years, day in and day out, and he has fulfilled his great ambition. He will probably retire when the urge strikes him. If that is not for another 15 or 20 years, well and good. If it is before then, he will still be set financially for life. Meanwhile he is a very nice guy who is intensely serious about his profession, and, I believe, the best man in it today, and who says fervently:

“I think I’m one of the few really lucky people in the picture business.”

William, old dear, you ain’t kiddin’!