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"When you’ve got kids looking up to you, when you’ve got parents saying what a wonderful guy Hopalong is, what the hell do you do? You have to be a wonderful guy!"

--William Boyd on playing Hopalong Cassidy

By 1935, William Boyd’s future as a leading actor in Hollywood looked bleak. During the silent era, Boyd had frequently worked with Cecil B. DeMille, as in The Volga Boatman and The King of Kings. But in the ‘30s, good roles became exceedingly rare for Boyd. Compounding his problems, a similarly named actor (now known as William "Stage" Boyd) had run afoul of the law and confusion over the two actors helped to further sully Boyd’s reputation. Boyd himself was hardly a saint. He had cultivated a robust taste for liquor and women. But as he turned 40 with his hair now pre-maturely white, Boyd’s career goals changed. He heard about a series Western in the works and envisioned himself in the lead role. So he called producer Harry "Pop" Sherman and offered his services.

Sherman was a theater operator from Minnesota who had moved to Hollywood in the 1910s to become a movie producer. He worked on many independent productions, but by the ‘30s the major studios had gobbled up most of the theaters and effectively squeezed out the indies. So Sherman looked to one of the majors, Paramount, and pitched his idea for a series Western based on Clarence E. Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy character. Series Westerns were cheap to produce and because they were popular, they typically brought in several times their cost in box-office receipts. Paramount agreed to Sherman’s plan, so Sherman went in search of a production team and a stable of actors. He turned to Howard Bretherton to direct; Doris Schroeder and Harrison Jacobs for screenplays; and Archie Stout for cinematography. The lead role was problematic to cast. Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy was a salty old-time who drank and looked for trouble. Originally Sherman pitched the role to character actor James Gleason, who could’ve played the role as Mulford intended, but when negotiations with Gleason broke down, Sherman was without a star.

Sherman had offered the lead villain role to William Boyd, but Boyd had other interests in mind. Boyd wanted the lead role. His conception of the Hopalong Cassidy character had virtually nothing in common with the Cassidy of Mulford’s novels. But Sherman was won over by Boyd’s enthusiasm and he gave him the role--even if it meant completely re-thinking the character.

For his part, Boyd did indeed clean up his own living. His widow, Grace Bradley Boyd said, "With Hopalong, Bill felt he was contributing something. He became totally concentrated on doing something good with his life." On the screen, Hopalong/Boyd became the knight of the prairie. He didn’t swear or drink or chase women. He became a kindly uncle, always available when help was needed--as when land grabbing Easterners threatened ranch owners or when cattle-rustling bandits disturbed the peace. Boyd hardly looked like a veteran of cowboy life. His skin was delicate and smooth (not cracked from the sun) and his manner was refined (not grizzled). Even while Boyd wasn’t the most convincing cowboy that the screen has ever seen, he imbued the character with a compelling mixture of dignity, charisma, and intelligence.

Boyd had not starred in many action movies, so he came unprepared for some of the requirements of the role. In the initial stages, he was a poor horseman, and throughout the run of the series, he never became more than merely adequate. On the first movie, he fell off his horse and broke his leg, holding up production for a month, but producer Sherman incorporated the injury into the script (as a bullet wound) and thus provided the rationale for Cassidy’s nickname: "Oh, I’ll manage to hop along," Cassidy says. (In subsequent series outings, however, the limp was completely discarded.)

To help compensate for Boyd’s shortcomings as an action star, the scripts gave Hopalong a younger, more impetuous sidekick. Jimmy Ellison took these action duties for the first ten films in the series before he left for more prominent roles at RKO. Russell Hayden then took over for the next 27 series entries. And balancing out the cast, George "Gabby" Hayes played the comic relief. Hayes’ character actually dies in the first film, but audience reaction forced the scriptwriters to soon write him back into the series under a different character name, Windy Halliday, in the third film, Bar 20 Rides Again.

The Hopalong movies largely avoided the allure of the singing cowboy. Boyd was not a singer himself so there was never any intention for him to follow the warbling trend so popular in the late ‘30, as evidenced by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. But Jimmy Ellison did contribute an occasional song, such as the wonderful "I’m Following the Stars" in the series opener.

The Hopalong Cassidy Westerns were extremely popular. From 1937 to 1943, Boyd was second only to Autry (and later to Roy Rogers) in terms of popularity, as reported in Motion Picture Herald’s annual list of the top ten Western series stars. While most series Westerns seldom clocked in at more than an hour, several of the early Hopalong Cassidy Westerns were considerably longer, such as Borderland at 82 minutes and Hills of Old Wyoming at 78 minutes. With the added length, some of these films moved beyond their niche as matinee fodder and received main attraction billing at some of the better theaters.

The Hopalong Cassidy films also had the benefit of larger budgets than most series Westerns. Paramount spent about $125,000 per Hoppy film during the 1936-37 season, while most other series Westerns only worked with half as much money. While Boyd always argued for larger budgets and even contributed a large chunk of his own pay check (in a gesture than infuriated producer Sherman) to help boost the quality of the screenplays and the production talent, the Hoppy films already looked more polished than most of their competitors. Part of the advantage simply came from the superior use of on-location photography. Sherman’s production crew set up camp at Lone Pine, California in the foothills of Mount Whitney. This locale afforded breath-taking vistas, which cinematographer Archie Stout captured in magnificent images. (Stout photographed the first 10 Hoppy films before Russell Harlan took over for the next 44.) While many series Westerns are beset by a creeping sense of sameness--due to the same sets, same scenery, same locales, same landmarks--the Hoppy film greatly benefited from the variety provided by Lone Pine (which is located about 200 miles north of Hollywood).

Eventually the series would become somewhat ossified by its own moralistic tone, which forced Hoppy into the position of capturing the bad guys instead of shooting them, but the first films in the series are varied and less predictable. In Hopalong Cassidy Returns, for example, Hoppy brings the movie to a conclusion when he pulls his gun and fires at the villain through a hotel window. As the villains staggers wounded into the hotel's hallway, Hoppy fires again to finish him off. This same movie also features a love interest for Hoppy--before she’s revealed as the area’s crime boss! Typically Hoppy’s young sidekick received the romantic duties, which Jimmy Ellison assumed with great enthusiasm.

These initial entries are arguably the best of the series, and now eight of these movies are available on four double-feature DVDs from Image Entertainment. The discs contain no extras (just superb notes by Fred Romary of the Hoppy Talk newsletter), but the feature films are presented in crisp new digital transfers from excellent source materials authorized by U.S. Television Office, the successor of all rights to the 66 total Hopalong Cassidy films. These are superb DVDs that offer series Western fans a not-to-be-missed opportunity to see one of cinema’s great Western heroes in action once again. My only complaint is the re-processed sound provided in 5.1 surround sound mode sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber and it features an annoying level of noise. Luckily, however, the discs also include a much preferable mono soundtrack. (So remember to manually select the mono mode.)

The following sections contain brief notes on the four DVDs in Image Entertainment’s "Hop-a-long Cassidy: The Early Years" series.

Hop-along Cassidy and Bar 20 Rides Again

In Hopalong Cassidy’s first appearance on screen, he rides his horse down a near-vertical hill, firing off a pistol shot at a man threatening to trample Johnny Nelson (Jimmy Ellison) with a horse. Zing! The bullet knocks the gun out of the man’s hands. "I don’t like to see human beings being tramped by a horse. It upsets my piece of mind," says Cassidy. Therein lies the charm of the series. The action isn’t necessarily realistic. In fact, it’s the kind of action that cynical adult viewers might snicker at. But if you know how to appreciate this variety of pulp Western fare, the Hopalong Cassidy films provide a wonderful mix of Western realism and myth.

In Hop-along Cassidy, Hoppy arrives at the Bar 20 to help stop a pending range war between Buck Peters’ Bar 20 and a neighboring ranch. Each side accuses the other of stealing cattle. However, one of the cowhands, Pacos Jack, is actually responsible for the rustling. He’s in cahoots with the Thunder Mesa rustlers. So while the two local ranches cast aspersions and threaten gunplay, Pacos Jack helps edge these sides towards an all-out war.

The movie features one of the trademark endings of the Hopalong Cassidy series: after the death of a key cast member -- in this case, a crusty-but-lovable old codger played by George "Gabby" Hayes -- posses from multiple ranches merge and ride to confront the villains. A huge shootout ensues.

In Bar 20 Rides Again, George "Gabby" Hayes returns, this time as Windy Halliday -- a blow-hard old-timer who claims to be Hoppy’s friend but who in fact has never met him.

The plot of Bar 20 Rides Again revolves around a martinet of an outlaw named Perdue (Harry Worth) who idolizes Napoleon Bonaparte. "I intend to be the biggest cattle man in this state," he says. He’s courting the daughter of a rancher in hopes of getting his hooks into her inheritance. But when a rival for her attentions appears -- Johnny Nelson -- Perdue plans murder. Hoppy meanwhile has decided to go undercover and investigate a local rustling problem, so he discards his traditional black garb in favor of gambler finery, and then he insinuates himself at Perdue’s ranch. However, Perdue’s first request is for Hoppy to show his commitment to this new alliance by shooting Nelson.

Perdue is one of the more interesting characterizations in the Hopalong Cassidy series. He’s a callous leader who sheds no tears when one of his men dies: "We all have to die sometime," he says. He wears a monocle and a smoking jacket; he plays chess and he inhales snuff. He’s prim and cultured but he’s also duplicitous and conniving.

3 On the Trail and Hopalong Cassidy Returns

3 On the Trail is the next to last Hoppy film directed by Howard Brotherhood (and the final Bretherton film represented in Image Entertainment’s "Hop-a-long Cassidy: The Early Years" series). Bretherton only directed the first year’s worth of Hoppy movies before moving on. For the second season of Hoppy movies, producer Sherman brought in Nate Watt, who had served as an assistant director for Lewis Milestone. Paramount officially began funding the series in full during the second season, and with the budgetary increase, the running times quickly increased. While Hop-along Cassidy, Bar 20 Rides Again, and 3 On the Trail are 60, 63, and 65 minutes long respectively, Hopalong Cassidy Returns runs 74 minutes.

3 On the Trail establishes the series trio of leading characters -- Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Nelson, and Windy Halliday. 3 On the Trail also represents a further refinement of the series’ end pattern. When the cowpokes prepare to rescue the heroine, we now get a masterful montage of saddles being slung onto horses and boots sliding into stirrups. It’s the kind of intense semi-documentary approach that you might expect from King Vidor--not from a series Western.

3 On the Trail concerns a saloon owner named Pecos Kane (Onslow Stevens) who is used to getting whatever he wants. When a pretty young school teacher shows up in town, Kane quickly works to draw her under his influence, but thanks to Hoppy, she emerges with her virtue intact--which flames Kane’s temper. He vows to claim her as his own.

Anytime a young woman was present in a Hopalong Cassidy movie, she represented a potential problem because the young hot-head Johnny Nelson would immediately become possessive and envision himself as her rightful suitor. He might even turn against Hoppy--which is exactly what happens in 3 On the Trail. But in typical fashion, Nelson isn’t interested in settling down. When given the opportunity to settle down with a young woman who loves him or to ride off with Hoppy toward new adventures, Nelson always chose the latter.

In Hopalong Cassidy Returns, the Johnny Nelson character was absent. Jimmy Ellison had been arguing with Sherman over his contract, and he was now considering a move to greener pastures. He would participate in only two more movies in the series’ second season before waving adios permanently.

Hopalong Cassidy Returns immediately announces its difference from the previous Hoppy films: the villain, Blackie Felton (played by Stephen Morris), ropes a wheelchair-bound newspaper editor and drags him through town. This scene ends with a horrifying collision as the wheelchair strikes the back of a wagon. This type of brutality would become more familiar in ‘50s Westerns, but in 1936, the scene brought complaints from many critics. Today, the scene is still shocking. It announced that the series was taking a turn toward harder, more mature subject matter. Similarly, this movie features Evelyn Brent as an outlaw boss named Lilli Marsh who attempts to use her considerable charms to ensnare Hoppy. Rarely did Hoppy face any love interest, but here the budding romance between Hoppy and Marsh becomes an important part of the plot. A more mature and brutal tone continues when Hoppy pulls out his gun and shoots down Lilli Marsh’s henchman.

Trail Dust and Borderland

If there is only one disc in this series that you can afford, this is the one to buy. Trail Dust is arguably the best movie in the entire Hopalong Cassidy series. It’s atypical in some respects; while most Hoppy movies are based around ranch life and build gradually to large-scale shootouts, Trail Dust takes us on a tension-filled cattle drive. Hoppy has convinced several ranchers to pool their herds together and drive them to the trailhead at Plainsville. Hoppy has heard about a famine back east (echoing the depression of the 1930s) and he’s eager to help out by supplying beef. But profiteers are angry that Hoppy is willing to sell his cattle for the going rate. They want to hold out and push up rates considerably before they’ll sell, so they want to disrupt Hoppy’s cattle drive and prevent him from reaching Plainsville. This conflict hangs over the movie like thunderclouds (and is somewhat prescient of Red River).

Contrasting with the tension of the cattle drive, the movie finds pastoral moments, such as a campfire scene where the cowhands relax by singing "Wide Open Spaces." It’s a wonderful, almost sublime scene where the cowhands become re-charged spiritually after a hard day’s work (in a manner that director Howard Hawks would’ve admired) through their ability to have fun and sing together as a group.

Trail Dust was Clarence Mulford’s favorite Hopalong Cassidy movie. He even strove to film a big budget version of his book, but nothing came to pass.

Borderland focuses on an outlaw named the Fox who operates out of Mexico. Texas Rangers ask Hopalong to go undercover in Mexico and infiltrate the Fox’s gang. Their plan requires Hoppy to leave immediately. He must turn his back on his friends and not explain what has happened. Meanwhile the Rangers announce that Hoppy is wanted for rustling. Johnny and Windy can’t believe their friend could have a secret life as a thief, so they follow him to Mexico, hoping to get an answer. But Cassidy continues to play his part and greets them with sneers.

Borderland was Jimmy Ellison’s final Hoppy movie. His disagreements with Sherman had left their working relationship strained. Ellison was now set on moving on to RKO.

Stephen Morris appears in both Trail Dust and Borderland. He was one of the best supporting actors in the Hopalong Cassidy series. After making his first appearance in Hopalong Cassidy Returns, he appeared in twelve additional movies. Eventually he changed his name to Morris Ankrum. He remained an exceptionally busy actor throughout his career but always in supporting roles. After his tenure with Hoppy, he moved on to class A features such as In a Lonely Place and Lady in the Lake. In the ‘50s he appeared in an increasing number of science fiction vehicles, such as Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and Kronos.

Hills of Old Wyoming and North of the Rio Grande

With Hills of Old Wyoming and North of the Rio Grande, Russell Hayden was asked to fill in for the recently departed Jimmy Ellison. Hayden had plenty of behind-the-camera experience in a variety of functions (as a film cutter, assistant cameraman, production manager, etc.), but he had no previous acting experience. While he lacked the charisma and the high-spirit of Ellison, Hayden provided to be a capable presence, continuing as Hoppy’s sidekick for the next 27 features. (Eventually, he even starred with Ellison in their own Western series.)

Whereas most of the Gene Autry Westerns typically take place in the same setting, the Hopalong Cassidy movies featured a remarkable variety of locations. In Hills of Old Wyoming, the boys head to an Indian reservation while chasing rustlers and discover the local government agents take great affront to the intrusion (led by the typically despicable Stephen Morris). Could the agents be responsible for the cattle rustling?

Russell Hayden’s first big dramatic scene in the Hopalong Cassidy series is almost guaranteed to induce winces today. When Lucky Jenkins (Hayden) and Windy Halliday (Hayes) track the rustlers to an Indian trading post, Jenkins treats the Indians belligerently as he pushes them for answers. He hates the Indians and treats them with no respect whatsoever. But The Searchers this ain’t, so the scene turns Lucky Jenkins into a difficult-to-like character. In North of the Rio Grande, Hayden fared considerably better for he isn’t given the same emotional baggage. This film continues the series’ focus on more mature subject matter. It starts when Hopalong Cassidy’s brother is killed by train robbers. Hoppy then heads to Cottonwood Gulch (a haven for outlaws) to search for the culprits, using the name Bad Bill "Dynamite" McGrew.

Once again Stephen Morris plays the lead bad guy, in a compelling double-role performance. His respectable persona is railroad executive Henry Stoneham, but the respectability is a cover for his nefarious activities as a gang boss named the Lone Wolf. Also scoring big in a supporting role is New York stage actor Lee J. Cobb, who here plays a railroad president. He enlists Hoppy’s help to determine who is responsible for the train robberies. Even at this early stage in his career, Cobb had a commanding presence.

North of the Rio Grande is the final film represented in Image Entertainment’s "Hop-a-long Cassidy: The Early Years" series. The eight films in the series represent a good sampling of the series’ formative years. Not all the early movies are included in this DVD series. The discs contain three movies from the series’ first season of six films and the first five from the series second season. Some audience favorites, such as The Eagle's Brood (the second Hoppy movie), are not included, but it’s hard to complain about this set. This is a marvelous collection of movies.

A note regarding hypens: Hopalong Cassidy's name was spelled at least three different ways. The title on the movie poster for the first movie was spelled "Hop-a-long Cassidy." However, the title displayed during the movie is spelled "Hop-along Cassidy." After the first movie in the series, Hopalong Cassidy's name was spelled without hypens (with at least one exception: the players list during the opening credits of Bar 20 Rides Again uses the "Hop-along" spelling). Image Entertainment's DVD series uses the double-hypens spelling (although a no-hypens spelling would likely have made more sense).

Image Entertainment has released eight Hopalong Cassidy movies on four DVDs. This series is called "Hop-a-long Cassidy: The Early Years." The movies are paired in the following double features: Hop-along Cassiy and Bar 20 Rides Again; 3 On the Trail and Hopalong Cassidy Return; Trail Dust and Borderland; and Hills of Old Wyoming and North of the Rio Grande. The discs include no extras other than the excellent liner notes by Fred Romary, Associate Editor of the Hoppy Talk newsletter. Suggested retail price: $24.99 each. For more information, check out Image Entertainment Web site.