Before I get started, I think a little background is in order. Hopalong Cassidy holds a special place in my family. You see, as a kid, my mom had this:
And my dad had the outfit, complete with pistols.
The silver-haired, black-clad do-gooder is the top cowboy in my eyes, bar none. I am going to be reviewing the very first Cassidy film from 1935. Star William Boyd’s career had been in trouble even before the silent era ended and he had not been able to reclaim his top-tier status in the talkies. Hop-a-long Cassidy (as it was spelled on initial release) was a B-western based on the popular novels of Clarence Mulford. Of course, Hopalong Cassidy would turn into a cultural phenomenon and Boyd would become the hero of millions of children.
How popular was Hoppy? Well, one of the stories going around is about a little boy watching Hoppy on television. Hoppy was disarmed and about the get shot. Wanting to save his hero, the little boy threw his own cap pistol into the television. No more TV but Hoppy was saved! (I wonder what the parents thought about this.)
Why did I choose this film as the first one I would review for After the Silents? One simple reason: The Hoppy films did for me what I am hoping this series will do for you. I loved Hoppy and I loved William Boyd. So imagine my thrill at discovering that he had been a leading man in the silent era. I tracked down his silent films and had an absolutely splendid time watching Hoppy play a red-hot Bolshevik, a two-fisted minister, a wise-cracking doughboy, a shanghaied dude in distress… Some years have passed but I still get excited when I watch Boyd in a silent.
And Hop-a-long Cassidy offers not one former silent star but two! Robert Warwick, who plays the leading lady’s dear old dad, was a silent leading man from the ‘teens. He is perhaps best remembered (in silents, that is) for playing the title character in 1915’s Alias Jimmy Valentine.
One more silent connections! Director Howard Bretherton also started in the silents. He spent his entire career in B-pictures, mostly westerns.
Just a note: I am not combing the credits for every single performer who had a silent role. Instead, I will be focusing on the biggest names in the cast. Also, I will be keeping things brief so I won’t be able to include every single detail of the film series or careers of the performers.
The first of a staggering 66 Hopalong Cassidy films (plus TV show, radio shows, and more tie-in products than I can count), Hop-a-long Cassidy is a little rough around the edges but its enormous potential is obvious.
The Bar-20 Ranch has a little problem. The owner, Buck Peters (Charles Middleton, aka Ming the Merciless in an uncharacteristically heroic role) is engaged in a growing feud with the neighboring rancher Jim Meeker (Robert Warwick).
Bill Cassidy (William Boyd) shows up at the Bar-20 and is warmly greeted by his old friend, Uncle Ben (Gabby Hayes, who was still being credited as “George Hayes”). Cassidy also earns the respect of Johnny Nelson (James Ellison), a fiery young cowpoke. The range war begins to flare up, complicated by the ongoing flirtation between Johnny and Mary Meeker (Paula Stone), Jim Meeker’s daughter.
Can Cassidy help Buck win the war? Or will he discover something more sinister is afoot? And just how did Bill Cassidy become “Hopalong” Cassidy? You’ll find all the answers in the film!
Hop-a-long Cassidy is pretty standard B-western fare for 1935, perhaps a bit better than most. However, it already displays the formula that would become standard for Cassidy films: The trio of Cassidy, an old coot and a young buck. Sidekicks came and went but Cassidy always remained at the center. Viewers of this film would do best to think of this movie as a television show pilot episode. Sure, it’s still getting its footing but it is a preview of great things to come.
In this film, William Boyd still has the affected over-enunciation that was common in the early talkies. However, he is much more likable (and more like his old self) in the quieter scenes. He also puts in some pretty decent acting when called upon to be intense or grieving. In general, this film showed that Boyd still had it. And as the Hoppy series progressed, he was able to perfect his persona as the wise and affable (but tough!) western hero.
Boyd had worked his way up from bit parts and extra work (you can spot him in Why Change Your Wife? and Moran of the Lady Letty) to lead roles in major motion pictures by the mid-twenties. His most famous and popular films were probably The Volga Boatman and Two Arabian Knights. Off-screen, Boyd partied like it was 1926 (which it was) but his career began to sputter near the end of the silent era. Boyd’s Hollywood prospects almost suffered a deathblow when he was blamed for the scandalous dealings of a similarly-named actor– the newspapers printed a picture of the wrong William Boyd! Boyd limped along in B-pictures before winning the Cassidy role.
This is, of course, a very abbreviated account of William Boyd and Hopalong Cassidy. For further details, grab yourself a copy of Hoppy by Hank Williams.
Robert Warwick played the hot-tempered ranching rival to the Bar-20. In spite of rumors that silent actors were incurable hams, Warwick does quite well in his small but important part. Another myth bites the dust!
Warwick made his film debut in 1914. One of his most memorable (and surviving!) roles, the lead in Alias Jimmy Valentine, was made the following year. Warwick’s stage experience helped him make a successful transition to talking pictures but his age meant that he was limited to character and supporting roles. Modern audiences will probably remember him best for his role as a studio mogul in Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges used Warwick in many of his films), as well as small roles in films starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Shirley Temple, Leslie Howard, and Katharine Hepburn.
Hope you enjoyed this little peek into the careers of two silent leading men. More to come!