August 1, 1953: Don’t Take Your Guns to Town

In 1953, a new type of western hit the movie screens. Moviegoers were looking for something more complex than the head-em-off-at-the pass, white hat/black hat fare that Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers had been dishing out through the forties. They felt more sophisticated and shaneworldly, and they wanted their cowboys to be more sophisticated and worldly as well (even though most cowboys never strayed beyond Montana).

A gun-toting drifter with only one name rides down out of the rugged Teton Mountains into a fertile valley where a family of homesteaders – a man and wife, and their only son — eke out a living.  Shane as played by Alan Ladd is conflicted, a basically good man who lives by his gun, anxious to give up his wandering and get a normal life. Well, that’s fine, but the local cattle baron and his thug Jack Palance aren’t about to let that happen. At the end of the movie, Shane realizes he can’t escape his past, and in a great cinematic moment, rides off wounded (mortally?) past the gravestones on Cemetery Hill, and out of town, into the sunrise, with the young boy calling after him: “Come back, Shane!”

Gary Cooper gave us another nuanced hero during the early 1950s in the masterful High Noon.

And if you want to talk nuanced, there’s John Wayne:

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”

“Life’s hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.”

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

Or maybe not.

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May 7, 1885: Comin’ Through the TV, Shootin’ Up the Land

An essential player in Hollywood westerns was the leadinggabby man’s sidekick, and many sidekicks became just as famous as their starring partners: Andy Devine was Jingles to Wild Bill Hickock, Pat Buttram and Smiley Burnette were both sidekicks to Gene Autry, Jay Silverheels was Tonto to the Lone Ranger, Leo Carillo was Pancho to the Cisco Kid. The top sidekick was, of course, Gabby Hayes, born May 7, 1885. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he was sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy in 18 films and to Roy Rogers in 41.

The third of seven children, George Francis Hayes was born in an upstate New York hotel owned by his father. As a young man, he worked in a circus and played semi-pro baseball while a teenager. He ran away from home at 17, and joined a touring stock company. He married Olive Ireland in 1914 and the duo enjoyed a successful vaudeville career. Although he had retired in his 40s, he lost money in the 1929 stock market crash, and he felt the need to work again.  He and his wife moved to California and he began his movie career, taking various roles until finally settling into a Western career.

Hayes first gained fame as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Windy Halliday in many films between 1936-39. He left the Cassidy films in a salary dispute and was legally prevented from using the name “Windy.”   So “Gabby” Hayes was born.  He gained fame as a sidekick to stars such as John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and, of course, Roy Rogers – beginning with Southward Ho in 1939 and ending with Heldorado in 1946.

Offstage Hayes was the complete opposite of his screen persona – an elegant bon vivant, man-about-town and connoisseur. He died in 1969.

On the subject of his movies: “I hate ’em. Really can’t stand ’em. They always are the same. You have so few plots – the stagecoach holdup, the rustlers, the mortgage gag, the mine setting and the retired gunslinger.”

“You’re a good-looking boy: you’ve big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.” — High Noon

“There are only two things that are better than a gun: a Swiss watch and a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch?” — Red River

“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an ax, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” –Shane

“You don’t look like the noble defender of poor defenseless widows. But then again, I don’t look like a poor defenseless widow.” –Once Upon a Time in the West

August 1, 1953: Don’t Take Your Guns to Town

In 1953, a new type of western hit the movie screens. Moviegoers were looking for something more complex than the head-em-off-at-the pass, white hat/black hat fare that Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers had been dishing out through the forties. They felt more sophisticated and shaneworldly, and they wanted their cowboys to be more sophisticated and worldly as well (even though most cowboys never strayed beyond Montana).

A gun-toting drifter with only one name rides down out of the rugged Teton Mountains into a fertile valley where a family of homesteaders – a man and wife, and their only son — eke out a living.  Shane as played by Alan Ladd is conflicted, a basically good man who lives by his gun, anxious to give up his wandering and get a normal life. Well, that’s fine, but the local cattle baron and his thug Jack Palance aren’t about to let that happen. At the end of the movie, Shane realizes he can’t escape his past, and in a great cinematic moment, rides off wounded (mortally?) past the gravestones on Cemetery Hill, and out of town, into the sunrise, with the young boy calling after him: “Come back, Shane!”

Gary Cooper gave us another nuanced hero during the early 1950s in the masterful High Noon.

And if you want to talk nuanced, there’s John Wayne:

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”

“Life’s hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.”

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

Or maybe not.

October 12, 1940: The Suitcase of Death

According to his press agent, Tom Mix, the star of 291 full-length westerns was the real thing – a genuine, actual cowboy hero of the American Wild West; born under a sagebrush in Texas, veteran of Tom Mix BBBnot one but three wars (Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion and Boer War); a sheriff in Kansas, a marshal in Oklahoma, a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider and a Texas Ranger, to boot.

Seems, however, he was really born in Driftwood, Pennsylvania, deserted the Army in 1902; marched in a Rough Rider parade, and was not quite a lawman but a so-so drum major in the Oklahoma Territorial Cavalry before heading off to Hollywood in 1909. Nevertheless Mix became one of the top silent-film stars, at one time the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. Unfortunately, like many silent film stars Mix had a difficult transition to talkies. His squeaky voice didn’t match his beefy cowboy image.

On October 12, 1940, having traded in his faithful horse Tony for a bright yellow Cord Phaeton sports car, Mix was speeding north from Tucson at 80 mph when he failed to notice a sign warning that a bridge was out on the road ahead. The Phaeton swung into a dry wash, and Mix was smacked in the back of the head by one of the heavy aluminum suitcases he was carrying in the convertible’s backseat. The impact killed him instantly.

Today, visitors to the site of the accident (now called the Tom Mix Wash) can see a rather diminutive (2-foot–tall) iron statue of a riderless horse with a rather wordy plaque that reads: “In memory of Tom Mix whose spirit left his body on this spot and whose characterization and portrayals in life served to better fix memories of the Old West in the minds of living men.” And if you visit the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma, you can view the featured attraction – the dented “Suitcase of Death.”