Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys

A big country requires big people to settle it... Big people with big stories... and the frontier of North America is just that kind of a place. It is a vast stretch of land of almost incomprehensible breadth, from the pine forests of Canada in the north to the rainforests of Mexico in the south, from the Mississippi River in the east to the rivers of the California Gold Rush in the west. Spanning three countries and the bulk of a whole continent, there is enough space there for every dream and every tall tale.

Like the tall tales it gives rise to, the Wild West is a diverse land that skirts the boundary between fiction and reality. The endless reaches of Great Plains and Painted Deserts, the big skies of Montana, the towering mesa and Rocky Mountains, and the depths of the Grand Canyon all seem like something out of a fantasy... As they did to the first Native Americans who crossed over from Asia in the twilight days of the Ice Age and the first European settlers who crossed over by riverboat, stagecoach and rail.

Against this background played out some of the most dramatic conflicts of history, from the Northwest Mounted Police's March West to the Trail of Tears, Custer's Last Stand to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. And like that final confrontation between the Earp lawmen and the Clanton outlaws, those events and figures of history slowly and surely enter the realm of myth to the point where we may even forget that the likes of Davy Crockett, Sitting Bull, Calamity Jane, Sam Steele, Geronimo and Wild Bill Hickok actually lived. Or that the likes of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Slue-Foot Sue didn't.

The West is a land of strange contradiction. Always seen as a land of opportunity and untamed exploration, the settlers came by Conestoga wagon only to be followed by the steel of the railway. And the more tamed the West became, the more the legends grew. Where would John Henry be without the tracks to test his strength against, or the steam hammer to contest? Some of the biggest legends have come out of the most settled period, whether Lone Ranger and Zorro on the radio or Roy Rogers on the silver screen.


Roy Rogers, Trigger and Dale Evans


Roy Rogers, like his predecessor and chief competitor Gene Autry, blurred the lines between myth and historical reality. One may speak pejoratively of how Fess Parker played essentially the same character in every movie he made under the Disney banner, a point he himself came to realize. Rogers, on the other hand, literally did play himself. Regardless of the setting, time, occupation, or any other consideration, Roy Rogers was the character. Trigger was the horse. Gabby was the sidekick. Dale Evans, at least, got to play different people.

How much was the character and how much was the man will probably always be an overthought mystery. It probably didn't bother Leonard Slye much. Slye was born in Cincinatti in 1911 and lived both in the city and on the farm for a good part of his youth. After both he and his father tired of working in an urban shoe factory, the family moved out to California in 1930. In 1934 Slye joined up with Canadian singer Bob Nolan to form the Western group The Sons of the Pioneers, and in 1935 was introduced to film as a member of the troupe. As a back-up cowboy to Gene Autry, Slye performed both under his name and as "Dick Weston". When Autry went AWOL from the studio in 1938, Slye was thrust into the spotlight of the film Under the Western Stars in his new identity as Roy Rogers.

As Roy Rogers, his popularity skyrocketed. Having control over the licencing of his likeness and silken voice, it is anecdotally suggested that no other name of the time was as well-known - or marketable - save for Walt Disney. Rogers also proves an interesting, and dare one say "postmodern", character in piecing together the romantic construction of the Wild West and its intersections with identity and Hollywood. Thankfully, with so many of his multitude of films being in the public domain, the Internet Archive allows Rogers to be continually, perpetually accessible.


Gabby Hayes and Roy Rogers.


In Billy the Kid Returns (1938), Roy Rogers is a deputy sheriff masquerading as a Robin Hood-like Billy the Kid in order to rout the cattle barons who are terrorizing homesteading farmers. Rogers becomes, essentially, the agent of the Wild West's domestication; at one point, a newspaper headline flashes "end of the open range predicted".

Two other common themes come out through Billy the Kid Returns. The one is when Roy Rogers portrays a historical character, like he does in Young Buffalo Bill (1940) and Young Bill Hickok (1940) as well(though neither film really has anything to do with them). In the case of Billy, Rogers directly replaces the historical figure with his own persona as a plot point. The other is that of Rogers in disguise, his use of deception in order to secure a higher good and the sublimation of his true self beneath an assumed identity. In Billy the Kid Returns, he is Leonard Slye being Roy Rogers the man being Roy Rogers the character being a US Deputy being Billy the Kid.

In Sheriff of Tombstone (1941) he's back to lying for the greater good. This time he plays Sheriff Brett Starr, late of Dodge City, who has moved to Tombstone and assumed the identity of gunslinger turned would-be-corrupt-sheriff Shotgun Cassidy. Therein he becomes embroiled in a plot by the mayor - who hired Shotgun - and the other town bigwigs to cheat the populace out of their silver mines.

It's the bad guy, Black Bart, who is using deception and dual identity in Nevada City ( 1941), where is attempting to drive a wedge between the stagecoach and railway lines. Roy, playing Jeff Connors, does get caught up in false accusations left and right as the agent of reconciliation between the companies. In the end he aids, once again, in the settlement of the West. This one also features a gorgeous steam train on which Roy has a thrilling, car-hopping fight.

Roy spends a good deal of time on the lam in Bad Man of Deadwood (1941) as well. He begins as the trick shooter for Gabby's snake oil sales outfit, but they find that the town of Deadwood is overrun with a mafia-like collusion of businessmen. It's up to quick drawing Roy to become the only real justice the town has seen.

The Arizona Kid (1939) takes place in a more specific place and time: Missouri, beginning in 1861. Roy and Gabby star as Confederate scouts hunting down the rogue raider McBride, who is wanted for having dishonoured the South with his ungentlemanly habits of looting and pillaging every farm along the way. Nowadays, seeing cleanshaven Roy Rogers in a Confederate uniform is jarring... One might as well see him in the black of the Gestapo. In Hollywood of the time, the ambiguous ending of the American Civil War was in full crawl. It may be said that it never really ended, what with the continued North-South political divide and Fox-Republican celebrities promoting secession from the United States. The Golden Age of Hollywood, however, was only one generation removed from the conflict. The children and grandchildren of Confederate soldiers would have been his fans. For Roy, what that means is that he could still be a "Good Confederate" and have an opportunity to sing spirituals with African-American slaves.

Roy and Gabby lose the Confederate grey in Southward Ho (1939), when the Civil War ends and the two return to Texas. Gabby becomes part-owner in a ranch with a Union commander that he humiliated during the war. This odd coupling turns more sinister when faux-blues show up to loot the countryside. Roy becomes the agent of American reconciliation after it becomes apparent that the men are acting without the knowledge and permission of the commander.

Roy and a pretty pale sidekick who is not Gabby hook up with the Arizona border patrol after serving with Roosevelt in Rough Riders' Roundup (1939). Other films available for viewing include South of Santa Fe (1942), Sunset Serenade (1942), Idaho (1943), Silver Spurs (1943), Utah (1945), Bells of Rosarita (1945), Bells of San Angelo (1947), and Under California Stars (1948).

Trigger himself gets an origin story in My Pal Trigger (1946). Roy Rogers is sent to prison after a false accusation that he killed Gabby's horse Golden Sovereign. Roy wanted to breed his horse with Sovereign, but Gabby refused. That year later, Roy returns with Trigger, the son of Sovereign, and seeks the chance to clear his name. This dramatic origin covers Trigger's real history: this palomino stallion always was a Hollywood stunt horse. He began life in 1932 as Golden Cloud, making his silver screen debut as Maid Marian's steed in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood. Roy was offered the chance to use any of five rented horses and chose Golden Cloud. Later that year he bought Cloud outright and renamed him Trigger. Trigger lived a ripe 33 years, after which he was taxadermied and mounted in the now-defunct Roy Rogers Museum. He is currently up for Christie's auction, along with the rest of the museum's possessions, in July.

Both man and horse are, in a sense, a Hollywood riddle. The Roy Rogers brand, the character, came to stand for the most upright, honest American values carried over from a rugged and bygone era. Yet the man was a celebrity made possible by glitz and glamour (as glitzy as his sequined outfits later in life). His films betray this: regularly Rogers is unjustly on the run from the law or using deception on behalf of justice, and just as regularly he is being the very agent of the frontier's domestication that he bemoans in song. On screen and in life he was a man of great integrity, but his films are a meta-philosophical layering of everything as upright, rugged and honest as a non-alcholic cocktail. It is almost as though he knew, beneath all that charm and silken-voiced verse that Roy Rogers and the Old West could not coexist. Just as Leonard Slye constructed Roy Rogers, Roy Rogers had to construct a New West to suit him. In that process, he became a legend of the Wild West, somewhere between the tall tales and the historical figures.


Roy and Trigger doing what they do best, along with
The Sons of the Pioneers, in Hollywood Canteen (1944)

1 comment:

Russell said...

"In Billy the Kid Returns, he is Leonard Slye being Roy Rogers the man being Roy Rogers the character being a US Deputy being Billy the Kid. "

I had to read this a couple of times. Sounds like a plot line from something Jorge Luis Borges or Umberto Eco would write!