No starring role for Trigger
Roy Rogers usually appeared in his movies as the character Roy Rogers. But occasionally he impersonated famed figures of the Old West. He was Jesse James at Bay, for example, in 1941, and the year before that he was both Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok in Republic outings. Young Buffalo Bill was released in April 1940 and its sequel Young Bill Hickok in October.
The young part was OK. Roy was 29 at the time, so could play the 19-year-old Cody or 27-year-old Hickok and get away with it (the pictures are set in 1864).
All other resemblance ends there, though, I fear. Those looking for a true account of the youth of those notables had best look elsewhere. Really, the stories are just generic B-Westerns with their classic B-Western plots. The lead characters just happen to be named someone famous.
Roy and Gabby meet the colonel
Roy was by 1940 already pretty famous, if not yet the top star he would become. He had debuted as himself in a lead part two years before. These movies were two of eight he led in during 1940. Herb Yates at Republic was grooming him and Gene Autry to take over from post-Stagecoach John Wayne as the studio’s top B-Western leads, freeing the newly famous (or once again famous) Wayne to do bigger things. In ’40 Duke would star in Republic’s A-picture (or B+ picture anyway) Dark Command, with Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor, and Roy would be given a part in that too, as the ingénu.
Trigger appears in the Young Bill pictures too, of course, but the posh palomino is only referred to as “his horse”, not by name, and he was not yet the smartest horse in the movies, helping Roy out of scrapes.
Star roles yet to come
Both the Bill pictures were directed by Republic stalwart Joseph Kane, of whose directorial skills some slightly unkind things have been said but who was a steady, if uninspired pro who churned out enjoyable though unremarkable Westerns on time and on budget. The Bill movies are a case in point.
Gabby Hayes was in both. Proper B-Westerns needed an amusing, preferably cranky old-timer. They were part of the recipe. And few were better at old-timery than the bewhiskered Gabby, though he was only in his fifties. He is Cody’s and Hickok’s sidekick. You didn’t know that both Cody and Hickok were raised from a pup by old Gabby Whittaker? Yup, that’s right. And he was Calamity Jane’s uncle too. At one point Gabby tells the old joke about how he captured fifty Indians single-handed. How? "Simple, I surrounded ‘em." You know the one.
Gabby looks dubious of her charms, Roy more enthusiastic
In the Hickok one Sally Payne does her Calamity act. Most screen Janes were pretty but spoke tough and wore buckskins, and Ms. Payne’s is no exception.
The Cody story is set in New Mexico and has Roy (sorry, I mean Bill) foiling the nefarious schemes of the crooked Montez (Trevor Bardette), who wants to get his greedy hands on some land belonging to the local don because it has a secret gold mine on it. He has Comanche allies who do his dirty work. You see what I mean about classic B-Western plots?
Naturally Roy gets a few songs. He serenades the gal in each case – no, not Calamity, but the don’s daughter Tonia (Pauline Moore) in the first one and Southern belle Louise (Julie Bishop) in the second. Rogers did have a pleasant tenor voice, it must be said. Rather better than that of Mr. Hayes and Ms. Payne, who also get a song. Actually, Gabby does surprisingly well.
Calamity gets a song in the saloon while Gabby passes the hat
The Hickok picture came out a little later and in the interval Roy does seem to have gained in assurance. By then of course the Second World War was in full swing, even if the US was not yet in, and interestingly, the intro text tells us that “One jealous foreign power eyed the riches of the Americas, ready to seize the west coast”. The power concerned is not named but the leader of its plot in California, Nicholas Tower (John Miljan), has a suspiciously English accent. A little later on and he would certainly have had a more Teutonic appearance and voice.
Hank Bell’s mustache appears in both pictures, with Hank attached to it. Monte Blue is the marshal in Hickok.
Good old Hank
There are a few good stunts. I liked the one where Roy is holed up in a box canyon but escapes the posse by loosening their girths and tying the saddle horns to a rock so that when they mount up to chase him (as if they could have ever caught Trigger) they all fall off. There’s also the classic Canutt stunt of falling between the stage horses, slithering under the wheels and re-emerging at the back to climb up and get the drop on the baddies. It is no surprise, then, to learn that Yakima Canutt did the stunts.
All in all, these are light, entertaining B-Westerns of few pretensions but some merit. I enjoyed ‘em anyway!
Below, the real young Bills