Part 2: Those Silver Screen Cowboys who were good riders or became good riders
A couple months ago, I started a series on the riding abilities or lack thereof of our silver screen heroes. Part 1 discussed the heroes who really were great horsemen from the start. Unfortunately, my computer crashed and was out of service for 6 weeks and my articles were on the hard drive. Everything seems back normal now and I can continue on with the series. Sorry for the delay buckaroos and buckarettes! On to part 2!
I rate Gene Autry as a good rider and horse person. Some people questioned his riding ability to which he responded: It doesn’t bother me—you are always going to have somebody write stuff like that. What the hell? I don’t know where they get that stuff, though. I was raised on a cattle ranch, and my father was a horse trader and livestock dealer. I rode all my life. In fact, I used to ride a horse to school.
Gene took riding lessons when he started acting to get better and I think he looks quite comfortable on Champion, even in the galloping scenes. Gene was a decent athlete also. He had an offer to play pro baseball out of high school but the Western Union telegrapher job paid better. On some behind the scenes footage once shown on television, I saw Gene do an impressive croup mount, the one where a person runs up on a horse from behind and catapults into the saddle. That’s no easy task!
Rex Allen commenting on Bill Elliott: Bill Elliott was a man you had to admire. When he first got into westerns, he was a dress model. This man became a top horseman. He worked with Glenn Randall. A lot of people don’t know it, but Bill owned the world champion cutting horse. His name was Red Man. Bill was a cowboy, and I mean a good one.
Pierce Lyden: Bill had a unique riding style, which he taught me—a dignified style, easily recognized by Western fans. Once during a chase scene, my horse stumbled, and we hit the ground. Bill stopped the chase, and was the first one back to check on me. I was hurt, but on a low-budget picture an injury to a supporting actor didn’t always mean much. Elliot stuck his neck out for me. ‘We’ll do the scene later, ‘he said. When I was well, we did a retake, but I don’t think he got paid. People were more important than money to Wild Bill.
Peggy Stewart: Bill Elliot was my favorite cowboy. He could ride with a glass of water on his head and never spill a drop.
Roy Rogers grew up on a farm in Ohio and like Gene Autry, rode the horse farm animal for transportation. Like Gene, he probably rode their horse to school. Though never a real rancher or cowboy, Roy had the athletic talent to excel as a horseman. Director Bill Witney was very impressed with Roy’s abilities: Roy could have been a stuntman. He was a great athlete who could ride, fight, dive, and jump with the best. Of all the Western stars, I’d give him a perfect 10 in horsemanship. Gabby Hayes was a good horseman, too. I wasn’t directing the picture, but during a running insert at full speed, the horse Gabby was riding dropped dead under him from a heart attack. Gabby took one helluva spill onto the hard packed road. They took him to the hospital, but the next day he was back on the lot, and did the same scene again with another horse.
Bob Steele starred in a few movies but played bit parts in many other westerns. His peers rated him as an excellent horseman who exhibited a lot of tenderness and respect for his horses. He could do croup mounts, pony express mounts, transfers of people from run away horses and was generally a very good athlete. However, Bob was rather short and wore a huge hat so he wasn’t the most impressive looking cowboy….but could he ride! (perhaps Bob should be in the first category. I’m not quite sure if he was a good horseman from the start or if he became one.)
Next month we will consider the Real Actors and Pretend Horsemen.