Is it OK to shoot a horse for laughs?

A look at the dim-bulb assistants of yesteryear

Posted: Thursday, November 07, 2002

In all of American culture, there is no single individual more devoted to owning his own moron than the person of cow - as cowboys would be known if political correctness were applicable to them.

The Last Word by Fern Chandonnet He can be reached at fchandonnet@juneauempire.com.

Of course, it isn't - applicable, I mean - since there is no culture to the handling of cows. One is a peasant, rides a horse and shovels out stables. The culture part comes in when the "cowboy" or "cowwoman" enters fiction and, in particular, movies.

It is through those very role models that I acquired my own yearning for a personal imbecile - unrequited, to be sure, since I long ago married far above my station intellectually and have always sought to cultivate friends who were more learned and intelligent than I - the latter a difficult business.

Still, the dream is there.

Hopalong Cassidy flourished in quite incredible silver-screen oaters from the mid-1930s to the mid-'40s and for the first half of that era owned Gabby Hayes - the uncrowned king of Hollywood simpletons. Hoppy's pardner Gabby was, well, gabby, as well as incoherent - not a combination to inspire confidence, certainly, but sufficient distraction to add stature to Hopalong portrayer William Boyd's characterization (which was otherwise meritless). Gabby was given to such signature pronouncements as, "Ah'm so hongry, ah could eat me a horney toad!" Or - and this was the most profound and frequent of his dissertations - "Yer durn tootin'."

Now and then Gabby shot a pistol at someone, often when riding a horse and usually while flinging the instrument forward with each shot - as if to help accelerate the bullet. I can't remember that he ever hit anyone, though I worried mightily about the horse.

Interestingly, though Gabby usually appeared bush-faced, he sometimes went through a whole movie with a three-day growth sprouting from his cheeks - a rare talent manifested today only, I think, in the persons of Yasser Arafat and Bruce Willis.

Hopalong, in his original literary incarnation, had a limp - hence the name. But Boyd was unlikely ever to be nominated for class monitor, let alone for an acting award, so the limping was wisely left to Gabby, whose crab-sidle along cowboy boardwalks was not to be outdone until Roddy MacDowall reached the zenith of his career as a chimpanzee.

Men and women who were children in the 1950s and '60s will remember the odd relative - not the one with the brightest future, usually - who gave impressions of Gabby Hayes at family gatherings.

All of Hoppy's contemporaries had idiot partners, as well, and for the same reason. Gene Autrey, who billed himself as "The Singing Cowboy" (I imagine to underline the distinguishing ability to sing and shovel out stables at the same time - no mean feat, when you think about it), owned Smiley Burnette, a corpulent lout whose principal contribution to the cowboy-fool genre was his penchant for wearing a ragged hat the front of whose rim rose vertically from his forehead.

Horse operas, the movies as well as those on TV, rivaled Dickens novels as asylums for dumb people. Roy Rogers (the guy who had his dead horse stuffed) tried a number of them, including Pat Buttram and Andy Devine, but eventually stole Gabby Hayes from Hopalong Cassidy.

Say what you want about a refugee from New Jersey whose acting hallmark was a kind of quizzical stare, Roy knew his morons.

The list, as they say, is endless.

One of my favorite hero-oaf couples comprised the Cisco Kid and Pancho. (I believe Leo Carrillo, who played Pancho, can be considered primarily responsible for the rise of the ethno-sensitivity that nowadays colors our speech and very thought, such was the strength of his portrayal of a Hispanic half-wit.)

After cowboy films had bored their final audiences into comas, it was natural that they gallop on to TV - a kind of final resting place for ideas. And so it was that Cisco and Pancho rode across the vast wasteland of the Sonora Desert for years in search of criminal fun, suffering only from occasional interruptions by ads for doctor-recommended cigarettes.

A word about style. Cisco, played by Duncan Renaldo, rode his horse at top speed for enormous distances through a hellish climate while wearing velour ensembles embroidered with silver and gold thread. He also affected a sombrero the size of a wagon wheel. Contrast and compare with such modern cowboy incarnations as Clint Eastwood, whose sole fashion statement seems to be, sweat.

Also, a word to filmographers who might be a trifle confused by Renaldo's accent and, further, might wonder why Renaldo never spoke any Spanish, though Cisco was Mexican by birth. The truth is that Duncan Renaldo - whose real name, by the way, was Renaldo Duncan - was Romanian.

Nobody can make stuff like that up.

So, you might ask, where are the dim-bulb assistants of yesteryear?

Well, now and then there seems to be an effort to revive the category. The film "True Lies" comes to mind. But though Tom Arnold gave excellent twit, he played twit to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which means that Tom's portrayal was one of the greatest acting performances of the 20th century.

The real answer, of course, is that the oater died and was replaced by the "action-adventure" film. And though a great many Bozos are affiliated with that genre, they are not in the film.



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