Hopalong Cassidy: The Cowboy Who Ruled the Airwaves
It's Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas!
No, I'm not suggesting early celebrations with red and green bows all around the fire, but I am talking about that Christmas song. Do you ever wonder about the lyrics of old songs? You're listening and singing along when suddenly the lyrics hit you with a reference that seems so out of place. You may wonder "What the heck were they thinking when they wrote that?!". The truth is these were relevant at the written time and just as songs of today reference our current culture these old pop songs are doing the same. It is especially interesting to listen to the classics that are culturally ingrained into society, old standards or Christmas songs. These are songs we wight not pay much attention to because the words might be too familiar to wonder.
For the purpose of entertainment and education how about we take a look at how an entire generation of popular culture was hidden in these five seemingly random words of a Christmas classic from way back when: "A pair of Hopalong boots...". These lyrics are found in the popular "It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas" which anyone can hear repeated to infinity from the months of November through December on their favorite radio stations. It's possible you listen along and bob your head singing away with Christmas cheer, or maybe you grumble through its play wondering when it will all end, either way you've heard the song and you've heard the lyric but do you know the reference? The rest of the line is "... a pistol that shoots" it all seems so out of context. For myself I just let it pass and fictionalized "hopalong" was a phased out term for snow boots - why a kid would want snow boots and a gun for Christmas is beyond me. It was another time, maybe those kids were weird. But then one day I was bored, so I went to the old Google machine and did some digging. What I found was quite interesting. It turns out that "Hopalong" is a reference to a fictionalized character from a popular TV series that ran on NBC from 1952-1954. But that's not the whole life of Hopalong Cassidy.
- Robert Mitchum was given his first role as a credited actor in Hoppy Serves a Writ (1943) and subsequently appeared in 6 other 'Hopalong Cassidy' films.
- Author Louis L'Amour was asked by Clarence E Mulford's publishers to continue the stories after Mulford's abandonment.
- Quentin Tarantino named a character in his film Pulp Fiction (1997) after 'Hopalong Cassidy' as tribute to the old cowboy.
- After his transition to television William Boyd appeared as character in a Smokey the Bear short film called Little Smokey: The True Story of America's Forest Fire Preventin' Bear (1953).
The character's origin story is not unlike many popular characters of today. 'Hopalong Cassidy' was brought to life by Clarence E. Mulford in 1906 with the publishing of the book Bar 20. This was the first in a series of novels featuring the character that lasted straight through the 1930s. Mulford is said to have done much research in order to present an authentic characterization of this important piece of American history.The stories follow 'Hopalong Cassidy' and his cohorts as they ramble and gamble their way through the old west and life on the Bar 20 ranch. Mulford published his last 'Hopalong' novel in 1941 after his own interest for the world he created waned. The popularity of 'Hopalong' and his sidekicks did not wane for the public and became a cultural phenomenon. What helped it -or maybe MADE it- such a large part of public entertainment is, of course, that Hollywood wanted its part in the story. And in 1935 the first picture featuring the Bar 20 happenings was released and received to a thrilled audience. The film was called Hop-Along Cassidy (1935) and the lead was William Boyd who he entered the character as if he truly was 'Hoppy'.
Counter to Mulford's writing of the tough and gruff cowboy down on the range, the Hollywood version glamorized him to be a spick and span hero of the west. Gone was the picture of an old, dusty, grump and in its place was a handsome, polite hero for the world to adore. William Boyd was the clear representation of the Hollywood cowboy persona as 'Hopalong Cassidy' and the public ate it up. Clad in black on his trusted white horse 'Topper', 'Hoppy' roams from town to town helping those in need and putting the bad guy in his place. In total there are 66 films telling the stories of 'Hopalong Cassidy', all of them star William Boyd with a variety of companions to join him.
As the popularity of 'B' movie westerns started to fall in the 1940s, Hollywood fell out of love with 'Hopalong Cassidy'. The year 1948 brought the last 'Hopalong' film to screen. It was called Strange Gamble (1948) and featured three characters messrs "Henchman". But that didn't stop our good pal Bill Boyd. Feeling there were still stories to tell Boyd bought the rights to the character and brought his future to television.
Merchandising, Branding, and Pop Culture Explosion
Not wasting any time, Boyd approached NBC with the idea for a television show about the good deeds of an old west cowboy. With the old films in hand NBC edited them down into half-hour segments and produced them in a new form for television. The success of these broadcasts was substantial enough that NBC was thrilled at producing a brand new TV show starring, of course, William Boyd. Following the re-cuts of the films Boyd maintained a production company and created 40 original episodes for TV which ran from 1952 until 1954.
Boyd built a franchise with the network and made millions of dollars. Mainly due to endorsements and merchandising which took off like a horse. In addition to boots, 'Hoppy' sold bicycles, alarm clocks, pocket knives, lunch boxes and chairs. Significantly, his were the first lunch boxes to feature a TV character. Other mediums were getting their dues from the series with a popular weekly radio program broadcast on NBC radio and then CBS radio, and a comic strip by Dan Spiegel that ran in syndication from 1950 to 1955.
By this time Boyd was over sixty and felt the stress of this intense stardom becoming difficult to maintain. As part of the expectations NBC placed on him, Boyd, took part in many public appearances and world tours as his alter-ego. In one year Boyd made as much as $800,000 - in 1950 the average family income was $3,000. The series ended with Bill Boyd's retirement from television and being in front of the camera. For the rest of his life he was heralded as a public hero and no foe has beaten his career achievements.
Without the success and admiration of this lost part of television networks would not have created other TV westerns that are adored by many today, such as The Roy Rogers Show (1950), The Gene Autry Show (1951), or even Gunsmoke (1955). There wouldn't even be TV themed lunch boxes for gosh sake!
Who would have thought all of this could be hidden in the simple words of a Christmas song?
On the Topic of Television
Watching these films and the TV show is a refreshing experience in comparison with much of today's television. The plot is perfectly explained in the opening scene and we stick to it until the problem is solved without the need for sub plots and exploration-- it's simple and pure. The themes are educational and entertaining even though the expertise is obviously in the early stages of development. But what can you expect from such an early gem in the popularity of television. The unnatural qualities of parts of the dialogue and acting techniques gives the viewer a feeling of watching a toddler learn to walk. It's exciting, pleasing, and there is room to develop over time. I also can't help but wonder between if there is any fact to the similarities between William Boyd's portrayal of 'Hopalong Cassidy' and John Wayne's cowboy swagger. His walk, his voice all seem eerily similar to that so famous of movie cowboys. Being that as these were becoming popular features at the same time John Wayne was creating his image (1935-1940) there could be validity -but I digress- Here's a poll!