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Roy Rogers, dubbed King of the Cowboys by his publicity wranglers, acted in almost 100 movies during his half-century career, not counting a few bit parts under different names. Of them all, his favorite was said to be My Pal Trigger, a 1946 release directed by the prolific Frank McDonald - who did five pictures that year - for Republic Pictures, the illustrious B-movie studio that also propelled John Wayne and Gene Autry to stardom. Modest though the production was, some noteworthy talents participated in it. The supporting cast includes Dale Evans, soon to become Rogers's third wife and long-lasting costar, and George "Gabby" Hayes, an eternal grandpa who became one of the great western sidekicks by dressing Walter Brennan-style folksiness in a bushy beard. Hollywood's most legendary second-unit director, Yakima Canutt, supervised the action sequences. And the Sons of the Pioneers, the spirited singing group cofounded by Rogers in 1933, kicks in likable country-and-western songs at every opportunity.
All these contributions are important, but Rogers's exceptional fondness for My Pal Trigger may also have been related to its great popularity - it was his most successful film ever - and above all to the way it showcases its title character, who played a big part in that popularity. The eponymous animal is billed alongside Rogers and higher than Evans, and he's the only cast member who gets extra verbiage in the opening credits: Trigger, The Smartest Horse in the Movies.
How smart was he? According to Pauline Bartel's book on Amazing Animal Actors, he could do sixty tricks, needing only a verbal cue for more than half of them. When he wasn't walking 150 feet on his hind legs he was drinking from a milk bottle, counting to twenty, or signing his name with an X by holding a pencil in his mouth. Trigger was a dependable actor, too, appearing in more than eighty Rogers movies and all 100 episodes of The Roy Rogers Show, which aired on NBC-TV from 1951 to 1957. Four or five other palominos were always on hand to double for him, but Trigger did all his own close-ups, even during runs and chases over rough terrain. "I'm the only cowboy in the business, I think, that started and made all my pictures with one horse," Rogers once remarked. He also used the same trainer for twenty-four years, working with him at the North Hollywood ranch where Trigger was stabled.
Like many Hollywood stars, Trigger gave up his real name for a new one that looked snappier on the marquee. His original moniker was Golden Cloud, reflecting his breed - golden palomino - and his high-class parents, a palomino mom and a thoroughbred racehorse dad. His new name was suggested by singing cowboy Smiley Burnette, who admired the quick-on-the-trigger speed that allowed him to outrun every other horse on the Republic lot. He entered the movies in 1938, at six years old, playing Maid Marian's trusty steed in The Adventures of Robin Hood and then joining Rogers in Under Western Stars, the actor's first starring vehicle and the horse's first western. At first Rogers rented Trigger from the Hollywood stable that owned him, but recognizing the rising popularity of his new partner, he purchased the stallion for $2,500 at a time when his own salary was $75 per week. "I paid him off on time...like you would a bedroom set," Rogers later explained.
Billed as "The Heart-Warming Story of a Cowboy and his Horse," the fictional My Pal Trigger gives a more romantic version of how Rogers and his horse first got together. Rogers plays a horse trader named Roy Rogers who wants to mate his prize mare with Golden Sovereign, a top-of-the-line stallion owned by Gabby Kendrick, a grouchy rancher played by the actor with the same first name. Gabby refuses what he considers a second-rate match, and while Roy hangs around in hopes of changing his mind, gambler Brett Scoville steals Golden Sovereign, who escapes and mates with Roy's mare before Brett tracks him down and mistakenly shoots him. Falsely accused of the killing, Roy goes on the lam, eventually returning with his new colt - played by Trigger, needless to say - and offering him to Gabby as a peacemaking gesture. Gabby has run up large gambling debts to Brett, though, to the dismay of his daughter, played by Evans, and the climax involves a horserace with enormous stakes for everyone. It's a corny tale but a lively one, with plenty of opportunities for Trigger to strut his stuff.
Trigger died in 1965 at age 32, after a long and fulfilling career. His hoof print is next to Rogers's footprint in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, and the American Humane Association honored him with the Patsy Award, given for the Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface in 1952, and the Craven Award, bestowed for distinguished achievement in stunt work. After his death Rogers had him stuffed for display at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, where he stands in reared-up position wearing a silver saddle - perhaps the same one that Roy has to sell during his fugitive period in My Pal Trigger. "He appeared in all my pictures and countless personal appearances," Rogers said. "It would have been a crime to bury him." Trigger's fans agree, and My Pal Trigger shows him at his running, jumping, nuzzling best.
Director: Frank McDonald
Screenplay: Jack Townley and John K. Butler; original story by Paul Gangelin
Cinematographer: William Bradford
Film Editing: Harry Keller
Art Direction: Gano Chittenden
With: Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers), Trigger, the Smartest Horse in the Movies (Trigger), George "Gabby" Hayes (Gabby Kendrick), Dale Evans (Susan Kendrick), Jack Holt (Brett Scoville), LeRoy Mason (Carson), Roy Barcroft (Hunter), Sam Flint (sheriff), Kenne Duncan (croupier), Ralph Sanford (auctioneer), Francis McDonald (storekeeper), Harlan Briggs (Dr. Bentley), Wm. Haade (Davis), Bob Nolan (Bob Nolan) and the Sons of the Pioneers (musicians)
by David Sterritt