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A herd of wild horses is used to smuggle diamonds across the Mexican-American border in William Witney's 1949 Western The Golden Stallion. Into the path of this elaborate criminal scheme wanders a good-natured cowboy (Roy Rogers), who has been hired by the new owner of the Circle-B ranch, a feisty gal named Stormy Billings (Dale Evans). It is her intention to capture and tame the wild horses, leading Rogers and the criminals into prompt confrontation.
Rogers's horse, Trigger (billed as "The Smartest Horse in the Movies"), cozies up with the mare that leads the wild herd. When the bell mare tramples the leader of the smugglers (Dale Van Sickel), Trigger gets the blame and is scheduled for destruction. To save his horse, Rogers confesses to the crime and is sentenced to a work camp. The smugglers then purchase Trigger at auction and train him to lead the herd of smugglers. Rogers dutifully serves his sentence, but when the time of his release is nigh, he collaborates with the sheriff on an equally elaborate scheme to capture the true culprits, and be reunited with his trusted palomino.
The Golden Stallion manages to pack a lot of plot into its mere 67 minutes, but such was the style of the "programmer," a low-budget film designed for a specific audience, who viewed it with limited expectations. Not to be confused with low expectations, limited expectations simply means the audience did not require such time-consuming and extraneous elements as character development and dramatic exposition. The audience of a program Western expected action, various forms of horseplay, dashes of comedy and romance, and a simple story in which good triumphs over evil and virtue is rewarded.
To a matinee audience of 1949, it was not necessary to establish the character of Roy Rogers. He was known then just as he is today, as a virtuous, congenial, heroic, singing horseman. And these qualities apply both to the actor as well as the roles he played.
Behind the all-American image, he was Ohio-born Leonard Franklin Slye, who moved to California in 1930 in pursuit of a musical career. In 1934, he helped form Sons of the Pioneers, who specialized in Western folk tunes. Like any entertainer in Los Angeles in the 1930s, Slye yearned for a film career. He managed to score some minor roles, billed either as Len Slye, or as a member of Sons of the Pioneers.
During the 1930s, Gene Autry rose to fame as the screen's first major singing cowboy, sending all the studios with a Western lineup scrambling for someone who could act, sing and ride a horse, a difficult bill to fit. Slye auditioned at Universal, but they opted instead for Bob Baker. "They told me I wasn't right to be a movie cowboy hero," he later recalled, "because the camera made me look like a teenager."
In 1937, Republic Pictures had trouble negotiating a new contract with Autry, and started their own search for the next great singing cowboy, and settled upon Slye. Knowing his name did not befit a wholesome Westerner, the studios christened him Dick Weston, and placed him in supporting roles. By the following year, he had earned a starring slot, and Republic made a conscious effort to establish him as a major Hollywood commodity. They changed his name once again, but this time the name of the character and the role he played were one and the same (in the mold of such silent-screen legends as "Broncho" Billy Anderson and Rin Tin Tin). With 1938's Under Western Stars, a franchise was born, and it was named Roy Rogers. The moniker was chosen because it slyly evoked the humble charm of cowboy humorist Will Rogers.
Under various names, Rogers appeared in 83 Westerns while at Republic (1938-1951), an average of one every two months. Rogers was tireless. In addition to the vigorous shooting schedules, he devoted his off-hours to performing for the troops during World War II. According to biographer Raymond E. White, Rogers once made 136 personal appearances during a 20-day tour of Texas for the Eighth Service Command.
During 1940 and 1941, the studio tinkered with his image, having Rogers actually play roles -- characters with names other than "Roy Rogers" -- but this experiment failed and he quickly reverted to type and picked up his trademark persona. On October 6, 1942, Slye legally changed his name to Roy Rogers, and played the role for the remainder of his life.
Play the role he did. Rogers was careful to maintain an off-screen image similar enough to his wholesome on-screen persona that the two would be virtually indistinguishable. Further blurring the line between backlot fantasy and reality, Rogers's Westerns (including The Golden Stallion) were frequently set in modern times, so that the character was not relegated to a distant place and time, but was permitted to coexist with the actor who portrays him.
Rogers spent his early career in Autry's shadow. His name may have been Roy, but Gene was still king. The budgets of Autry's films were more than double those of Rogers's. The balance shifted when Autry enlisted in the military and took leave of the movie business to serve with the Air Transport Command. Republic invested more time and money in Rogers's films, permitting longer shoots (allowing the films to rise above the often slipshod feel of a lower-echelon oater). It also allowed for better-produced musical numbers. With his newfound clout, Rogers brought the Sons of the Pioneers to Republic in 1941 and the formula for his superstardom was almost complete.
When Rogers left Sons of the Pioneers, he had been replaced by Pat Brady. Now that they were reunited, Brady was given a plum role in The Golden Stallion, as Rogers's comical sidekick Sparrow Biffle, forever struggling to control his unpredictable Jeep. For years, Brady would continue to mine the comic potential of a temperamental general purpose vehicle (nicknamed "Nellie-Belle") on the NBC television series The Roy Rogers Show (1951-57).
Completion of the Rogers image occurred when Republic paired Rogers with actress Dale Evans in 1944's Cowboy and the Senorita. Evans was not the female lead, but the chemistry was apparent enough that they were quickly reteamed in The Yellow Rose of Texas (1944). They were married in 1947, and remained so until Rogers's death in 1998 (Evans died in 2001).
Now that Rogers and Evans were grade-A stars, they began appearing in color films (such as The Golden Stallion). Being Republic (and not MGM), the films were shot in the murky but economical Trucolor process (and not Technicolor).
The Golden Stallion may mark the apex of Rogers's career at Republic. Though spare and conventional, the film allows the star to radiate the trademark charm that has made him an enduring Western icon. For years dismissed as pre-adolescent fluff, Rogers and Evans's films have earned a new appreciation by some contemporary viewers. A scene from The Golden Stallion appears on a television set in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004). Four years earlier, Tarantino had waxed rhapsodic about the Rogers film in an article in The New York Times ("Watching Movies with Quentin Tarantino"). He singled out the scene in which Rogers takes the rap for the smuggler's murder, in order to save his horse from punishment.
"In some movies, a cowboy might go to jail to save his best friend from being shot down dead. Well, Trigger is Roy's best friend," Tarantino said. "It's so powerful and so unexpected. What's great is that you buy it, you absolutely buy it, and I don't know that I would buy it from anybody else but Roy and Trigger."
The Golden Stallion was so well received that it almost launched a franchise of its own. In the film, Trigger's relationship with the "bell mare" yields a foal, which Billings names Trigger, Jr. A year later, Republic released Trigger, Jr. (1950), starring Rogers and Evans, but the series went no further.
Director: William Witney
Producer: Edward J. White
Screenplay: Sloan Nibley
Cinematography: Jack Marta
Production Design: Frank Hotaling
Music: Nathan Scott
Cast: Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers), Dale Evans (Stormy Billings), Dale Van Sickel (Ed Hart), Estelita Rodriguez (Pepe Valdez), Pat Brady (Sparrow Biffle), Frank Fenton (Sheriff), Chester Conklin (Old Man).
by Bret Wood