skip navigation
Singing Cowboys - Star of the Month
Remind Me

Monte Hale
2 Films - Friday, July 22

last great singing cowboy, Monte Hale, was the real thing. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, he had already worked rodeos, mostly as a guitarist and singer, when he came to Republic Studios and took over from Gene Autry as one of their resident Western stars; he made 19 Westerns in just five years. Though not as well remembered today as such legends as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Hale was the first of the studio's cowboy stars to be photographed in color and developed a devoted following through his films, comic book portrayals and rodeo and other live appearances.

Hale was born Samuel Buren Ely in 1919 in Ada, OK. As a youngster, he picked cotton and pecans to earn the $8.50 needed to buy his first guitar. By the time he was 18, he was playing and singing with Texas vaudeville shows and rodeos. This led to an engagement with the Stars Over Texas Bond Drive during World War II. Not only did that introduce him to Western stars like Chill Wills, but it convinced Jennifer Jones' father, Phil Isley, to recommend him to Herbert J. Yates, head of B-movie studio Republic Pictures. Hale hitchhiked from Texas to California to meet Yates, who gave the strapping, 6', 5" Westerner a seven year contract in 1944.

Yates changed the young man's name to Monte Hale and started him off with smaller roles, including a lab technician in the serial The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) and supporting parts in the studio's bread-and-butter films, Westerns. He played in support of cowboy stars like Bill Elliott, Sunset Carson and Allan Lane while learning how to ride and fight on screen from legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. Within a year, he had moved into prominent roles in a pair of Carson's films, Bandits of the Badlands and Rough Riders of Cheyenne (both 1945).

At that point, Republic needed a new singing cowboy star. Autry's contract had expired while he was serving in World War II, and the star decided on his return to move to the more prestigious Columbia Pictures. As a result, Hale was promoted to leading man with Home on the Range (1946), which also marked Republic's move into color pictures. The Magnacolor feature (they would rename the process Trucolor soon after) gave him Roy Rogers' musical sidekicks, the Sons of the Pioneers. It was the first of several movies with Adrian Booth as leading lady, and also featured a young Robert Blake, whose pet bear Hale tries to protect when the villains' bear starts killing local cattle.

In his first several films, Hale's characters bore his own screen name, which helped him build audience recognition. Some were also set in modern Los Angeles. Out California Way (1946) even cast him as a young cowboy getting mixed up with the movie business, allowing for cameos by Don Barry, Allan Lane and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (their first appearance in color). After that, however, Hale would play more traditional Western heroes in films set in the late 19th century. By his sixth vehicle, Under Colorado Skies (1947), the formula was pretty much set, with Paul Hurst joining the series as Hale's comic sidekick and the Riders of the Purple Sage providing musical backup. By this point, Hale also stopped playing characters named for himself. Sadly, Adrian Booth, who had co-starred in most of his first films, would leave the series after the next film, California Firebrand (1948).

At the height of his fame, Hale was also a recording star, with "In My Stable There's an Empty Stall" and "Statue in the Bay" his biggest hits. He also appeared in a series of Western comics published by Fawcett Comics, the home of Captain Marvel. His titles there included Real Western Hero, Western Hero, Six-Gun Heroes, Movie Comics and Cowboy Western Comics. His own title, Monte Hale Comics, debuted in 1948, with more than 50 issues appearing over the next five years before moving to Charlton Comics for the next five issues and two years.

Hale's reign as a comic book star outlasted his film stardom. By 1950, Republic was cutting back on its B Westerns, as the genre increasingly moved to television where two former Hale co-stars, Clayton Moore and Gail Davis, would find stardom as the Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley, respectively. He finished his Republic contract with a brief appearance in the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans vehicle Trail of Robin Hood (1950), where he joined fellow Republic stars Rex Allen and "Rocky" Lane playing themselves. With his Republic contract up, he moved to personal appearances at rodeos and other Western shows. By the time he returned to the screen in 1954's Yukon Vengeance, his reign as a leading man was over and he took the villain role opposite Monogram cowboy star Kirby Grant.

Shortly after that, he accompanied Wills on an interview with director George Stevens, who was casting his epic of modern Texas, Giant (1956). Struck by the way Hale put his hat on when he left, Stevens offered him a small role and also hired him to teach one of the film's stars, James Dean, how to use a lariat, which provided a major bit of business in the film. That led to some other small roles on television and the big screen. He made his last film appearance playing an unnamed drunk in The Chase (1966).

Off-screen, however, Hale continued appearing at Western shows, through which he became close friends with Autry, the man he had replaced at Republic. In 1988, he helped found the Autry National Center of the American West, a museum of Western and movie memorabilia near the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles, He donated his guns, hat, gun belt and personal collection of police badges (reputedly the nation's largest) to the museum, as well as serving on the board of directors. Hale died of age-related causes in his home in Studio City, California, at the age of 89.

by Frank Miller