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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hopalong Cassidy

Westerns have always had something of a cyclical success in the UK. Hugely popular in the 1930s, the 1950s and 1970s, they've gone through a variety of downturns; in the mid-1950s, science fiction grew in popularity, exploring the frontiers of space rather than the frontiers of the wild west; the boom in grim and gritty westerns began with the arrival of George G. Gilman's Edge novels in 1972 and came to an end a decade later, although Gilman's novels continued to appear until 1989. Just as Gilman's Edge and Steel novels came to an end, there was a small surge of interest in literary westerns around the time of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves (1990) and movies such as Brokeback Mountain (2005) and the recent 3:10 to Yuma (2007) have proven that the Western can be as diverse a genre as any.

But the Western is nowhere near as popular as it was fifty years ago and it's somewhat surprising just how popular they were. Writing the introduction to The Thriller Libraries a couple of months ago I did some digging around as we're covering Cowboy Comics in that volume. The popularity of cowboys was incredible and two in particular stand out—Hopalong Cassidy and Davy Crockett. Inspired by a couple of Walt Disney films, Crockett-mania swept the UK and every kid wanted a beaverskin hat.

The Hopalong Cassidy character was already fifty years old by then, having first appeared in 1904 in stories and novels by Clarence E. Mulford. It was his portrayal by William Boyd in a series of hugely popular movies between 1935 and 1948 that really established the character in the minds of his audience: unlike most of the heroes of the time, Hopalong wore a black hat, he wasn't a loner (often having a couple of sidekicks) and he didn't sing.

Actor William Boyd gambled big when the film series came to an end in 1944—he bought the rights to the character from Mulford and the back-catalogue of movies and continued to make new ones for a few more years. Hollywood was making fewer Westerns after the war but television came to the rescue: NBC began showing the movies and offered Boyd the chance to make a TV show; they paid $250,000 for the rights to re-edit the movies into a TV series while Boyd began work on a half-hour TV show and radio show. They were so successful that other cowboy shows began to appear in the early 1950s.

To Hopalong goes the credit of starting the merchandising boom for Westerns as it was Boyd whose features graced the first tie-in lunch box produced in 1950. Sales of merchandise, the TV and radio shows and Boyd's appearances in national magazines inspired a new demand for the original movies, and new prints were made for the cinema. Many of the films are still available, newly restored for DVD.

The Hoppy movies were widely seen in the UK; two of them (Call of the Prairie and Three on the Trail) were amongst a number of films especially selected by the British Film Institute as suitable for children in 1937. The BBC began broadcast 24 Hopalong movies between 1949 and 1951 and the Hopalong TV show began broadcasting on Independent Television in 1956, shortly before the death of Hopalong's creator, Clarence Mulford at the age of 73. In early 1957, Associated-Rediffusion was about to launch a series called Frontier Doctor but it was felt that the shows were more suitable for an adult audience and the hour-long slot was filled with Hopalong Cassidy films.

Not surprisingly, Hopalong also became a star in British comics. He was a long-running star of Knockout, first appearing in October 1954 in a series of reprints of the American newspaper strip syndicated by King Features, drawn by Dan Spiegel (above).

In April 1957, Knockout's editor, Arthur Bouchier, replaced the reprints with original stories, drawn initially by Mike Western; two months later, he promoted Hopalong to the cover where the strip was now drawn by Ian Kennedy.

At the same time, Knockout launched a Hopalong Cassidy Club which featured competitions, secret messages and prize numbers which they pushed heavily for some time and which would run for years.

Hoppy's stint on the cover lasted only a matter of months (in October 1957 'Johnnie Winco' took pole position in Knockout) but Hopalong remained a fixture in the paper for rest of the decade.

The strip eventually came to an end in April 1960, having been drawn for 28 months by Peter Sutherland.

Although Hopalong Cassidy's fame peaked and fell over a relatively short span, such was the popularity of the character in the UK in the mid- to late-1950s that William Boyd even visited Britain (in June 1957) and was used in advertising campaigns for sweets.

You've got to ask yourself—did the actor ever see a Spangle, let alone eat one?

Official Hopalong Cassidy Website (with bloody annoying theme tune).
Hopalong Cassidy (Wikipedia)
Hopalong Cassidy DVDs at Amazon.co.uk

(* Hopalong Cassidy © Sagebrush Entertainment Inc.; 1st comic image above © King Features; 2nd & 3rd © IPC Media.)

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