The July 6 death of Roy Rogers at age 86 surely didn't register much for post-Star Wars people, most of whom simply can't relate to westerns. He was "the King of the Cowboys" said the obits, whatever that meant. The only things that the under-45 crowd might know about Roy are his Marriot-owned Roy Rogers Family Restaurant chains (there are 600 hundred of these), and that he's that crazy coot who had his horse, Trigger, stuffed for tourists to see on his ranch.
But in his heyday, the 1940s, Roy Rogers, an ex-trucker and migrant worker, was one mighty movie star. His under-an-hour cowpoke programmers, made astonishingly fast and cheap at tiny Republic Pictures, played everywhere across America, especially in small towns and rural areas. The movies were shot usually in six days and, in some years, Roy starred in eight pictures. Think about it: practically every month you got a brand new Roy Rogers movie (there are about 100 in all), and you got to guffaw at the antics of Roy's sidekick (usually that fuzzy-faced, toothless old geezer, George "Gabby" Hayes). You got a live-and-kicking Trigger, a lovely horse, and, from 1944 on, you got some romance between Roy and Dale Evans.
Roy and Dale made 26 movies together. They were married for 51 years. They were avid, clean-living Christians, and, in the 1950s, they adopted orphaned Korean children. Those who met Rogers found him invariably modest and courteous, just the way he was in the movies. There's no "noir" underside to the cinema of Roy Rogers: he's the guileless cowboy under the white hat. His enemies have mustaches, greasy hair, hang out in the backrooms of saloons in sleazy suits. They always try to doublecross Roy, make him the fall guy for one of their crimes. Roy outfoxes them. Often without gunfire or fisticuffs, Roy corrals them and has them arrested. Roy wins the day.
And then he sings. A typical Rogers film leaves five minutes at the end, after the action is wrapped up, for some dancing, and for Roy and Dale (no kissing!) to do a duet. Roy was a routine guitar-strummer and not much of a singer at all (for a voice of true beauty, check out the CDs of Roy's 1940s competition, Gene Autry). But hey, who cares? Roy Rogers is an amiable presence, and he and Dale's musical farewell, "Happy Trails to You," is an immortal piece of Americana.
So how do you see Roy Rogers movies? There are none at your hip video stores. Head downtown to Sam Goody, where you can buy his flicks in a cellophaned package of three for under $12. I saw one slightly dark Roy Rogers film, the 1864-set Colorado (1940), in which Roy's good-guy Pinkerton agent has to live with the shame and psychological pain of having a no-goodnik, spy-for-the Confederacy, brother. More upbeat is The Cowboy and the Senorita (1944), the first screen appearance of Dale Evans, she portraying an Hispanic ranch owner. Shy Roy ends with his arm about Dale's waist. Earlier in the film, Dale actually smooches on screen, kissing her boyfriend who turns out to be a scalawag.
The post-action finale: Spanish dancers on the Republic Pictures sound stage, then everyone there - singers, dancers, extras, the Sons of the Pioneers - joined in a gay novelty song, "The Enchilada Man."
The dialogue part is over, lines such as "Reach for it!" and "Let's head them off at the pass."
Boston Phoenix, July, 1998