Please be warned that this essay concerns a film with a mystery as part of its plot, The Dead Don’t Dream; part of its enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. As I note here, the mystery portion is ridiculous and impossible to figure out, but I thought I’d make my readers aware to be on the safe side. To be honest, I’ll be giving away the “trick” of a movie that is essentially meaningless but I am giving it away, so … if you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
Last fall I had a look at an old Hopalong Cassidy film, Law of the Pampas. I’ve been following right along with as many of Hoppy’s adventures as I can find; there’s a cable channel available to me that’s been re-running them. As you might have guessed from the nature of my other interests, I’m interested in Hoppy because that brand went from being the most leveraged brand in history — in about 1951/52 it had penetrated into more markets and sold more 1951 dollars’ worth of goods than even Star Wars later managed, to my knowledge, in comparable currencies — to what it is today, which is to say barely a footnote. I think it’s safe to say that if you ask anyone today living in an English-speaking country who Hopalong Cassidy is, the word “cowboy” will come up immediately, and … nothing else.
In order to fully understand that huge arc from hero to zero, though, you need to understand something about the phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy (“Hoppy”, to millions of children) in the early days of television. There’s a lot to this story, and a couple of deeply fannish books have been written about it, so I’ll just hit the high spots and if you’re curious there’s more for you to discover.
William Boyd was a silent film star whose career was on the downward slide when he played Hopalong Cassidy first in 1935. Hop-Along Cassidy (aka Hopalong Cassidy Enters) was the first of 41 independent Hopalong productions released through Paramount between 1935 and 1941. Yes, 41 movies in six years; that’s about 7 per year; they might have shot one every six weeks for most of the year then rested a while. Harry Sherman, the packaging producer, then distributed 13 Hoppy movies through United Artists between 1942 and 1944, keeping to the same breakneck speed. At some point in 1944, as I understand it (I could be wrong on the dates here) William Boyd felt that he had become indelibly associated with the Hoppy character and determined to spend the rest of his life playing him and him alone. So he hocked his assets to the hilt and purchased all rights to the character; the entire film library, merchandising, everything, for $350,000.
That process seemingly took all of 1945 and most of 1946; after acquiring the rights, Boyd himself began production and did a single film in 1946 and a further 11 films in 1947 and 1948, releasing them through United Artists. But the productions were not popular on the drive-in circuit and Boyd was going broke. Then he had the idea of taking one of his older pictures to the local NBC station (as I understand it, KTLA) and rented it for a nominal fee. The broadcasts were enormously popular and went to the national level almost immediately. In 1949, NBC edited the features to a suitable length for broadcast, and Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western TV series. Apparently there were a lot of Western fans with televisions in 1949; the genre took off across the country and Hoppy’s popularity was single-handedly responsible for the resurgence of the Western genre on television in the 50s and 60s.
There was a new radio programme from 1948 to 1952, and Boyd packaged a hit television show with 52 episodes of new and old material from 1952 to 1954. There were also comic books and paperbacks and you could even buy the movies themselves on 8mm and 16mm film from Castle Releasing. Boyd retired Hoppy near the top of his game, although his decision probably had something to do with the death of his long-time companion Topper, Hoppy’s big white horse. Boyd continued to make personal appearances for a few years but then apparently preferred that people remember him as he had been, declining interviews, photos and all appearances in his later years.
What really interested me about Hoppy was that he was one of the greatest all-time feats of cross-platform marketing. I can’t say Hopalong Cassidy was the first brand that was cross-marketed in different objects — Little Orphan Annie comes to mind — but anyone who frequents flea markets and collectibles shows has seen tables of Hoppy-related materials. It was an enormously broad-based brand in its day. Literally, they stuck that brand on every conceivable product (except, strangely, for chewing gum; Boyd was against it) — lawn mowers and toy guns and sandwich loaves and neckerchiefs and TV sets and everything in between. There’s a large book or two detailing all the collectibles available and it makes for fascinating reading, although the brand has fallen out of favour today and the values have plummeted. Boyd himself made millions from licensing. And Hopalong Cassidy was the very first featured image on a lunchbox.
It’s also the case that William Boyd starred in more movies playing Hopalong Cassidy than any actor before or since has done, as an individual actor playing a single character — a grand total of 66 films. (Few were much longer than an hour.)
I imagine when you have to find 66 different ways to ring some changes on the basic set of seven Western plots (many of which can’t be done in the Hoppy context) you are hard-pressed to come up with anything new. Hoppy’s plots were repetitive and simple. Here’s a few strains I’ve isolated after seeing perhaps two-thirds of the 66:
- Hoppy comes to a town where someone is pretending to be an honest citizen but is really a crook; Hoppy finds out and thwarts the underlying criminal plot.
- Hoppy comes to the defence of a farmer/rancher/little guy/helpless woman who is targeted by an unscrupulous trail boss/land baron/bully.
- Hoppy comes to the defence of someone unjustly accused of a serious crime, and finds out who really did it.
- Hoppy must execute a difficult task such as a cattle drive or guiding a wagon train, because someone needs his assistance.
- Hoppy must mediate between two warring factions who want control of something (water, a town, unfenced land).
- Someone thinks Hoppy (or one of his sidekicks, or a friend) did something wrong, or dishonourable, and he has to prove them wrong.
- Hoppy must enter an unusual environment (go to a different country, or disguise himself and take up a different profession) and expose a criminal enterprise.
The one that I wanted to talk about today, at which I hinted in the title to this piece, is “Hoppy defends someone unjustly accused and finds out who really did the crime.” Just abstractly, doesn’t that sound like every Perry Mason episode you ever saw? Yes, from time to time Hoppy had to act as a detective, and that interests me. What happens when you cross a Western brand with a detective plot?
What prompted this interest in the possibilities of Hopalong Cassidy as a detective was a tiny segment of 1941’s Doomed Caravan. I won’t bore you with the details, especially since there aren’t many worthwhile, but essentially a bunch of outlaws capture a group of cavalrymen, steal their uniforms and equipment, and impersonate the troopers in an attempt to get close enough to rob a freight shipment that Hoppy has agreed to protect. When they arrive in town, everyone takes for granted that they are who they say they are. But Hoppy’s suspicions are aroused by a number of small inconsistencies in their clothing and gear. He investigates a little, and questions one man about a bullet hole in his shirt and another about the wrong initials in his hatband. We see his eyes narrow, but he keeps his suspicions to himself until it comes time to save the day.
For fans of mysteries on film, this film’s strongest player is Minna Gombell. She had a first-rate second-rate career in films, toiling away in relative obscurity, but she made an impression on me in 1934’s The Thin Man as Mimi Wynant Jorgenson, the greedy widow who would do nearly anything for money. Here she plays a tough but straight-shooting frontierswoman who needs the freight shipment to succeed, and her acting skills stand out a mile against her surrounding players. There’s nothing else of any great interest in this movie, but it did pique my interest to see if Hopalong Cassidy had ever displayed any great detective chops.
There is one late entry in the series, 1948’s The Dead Don’t Dream, which would seem like the ideal candidate; I remember being quite excited when I read the information in the TV listing. Hoppy comes to the Last Chance Inn (at which all the local gold prospectors stay) to attend the wedding of his sidekick Lucky Jenkins to the niece of a wealthy local miner. The miner disappears from the inn and is found dead the next day. And the next night, the man who sleeps in that same room at the inn vanishes and is found dead elsewhere the next day. In fact this is the third time it’s happened.
Now, that’s a bare-bones story hook worthy of John Dickson Carr, isn’t it? What a pity something happened along the way to this admirable concept. What went wrong, I’m not entirely sure. Hoppy starts to investigate the rancher’s disappearance immediately, trying to get the wedding back on the rails. But this movie doesn’t really make any sense. There is ominous music when it seems like people are listening outside a door, or when something scary might happen … but nothing ever really happens. Hoppy seems to have a string of unaccountable and unmentioned intuitions that guide him as to precisely what to do next to make the plot move along at a brisk clip, but none of them are motivated by anything that actually happens or even anything that’s spoken about. Within the hour, for instance, Hoppy is off to see the uncle’s dark and ominous gold mine — for no real reason except that no one knows where the uncle’s gold is kept. Yes, the uncle is there and he’s deceased. And everyone just sort of accepts this and sits around and talks about it, until Hoppy figures out what’s going on (more divine intuition).
People come and go, people talk about events, but no one detects and there’s nothing that happens that explains anything. The killer tries to kill Hoppy, and it’s never clear why, except of course that he’s investigating.
After further hubbub and back and forth, people coming and going, Hoppy finally figures out that the room contains a four-poster bed that kills people. In the middle of the night, the top of the bed descends soundlessly, suffocates the sleeper, and then returns to its topmost position. Now, this is also a clever idea. But in terms of the plot, it makes no sense at all. The owner of the inn has nothing to do with it; the actual criminal is someone who occasionally stays at the inn. How did the bed get there? WHY did the bed get there? Who in this Western world needed to kill people surreptitiously? When you think about it, in the other Hoppy movies, people die all the time from gunshots without any need for complicated mechanical traps.
There’s more, but it makes just as little sense as what’s gone before. Lucky’s engagement is broken (which everyone in the contemporaneous audience would have known to be inevitable anyway; Lucky has to chase the girls to keep the plots moving). Hoppy identifies the killer, and how I will never know, since there are no clues; he accepts someone’s comment as to one of the suspects’ criminal background. No detection, no investigation, just intuition and action.
To sum up — this is a great idea for a mystery movie, that suffers from terrible execution. No one thought any of this through, it’s just needless obfuscation, and the script has no underlying logic. Just a bunch of things that happen, ominous music, the killer gets arrested, and Hoppy makes a little joke as everyone prepares to leave.
At the time of production of The Dead Don’t Dream in 1948, the brand was just about at its nadir. Boyd was paying for the productions himself and cutting corners wherever possible; mostly by sticking with a small crew, trying to get everything in a single take, and skimping on services like music and screenwriters, using unknowns who needed experience. These weren’t even as good as the early “B” pictures in the series but more like “C” grade. I understand that, particularly with Boyd’s self-produced films, they were later chopped up a little to fit into television running times, which might explain the general air of incoherence and unmotivated plot developments in this outing. I suspect there’s another ten minutes of plot that needed to make it into the finished product and didn’t.
So unless there’s something I haven’t yet managed to see, the chances of Hopalong Cassidy taking shape as a detective are slim to none. Occasionally he participated in a mystery-like plot, just as he occasionally participated in the occasional romantic plot, but overall, his Western chops remain unsullied by any cross-genre participation. In a way, it’s too bad. The Hoppy brand had a huge following in its day, but if it had been rebooted as a “Western detective” series, who knows, it might still be around today!