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JERRY HICKS

A Wistful Farewell to the Singing Cowboy (and Shrewd Tycoon)

October 03, 1998|JERRY HICKS

My favorite line about Gene Autry came from the late Pat Buttram, one of his old movie sidekicks: "Gene used to ride into the sunset. Now he owns it."

The accolades piling up after Autry's death on Friday correctly point to his genius in building a business empire and in bringing major league baseball to Orange County. But Autry the cowboy is how some of us remember him best. He made western staples of humor, music and loyalty to a horse.

I grew up in the Midwest glued to all those old black-and-white Autry films shown on TV. "Riding the range once more, toting my old .44," Autry sang.

They weren't very good movies. Most I see on TV now seem pretty awful. But when I was young and had never been the other side of St. Louis, those western images of desert towns, open ranges and a hero's gun blazing became captivating, indelible impressions.

Autry was the "Singing Cowboy," which set him apart from western screen favorites like Sunset Carson or Lash LaRue. But besides the songs, what made an Autry movie special was that he stuck to his proven formula: a girl, a horse, a sidekick for comic relief--usually Buttram or Smiley Burnette--and always, someone wronged who needed his help.

Autry's foes weren't bank robbers and bandanna-masked holdup artists. His bad guys were greedy landowners and dishonest salesmen. The town banker turned town crook. Autry always nailed them by show's end. But the road to getting there was, well, thin on plot and long on Autry's charisma.

When I first read Autry's autobiography, "Back in the Saddle Again," what gave me the best chuckle (besides the title) was that Autry himself recognized he was hardly creating a great body of art.

In describing how his movie "Cowboy and the Indians" managed to work in his Christmas hit song "Here Comes Santa Claus," Autry writes only, "Please, don't ask."

Westerns, according to Autry, were simply a great way not to grow up.

"I had no illusions about my films, which were not always as believable as, say, the six o'clock news," he wrote. "Nor did I consider myself anything special as an actor or a singer. . . . Being lucky is a kind of talent too."

By luck he meant that he came along at the right time, when the public was getting tired of the standard western shoot-'em-ups. Autry says he owed more to Bing Crosby than to Bill Hart.

Somewhere along the line I've seen about every Autry movie ever made, especially since cable TV, which often runs marathons, like a whole day of Gene Autry or John Wayne. Autry's first was "In Old Santa Fe" in 1934, and his last, "The Last of the Pony Riders," in 1953. That's 93 films in all, plus 91 TV productions after that, and countless radio shows.

The first Autry movie I can remember was "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." It was actually his fourth film, but it was the one that catapulted him to fame with his singing-cowboy formula.

"Melody Ranch" stands out to me, I suppose, because Autry also adopted the title for his long-running radio and TV shows. Also, the movie included a rare cowboy appearance by Jimmy Durante.

"The Old Corral" was another favorite, because of a scene in which Autry forces one of the bad guys, played by Dick Weston, to sing a song. Weston was the first screen name for Leonard Slye. He later changed it to Roy Rogers.

"Git Along, Little Dogies" is memorable too. It typified the bad guys Autry liked to square off against--in this case, wildcat oil drillers. Autry's job was to save the cattle's drinking water from oil contamination.

I'd forgotten about that one until Friday, when I reread parts of Autry's book. I wanted to see if Autry had his own movie favorite.

He does write that "I have powerful memories of 'The Old Barn Dance.' " But that's because it was the last movie he made before going on strike, over a contract dispute with his studio, Republic.

But Autry doesn't pick a favorite. He wrote that that would be like "trying to recall a particular noodle you enjoyed during a spaghetti dinner. It is easier to remember them all."

You can catch the flavor of that movie-making era with a visit to the Autry Museum of Western Heritage at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I visited there last year for a column about Autry's 90th-birthday celebration. I stood in line in its vast foyer to sign a giant birthday card. Hundreds of others had signed before me. Few left any notes addressing Autry as the business tycoon or baseball owner. Most just said thanks for adding so richly to our childhood memories.

Friday, I stopped in several video stores trying to pick up a copy of an old Autry movie, but without success. At a Blockbuster Video, I had to smile when the clerk said, "That's the Angels guy, right? He made movies?"

Yes, he made movies too. Maybe not great ones. But when one pops up on TV today, I always find myself dropping whatever I'm doing to watch it, to wallow a little in my childhood past.

In other parts of today's paper, you'll find lots of quotes from people who knew and loved Autry. Let me add just one here, from Grace Boyd of Monarch Beach. She and her late husband, Hopalong Cassidy, were great friends of the Autrys. "Hoppy," as she calls him, shot his TV show at one of Autry's ranches.

I asked her why she thought Autry had become such a screen star.

"Because he was just so likable," she said. "How could you not root for someone like Gene?"

*

Jerry Hicks' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com

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