The American movie Western: Part VI: Sidekicks

One element which defined the difference between A-westerns and B’s was the latter’s use of comic companions--or sidekicks– for the hero. It was the sidekick’s job to provide comic relief for the story, help with the dialogue and even provide musical interludes.

The comic foil has a long tradition in literature. Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605) is perhaps the most obvious ancestor. An American version was the outlandish braggart or "ring-tailed roarer" who became a standard character in melodrama by 1838. When Buffalo Bill Cody went on the stage in 1872, writer Ned Buntline provided him with such a sidekick – Texas Jack Omohundro.

Silent westerns sometimes had comic characters, but their heroes usually rode alone. When sound came to movies, it quickly became obvious that the hero needed someone to talk to besides his horse. A comic sidekick solved that problem while appealing to the youngsters that were the B’s major audience. By the mid-1930s, the leading talents were in full flower.

The best known of these was George "Gabby" Hayes, who began his career in the 1920s playing villains at Mascot and Monogram, then grew a beard and took out his false teeth to play comedy in the 1930s with William Boyd in his Hopalong Cassidy pictures for Paramount. From these, Gabby went to Republic Pictures to team with Roy Rogers and Bill Elliott and do occasional appearances in more lavish Republic westerns like "Dark Command" with Walter Pigeon, John Wayne and Roy Rogers. He usually played a grizzled, cantankerous old codger who talked a lot.

Gabby’s chief competitor was Lester (Smiley) Burnett. A friend and foil to Gene Autry on the "WLS National Barn Dance," he went into movies with him and appeared – usually as "Frog Milhouse" – in nearly all Autry’s movies before 1942. When Autry went off to war, Smiley teamed with Charles Starrett, Allan (Rocky) Lane and Sunset Carson. A tubby man with a very flexible voice and the ability to play several instruments, he could bring both clowning and musical talent to his pictures. He wrote over 300 western songs. Although he retired when TV came along, he un-retired from 1964 to 1967 to play the railroad engineer Charlie Pratt on CBS-TV’s "Petticoat Junction."

Raymond Hatton had a long and varied movie career. He appeared in silents as both a villain and a comic, was featured prominently in Cecil B. DeMille silents, and was sound sidekick to Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown and others. He also appeared as the comic character in "trigger trio" B-western series like The Three Mesquiteers and The Rough Riders. He usually played a wily, cynical character who was as capable with a six-gun as he was with a wisecrack.

Another veteran of silents was Al (Fuzzy) St. John, who started in Sennett comedies with his uncle Fatty Arbuckle. He did silent and sound short subjects until the 1930s when he was teamed with B-western second-rankers such as Bob Livingstone, Buster Crabbe and Al (Lash) LaRue. St. John’s tobacco-chewing, bearded character supplied superb physical comedy to boost many a routine oater. Just watching him mount or dismount from his calico pony was amusing.

A second "Fuzzy" – Fuzzy Knight – was also prominent. Educated in law at West Virginia, he became a musician, singer and bandleader before trying movies. He brought music and comedy relief to more than 200 westerns, teaming with such stars as Johnny Mack Brown and Tex Ritter among others. His character usually had a comic stammer and avoided physical action.

There were many other funny sidekicks, but most are forgotten today. Andy Clyde, Pat Brady, Andy Devine and Pat Buttram were the most notable because of later TV exposure – but Cliff Edwards, Si Jenks, Roscoe Ates, Lee (Lasses) White and Max Terhune also deserve recognition. So do Chris-Pin Martin and Leo Carrillo, who both played Pancho for Cisco Kid westerns – the B-western version of Sancho Panza.

A-westerns rarely used sidekicks, but there were comic supporting players. The best of these was unquestionably Walter Brennan, another actor who took out his teeth for comedy but who was also the first actor to win three Academy Awards. His best-remembered western comedy roles were as Groot the cook in "Red River" and Stumpy the cranky jail guard in "Rio Bravo" – both with John Wayne.

Among other notable A-western comedy providers were Alan Hale, Guinn Williams, Chill Wills, Victor McLaglen, Arthur Hunnicutt and Slim Pickens.

All the sidekicks are gone now; but their contributions still linger in old movies run on TV and in the dimming memories of old men who laughed at their antics at long ago Saturday matinees.