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The Boston Phoenix No More Mr. Nice Guy -- Alas

Roy Rogers really was "The King of the Cowboys"

By Gerald Peary

AUGUST 3, 1998:  The July 6 death of Roy Rogers at age 86 surely didn't register much for the post-Star Wars crowd, most of whom can't relate to Westerns. The only things that the under-45 crowd might know about Roy are his Marriott-owned Roy Rogers Family Restaurant chains (there are 600 of these), and the fact that he had his horse, Trigger, stuffed for tourists to see on his ranch.

But in his heyday, the 1940s, Roy Rogers, a former 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; 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 (with her own noble steed, Buttermilk).

Roy and Dale made 26 movies together. (They also had their own TV show in the 1950s, which dubbed Roy "The King of the Cowboys" and Dale "The Queen of the West.") They were married for 51 years. They were avid, clean-living Christians, and in the '50s 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 moustaches and greasy hair; they hang out in the backrooms of saloons in sleazy suits. They always try to double-cross 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 his 1940s competition, Gene Autry). But hey, who cares? Roy Rogers is an amiable presence, and the musical farewell he sang with Dale, "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 cellophaned packages of three for less than $12. In one slightly dark effort, the 1864-set Colorado (1940), 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 Señorita (1944), which marks Dale's first screen appearance, as a Hispanic ranch owner. Shy Roy ends up 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 perform on the Republic Pictures soundstage, then everyone there -- singers, dancers, extras, the Sons of the Pioneers -- joins in a gay novelty song, "The Enchilada Man."

The dialogue part is over, lines like "Reach for it!" and "Let's head them off at the pass."

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