I think I’m on safe ground by stating that John Wayne’s most faithful sidekick throughout his early career was George “Gabby” Hayes” who also moonlighted in the same capacity over the years for Roy Rogers, William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd, Gene Autry and Wild Bill Eliott, as well as a six-film stint with Randolph Scott.
Altogether he appeared in fifteen John Wayne films, starting with “Riders of Destiny” in 1933, the one in which Duke played Singin’ Sandy, and ending with “Tall in the Saddle” in 1944.
Eight of the films he made with JW were all released in one year alone, 1934, which also happened to be the most prolific year in JWs film career as well.
Gabby wasn’t always just the sidekick, playing the villain in a couple of the early 1930s JW poverty row vehicles, but you can see over time how his character fully develops into the toothless baccy chewin’ gurning practitioner of pure frontier gibberish that marked him out from the rest of the sidekick crowd.
I therefore offer up in chronological order this two-part article on the films the duo made together for your edification and reading relaxation.
For those of you who want a more detailed overview of each of the films considered in the following article they can be found as separate entries on our Mostly Westerns website.
Riders of Destiny (1933)
It took quite a while, almost halfway through the film to be exact, that I realised that the actor portraying the clean-cut father of the female romantic interest Fay, played by Cecilia Parker, was none other than George Hayes himself.
I genuinely didn’t recognise him at first seeing as he was clean-shaven, had a decent haircut and enunciated to perfection, but the missing teeth gave him away.
Whilst serenading Fay at some point in the film, JW as Singin’ Sandy lipsynchs to a very bad song after which George, by now obviously a fully-paid up member of the local tone-deaf society, proclaims that he could “listen to it all night”.
Fay, a co-member of the same club as her father, declares she also enjoyed it so much she requests Sandy sing one more. Thankfully, the scene fades just as JW starts tuning up again on his geetar.
Not the most auspicious debut for Gabby in his first JW film but a noteworthy piece of film history just the same.
West of the Divide (1934)
“West of the Divide” contains a real surprise at the beginning in that JW plays two roles in the film, one the main part as good guy Ted Hayden, and a small cameo role as wanted man Gat Ganns.
The surprise is that Ganns dies within the first five minutes of the film after having drunk from a poisoned well, thus adding another entry in the list of films in which John Wayne dies.
In the meantime, George Hayes, playing alongside Duke as faithful companion Dusty Rhodes appears to have been working on his screen persona since his first appearance with Duke.
You can see in “West of the Divide” that there’s a real sense that the actor is starting to make his mark.
The constant chewing of tobacco and the perpetual gurning of his unshaven face along with the occasional incomprehensibility of his speech indicate the imminent birth of the one who would forever be known as “Gabby” Hayes.
And I reckon it all started here.
Gabby / Dusty eventually disappears from the film for almost a good twenty minutes – he was probably working on his pronunciation for the next film – then turns up just in time for the denouement.
There’s a nice stunt at the end in which Duke, being doubled by his stand-in, Yak Canutt, rides up to a cabin and throws himself through a window from his horse. Not enough Gabby though.
Blue Steel (1934)
Someone’s goofed. George “Gabby” Hayes has been made the sheriff.
On top of that the Gabby persona is now really starting to kick in – big time. His mouth seems to be permanently chewing down on the old tobacco and his wordplay is now almost incoherent. And he’s now, at the grand old age of forty-nine, officially an “old-timer”.
Duke, here playing an undercover Marshall by the name of John Carruthers, is initially mistaken by Gabby as an outlaw called the Polka Dot bandit, or, as Gabby pronounces it, “By jiminy – it’s the polky dot”, which is not half as memorable as “I got me the Josey Wales” but I guess it must have made sense to someone.
Duke and Gabby inevitably join forces and for some reason decide to go shopping whereupon the old-timer finds himself a box of “dyneemite” – holy Walter Brennan.
When it comes time for the real bandits to get theirs we’re not handed any of the usual horse chase business with JW then dishing out a whipping before turning the bad guy over to the law, nor a prolonged shootout in which JW is then morally obliged to gun the main villain down like the mangy dog he is. No.
This time he and Gabby just blow the whole gang to smithereens in a canyon. Not exactly subtle, but it makes a nice change from the aforementioned options.
The Man From Utah (1934)
Someone’s goofed again, this time around promoting Gabby to town Marshal.
John Wayne as cowboy John Weston wanders into the middle of a shootout and helps the Gabster by plugging three bank robbers, one of whom he shoots in the back, taking a page out of the Bruce Dern Gunplay 101 manual.
There then follows a totally redundant horse chase, initiated when Gabby tells his men to get ahold of Duke, then rides off in pursuit himself.
After Duke conveniently falls from his horse, Gabby tells him he just wanted to offer him a job. Why he didn’t make that plain back in town is one of those mysteries that will forever keep me awake.
It appears there’s a suspicious gang of hornswagglers going round the territory organizing crooked rodeos fixed in their favour so Gabby nominates Duke to go undercover and bust the gang wide open.
In another of those wild coincidences that seem to permeate these early JW efforts, Duke then helps foil a stagecoach holdup by the very gang he’s been tasked with taking down whilst riding over to the town of Dalton where the next rodeo is to be held.
It’s good to see that as his appearances with JW continue Gabby starts to become more and more Gabbier, even if in this one he’s not actually Duke’s sidekick.
Randy Rides Alone (1934)
Still obviously working on his “Gabby” screen persona, in this one he actually plays the villain of the piece, Matt the Mute, who can only communicate by writing notes.
It’s a bit of a shame really because we don’t get to hear the actor indulging his propensity for frontier gibberish. Or do we? Well, yes and no. We get to hear Gabby on account of he isn’t really dumb, but we don’t get to hear Gabby do “Gabby”, if that makes sense.
The big reveal comes early on in the film when Matt the Mute removes his hump from underneath his jacket along with whatever it is that makes him walk as though he’s done something unfortunate in his trousers.
He then proceeds to dress up as a proper villain with a black hat and black clothing, just in case you didn’t get the message that this guy is one bad hombre. He then cusses out all seven members of his gang after they confess they didn’t find the money he’d ordered them to look for.
The plan was for the gang to steal thirty thousand dollars from a safe after which Matt the Mute, or Marvin Black as he is now known, intended to use that money to buy the property owned by the very people they’d stolen the money from.
I find it somewhat incredulous that most of the main bad guys in these early JW efforts are forever handing out verbal abuse to large groups of criminals consisting of some of the meanest and toughest SOBS to ever grace the screen, yet for some reason the head honcho doesn’t end up getting stomped to death.
Meanwhile hero Randy Roberts pulls a switcheroo and replaces a whole bunch of money in the strongbox that Mr. Black intends to steal with dyneemite instead.
He then stands back at a safe distance as Black shoots the box open, blowing himself to kingdom come in the process. That’s what you get for playing the villain I guess.
The Star Packer (1934)
It appears there’s a new villain in town called the Shadow who only communicates with his cronies behind a veil in a hole in the wall of a room located next to the saloon.
It’s astoundingly obvious from the get go that Gabby is playing the villain again, this time going by the name of Matt Matlock, as opposed to Matt Mathews (or Matt the Mute), the one he played in the previous JW oater, “Randy Rides Alone”.
I guess scriptwriters back then just worked their way through the local telephone book when looking for inspiration for character names.
Seeing as the gang members outnumber the villain in this film – again – he plays it safe by bawling them out from behind the wall, just in case they start to remember they outgun him eight to one.
I still can’t help feeling a bit robbed when George Hayes is the villain, rather than just good old “Gabby”, who makes for a far more entertaining character than your standard ranch-house trash villain.
It goes against the natural order of things, but I digress.
It would appear that the lovely Anita, played by Verna Hillie, has arrived to claim the ranch she has inherited from her murdered father, only to eventually discover that her uncle, a certain Matt Matlock, not only done her dad in but killed the uncle as well and then assumed his identity.
This is a very nasty man and is as far away as you can get from the homely, reliably incoherent “Gabby” Hayes than you could possibly ever get.
After a rather overlong chase sequence towards the end in which JW and the townsfolk find themselves in pursuit of a wagon armed with a machine-gun – don’t ask –the Shadow / Matlock gets his just desserts.
Enough of Hayes as a villain though.
The Lawless Frontier (1934)
When viewing “The Lawless Frontier” I literally broke out into a loud cheer accompanied by an overwhelming need to shout out ‘Tally ho, with a ying and a yang and a zing zang spillip’ at the glorious return of George Hayes in full “Gabby” mode, after what seemed to be a long run of him playing incompetent idiotic villains.
He’s even taken his teeth out, which is the mark of a truly dedicated thespian.
This time around Hayes plays a prospector called Dusty who, along with his daughter Ruby, played by Sheila Terry, becomes embroiled with a quest by John Tobin (JW) to avenge the murder of Tobin’s father.
They take on the murderous Pedro Zanti, an effort helped by the fact that local sheriff Luke Williams is an idiot. As JW exclaims sarcastically to Dusty, “An agreeable and appreciative sheriff you got here”, to which Dusty replies “He started off all right but he’s sure gone to seed.”
As events unfold the unthinkable happens. Zanti kills Dusty by knifing him in the back and shooting him after which idiot sheriff arrests JW for the murder of the old-timer instead.
Please, say it ain’t so.
And then it turns out it ain’t so. “Gabby”/Dusty lives to splutter and gurn again. It seems the knife in the back and the gun blast to the head caused only minor superficial injuries.
Which is lucky because he gets to save JW from being shot by Zanti at the end, the villain dying in the end from drinking poisoned water.
JW and Dusty capture Zanti’s gang then turn them over to the sheriff after which JW nicks the sheriff’s job and everyone lives happily ever after.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our article on the Western adventures of Duke and Gabby.