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 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.
The Lucky Texan (1934)
In “The Lucky Texan”, Hayes plays a character called “Grandy” Benson. I guess he’d be out of his depth if he had a name without quotations around it. He and JW as Jerry Mason find that their crick is full of gold.
They innocently take their find to a crooked assayer, Harris, played by Lloyd Whitlock. Harris immediately starts figuring out how to take the gold away from Duke, or “Gabby” Wayne as he should have been called, on account of him telling Harris about the strike without checking first if Harris was on the square.
Naturally, they get swindled, Harris first getting Gabby, or Stupid as he ought to be known, to signing over the deeds to his ranch.
On top of that, not only does Harris short-change Gabby on payment for the gold, but he’s also realised Gabby is the gift that just keeps on giving, having previously tried to drive the old galoot out of the cattle business after rustling his herd.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, Gabby then gets framed for murdering the local banker, only it was the dastardly Al Miller, the sheriff’s son, what really did it when he stole the money Gabby has handed over to the soon-to-be-deceased guy.
Things get even worse when outlaw Al, a crony of Harris played by Yakima Canutt, shoots Gabby and leaves him for dead.
A wounded Gabby then tells his faithful dog, Friday, to go and fetch JW. The dog must have been trained at the same animal school as Wayne’s horse, Duke because the dog understands every damned word that Gabby says.
Things then take a bit of a strange turn when a recovered Gabby requests that JW “open up that trunk and get out my makeup kit”, words I thought I’d never actually hear Mr. Hayes utter.
JW produces a full length dress which Gabby dons as if he’s been cross-dressing all of his life. It seems that Gabby / Grandy used to be an actor. That’s what he reckons anyway.
Somehow or other Duke gets framed for killing his sidekick and ends up on trial for murder. Dressed up as a woman Gabby arrives in court and engages in conversation with the men who actually did try to kill him.
Gabby suggests that the sheriff doesn’t let anyone leave the courtroom as he/she knows who tried to kill the man that JW has been framed for murdering.
When Gabby reveals himself as the dead man the two villains leave through the window, thus eluding the sheriff who expected them to leave via the front door.
There then ensues a chase in which Gabby joins in his jalopy and, whilst Duke and Yak duke it out, he engages in fisticuffs with Harris, albeit still half-dressed as a woman.
A very weird film to say the least. I liked it a lot.
‘Neath the Arizona Skies (1934)
Gabby doesn’t really have much to do in “‘Neath the Arizona Skies”. He appears only momentarily as a cook working at a ranch owned by nogoodnick Vic Byrd, played by Jack Rothwell.
Gabby’s character is named Matt Downing but apart from an appearance in a couple of scenes including one towards the end when he arrives with a posse to help out hero Chris Morrell, played by John Wayne, his role is so inconsequential he doesn’t even manage to figure in the main cast list at the beginning of the film. Apart from that, there’s not much to say really so let’s move on.
Texas Terror (1935)
When the film starts, JW, as John Higgins, is – unusually – the local sheriff but ends up being replaced by new sheriff Ed Williams, played by none other than Gabby himself, although this time around he’s not as “Gabby” as he normally is.
Then the film suddenly fast-forwards to a year later and boy, has JW let himself go. He’s got a very strange-looking beard that looks like it’s almost been painted on and a set of clothes that make him look like Gabby’s older brother.
He’s even lost the turned-up jeans he sported earlier which is a real shame as they really tied the whole cowboy sheriff ensemble together.
The plot thickens, even more, when Gabby persuades JW to get a shave and take over as foreman at a ranch owned by Beth, played by Lucile Brown, who eventually becomes JWs love interest.
Apart from a later scene in which Duke and Gabby join forces to thwart efforts by a bunch of rustlers to steal Beth’s horses that’s all you wrote for Gabby and his character.
Despite Gabby’s parsimonious presence, this is still a good film. It would have been better if our old friend had taken more of a role in the proceedings though.
Rainbow Valley (1935)
On the way to Rainbow Valley JW, as John Martin, encounters George Hale, played by the proper “Gabby”, the one we all know and love and in full old-timer mode, who asks JW for some water for Nellie.
The twist is that Nellie is an automobile as opposed to a proper horse, which is really what any cowboy worth an ounce of respect ought to be riding in a Western, but I digress.
Nellie doubles as the local stagecoach delivery service and, like all stagecoaches is prone to being robbed on almost a daily basis.
After Nellie is nearly robbed by a gang of outlaws the local townspeople decide to petition the governor to send someone to their town and bring a bit of law and order. And that man, of course, is Mr. John Wayne himself.
The outlaw gang, led by the head villain Rogers, played by LeRoy Mason, are attempting to run off a bunch of prospector’s by keeping the law out of Rainbow Valley and also stopping the building of a highway that would make it easier for them to move their stash from the mine.
JW and the locals, with Gabby’s help, decide to construct an alternative road, Gabby utilising Nellie to repel the outlaws by indiscriminately throwing sticks of dynamite in their direction.
I think the dynamite must possess magical qualities of some kind as it seems to explode without being lit first.
At some point, the townsfolk of Rainbow Valley are lead to believe that JW is in cahoots with the outlaws.
However, “Gabs” receives written confirmation that JW is really a government agent and then has to go call off the mob who are out to get Duke and the outlaw gang.
Unfortunately, his car won’t start so Gabby is forced to hitch it up to a couple of horses as he and soon-to-be JW squeeze Eleanor, played by Lucile Brown, race off to rescue our boy.
Intriguingly, the car still makes the same noise it made when it was powered under its own steam. Either that or Gabby and the lady are catching hell from sitting behind those horses.
Ultimately there’s a massive shootout between the opposing forces. The fight comes to an end when the outlaw leader accidentally disposes of his own men by blowing them up with the dynamite he intended to use against the townies.
The explosion also serves to help complete the road, which is a nice coincidence.
JW and the lady finally lock lips in the final reel so all’s well that ends well.
The Lawless Nineties (1936)
Another short-lived appearance by Gabby in this one. He plays Major Carter, one of those crusading newspaper editors that Westerns are so beloved of.
Almost unrecognizable in the role he rashly promises that his newspaper, “The City Blade”, will fight all those who oppose the forthcoming election for statehood.
Like all crusading newspaperman, he stirs up a hornet’s nest, Carter putting out posters goading the “outlaws and crooked politicians” of the town, the varmints making their displeasure clear by shooting him in the back three times.
And that’s about it for Gabby, leaving hero JW, as yet another secret Government agent, and the Major’s daughter to put the bad guys out of business by helping enough voters to evade the outlaws and help Wyoming gain statehood.
JW and the good guys reign supreme whilst the usual collection of varmints end up in the state calaboose, so everyone lives happily ever after.
Apart from Gabby.
Dark Command (1940)
Set in Kansas a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Gabby plays the wonderfully named Andrew “Doc” Grunch, a travelling dentist who employs John Wayne as drifter Bob Seton to start an argument with anyone who crosses his path.
JW then punches them in the mouth in order that they are then forced to seek dental help from the aforementioned Mr. Grunch. This is also the first time I’ve ever been able to understand every word Gabby Hayes says so let’s be thankful for small mercies.
Gabby Grunch suggests that maybe Seton ups his game with a bit of career advice suggesting “if you was more promiscuss with your punchin’ we might make a bit more money” but JW is hankering for more wide open spaces and the mountain scenery Grunch had promised him.
When they arrive at their next destination Gabby tells JW “Take about a month the way I figure to fix all the teeth in this town. Course that’s not countin’ the one’s you’ll send in. Then we’re headed west. California. And mountains”, but it’s too late.
JW is now smitten by the lovely Claire Trevor and eventually finds himself swept up in the shenanigans of Will Cantrell, played by Walter Pigeon.
This means that Gabby’s character is now basically side-lined for a large portion of the film but not before he puts JW straight about not getting into the gun running business, which means his pugilistic friend winds up running for and becoming town sheriff instead.
Gabby rejoins the action later on when he and Seton are ambushed by Cantrill and his gang of Confederates, both of them surviving after Seton rides their wagon off a cliff in order to evade their would-be killers which, to be honest, is a bit drastic but a great stunt all the same.
Doc Grunch eventually comes into his own when he operates on Claire Trevor’s brother, played by Roy Rogers, who has been shot helping JW and Claire escape from Cantrill.
Grunch celebrates when Roy makes it by stating “Jumpin’ catfish I’m out of the barbering business. I’m a practising physician again”. Mind you he had to help Roy out on account he was also his sidekick by now so Gabby saving the life of the King of the Cowboys wasn’t altogether that altruistic.
Hallelujah! Finally. George Hayes is now officially referenced as George “Gabby” Hayes for the first time in the cast list of a John Wayne film.
It’s also good to see him back in the sidekick saddle, spluttering dialogue like “consarn that noisesome gasoline guzzling monster” (I think that’s what he said anyway) when confronted with the future that is the automobile.
He also utters the immortal words “Say, legs is pretty things, ain’t they?” when confronted with the past that is a dancing saloon girl.
Gabby plays stagecoach driver Desprit Dean opposite JW as Dan Somers. Desprit and Dan find themselves up against oilman Jim Gardner, played by Albert Decker when it comes to gaining the right to sell oil found on Indian land.
Gardner initially arranges for Desprit to help him effect an introduction with Chief Big Tree, played by Robert Warwick, the guy Gardner needs to talk to regarding access to the oil.
Naturally, it all goes south when Dan tells Big Tree he’d be a sucker to accept the T&Cs Gardner offers for the oil rights, Desprit helpfully explaining to the Chief that “Sucker is what a squirrel is when he lets a woodpecker steal the nuts he stored up for the winter.’
Love that dialogue. The upshot is that Dan ends up with the rights to the oil instead. After that Gardner declares war on Dan and Desprit, the Batman and Robin of the prairie.
Dan is left having to prove to the government that he’s able to deliver the oil to the refinery otherwise the rights go to Gardner instead. Having also stole Gardner’s girl from him Dan and the boys undergo acts of sabotage and attempted murder as they struggle to pump the oil to the surface.
Along the way, we’re treated to a couple of examples of Gabby’s singing which only goes to demonstrate that his singing voice is just as incomprehensible as his speech.
The spectacular climax involves a wagon train laden with oil that the dastardly Gardner is attempting to intercept and thus put Wayne out of business. Seeing as he’s also a stagecoach driver it’s Desprit’s driving skills that help the boys get the oil to the refinery on time, telling Dan he’ll keep on driving his wagon “until the wheels fall off”. Luckily it doesn’t come to that and in the end – oil’s well that ends well (sorry about that).
Tall in the Saddle (1944)
This is the last time John Wayne worked with Gabby Hayes, the archetypal personification of the old-timer who spouted pure frontier gibberish, and who was eventually consigned to the dust heap of cinematic history with the help of the Gabby Johnson character in “Blazing Saddles”.
“Tall in the Saddle” is particularly prescient regarding Wayne’s later career, JW as the mysterious Rocklin being warned about stagecoach driver Dave, played by Hayes, on account of him being ‘a miserable old cuss’. Wayne replies that he likes ‘grumpy old cusses. Hope I live long enough to be one.’
Well, guess what, Duke. Judging by films such as “Cahill US Marshal”, “Big Jake” and “True Grit” I’d say not only does your wish eventually come true, it could also be said you went on to inherit Gabby’s crown for yourself.
Dave turns out to be the coach driver from hell, someone warning JW when he decides to ride up front with him to “Hold tight when you get to the mountains, mister. When he gets riled you can hear the passengers praying for miles”.
JW and Gabby bond when JW states “I never feel sorry for anything that happens to a woman”, eliciting from Dave the compliment that “you’re smarter than most”.
Drunk as well as cantankerous, Dave pulls up at the next coach station for a rest and encounters his old friend Pete, another old-timer who looks even more worn out and over the hill than Gabby does, if such a thing is possible.
Recalling the other JW / Gabby films, there’s a pattern emerging in which the opening sequence tends to be the best of the scenes the actors appear in together, as in “West of the Divide” and “Dark Command” for example.
The other pattern that thankfully doesn’t occur here in “Tall in the Saddle” is the one in which after a few introductory scenes Gabby disappears for whole swathes of the narrative before turning up at the finish to help with any loose ends that might need tying up.
Watching this film again is a revelation because Gabby is, despite being fourth in the cast, more prevalent throughout the whole story than he has been thus far in any of the previous JW/Gabby outings, and it’s a sheer delight whenever he wanders on to the screen.
I guess it goes without saying that this is probably the best of the fifteen films they made together and a fitting swansong for the partnership of John Wayne and George “Gabby” Hayes.
In 1950 Gabby became a TV star in his own right with the children’s Western series “The Gabby Hayes Show”. It featured the Gabster providing the narration for the show and also presenting the commercials that went with it too. The show ran for four years, even though there was a high degree of probability that nobody understood a word he said. This perennial Western old-timer finally rode off to “that great sweet bye and bye where there ain’t a cloud in the sky” in 1969 at the grand old age of 84.