Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Walt Disney, Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Nowadays not only is one hard-pressed to discern the difference between Country and Western music, the latter having been subsumed into the former, but one would likely be challenged to find any Country music that sounded like Country and not just weak pop music with a Southern accent. One quick way to tell Western music is the relative absence of said accent and the obligatory slide-guitar. The handiest rule of thumb is that Country music comes from east of the Mississippi while Western comes from that vast, wide country to the west. The two genres have different geographic and ethic origins, and vastly different styles when one's ear is tuned to them. 

Among the most popular Western acts of all time were the Sons of the Pioneers. They still are, as a matter of fact. Though none of the original members remain, the Sons of the Pioneers are a designated national treasure and the longest reigning commercial musical troupe. Their origins go back to 1933 when a handsome gent named Leonard Slye joined up with Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan to form "The Pioneer Trio." The announcer felt that these fresh-faced youngsters weren't old enough to pass off as pioneers, so he bestowed upon them a new nom-de-guerre. In the next three years, Hugh and Karl Farr, and Lloyd Perryman joined up. During the war, Ken Carson replaced Lloyd Perryman, who had been drafted and continued with the group thereafter. Pat Brady was brought in to replace Slye when he went off to a new career in motion pictures. You might be more familiar with Slye's stage name: Roy Rogers.

Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers

Born in Cincinnati in 1911, Slye was introduced to film through the Sons of the Pioneers. Almost immediately after forming, they began appearing in Hollywood variety films, wherever a cowboy-twinged harmony group was required to support Gene Autry, Dick Foran, Bing Crosby, or Charles Starrett. Slye's first credited appearance in film was in support of Gene Autry, going by the machismo-laden name "Dick Weston." When Autry took off during a contract dispute, Slye was given a new name and thrust into the spotlight as a replacement. In 1941 the Sons of the Pioneers were contracted by Republic Pictures for their Western B-grade pictures starring Roy. Their reunion began in Red River Valley that year and they frequently guest-starred on television's Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show 20 years later, with some 45 films in between (as well as supporting John Wayne in such films as Rio Grande and The Searchers). 

The movie-going experience in that era was significantly different from the experience today. Before the advent of television, a single ticket could buy a full afternoon's worth of newsreels, cartoons, serials, headlining feature films, and hour-long, programme-padding "B-pictures" (as contrasted to the A-list headline film). These were quickly written, expediently shot, cheap to produce, and generally considered disposable. Watching them back-to-back today, in the copious number of Roy Rogers' films available on Internet Archive or public domain DVD collections, the astute viewer can pick out when they even used the same plot, only switching out the characters names, location, and Macguffin! 

No one was a bigger hero of the B-movie Western than Roy Rogers, and no one better exemplifies the Western's blurred line between fact and myth than him. One may speak pejoratively of how Fess Parker played essentially the same character in every movie he made under the Disney banner, a point he himself came to realize. Rogers, on the other hand, literally did play himself. Regardless of the setting, time, occupation, or any other consideration, Roy Rogers was the character. Trigger was the horse. Gabby was the sidekick. Having control over the licensing of his likeness and silken voice, it is said that no other name of the time was as well-known - or marketable - save for Walt Disney himself. The Roy Rogers brand, the character, came to stand for the most upright, honest American values carried over from a rugged and bygone era. Yet the man was a celebrity made possible by Hollywood glitz and glamour (as glitzy as his sequined outfits later in life). His films betray this duplicity: a regular plot-driver finds Rogers framed up and unjustly on the run from the law, or using disguise and deception on behalf of justice. Just as regularly he acts the very agent of the frontier's domestication that he and the Sons of the Pioneer bemoan in song, whether working for the railroad, or to bring peace between the ranchers and townsfolk, or to round-up outlaws so good decent folk can settle. For a simple singing cowboy, Roy Rogers was a paradox. On screen and in life he was a man of great integrity, but his films are a metatextual layering of everything as upright, rugged and honest as a non-alcoholic cocktail.

Roy, Trigger, and the Sons of the Pioneers
doing what they do best in Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Just as the stars of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers were rising, Disney was having a tough time. Though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs catapulted Walt and his company to even greater fame, follow-up features like Pinocchio and especially Fantasia failed to capture the same popularity. The animator's strike of 1941 tensed up the studio at the same time that World War II shut off the European film market. In order to survive, Disney slimmed down its cinematic offerings, releasing a string of "package films" that anthologized shorter subjects. 

Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros came out during the war, as a product of Walt's Latin American goodwill tour and post-strike vacation. These begat Make Mine Music in 1946 and Fun and Fancy Free in 1947, the latter comprised of two straightforward half-hour cartoons and the former being essentially a pop-music Fantasia. At the time, pop-music meant Benny Goodman, Nelson Eddy, Andy Russell and the Andrews Sisters. Disney looked to refine the format of Make Mine Music with 1948's Melody Time. Donald Duck and José Carioca of the Latin American films returned in Blame it on the Samba, the Andrews Sisters narrated Little Toot, Freddy Martin and His Orchestra provided the Bumble Boogie, and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers sat around the campfire telling the story of Pecos Bill to Song of the South's Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten.

One of Disney's tallest tales, Pecos Bill is also one of the best possible introductions to the work of Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. This piece, the climax of Melody Time, begins with a melancholy ballad entitled Blue Shadows on the Trail. The song, comparable to the Sons' two biggest hits Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water, was also released in 1948. The animation in this portion is slight, meditatively touring us around the moonlit mesas of an idealized, romantic American Southwest. Ken Carson supplied the eerie whistling.

In the midst of this animated landscape, Ub Iwerks' special processes bring us around the live-action campfire of Roy Rogers, Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers explaining to Bobby and Luana why coyotes howl at the moon. It has to do with ol' Pecos Bill and his fateful meeting with Slue-Foot Sue.

Pairing Roy with Pecos was, probably unwittingly, very appropriate. Pecos Bill is a significant example of "fakelore", the phenomenon of a newly invented story taking on an artificial history as genuine folklore. The first Pecos story was written by Edward O'Reilly and published in The Century Magazine in 1917. These stories were eventually compiled into a single volume, The Saga of Pecos Bill in 1923. O'Reilly insisted up and down that his Pecos Bill stories were transcribed from authentic tales told by cowboys around the campfire, but folklorists have as yet been unable to find any historic mention of Pecos outside of his original articles. The tallest tale about Pecos is that he is a tall tale!

To tell Pecos Bill's legend, Roy slips into cowboy storyteller mode, a unique narrative style that is folksy, quick-witted and extremely engaging. This story segues into the big number, a jaunty rendition of Pecos Bill's self-titled song. Controversially, a part of that song involving Bill rolling a smoke while riding a tornado was cut from the last DVD release over concerns about undue influence on children (the questionable portrayals of Native Americans, however, were left behind). If there is any doubt, I can only recommend the audio version performed by the cast for RCA-Victor records. It has moments even more inspired and drop-dead hilarious than in the film, and it is freely available from the incomparable Kiddie Records Weekly. A copy can be streamed or downloaded here.

The Sons of the Pioneers wouldn't return to the Disney fold until 1961, and then it was to be fronted by Rex Allen. Though not a member of the group, Disney Legend Rex Allen had been working steadily for the company since 1956, starring in everything from live performances on the Disneyland television series to narrating feature films to (afterwards) providing Father's voice for the Carousel of Progress to recording albums for Buena Vista Records. It was only natural that they would pair him with the Sons of the Pioneers for the short Saga of Windwagon Smith.

Windwagon Smith was the story of a sea captain (who looked suspiciously like Kirk Douglas' Ned Land from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) who fit a Conestoga Wagon out with a deck and sails, whereupon the wind carried it along the Santa Fe Trail. After striking an agreement with the Westport town council, Admiral Smith constructs a massive "prairie clipper" that takes him to a fated meeting with a Kansas twister. Throughout, the Sons of the Pioneers provide their musical stylings and distinctive voices to the townsfolk. 

By the 1960's, the film market had changed sufficiently that the Walt Disney Company began to phase out their long tradition of animated shorts. Television had shifted the production of lower quality animation and short features towards Wonderful World of Color, which debuted on NBC in 1961 in place of ABC's Disneyland (which itself had aired since 1954). Wonderful World of Color became a venue for those classic shorts to be seen again in the relatively new medium, and consequently diminished their box office draw. Though one of the last shorts to be produced, Windwagon Smith is cut from very old cloth. As a classic tall tale it hearkens all the way back to Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett and Paul Bunyan. 

A year later, the Sons of the Pioneers supported Rex Allen once again in The Legend of Lobo. By this point, Disney had replaced their series of straightforward nature documentaries - the beloved True-Life Adventures - with wildlife dramas narrated by Rex Allen. The series began with The Hound Who Thought He Was a Raccoon in 1960, a short which preceded the last True-Life Adventure film Jungle Cat. These films were generally, excuse the term, good-natured and regularly featured wildlife interacting in different (but regularly humourous) ways with humankind.

The Legend of Lobo was patchier on the humour, considering that it was based on the real experiences of Ernest Thompson Seton in capturing the historical Lobo in the 1890's. Lobo's pack had turned to feasting on settlers' cattle, and a $1000 bounty was placed on his head. Seton decided to give it a turn, and what was supposed to be an excursion of a few weeks turned into a four-month ordeal. Eventually Lobo was captured... lured in with the pelt of his mate Blanca, who herself finally trapped and killed just prior. The great wolf died of his injuries and broken spirit, but his death was not in vain. Seton published a written account of Lobo in 1898 and dedicated the remainder of his own life to wolf conservation. Before his passing in 1946, Seton wrote "Ever since Lobo my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children."

Disney's film was shot around the stunning countryside of Sedona, Arizona. Though cowboys and wolf-hunters terrorize Lobo and his kin throughout, the only voice to be heard is Allen's, narrating the story while the Sons of the Pioneers pluck their guitars.

The relationship between Walt and Roy... Roy Rogers that is, along with the Sons of the Pioneers... was not extensive. It is interesting to see, however, where two of the most popular and well-known figures in entertainment in their period collaborated. 

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