Thursday, June 24, 2010

Callaway Went Thataway - 1951

“Callaway Went Thataway” (1951), continues our look at old movies as filler for programming on early TV, and on the “Hopalong” Cassidy phenomenon in particular. Not that Hoppy is actually mentioned, in fact the film ends with a careful disclaimer to that effect.

Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire play ad executives who are making money hand over fist with their latest property, the redistribution of old “Smokey Callaway” B-movies to the hungry TV market. Even more, the merchandizing of Smokey Callaway toys, etc. But, the network execs decide this is such a good thing, they want to hire the cowpoke to make some brand new films. The problem is, Callaway is nowhere to be found. Enter a young look-alike, played by Howard Keel.

We are first introduced to the Hoppy, er, that is, Callaway phenomenon, through the montage of small children glued to the TV, watching their hero’s every move. This includes a couple of poker-faced young African-American kids, who, as discussed in this previous post on Herb Jeffries, were given little by either Hollywood or TV in the way of a black hero to emulate. Clearly, we are shown that Callaway appeals to everybody in this democratic republic. It’s a cute shot, that can’t help but ring hollow. Grownups love him, too, including a fawning Natalie Schafer, who plays the wife of the big TV boss. You may remember her as Lovey in “Gilligan’s Island.”

The team of MacMurray and McGuire are now up a creek, because the real Callaway disappeared to a life of dissipation years ago, and the look-alike cowboy they hire to play him wants nothing to do with TV. He is sincere, honest, naïve, and gentle. Howard Keel, with his choir boy haircut and soft speech, is adorable, and it’s kind of amazing to see him later on in the film playing the real Callaway, an obnoxious, womanizing boozer, with the same face, the same clothes, and yet actually appearing different. His voice booms and his face actually looks puffier, his hard, dim eyes glaring with suspicion and resentment.

But, until they find the real Callaway, they must utilize his erstwhile double, and on a coast to coast train trip, McGuire tries to impress upon Mr. Keel how important Smokey Callaway is as a role model to children. Along the way, he falls in love with her, but she is reluctant to submit to his aw-shucks charm.

She and MacMurray have that 1930s screwball comedy rapport with each other, but it’s somewhat forced and we are given to understand there is no romantic involvement between them. She undergoes a conversion when she falls in love with Howard Keel and decides the ad racket has gotten too deceitful for her. Mr. MacMurray never undergoes such a conversion, remaining a likeable, but undependable trickster to the end. MacMurray was so good playing guys on the knife edge of good and bad.

On their coast-to-coast trip we get some rear screen project of Niagara Falls, a lot of train interior shots, which is always lovely, but their stop in San Francisco appears to be really filmed there. There is also a bit at the end filmed at the Los Angeles Coliseum, so we might wonder what kind of build-up this movie had and what expense went into making it.

There are even a few star cameos. Esther Williams and her sons accost Keel in a hotel lobby, and later he meets Elizabeth Taylor and Clark Gable at the Mocambo, both of whom he greets effusively and neither of whom he recognizes.

Mr. Keel, who fairly hero-worships the (he thinks) saintly character he is playing, decides to set up a charitable foundation for children with his salary. But then, the real Smokey shows up like an evil twin, and wants all the moolah and all the swag that the team of MacMurray and McGuire have been generating. There is the inevitable fight scene between the good and evil Smokeys, and because they are wearing the same clothes, we don’t know who is who.

Finally, the real one learns of the charitable foundation set up by his look-alike, and bails out of the whole Smokey Callaway franchise. He doesn’t want any part of it if he can’t keep the money himself. The look-alike gets to keep the job.

Fred MacMurray tosses off a funny line with all seriousness, “What’s the Smokey Callaway Foundation? Have we got a girdle tie-in?”

We end with a rousing appearance at the Coliseum, and Miss McGuire’s 11th-hour commitment to being the sweetheart of a TV cowboy.

Both these films, “Dreamboat” and “Callaway Went Thataway” harken back to the screwball comedies of a previous generation, but they land squarely in the present, using it as surely as any socially conscious dramatic film of that era did to bring reality to the movies. “Callaway” ends with the interesting disclaimer, as much a signpost to the era as the fake signpost it was printed on. (The opening screen titles on a similar signpost remind me of “My Darling Clementine.”)

“This picture was made in the spirit of fun, and was meant in no way to detract from the wholesome influence, civic mindedness and the many charitable contributions of Western idols of our American youth, or to be a portrayal of any of them.”

A case of methinks they doth protest too much?

Actually, Hopalong Cassidy, is the real hero on whom this movie is based. You might remember his showing up Boris Karloff in the 1950 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, as discussed in this previous post. From the book “Total Television” by Alex M. Neal (Penguin Books, NY, 1996, 4th edition), we have a few stats on our hero. Hoppy made 66 B-movies from 1935 to 1948. William Boyd, who played Hoppy, cannily acquired the TV rights to his films, and re-edited them to fit 30 and 60-minute timeslots. According to author Mr. Neal, “thus, he was in a position to offer a readily available source of action programming to the rapidly expanding postwar television station market.”

Hopalong Cassidy merchandise on display at the Autry Musuem of the American West, Los Angeles (author photo)

His show ran from 1949 to 1951 on NBC, and then continued in syndication from 1952 to 1954. Hoppy was perfect for the new medium and the black and white sets: he dressed in black, and rode a white horse. Anybody remember Hoppy’s horse’s name?


A said...

I saw this on TV just the other day.

Caftan Woman said...

Hoppy's horse: Topper. I'm one of those kids who idolized the western heroes on television.

I'm also one of those gals who goes for Howard Keel in a big way - and he really gets to shine in this movie that has a reach that exceeds its grab, but expresses an interesting point of view.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Absolutely right, Caftan Woman, Topper it is! I agree with your assessment that this fillm's reach exceeds its grab, but it manages to get us thinking (or at least reminiscing) all the same. I, for one, like all the train travel. Some of those rear screen projections of orange groves flying by are pretty good.

Gordon Pasha said...


This comment is so irrelevant that I almost dare not pass it along. When the Hoppy show was so popular, I guess in 1949 or 1950, I lived in a Bronx apartment house of 52 families and television was still quite new. (My family did not buy a set until 1952.)

Our superintendent did have a television and his little boy was an avid watcher of Hopalong Cassiday. The boy was thus nicknamed “Hoppy,” of course. I wonder if he still carries that name with him: Hoppy Harris.

In another earth shaking disclosure of social history -- at the end of the war some five years earlier, only one family in our building had a telephone. (They were forever intruded on when emergencies occurred.) End of social history ‘show and tell’ – I would certainly understand you using your delete privilege.

I actually watched “Callaway” for a while because I am a particular admirer of Dorothy McGuire and I like Fred MacMurray. (Comparing the signpost to “Clementine” was a smart observation.) I also remember that “Dreamboat” was amusing. Clifton Webb was ever a presence. Best.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Irrelevant? Gerald, my friend, this is the kind of comment I live for. Stories about Hoppy and the Bronx apartment, the super's kid, and the one telephone. You made my day.

I'm a fan of Dorothy McGuire, too. One scene I forgot to mention was when she and Fred are taking the bus out to the ranch to meet with Howard Keel for the first time. Together they both sway to their left so a cowpoke in back of them can spit out the window. The deadpan expressions on their faces is priceless.

Thanks again for commenting, Gerald.

Moira Finnie said...

Very interesting post, Jacqueline, my fellow Dorothy McGuire devotee. I worry about Dorothy whenever I see this movie--she's too thin in this movie, but it is fun to see playing a few comedy scenes with Fred MacMurray.

Btw, did you know that the premise of Callaway Went Thataway was based on the real life consequences of the public and press confusion in the late '20s and early '30s between William "Hoppy" Boyd (1895-1972) and William "Stage" Boyd (1889-1935), two actors with the same name who were active in silents and early talkies in the same period, (long before Hopalong saved the "good" William Boyd's bacon?).

According to the documentary "Hopalong Cassidy: Public Hero #1" (2001) about the Hoppy phenomenon, (which is terrific and is on Encore Western occasionally):

William Boyd, adopted the "Stage" as his middle name to add distinction to the former Broadway actor's theatrical background after he started to make movies in the '20s and discovered that there was also another Wm. Boyd. William "Stage" Boyd's "bad behavior (which included arrests for alcohol and drug possession) not only wrecked his own career, but inadvertently derailed William Boyd's career as well. When the first stories broke about "Stage" Boyd's escapades, the photos splashed across the newspapers were of the wrong Boyd. The day before, Boyd had signed a large contract with RKO, one that was immediately terminated by invoking the morals clause."

Maybe William Boyd (the one who became Hoppy) should have changed his name to William "Good" Boyd to salvage his career, poor guy.

Btw, I think the inclusion of a shot of African-American kids enjoying Callaway is a sign of the hand of Dory Schary in MGM production. People of lots of different ethnic backgrounds began to pop up in the studio movies around that time. I guess no one liked Schary as a studio mogul, (I don't think he had the temperament) but he was trying to make a point--sometimes quietly, sometimes pointedly.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Dear Moira, you always come up with the goods. I had heard of the other William Boyd, and was vaguely aware of some confusion between them, but I did not know about the bad boy escapdes of "Stage" Boyd. Good stuff.

Also interesting observation on Dora Schary's input, subtle or not so subtle, efforts to show a slightly more diverse America.

I agree, nice to Dorothy McGuire doing comedy. Eventually I'm going to get around to "Mister 880". She was certainly adept at comedy, showing her stuff in the "Claudia" movies, but by this time she had matured into a wiser, sardonic kind of foil, almost a straight man. She could do witty very well, but I don't think the audience would accept her as ditzy. She had a reputation even then of just being too intelligent.

Thanks so much for the great background on the good and evil Boyds.

Moira Finnie said...

Hey Jacqueline,
I was just thinking about what you said about Dorothy McGuire in "Callaway..." and I realized that one reason why this movie jumps out at me in her work is that, as she did in "Mr. 880" and "Three Coins in the Fountain" the actress was an independent, working woman--something that was rare for her on screen. Of course, in "The Enchanted Cottage" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" she was also independent, but not exactly by choice. Dorothy McGuire played several of these women whose planned lives did not work out along conventional lines, but her characters were forced to find some strength inside themselves.

Sometimes these characters seemed hurt and even angry when things worked out differently than planned(see "Gentleman's Agreement," "Till the End of Time" and "I Want You" for examples). Thanks for reminding me how often her characters deviated from convention in many ways. Dorothy McGuire=Subversive!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I think we need a Dorothy McGuire Convention to discuss these issues. We could put "Dorothy McGuire=Subversive!" on T-shirts and sell them in a booth.

Moira Finnie said...


On the front of the T-shirt we could have Dorothy's unibrow image from early in "The Enchanted Cottage" and on the back we could have her seraphically beautiful vaseline-lensed look later!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love it. There's something appealing about the whacky uniting of her gentle ugly/beautiful character with a message of social anarchy.

Just makes me want to snarl, "Yeah, I got your tea cakes and scones right here, buddy!"

Related Products