It’s good to start our series on the producers of Westerns (click here for our intro essay) with Pop Sherman because he went right back to the early days of the genre. His debut film as a producer was the first version of The Light of Western Stars, the Zane Grey tale, starring Dustin Farnum and distributed by United Picture Theatres of America Inc, in 1918. And his last was one of my all-time favorite Westerns, Four Faces West, with Joel McCrea.
In between came, of course, any number of Hopalong Cassidy epics.
He was an easterner by birth, born in Boston, Mass. in 1884, and he was an early distributor of motion pictures. He exhibited The Birth of a Nation, the famous (one might now say notorious) DW Griffith film of 1915, and indeed he lent Griffith money to complete that picture, and that’s really how he got into making films at all. He moved to Hollywood full time in the 1920s and worked at both Pathe and MGM before striking out with his own company as an independent producer.
In the early 1930s Sherman bought the rights to Clarence E Mulford’s short stories and novels centered on his character Hop-a-long Cassidy, a rude, dangerous and rough-talking Westerner who had been shot in the leg during a gunfight which caused him to walk with a little hop, hence the nickname.
Hopalong (the hyphens soon got dropped) was destined to become not at all rude, dangerous or rough-talking, in fact rather sanctimonious, truth be told, and a huge character on the big screen and small, on radio, in comics, on every kind of merchandise, and there was even a Hoppyland theme park.
The first Hoppy movie which Harry produced was a one-hour programmer directed by Howard Bretherton (he would do ten of them) and released by Paramount in 1935. It starred the actor who would become Hopalong in the mind of pretty well everyone, William Boyd. It had James Ellison as Hoppy’s juvenile sidekick and Gabby Hayes as Windy for comic relief (Gabby would later leave after a salary dispute with Harry). It also starred Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton), Frank McGlynn Jr and Franklyn Farnum (no relation to Dustin), as well as other denizens of the 1930s celluloid West. It was enormously popular.
There would be five Hoppies in 1936, seven in 1937, and so on. Altogether there were an amazing 66 Hopalong Cassidy pictures. They were noted for fast action and outdoor photography (usually by Russell Harlan).
Harry did make some non-Hoppy films. The Barrier in 1937 and The Mysterious Rider in ’38 were both directed by Lesley Selander, who would helm a lot of Hoppy pics too. More importantly, he returned to Zane Grey in 1939 with a version of Heritage of the Desert (Selander again).
The same year he produced a remake of the 1930 Gary Cooper talkie The Texan, with the title The Llano Kid. In 1940 he remade his own The Light of Western Stars, with Victor Jory in the lead (Selander directing again). It had Noah Beery Jr as a Mexican (rather good, in fact) and Alan Ladd in his first Western, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him part. It was actually quite fun. That year too he made Cherokee Strip, with another actor who became a regular, Richard Dix (and Jory again), which did pretty well at Paramount. In ’41 he was back with Dix in The Round Up, Paramount/Selander again, and in 1942 there came a big picture, Paramount’s go at the Wyatt Earp legend, with Dix as Earp and Jory as Ike Clanton, alliteratively titled Tombstone: The Town Too Tough To Die. It was an energetic picture. Historical hooey, of course, but then all Wyatt Earp movies were.
In 1941 Harry had struck it rich with the The Parson of Panamint, written by Harold Shumate and starring Charles Ruggles and Ellen Drew. This was regrettably a non-Western, or anyway a semi-Western at best, but it was very popular. And it gave Harry the taste for greater things than endless Hoppy B-movies. There were ten of those in 1941.
He even tried to cancel the series, in a move that risked being fatal for the golden-egg-laying anserine, but popular demand forced him to resuscitate the hero, this time for United Artists. Sherman finally did give up Hoppy pictures in 1944, but Boyd wanted to keep them going, and he was a shrewd businessman. He sold or mortgaged most of what he owned to buy the backlog of movies from Sherman, spending $350,000 to obtain the rights to his old films, and he ended up co-producing twelve more films himself, from 1946 to 1948, now with lower budgets. The film series finally ended as B-Westerns were being phased out, but Hoppy lived on. Boyd used great skill to transition the character to TV.
Harry, though, was happy to move on. His last Hoppy number was Forty Thieves, with Boyd, Andy Clyde and Jimmy Rogers, released in June ’44 and directed by, yup, Les Selander.
Three Westerns remained to Harry Sherman, all with Joel McCrea, two of them superb.
In 1944 Harry produced, with Darryl Zanuck, a major Fox picture, Buffalo Bill, with McCrea in the title role. It was directed by the great William A Wellman and released in April. Sherman, Zanuck and Wellman agreed that at such a time an all-American hero was the only kind of William Cody that the public would accept. Though Wellman, in particular, read a lot about Cody and was more or less convinced that the fellow was a charlatan, he could not make a picture debunking the hero in the dark days of the war. Actually, Wellman didn’t want to helm the picture at all but Zanuck reminded him that he had only been allowed to make the fine but box-office-unfriendly The Ox-Bow Incident the previous year on the understanding that he would direct any script Fox gave him next. The result was something of a whitewash. Nevertheless, McCrea was perfectly splendid in the part, and the film did well commercially, grossing over $2m, if not so well critically.
In 1947 Harry went in for a noir Western, then all the rage, using McCrea again. Ramrod, based on a taut and gripping story by Luke Short, to be released by United Artists, was to be directed by none other than John Ford. In the event, Ford was otherwise occupied, with My Darling Clementine and then on The Fugitive, and he suggested André De Toth to Sherman. De Toth was keen to cast his wife, Veronica Lake, as leading lady (with the character’s name of Connie, actually her own birth name). Ramrod was the first film of Sherman’s new company, Enterprise. He thought (and he was right) that post-war audiences, especially returning soldiers, would want grittier, more adult and less romantic Westerns. That was De Toth’s remit. The picture turned out to be absolutely wonderful. In a 2003 article Senses of Cinema Rick Thompson wrote of it, “I see it as a turning-point film – a skillful and moving summary of a long tradition … and a definitive break with that tradition, setting up a new area of possibilities which proceed to change the genre – in the direction of film noir.” Martin Scorsese considers Ramrod a masterpiece.
And then came Four Faces West, featuring Mr & Mrs McCrea, and Charles Bickford as Pat Garrett. I just love this film; in fact it’s one of my all-time favorite Westerns. It’s absolutely charming. The acting is outstanding, the plot (Sherman’s daughter Teddi adapting the Eugene Manloves Rhodes story Pasó Por Aquí) engrossing, the direction by Alfred E Green (it was certainly his finest Western) superb, the photography (Sherman regular Russell Harlan) noticeably good – in fact there’s nothing wrong with this film. It was a wonderful adieu for Harry Sherman.
Harry Sherman died in 1952 after abdominal surgery, aged 65.
Frank Schoonover’s painting was quite realistic compared to Howard Boyd’s fanciful embodiment ! It looks like a western spaghetti far ahead of its time…