Bad Movies · Classic Movies

“Possessed of an instinct keener than man, Wolfheart suspects evil doings…”

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Last month, as I was entertaining myself with the two-reel comedies on The Sprocket Vault set Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-33, I spotted one of the blog’s favorite character actors, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, in two of the Thel-Zase entries.  In Catch-As-Catch-Can (1931), Guinn is the lovable lug of a prizefighter whose sweet science game is considerably stepped up once he makes the romantical acquaintance of Miss Pitts; in War Mamas (1931), he’s one of the ladies’ two suitors (the other portrayed by Allan Lane before he became Allan “Rocky” Lane).  Williams, it could be argued, was a “Lot of Fun” veteran; he made appearances in two of Will Rogers’ Roach comedy shorts, Uncensored Movies (1923) and Big Moments from Little Pictures (1924) and was the leading man in one of Hal’s “Rex the Wonder Horse” Western features, Black Cyclone (1925).  (Guinn would later co-star opposite Patsy Kelly and Charley Chase in the 1936 Roach-produced feature comedy Kelly the Second.)

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Guinn “Big Boy” Williams

It was Rogers who gave Williams his “Big Boy” nickname after Guinn had a bit role in one of Will’s pictures for Samuel Goldwyn, Almost a Husband (1919).  Born in Decatur, Texas in 1899, Williams used his experience as both a cowboy and rodeo rider (not to mention playing semi-pro and pro baseball) to seek out work as a stuntman in Tinsel Town, gradually transitioning to acting roles.  Guinn graced many a B-Western during the silent and sound movie era, but by the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s he really scored as a distinctive character type: that of the slightly dense (and quick-to-anger) sidekick with a heart of gold.  (You may remember “Big Boy” Williams was among the all-star lineup of “the million dollar serial” Riders of Death Valley [1941], a past “Serial Saturdays” presentation on the blog.  One of my favorites of Guinn’s turns is in the 1948 Western noir Station West; he and Dick Powell engage in an amazing bareknuckle brawl that’s a testament to Williams’ prowess as a stuntman.)

In 1925, independent director-producer Charles R. Seeling instituted a short-lived film franchise intended to cash in on the success of Warner Brothers’ Rin Tin Tin series with Fangs of Wolfheart (1925), using “Big Boy” Williams as the heroic male lead, Kathleen Collins in the ingenue role, and “Wolfheart the Wonder Dog” as the canine always up for coming to the rescue.  Wolfheart’s Revenge (1925) was the follow-up in the series, and it was recently released (September 25) to DVD by the good folks at Alpha Video.  (Alpha’s Brian Krey was generous enough to catapult a screener in the direction of Rancho Yesteryear.)

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Williams, Kathleen Collins (Mrs. “Big Boy”), and Wolfheart in the first of the heroic canine’s six sagas, Fangs of Wolfheart (1925).

Guinn plays Jack Stanley in Revenge, a cowpuncher in the employ at the Star Bar Ranch—a spread owned by Richard Bronson (S.J. “Captain” Bingham).  Bronson needs to buy half the water rights on the neighboring property of sheepman John Williams, but the benevolent rancher foolishly puts his trust in Star Bar foreman Blackie Blake (Larry Fisher), described in a title card as someone who “has never received any medals for honesty.”  (Ferchrissake, his name is “Blackie.” That’s just an invitation to villainy. Even “Boston Blackie” had a shady past.)

Blake approaches Williams about selling, but John stalls him off; asked if he’ll drop off a letter “at the crossroads” on his way back to the Bronson ranch, Blackie opens up the missive (what a snake!) and learns that Williams no-way-no-how plans on selling.  So, Blake forges Williams’ signature on a bill of sale while sneaking Bronson’s check for $5000 into the sheepman’s pocket.  Williams returns home to the missus (Helen Walton) to relate what all went down…and Blackie shoots him dead from behind a tree off in the distance. (Rotter.)

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Kathleen Collins

Wolfheart’s Revenge isn’t going to make silent Western fans forget The Covered Wagon (1923) or even The Iron Horse (1924) anytime soon, but it’s a serviceable and entertaining oater despite the standard melodramatic plot trappings.  Blackie Blake is a hardworking cad in every traditional sense of the word; not only does he commit cold-blooded murder during the course of the movie, he tries to frame our (big) boy Jack for that deed…in addition to making boss Bronson think “Smiling” Jack is a cattle rustler. Blake, you see, is jealous that Bronson’s niece Betty—played by Kathleen Collins, who had a great deal of experience in the Western leading lady arena with appearances in sagebrush sagas starring Harry Carey and Ken Maynard—is kind of sweet on Jack and constantly spurring Blackie’s advances. (Collins was married to Williams in real life, which might explain her affections—proving that nothing says nepotism like Hollywood.)

dvdBecause Wolfheart’s Revenge has a short 52-minute running time (the ending on the Alpha print is also rather abrupt), Alpha has paired it with a second silent oater, Tracy the Outlaw (1928).  An independent effort from Foto-Art Productions (and released by states’ rights New-Cal Film Corporation), Outlaw adapts a play written by Pierce Kingsley to fictionalize the life of legendary bad man Harry Tracy (played by Jack Hoey…who apparently didn’t do much after this picture).  The movie posits that Tracy was, to quote Western film expert Boyd Magers, “more a victim of the sins of others than his own”—that Tracy might have stayed on the straight-and-narrow had it not been for an encounter with an evil gambler. (This is at complete odds with the historical record, where the real Harry was a vicious essobee of a killer—maybe the most vicious in Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch.”) Curiosity about Tracy (a week or so back, I put on the 1982 film that stars Bruce Dern as Tracy for my Dad one night) prompted me to give this one a watch but it was a terrible battle as I nodded off several times. (Stick with Big Boy and the dog.)

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Lobby card for The Big Stunt (1925)

After Wolfheart’s Revenge, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and that “wonder dog” made four more films together: Bad Man from Bodie (the [always reliable] IMDb identifies this as a short—make of that what you will), Rose of the Desert, Courage of Wolfheart, and The Big Stunt.  All were released in 1925, with Kathleen Collins re-joining her husband and his dog in the last two.  Collins’ last film credit was 1932’s Border Devils, while her husband went on to greater cinematic triumphs in such films as Lucky Star (1929), The Glass Key (1935—playing the role that William Bendix would in the better-known 1942 version), You Only Live Once (1937), A Star is Born (1937), Dodge City (1939), The Desperadoes (1943), and Rocky Mountain (1950). (Williams was also a regular on the 1956-58 TV series Circus Boy, which featured a young Micky Dolenz.)  John Wayne, who was a pal of Williams’ from the days of silent films, gave Guinn roles in two of his pictures: The Alamo (1960) and The Comancheros (1961), which would be among Williams’ final films before his death in 1962.

As for Wolfheart…well, a little-known chapter of Tinsel Town lore reveals that after he retired from acting he took a job as bodyguard to Rin Tin Tin. (Okay, I made this up. I had no other way to end this essay.)

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