(From Old Corral image collection)
|"Wild Bill" Elliott|
Real name: Gordon Nance
Special thanks to guest commentator Paul Dellinger for authoring the following narrative and background info on Bill Elliott.
Click HERE and a separate window will open with a filmography on Elliott which includes the directors, leading ladies and sidekicks, as well as a commentary by Les Adams about Elliott's lengthy career before he became a western movie hero.
|Several folks have shared their memories and photos of Wild Bill Elliott. Click HERE for Remembering "Wild Bill".|
He would always be known as the 'peaceable man' --- for that, and for the way he carried his two pistols, butts forward in their holsters. But Wild Bill Elliott could never stay peaceable, and those six-guns fired their way through B-western movie series at Columbia, Republic and Monogram/Allied Artists before he finally hung them up.
It was legendary gunfighter James Butler 'Wild Bill' Hickok who gave Elliott his movie moniker, because Elliott played Hickok in the serial that brought him to western stardom and in several movies after that. For a while, though, he became William Elliott when Republic moved him up from B-westerns to its higher-budgeted films.
Elliott came by none of those names naturally. He was born Gordon Nance, on a ranch in Pattonsburg, Missouri, on Oct. 16, 1903, according to John Leonard's definitive book on his films, appropriately titled Wild Bill Elliott. Nance grew up around horses, riding his first one at age five. His father was commissioner at the Kansas City stockyards, where young Nance saw many actual cowboys riding and roping. By age sixteen, he won first place among those cowboys in the American Royal Horse and Livestock Show. But it was a silent movie he saw at age nine that pointed him in the direction of his career. It was a movie featuring legendary western star William S. Hart, and inspired the young viewer to want to become a cowboy star someday. Many of his later features would use the old Hart storylines of a badman who reforms.
After attending Rockingham College, Nance enrolled in the Pasadena Community Playhouse for stage performances. A talent scout signed him for movies, but few of them came anywhere near westerns. Most were society dramas, and coincided with his first name change, to Gordon Elliott. The newly-dubbed Elliott sported a thin mustache in this phase of his career, spanning thirteen years and ninety pictures starting with an appearance in a silent film, THE PLASTIC AGE (1925) starring Clara Bow and Gilbert Roland (a future Cisco Kid).
|Special thanks to Ellen Bailey at the Pasadena Playhouse. Ellen checked their archives and notes that a Gordon Elliott is listed with them: "In 1928, he appeared in a workshop production of WIND MILLS. In 1932, he appeared in the Mainstage production of THE YOUNG IDEAS."|
Elliott did appear in a few westerns, usually on the wrong side of the law. His first ones were silents in 1928, ARIZONA WILDCAT with Tom Mix and VALLEY OF HUNTED MEN with Jay Wilsey, better known as Buffalo Bill, Jr. By the mid-1930s, he had more more prominent roles in TRAILIN' WEST (1936) and GUNS OF THE PECOS (1937), both starring Dick Foran; ROLL ALONG, COWBOY (1937) with Smith Ballew, and BOOTS AND SADDLES, where he played a bad guy brought to justice by Gene Autry.
Meanwhile, Elliott was working in just about every kind of film there was, in titles such as THE DROP KICK, RESTLESS YOUTH, PASSION SONG, THE MIDNIGHT MYSTERY, BORN TO LOVE, PEG OF MY HEART, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, 20 MILLION SWEETHEARTS, HERE COMES THE NAVY, DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR, ALIBI IKE, THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR, LADY IN THE MORGUE, and many more. He was in three Perry Mason mysteries: THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG, THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT and THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS; THE SINGING KID with Al Jolson; G-MEN with James Cagney and a future frequent cowboy sidekick, Raymond Hatton; and even TARZAN'S REVENGE with Glenn Morris as the ape man.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above from L-to-R are Monte Montague, Smith Ballew, Bud Osborne, and a moustached Gordon Elliott (before his hero days as 'Wild Bill') in ROLL ALONG, COWBOY (20th Century Fox, 1937). While the above lobby card shows the ROLL ALONG, COWBOY with a comma, the opening title in the film is just plain ROLL ALONG COWBOY.
(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Above is Elliott wearing a buckskin shirt and twin sixguns in the serial THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK (Columbia, 1938). His horse is the overo paint nicknamed 'Dice' which was trained and owned by Ralph McCutcheon. The real name of the steed was 'Pair O'Dice' and was ridden by John Carroll in the chapterplay ZORRO RIDES AGAIN (Republic, 1937), by Jennifer Jones in DUEL IN THE SUN, by Russell Wade in the independently produced SUNDOWN RIDERS (Film Enterprises, 1948) and the horse even showed up in TARZAN'S DESERT MYSTERY (Sol Lesser/RKO, 1943). Dice also had a large role in the Blondie and Dagwood comedy IT'S A GREAT LIFE (Columbia, 1943), and he does a routine with Dub 'Cannonball' Taylor in COWBOY CANTEEN (Columbia, 1944).
His defining moment came in 1938 when Columbia cast him as the lead in its 15-chapter serial, THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK.
That was the first time he wore the reversed brace of stag-handled guns, possibly because Gary Cooper had done so playing Hickok two years earlier in Cecil B. deMille's THE PLAINSMAN. In fact, Hickok's show guns were ivory-handled; he wore them stuck in a sash around his waist rather than in holsters (and supplemented them with derringers and other hidden artillery; Hickok apparently believed in firepower), and may have killed only four men in actual gunfights, depending on how many of the stories about him you believe.
In the serial, as marshal of Abilene, Hickok takes on a gang called the Phantom Raiders. Chief Thunder Cloud, soon to become best known as Tonto in Republic's two Lone Ranger serials, and Roscoe Ates, future comic sidekick for PRC's singing cowboy, Eddie Dean, were in the cast along with Robert Fiske as the chief villain.
In his first starring western feature, IN EARLY ARIZONA (1938), Columbia cast him as a lawman named Whit Gordon and armed him with two pearl-handled six-guns worn the regular way. As in the WILD BILL HICKOK cliffhanger, he was still billed as Gordon Elliott, but that would change to 'Bill Elliott' after a few more films. The story was actually one of many versions of the Wyatt Earp saga in Tombstone, Arizona, based on still more exaggerated stories about an actual frontier lawman. Jack Ingram, usually a baddie, played the lawman whose death prompts Elliott's character to clean up Tombstone and a gang led by veteran badman Harry Woods.
Continuing with the two regularly-packed guns and riding a good-looking paint horse (Elliott would go on to raise horses, and use many of his own in his future films), Columbia starred him in FRONTIERS OF '49, LONE STAR PIONEERS and THE LAW COMES TO TEXAS in 1939, then starred him in another 15-chapter serial, OVERLAND WITH KIT CARSON with Elliott as the famed frontiersman. The serial had a disguised villain called Pegleg (who really didn't have a pegleg but somehow made it look like he did) and a murderous black stallion called Midnight, who tramples Pegleg's enemies at his command. Carson eventually tames the killer horse, and it is Pegleg who gets trampled by him in the final chapter.
(From Old Corral image collection)
|From L-to-R are Frankie Darro, Gordon Elliott and Chief Thunder Cloud (Victor Daniels) in Elliott's first starring role, THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK (1938) cliffhanger.|
(Courtesy of Bill McCann)
Above from left to right are Veda Ann Borg, Charles 'Slim' Whitaker, Bill Elliott and Frank Ellis in THE LAW COMES TO TEXAS (Columbia, 1939).
Note the gunbelt with the pearl-handled six-shooters in the normal, butts rearward position. For a closeup of Elliott's gun and holster set, click HERE. Also note the bullet loops above the holster --- those would disappear in a later gunbelt.