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The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.



(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Benny Corbett

Full name:
Benjamin Ervin Corbett

1888, 1890 or 1892 - 1961

First and last name variations:
Ben
Benny
Bennie
Corbet
Corbett

Nickname:
"Smiley"



I always considered Benny Corbett as rather nondescript western film performer. I remember him as an occasional sidekick, but mostly as the fourth or fifth henchman through the door. The old adage that "you can't judge a book by its cover" is applicable to Ben. In real life, he was more complex - and more rough and tough - than what came across in his several hundred appearances in front of the camera.

We begin with Yakima Canutt writing about his pal Ben Corbett in Stunt Man, The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt (Walker and Company, New York, 1979 by Canutt with Oliver Drake):

"I decided to stay in Hollywood for the winter. I had met quite a few screen personalities during the rodeo. Westerns were very big in Hollywood at that time, and many of the stars were former rodeo contestants and cowboys. Tom Grimes and Ben Corbett, close friends with whom I had rodeoed, now worked in pictures, and promised to show me around." "During the winter, I did work in two or three pictures. Ben Corbett took me to the studio that was starting a twelve-part serial titled Lightning Brice, which starred Jack Hoxie and Ann Little. Paul Hurst was directing." (Note: the correct title is LIGHTNING BRYCE (Arrow, 1919) and it was 15 chapters long.)

The few bits and pieces of Corbett history indicate that he did a hitch in the U. S. Cavalry as a young man. Digging further, I discovered more on his lengthy rodeo career and that he was a respected movie stuntmen with a specialty of falling from horses. And his friendship with Canutt must have been strong as he was Yak's best man when he married rodeo performer Kitty Wilks (Katherine Wilkes) in 1917.

There are a few references to Corbett doing rodeo in the Lewiston, Idaho Morning Tribune and Spokane, Washington Spokesman Review newspapers. One of his specialties was Roman riding (standing on and riding two horses at a breakneck speed):

I did e-mail the several rodeo organizations. In January, 2013, I received the following from the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame: "... Ben Corbett was a contestant 1911 through 1917 and 1924. The early lists do not say what event the person entered. His name does not appear on the winner's list."

As mentioned, Corbett's movie work began circa 1915, and he was in dozens of silent westerns starring Hoot Gibson, Art Acord, Fred Humes, Don Coleman, Jack Hoxie, Leo Maloney, Ted Wells, Ken Maynard, and a few others. Work was difficult and dangerous and an April 17, 1925 newspaper had a report about Jack Hoxie breaking his shoulder on a Universal western when his horse stepped in a gopher hole. Also mentioned: "Right behind him rode an unsung actor named Ben Corbett. Mr. Corbett's horse followed the leader and Mr. Corbett is laid up with a broken leg."

By the mid 1920s, Corbett exited the rodeo profession and concentrated on the film business. There was a brief period of stardom when he and Gilbert 'Pee Wee' Holmes headlined the "Dirty Shirt" and "Magpie" comedy western shorts from Universal. These were based on W. C. Tuttle stories published in Adventure magazine, and about two dozen two-reelers were produced during 1925-1927.



Above - a crop from a June, 1925 Universal tradepaper ad for their Mustang two reel shorts. Note the "Smiley" moniker for Corbett.



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Benny Corbett, Don Coleman and Eugenia Gilbert in a lobby card from the silent THE BOSS OF RUSTLER'S ROOST (Leo Maloney Productions/Pathe, 1928).



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Fred Humes, Benny Corbett, Gilbert 'Pee Wee' Holmes, Scotty Mattraw and Nelson McDowell in a lobby card and crop/blowup from the Humes silent THE ARIZONA CYCLONE (Universal, 1928).


In sound B westerns, Corbett played just about every role imaginable, including sidekick, henchman, townsman, cowhand, barfly, etc. Short in stature, and with a pot belly that hung over his gunbelt, he was a frequent player in 1930s oaters. Most of his work was unbilled as he was just another gang or posse member. He occasionally assisted or sidekicked with a few of the sound era cowboys including Jack Hoxie, Buck Jones, and Lane Chandler. The bulk of his saddle pal roles occurred in a series with Tim McCoy and with a mix of heroes at Reliable Pictures:

Benny didn't have the personality or screen presence to be a successful hero helper. I always thought that his sidekick facial expressions were twofold - he was either smiling or dumbfounded. Basically, he came across as bland. He was better suited as a henchman or ranch hand.



(From Old Corral image collection)

Above - Tom Tyler and Corbett (as saddle pal 'Windy') in a scene from COYOTE TRAILS (Reliable, 1935).



(From Old Corral image collection)

Above from left to right are Benny Corbett (as sidekick "Magpie"), Julie Sheldon and Tim McCoy (as 'Lightning' Bill Carson) in a lobby card from STRAIGHT SHOOTER (Victory, 1939). In a few of the McCoy Victory series, Benny wore that light colored gunbelt. In some, he even wore a suit.


In the first film of McCoy's Victory series, Benny was a member of Ted Adams' gang.

In the other seven, he portrayed McCoy's buddy 'Magpie'. Though most of Benny's film work was uncredited, he was billed third in the McCoy series (the title/credit screen on the left is from THE FIGHTING RENEGADE (Victory, 1939)).


His stunt work is generally not recognized, but there are a few newspaper articles highlighting that aspect of his Hollywood career:

By the early 1940s, Benny was over 50 years old, and years of rodeoing and stunts had to have taken a toll on his body. He looked noticeably older ... there were more wrinkles and lines on his face ... and there was additional poundage around his waist. In those later years, he still did henchman duties but was more often a townsman, barfly, or occasional Cavalry trooper. You can also spot him in a few A grade westerns and early television shows.

Benny's movie roles were mostly for the lower echelon production companies such as Reliable, Imperial, Victory, Big Four, Beacon, Willis Kent, Robert J. Horner, and others. Sometimes, he landed a job in higher quality westerns and examples include George O'Brien and Tim Holt oaters at RKO and a half-dozen of the Hopalong Cassidy series at Paramount. I found it strange that Corbett did only a few films for Republic Pictures. Les Adams has him identified in about 200+ sound era movies - that includes about 190 westerns and eight serials.

Corbett was a member as well as the 1938 president of the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood, a group of movie stunt men, riders, and bit players that organized a union circa 1933, and their goal was reasonable wages and safe working conditions. The 1948 Motion Picture Production Encyclopedia has a section on the various Unions, Guilds and Associations. Ben is listed as a director of both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Screen Extras Guild. In the 1952 Production Encyclopedia, he's no longer on the SAG board, but is still a Screen Extras Guild director.

Ben Corbett was another familiar face of the B western, and his Hollywood career spanned about forty years, from about 1915 through the early 1950s.

He passed away from emphysema on May 19, 1961 at the Motion Picture Hospital, Woodland Hills, Calfornia.



More info on Benny Corbett came from the Family Search website (free), Ancestry.com (subscription), California Death Records database, and death certificate. There is conflicting information on his birth location (Ohio vs. Illinois) as well as birth year (1888, 1890, 1892), and I've highlighted the birth location and year confusion in red font. It appears that he was married several times.

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has information on Benny Corbett: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0179131/

The digital collections at Washington State University has a photo of Corbett riding two horses roman style at the 1914 Toppenish Roundup and Rodeo in Yakima County, Washington: http://kaga.wsulibs.wsu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/toppenish&CISOPTR=70&CISOBOX=1&REC=3

The University of Oregon Libraries - Special Collections and University Archives has a photo of Corbett winning the roman style horse race at the Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon. No date is mentioned, but it has to be circa 1915 or so: http://oregondigital.org/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/Bestof&CISOPTR=73&CISOBOX=1&REC=2

Corbett is among the stuntmen enshrined at the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame: http://www.stuntmen.org/members.html




(Courtesy of Leota Whitaker Gandrau)
On the left is a personalized photo given to prolific western movie performer Charles 'Slim' Whitaker by Benny.

The inscription in the upper right reads:

To Slim
Done the Best
May you always
Have the Best
Ben



(From Old Corral image collection)

Above from left to right are Buddy Roosevelt (with moustache), Benny Corbett, Tom London (on horseback), Jay Wilsey (Buffalo Bill Jr.) and Bob Roper in a scene from WESTWARD BOUND (Webb-Douglas Productions/Syndicate, 1931). Wilsey was the star of this early sound film which was directed by Harry S. Webb, the later owner (with Bernard B. Ray) of Reliable Pictures.



(Image courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Lafe McKee, George Chesebro, Jack Perrin, Slim Whitaker, Benny Corbett (on Whitaker's back), and in the background at the desk is Charles K. French. Scene from RIDIN' GENTS (Reliable, 1934), one of the Bud 'n' Ben shorts starring Perrin (as 'Bud') and Corbett (as 'Ben').



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from L-to-R are Benny Corbett, Blanche Mehaffey (billed in this film as Janet Morgan), and Rex Lease as the star of THE COWBOY AND THE BANDIT (Weiss/Superior, 1935).



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Carl Mathews, Pat Harmon, Barney Furey and Benny Corbett in a lobby card from the Kane Richmond mountie adventure SILENT CODE (International/Stage & Screen, 1935).



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