Red Ryder was a comic-strip cowboy created by writer Stephen Slesinger and artist Fred Harman. Red Ryder premiered in the Sunday funnies on November 6, 1938, and soon grew into one of the largest franchises in entertainment history. In the 1940s, there was nary a kid-friendly product that didn’t have a Red Ryder tie-in; comic books, novels, Big Little Books, a radio show, and the infamous Red Ryder BB Gun, which is still in production today despite the fact that Red Ryder hasn’t appeared in newspapers since the 1960s. For thousands of baby boomers, the Red Ryder BB Gun wasn’t the only way to put an eye out, but it was the most universal.
The first appearance of Red Ryder on film was in 1940, in the Republic serial Adventures of Red Ryder, which starred Don “Red” Barry as Red Ryder and Tommy Cook as his young Indian sidekick, Little Beaver. Like all Republic chapterplays, it was quality entertainment, but Barry was a bit of a pipsqueak compared with the tall, square-jawed actor who stepped into the role next, “Wild” Bill Elliott. Starting with Tucson Raiders in 1944, Elliott was paired with future ladykiller Robert Blake (at that time credited as “Bobby Blake”) as Little Beaver in a total of 16 features over the course of two years. (Blake kept appearing as Little Beaver in the series after Elliott left. Starting with Santa Fe Uprising in 1946 he was paired with Allan “Rocky” Lane in seven more Red Ryder films.)
Colorado Pioneers begins in Chicago, where Red Ryder and Little Beaver run afoul of a couple of ragamuffins who today would be called “at-risk youth.” Red Ryder intercedes on their behalf in court, and frees them from a life of petty street crime by taking them back to the Colorado ranch run by his aunt, “The Duchess” (Alice Fleming), where he teaches them the value of hard work and fresh air. Originally planning to take just the two boys who stole his money (Billy Cummings and Freddie Chapman), Red Ryder is convinced by Little Beaver to take the whole gang, including a token black member named “Smokey,” who is played by Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas (yes, he’s the Buckwheat you’re thinking of). The situation may be hokey and formulaic, but Elliott is a strong enough presence to make you believe it when the kids start following his lead. The emotional core of the film is the most recalcitrant boy, who resists Red Ryder’s mentorship, but who can’t resist a frail colt, which he feeds and talks to in secret. The boy’s journey from a hardened little thug to a young man who is able to care for something weaker than himself and tell the truth even when it’s difficult makes for a surprisingly moving story.
Colorado Pioneers is an excellent little B western. While it’s aimed at kids, Elliott is believable and tough enough as Red Ryder for adults to enjoy the film, too. He’s not quite Henry Fonda or Randolph Scott, but he’s one of the better western stars you’ve probably never heard of.
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Colorado Pioneers was also the last film appearance of Billy “Buckwheat” Thomas. During the years he played “Buckwheat” in the Our Gang comedies, Billy Thomas had become an American icon. World War Two put a crimp in the popularity of the perennial series, and Hal Roach reluctantly brought the kid’s antics to an end.
Billy was at that awkward age where he was too old to play a cute kid, and too young to play juvenile leads. Being the most visible Black American in films didn’t help him at that time because mainstream Hollywood still had not figured how to write stories about Blacks. His grandmother managed to get him a small role in Colorado Pioneers, one of the first films made from the popular Red Ryder stories that sprang from a comic-strip cowboy created by writer Stephen Slesinger and artist Fred Harman. Red Ryder premiered in the Sunday funnies on November 6, 1938, and soon grew into one of the largest franchises in entertainment history. In the 1940s, there was nary a kid-friendly product that didn’t have a Red Ryder tie-in: comic books, novels, Big Little Books, a radio show, and the infamous Red Ryder BB Gun, which is still in production today despite the fact that Red Ryder hasn’t appeared in newspapers since the 1960s. For thousands of baby boomers, the Red Ryder BB Gun wasn’t the only way to put an eye out, but it was the most universal.
Billy’s role in Colorado Pioneers was seen in theaters after an initial release on November 14, 1945. Sadly, this appearnce would be his last. Billy never appeared in another movie. He went on to be a father, a soldier in the Korean War, and lived a normal life working steadily on the fringes of film production in a couple of labs.
Everyone knew “Buckwheat,” but few people knew Billy, the man behind the myth. This month, get several copies for Christmas gifts of “Otay!” The Billy “Buckwheat” Thomas Story, written by his son, William Thomas, Jr., for the fascinating story of what happened to Billy “Buckwheat” Thomas.
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Hey! You cribbed my lede! 🙂