|Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams|
Guinn Terrell Williams, Jr.
They called him 'BIG BOY' and for good reason - he was big. Famous cowboy humorist Will Rogers is alleged to have put this tab on the big strapping youth from Texas named Guinn Williams, who called himself 'Tex' when he met him on the set of Rogers' ALMOST A HUSBAND in 1919 where Williams had a bit part. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Encyclopedia lists JUBILO as Williams' first film, although he may have actually appeared on the screen earlier. At any rate, Rogers is reported to have exclaimed, as he looked up at the big, burly, six-foot two, redheaded cowboy, "My, you're a big boy!" And from then on Guinn would become 'Big Boy' Williams, star of his own silent and sound Western series and later a strong supporting character actor over the next four decades. Rogers and Williams would also become life-long friends, both becoming highly regarded polo players in Hollywood.
Big Boy was born in Decatur, Texas, on April 26, 1899 - some sources list 1899 or 1900, and the California Death Records database shows 1901 as his year of birth. He was the son of Minnie and Guinn Terrell Williams, a U. S. Congressman from the 13th Texas District and successful stockman and banker. Guinn was educated in the Decatur Public School system or as some biographies note, he may have attended Decatur Military Academy before becoming a student at Texas Normal University (now known as North Texas State University). His father wanted young Williams to become a lawyer but the big, athletic kid was more interested in sports and in fact sought a career as a professional baseball player. Whether he played on a pro team is not known.
After practically being disowned by his father, Williams wandered into Hollywood around the end of World War I and entered films in one of the above mentioned Rogers pictures. The following year, Big Boy would appear in another Rogers film, CUPID, THE COWBOY, playing the role of a character named 'Hairoil Johnson'.
At the ripe old age of 22 - if we use 1899 as his year of birth - Big Boy got his chance to star when he was given the lead in a series for indie producer/director Charles R. Seeling, for release by Aywon Pictures. The first of the series was entitled THE JACK RIDER, issued in 1921. It's interesting to note that the story is credited to Williams, who also wrote scripts for two other Westerns, THE VENGEANCE TRAIL ('21) and RED BLOOD AND BLUE ('25).
Based on these pictures, Williams was considered a fresh, new personality on the Hollywood Western scene. His characterization was laced with a touch of comedy, which would prove to be a valuable asset in his later work, but he also came across as a strong, forceful hero type. Interestingly, cast in the role as his sidekick, in these early pictures was little Will Rogers, Jr., whom it is said to have made Williams work hard to stay ahead. Youngsters were often scene-stealers and the son of the great humorist-cowboy, young Rogers proved just that. (Sad note to the Will Rogers, Jr., story, however. Although he would go from Hollywood to Washington and serve as a U. S. Congressman, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in 1993. Ironically, Congress was often the butt of many of Will Sr.'s jokes).
Playing the ingénue role in several of Big Boy's early Aywon pictures was silent actress Molly Malone (1898-1944) who barely stood 5 feet tall. A relative latecomer to films, she retired in 1927 after co-starring with Lefty Flynn in the serial, THE GOLDEN STALLION. Williams would later marry one of his leading ladies.
Film reviewers of the trade papers generally gave the new star good ratings, praising him for having the necessary and natural potential for solid stardom, noting that the enthusiasm he put into his films came across in a genuine manner. But while the Seeling series was good, due mostly to Williams's performances, Big Boy's pictures would be pretty much relegated to the independent market. There were simply too many cowboys around, and as someone once said, "shake any tree in and around Hollywood and a shower of cowboys would fall out." And unfortunately, Big Boy would eventually be one of them to fall.
Nevertheless, notable perhaps among his early work is ROUNDING UP THE LAW ('22) available today for viewing, along with THE EAGLE'S CLAW ('24), his only other silent work around.
In 1922, Williams signed a three-year contract with another obscure producer named Frederich Herbst for six films to be directed by W. Hughes Curran and distributed on the independent market by DiLorenzo, Inc. These bottom-of-the-ladder productions, such as BLAZE AWAY and TRAIL OF HATE, released in late '22, didn't do much for Big Boy's opportunity to acquire a great following since there was little or no publicity or a consistent booking policy. Added to these shortcomings, it wasn't long before Herbst went bankrupt, leaving Williams looking for another producer.
He moved back to Aywon, somewhat better known among the independent market, and was able to turn out some fairly polished and entertaining Westerns until the mid-20's when he drifted more into supporting roles, usually as a heavy. He appeared in several Arrow Westerns starring William Fairbanks and supported Tom Santschi in such films as THE DESERT'S TOLL ('26). But Williams' comedic and happy-go-lucky demeanor did not quite fit him for villain roles and he was more at home in the former.
During this period, he would appear in a number of non-Westerns, including two films that brought him into contact with his first love - baseball - when he donned the uniform for roles in SLIDE KELLY SLIDE ('27) and THE BABE COMES HOME, released the same year.
Big Boy would remain busy during the years prior to the coming of sound, playing roles that called for his kind of characterization. Credits list him starring or appearing in over 40 films during this period, 26 of them starring Westerns.
Although he had appeared in several films in 1928-29 that contained some form of sound, his first all-sound effort came in 1930 in either the Walter Lang directed THE BIG FIGHT, or the Walter Houston Western, THE BAD MAN. Appearing in the latter film was an un-billed Myrna Loy, who was working her way to become one of the leading ladies of the screen.
Big Boy's next big role came in the 1931 Johnny Mack Brown outing, THE GREAT MEADOW, a story of life on the early American frontier. Then came a series of good supporting roles in a number of various pictures, many focusing on sports and outdoor dramas.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above from L-to-R are Williams, Lucile Browne and Bob Steele in a scene from the aviation cliffhanger, MYSTERY SQUADRON (Mascot, 1933). Williams was Steele's sidekick 'Jellybean' Cook.
His big sound break came in 1934. Max and Arthur Alexander were German born brothers, and during the 1930s, they produced a batch of westerns starring Big Boy, Ken Maynard, Rex Bell, and even SONGS AND SADDLES, a solo film starring singer Gene Austin. The brothers went through several name variations for their Poverty Row company - it was Beacon ... then Normandy ... and finally, Colony Pictures. Their films were initially released through the First Division exchanges, and later, by Grand National.
The Alexanders offered Big Boy a contract to star in a series beginning with THUNDER OVER TEXAS ('34). Directed by Universal's Edgar G. Ulmer (under the alias of John Warner) and scripted by Ulmer's wife, Sherle Castle (pronounced Shirley), it featured a solid cast consisting of such notables as ingénue Marion Shilling, Philo McCullough, Helen Westcott, and with some comedy relief from the ever-present and often hapless Ben Corbett. The brothers Alexander had worked for Universal Pictures in the 1920s, and were nephews of, or one was a brother-in-law to Carl Laemmle, the boss at Universal. The brothers migrated to Hollywood in the 1930s. Perhaps Laemmle gave or loaned director Ulmer to his relatives to help them out.
The Beacon series proved to be good, strong oaters. Other titles were COWBOY HOLIDAY ('34), BIG BOY RIDES AGAIN ('35), DANGER TRAILS ('35), and GUN PLAY (a.k.a. LUCKY BOOTS). In LUCKY BOOTS, Marion Shilling again teams up with Williams, along with Frank Yaconelli for the comedy relief, denying Williams his strong suit and forcing him to be a man of action. Wally Wales was also in on the action and it would be the last time he used his starring name (and changed to Hal Taliaferro).
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above from L-to-R are Frank Yaconelli, Williams, Marion Shilling and Wally Wales (Hal Taliaferro) in GUN PLAY (Beacon, 1935) (alternate title: LUCKY BOOTS). Check out Williams' boots.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - the title lobby card for GUN PLAY (Beacon, 1935) (alternate title: LUCKY BOOTS). Spelling errors were common, and in this lobby card, sidekick Frank Yaconelli's last name is misspelled as YacAnelli. In the lower right are an unidentified player (maybe Art Dillard), Frank Yaconelli, and (tall) Gordon Griffith.
The 1935 LAW OF THE 45's may be Big Boy Williams' most important picture since it was certainly one of the most pivotal films of the 30's.
In LAW OF THE 45's, author William Colt MacDonald introduces the embryo of what would become the famous and highly popular Three Mesquiteer series (although there is no reference to the word Mesquiteer in the picture). It would have an impact on the Western film, almost as much as the coming of the singing cowboy. Big Boy was selected to play the role of Tucson 'Two-Gun' Smith, the role so aptly played in the Republic series by Crash Corrigan. The beardless Al St. John, playing it fairly straight and before his 'Fuzzy' years, was Stoney Martin (not Stony Brooke as later used in the Republic series and played by Robert Livingston). In this one, Stony has the secondary lead. A curious side note to this movie is the background music played in a cantina visited by Smith and Martin. It is the same theme used again some 34 years later in the Sam Peckinpah classic, THE WILD BUNCH.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Among the initial screen adaptations of a Three Mesquiteers novel was THE LAW OF 45's (Normandy, 1935) - the other film was POWDERSMOKE RANGE (RKO, 1935). 45's starred Williams and Al St. John. St. John portrayed 'Stoney Martin', and Big Boy's character was Tucson 'Two-Gun' Smith. There was no Stony Brooke or Lullaby Joslin characters in this ultra low budget oater. Other than changing the character names around, scripter Robert Tansey stayed close to William Colt MacDonald's original novel.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - a photo of a lobby card showing Williams with a neck lock on Martin Garralaga. Was a 'Normandy Picture' and this lobby card image is from the original release.