Memories of Ralph McCutcheon, Champion Movie Horse Trainer
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and
music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
And now — a memoir. This is sparked by a recent book signing that Regina and I attended at the Gene Autry Museum nearby. “Hollywood Hoofbeats—Trails Blazed Across The Silver screen”, a beautifully produced coffee table-size book about horses in movies, particularly westerns. The author, Petrine Day Mitchum (Robert Mitchum’s daughter), was interested to hear that I had known Ralph McCutcheon, a noted trainer of horses for cowboy pictures. There are lots of references to old Ralph in her books: how he’d been a forest ranger from Colorado before buying his ranch in Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley in the early 1950s. How he was known for voice commands and hand signals rather than whips and pistol shots. How he trained a black horse that became “Black Beauty” in the 1946 version and “Fury” in the TV series, as well as playing Elizabeth Taylor’s abused horse in "Giant”.
Ralph’s big white King Cotton was the real star
of the Cantinflas’ vehicle “Pepe”, when he swam lengths in a pool, went up and
and did a convincing limp. The horse was awarded a PATSY by the American Humane
Before the likes of McCutcheon and a new breed of horse providers there were many unnecessary deaths of horses during filming. There were directors who didn’t give a damn about cruelty to animals so long as they got their shot. B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason, for example, was notorious for his inhumane treatment of animal actors. On “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” in 1936 more than 25 horses were killed due to the use of the Running W trip wires and other devices. Errol Flynn, the star of the movie, was furious and went public. But the killing continued: there’s an infamous shot of stuntman Cliff Lyons, during the making of “Jesse James” (1939), steering a wagon, led by two horses, in a spectacular dive off a 75-foot cliff into churning white water. Lyons got over $2000 for the stunt knowing full well that both horses would be killed.
Later, when the Humane Association really got into the act, under the authority of the Hays Office, the stunts were done by Falling Horses, the kind that McCutcheon trained. However, with the abolition of the Hays Office and the consequent flood of permissiveness in the 60s and 70s, directors went back to their old ways with a vengeance: particularly loathsome were Sam Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”) and Michael Cimino (“Heaven’s Gate”). These days bloodthirstiness involving animals can be avoided by the use of computer effects.
And now to my memoir of good times with Ralph McCutcheon.
In the summer of 1968 I was over in Hollywood on one of my fading rock star trips, armed with a work permit. I’d been making these trips since my banner hit year of 1965, but the hits were long past and I was struggling to keep in the business. This time I was in the company of my best friend Christian Roberts, whom I’d known since he’d been head boy of my brother’s boarding school in 1960. Christian loved westerns as much as me and he liked to sing old songs with me in a sort of close harmony. His father was a rich man and had a large estate in Surrey where there were stables and lots of good riding. Chris and I would take a couple of horses out and play cowboy games all day over the Surrey countryside near the busy motorway, pretending we were in the wild west. I remember crawling through the wet grass near the motorway one afternoon, dressed as a redskin when a motorcyclist stopped to address me: “Aren’t you a little old to be playing cowboys and Indians?”.
As DH Lawrence once said, fed up with the England
of puritanical petty-mindedness, of total lack of romantic feeling and of
childlike exaggeration: “Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the
belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods,
the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England
today…. God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wishwash.
Exterminate them, slime.”
I couldn’t match Lawrence. All I could do was to blush in my loincloth and warpaint. Nevertheless I continued to play out horse dramas with Chris — sometimes we were Civil War officers on opposing sides, sometimes we were the Mystery Riders (from the Mascot Pictures serial “Riding With Kit Carson”. Our fist fights and wrestling matches on the heath were quite realistic. We even made an 8mm film called “West Of Staines” with a very involved plot and lots of tracking shots. But this was England and it was raining and our noses were always running.
Here in the Hollywood of the late 60s with everyone beautiful and telling you so, and young girls with long flowing hair and beatific smiles coming to the Canyon and a general message floating in the scented air that life was now offering anything in the realm of the possible, even that the impossible was possible, and that we were in heaven and bliss it was to be young.
Chris, in fact, was here to meet up with Columbia
Pictures executives and get some western riding training. You see, my best
friend, since being Head Boy, had graduated from the Royal Academy Of Dramatic
Art and immediately was talent-spotted and plunged into movies, lucky devil.
James Clavell, writer and now film director, had cast him as the bad boy, Denham, in “To Sir, With Love”, where he has a boxing match with Sidney Poitier and comes clean in the end so that Lulu can sing her hit song. The movie was a worldwide hit and so my friend became a hot stud for a while, eclipsing me. I was a wee bit jealous, I’ll admit. And now he had landed a big co-starring role in a western called “The Desperados”, playing an outlaw alongside Jack Palance and Neville Brand. God, I was now green with envy! More than anything in the world I’d like to have been a cowboy in westerns, having grown up on Hopalong Cassidy and the Range Busters. Nothing could be further removed from the dreariness and soddenness of English life than the West.
And Chris had been invited through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, through the wardrobe, and into the secret garden, the magic kingdom!
Despite my inner turmoil Chris and I remained friends. We traveled across from Heathrow together and on arrival at LAX were greeted by my latest manager, a beaming fellow with crossover hairstyle and bursting memories of his short-lived partnership with Brian Epstein. He had driven to the airport in a long black Cadillac which he announced he’d rented for me, as befitted my status as a teen idol, still potent.
Thanks to Chris’s connection with James Clavell — he was now involved with his daughter -- we had a nice residence all ready for us: a cottage hideaway up in Laurel Canyon where the beautiful people were thriving, near Frank Zappa’s house and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Somewhere nearby was Steve Martin, a neophyte banjo picker with a line in comedy, so they said.
The road was called Lookout Mountain Drive and the cottage had all the modern conveniences. The next day, at breakfast, Chris and I met up with my manager in a coffee shop to discuss my future — not very promising: my hit days were over, I was no heavy metaller, significant singer-songwriter, nor drug proselytizer. Downcast, I then accompanied Chris to Columbia Pictures in Gower Gulch, where he was treated famously. A female production assistant ruined my day by whispering to me: “Aren’t you thrilled — doesn’t it make you proud — to be associated with such a good-looking guy?!”. A Columbia executive called Ralph McCutcheon at his ranch to arrange for Chris to take lessons in western riding — oh, and could his buddy tag along, too?
We arrived in dusty flat Panorama City that afternoon in my Cadillac. The ranch was set amid 1940s one-story homes complete with nice white picket fences. An all-white old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood full of gals and guys and “howdy” in the morning. Today Panorama City is concreted and mini-malled and lived in almost exclusively by Latino and other ethnic groups, but that’s the way the cards are falling all over the western world.
Ralph, a grizzled old boy in his 70s wearing a Stetson and a metal bolo tie, greeted us and showed us around his spread with its barns and rows of wagons and stagecoaches and anything necessary for a western. But they weren’t making any westerns in his neck of the woods anymore, so Ralph was happy to see us as he had lots of time on his hands. His lived in a long and low and pretty house covered in vines and flowers -- that looked like it was an old set from a Hopalong movie, the place where the schoolmistress lives.
And indeed inside we met Ralph’s wife Mary Kornman who, I later learned, had been in the early Our Gang silent shorts and had gone on to play sweethearts in B westerns with John Wayne and co. But Ralph spent most of his day in the tack room yarning. He’d worked with John Ford and Breezy Eason, the horse killer, and he respected them all. He was friendly with Ken Maynard, the western star veteran who now lived and cursed and drank too hard in a trailer in the nastier part of the Valley. He would visit and comfort poor old Ken. Ralph was a tough old varmint, but when he took his hat off and revealed his bald and gleaming head, and when he loosened his dentures and broke out the bottle, he became a kindly grandpa.
He was especially kind, from day one, to us dude westerners from England. He really didn’t have to give us any lessons because his trained movie horses did all the work. He introduced us to the famous Fury, now into his twenties. Ralph called him Beaut to his face; he had taught the horse a dozen words so that, from beside the camera on location shoots, he could explain the stunts the script was calling on the animal actor to perform. Beaut responded also to the tone of Ralph’s voice. Clearly they loved each as master and servant. And it’s Beaut who remains immortal on the screen, while Ralph has to rely on the likes of me and other writers.
Beaut was out to pasture, enjoying retirement. Ralph led us over to Page, a calm and collected brown horse, a favorite of Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck. After I’d ridden Page I could understand why. You simply drove Page as you would a car: a gentle tap and he was off, a pull left and he went left, etc. You could ride him hell for leather up to the barbed wire fence and he’d stop immediately within an inch of the wire. And he did it all without a protest, without a snort, without recriminations. He was casual like John Wayne. He even loped like John Wayne.
Ralph had a wonderful dog, too, called Rote whom he’d taught to drive the station wagon. At a soft command from Ralph this dog could turn into a fearsome creature, all snarls and bared fangs. We dudes backed away. Ralph was a man not to be trifled with, but he did everything with ease and a kind authority, like so many Americans of his background and era. He was a real Colorado Ranger; he’d served in World War one. He was a man of few words, but well-chosen and to be marked and respected.
So Chris and I started visiting the McCutcheon spread regularly and soon we were accepted as ranch boys. On certain days he’d order a stable hand to load up one of his movie trucks with horses and tackle and ornate western silver saddles and then off we’d go to a stretch of flat country just off the freeway in the region of the Hansen Dam. There we could canter and gallop and play cowboys. The kid ranch hand preferred to hang out at a nearby coffee shop where he could ogle the local female talent, pronouncing with a whoop when he saw a curvy one: “Ahmm in loooove!”. It was all very macho American.
One evening Chris and I went whole hog and took a couple of local gals, picked for us by the ranch boy, to the Drive-In. I can’t remember what the movie was because I was making progress in the back seat until she told me to stop because her glasses were getting all steamed up. Chris and his gal watched the movie mostly. I felt I’d scored a major victory over my best friend.
After too short a time Chris had to leave in order to start his movie. A western made in Spain, I ask you! A goddamn runaway production. What a crime they didn’t shoot in Lone Pine, not so far away, where Hoppy and Gene and Roy had ridden! Ralph could have supplied the animals and wagons. Anyway, I said farewell to my pal as he flew off to play cowboys and get paid for it.
Meanwhile I returned to pursuing ragtime songs and wondering what would become of me. At the end of that fateful year, 1968 — assassinations and war and general mayhem — I returned to the bosom of my family on Putney Heath, living with my mother in the flat where I’d grown up. When I tried to return to Hollywood the following year I was denied a work permit by the INS. I panicked. Stolen from me was that sunny glorious promised land, the boy’s town of Southern California. Now I would have to face the cold and wet and matter-of-factness of my homeland.
But, as sometimes happens when I have my back to the wall, I found something profitable to do: I wrote a proposal for a book about the history of pop music from ragtime to rock and I was signed by Penguin Books top editor, Oliver Caldecott, to a contract and a nice advance. The result, after three hard years, was “After The Ball”.
And during the research for the book I found myself once more, courtesy of the INS, out west and near Ralph McCutcheon’s spread. He welcomed me and we became firm friends. He let me ride Page whenever I wished. We chatted lots in the tack room and took a little taste, a sip or so.
I had started contributing articles to the Los Angeles Times by this time. In fact the first one had appeared in 1968, just before I’d left for London. Written in a fit of pique by a washed-up and bitter ex-teen idol, my article, splashed on the front page of the entertainment section, attacked what I saw as the growing pretentiousness of pop music, all the pseudo poetics of, say, Procol Harum's “Homburg”.
Now this attack was personal and uncalled for since the record had been produced by Denny Cordell, a fellow schoolmate of Christian’s and my brother Robin — and also a close friend of mine. I’d introduced Denny to the Blues when he was still a naughty schoolboy. In return Denny had gone on to produce early recordings of mine, backing me with such musicians as Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Mitch Mitchell — all this before their supergroup days. He’d got me jobs with Brian Epstein, even arranged a late evening interview with Epstein. So why had I turned on my friend? Search me — I’ve done this all my life.
The local L.A media turned on me roundly and rightly. I was condemned on the air by deejays, the underground FM ones, a new and fearsome breed, being particularly vitriolic. I was rapidly becoming a ragtime reactionary.
But the Times liked my feisty confrontational approach and proposed more of such stuff. So on this new trip I wangled an LA Times pass to the Charles Manson trial, at that moment taking place downtown. I can still see that tiny courtroom and the judge saying that if Mr. Manson was willing to behave himself today he could be let in to the courtroom. But that if Mr. Manson chose to create the spectacle of disruption he’d achieved yesterday then he’d have to be returned to his cell. Call him in!
I’ll never forget Manson as he shuffled in, handcuffed and in chains. He stopped and slowly panned our faces, giving us the benefit of his Evil Eye. He seemed to be looking hardest at me as if to say, “I’ll remember you. And I do remember you — from the past!” Then I too remembered: in 1964 I’d been a guest on McNeill Island, a state penitentiary, up in Seattle during the time I’d been appearing at a coffee house there and had been befriended by the McNeill Island prison chaplain. Anytime you want to come visit and give a talk about England -- feel free, he’d said cheerily.
I love to visit prisons and feel I’m not the guilty one so I snapped up his offer. I gave my talk and afterwards asked for questions. And it was then that the fellow who was now Charles Manson, monster murderer, had got up and asked me what the drug trade was like in Britain and was it worth getting involved in. Guards quickly removed him and I took a question about Winston Churchill.
Back to the courtroom: Manson eventually
switched off his evil eye and turned his attention to the judge. He started
berating him about society and its evils and about the stars and galaxies and
the threat of the industrial military complex. The judge warned him three times
before removal became necessary.
Thus I was now I was at liberty and it wasn’t nearly lunchtime. Outside the courthouse, holding signs protesting their leaders’ innocence, were female members of the Family. They too fixed me with angry glares. Then I remembered, from my reading about the case, that B Westerns had played a part. Yes, the Spahn Ranch! That was where the Family had holed up and planned dirty deeds. Remnants of them were reportedly still there. I wonder…
I rang Ralph and asked whether he knew Spahn. Yep, that old galoot. Sure. Would Ralph like to ride there with me and say hello to his old pal? Sure. So Ralph and I climbed up into the mountains behind Chatsworth, with the station wagon chugging and Rote, the dog, crying with anticipation of possible protection of his master from owlhoots or varmints, on our way to the Spahn movie ranch, location of a score of Z-grade westerns. The last ones had starred Lash La Rue and were, so I’d been told, soft-core porn flix. Ralph said he wouldn’t know about that, Spahn being a good old boy.
On the ranch at the top of the hill in the blazing October sun we were greeted by poor old ailing Spahn. His current home was a trailer. A few feet away from him swayed and shimmered a motley group of hippies, smoking and viewing us with sullen suspiciousness. The Family. But Ralph and Spahn ignored this nouveau trash and set to yarning about the old days, about Charles Starrett, and Smiley Burnette, and gals they’d known and liquor they’d sampled. And all the while the Family glared. What a strange collision of the old B West with the horrid new world of drugs, sex, murder, and rock & roll. No wonder I’ve been diving into the past ever since.
A little later Ralph and Mary moved to Burbank.
On my trips to Hollywood I’d always call up Ralph and arrange to see him. He
still had a few horses, still had Page. But in late 1973, when I was working for KCET, a local PBS station, I learned that Mary had died of cancer in June.
Ralph wanted to see me, though. We drive out to the Williams S. Hart ranch and
museum. Of course, Ralph had known old Hart. I asked Ralph if I could hire Page
for a little western romp in Griffith Park that KCET were going to let me star
in. Yep. And he’d toss in a couple of wranglers too, one of whom was a past
master at throwing dust just before the camera rolled. These men would be hot
from a John Wayne movie. I had lugged across with me from England an early
videotape camera and reel-to-reel recorder and so I managed to get that shoot on
tape — the dust, the hoofbeats, and me in full cowboy garb riding Page, Wonder
horse of the West. My dream had at last come true. I was in a western!
Two years later, Ralph, who had been always tied to Mary in deep love, died. They are buried together back in his hometown of Greeley, Colorado. I’m so glad that his achievements are now safe within that big book, “Hollywood Hoofbeats”. And that my memories of a great animal trainer are in this Letter.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected
performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's,
Books, and Songbooks by
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com