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Sharpen your spurs and polish that Winchester because the boys over at the Bar 20 are ready to hit the dusty trail again.

Johnny Nelson. Windy Halliday. Lucky Jenkins.

They've all saddled up.

And, of course, the Bar 20's most famous employee is leading the pack.

That, pardner, would be Hopalong Cassidy.

The black-clad, sharp-shooting Cassidy, as portrayed by silver-haired William Boyd, was the gallant hero of 66 Westerns released theatrically from 1935 to 1948. And for the first time, the entire series is being released on video in the only authorized and legal collection.

Thus far, U.S. Television Office Inc. has released a half-dozen sets of the Cassidy features. Each set contains six films and they are the most sparkling Cassidy prints ever available on video. That's amazing when you consider that most, if not all, of the original film negatives are gone. (Each "Hopalong Cassidy Six-Shooter Collection" set is priced at $69.95. Individual titles can be purchased at $12.99 each. To order call 1-800-711-4677.)

Jerry Rosenthal, president of U.S. Television Office, is understandably proud of the video quality.

"We're committed to making all of the videos from the finest 35mm prints we can find," Rosenthal said. "Right now, we're searching for a 35mm print of the second Cassidy film, 'The Eagle's Brood.' We're hoping some collector will step forward and loan us a copy."

The movies, all digitally recorded in the standard play mode, also have been restored to their original lengths. Most of the films were cut to 54 minutes when released to television in the late 1940s. That's quite a chop job because many Cassidys ran anywhere from 67 to 82 minutes.

For a number of years some of the Cassidy movies had been available on video in often grainy and scratchy prints. But by court order those have been pulled from circulation.

That's because U.S. Television Office now owns all rights and title to the image of William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy.

"We purchased those rights from Grace (Boyd's wife) in 1985 and we inherited all the trademarks that went with it," Rosenthal said. His company also negotiated with the Clarence E. Mulford estate for other rights. Mulford was the author who created the character in a series of books about the Bar 20 ranch.

Once Rosenthal has completed the video collection of 66 theatrical features, he plans to do the same with the 52 half-hour TV episodes.

The Hopalong Cassidy movies, especially those released during the 1930s, were among the best "B" Westerns produced in Hollywood. They were purposely leisurely paced to aptly reflect the tedious and often colorless life on a ranch or the harshness and boredom of a cattle drive. But each film also gradually built to a rousing climax.

While the quality of the productions belied their B status, the series probably wouldn't have worked without the presence of Boyd's on-screen personality. Not only could he really act, but Boyd also had one of the most engaging laughs ever heard from the screen.

Hoppy's saddle pals during those early years were Johnny (played by James Ellison) and Windy (George "Gabby' Hayes). Later he was joined by Lucky (Russell Hayden, Rand Brooks) and California Carlson (Andy Clyde).

Cassidy movies also provided work for some aspiring young actors. Lee J. Cobb and Robert Mitchum, both usually playing villains, appeared in a number of the films.

Those who think "B" Westerns were rather tame might flinch at some of the violence in the early Cassidys. For example, during the first 10 minutes of 1936's "Hopalong Cassidy Returns," an elderly amputee is murdered and a wheelchair-bound newspaper editor is roped and dragged to a brutal death.

The series represented a rebirth for its star. Boyd's career, which dated back to the silent days, was in decline when producer Harry Sherman offered him the role. The first film, "Hop-a-long Cassidy" -- now known as "Hopalong Cassidy Enters" -- clicked with audiences and a screen legend was born. The character, whose first name was Bill, got his nickname due to a limp from a gunshot wound. The limp disappeared after the initial film.

By the mid-1950s Boyd had retired. He was 77 when he died of Parkinson's disease in 1972.

-- Doug Nye/Knight-Ridder


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