I have big respect for the talent of singer and actor Chill Wills (Theodore Childress Wills, 1902-1978). Wills gave great performances in some of the best serious westerns of the classic era, but he also made a mark in other genres (including classic comedy, our primary beat) and he started out as a cowboy singer. A many faceted show biz personality if ever there was one.
From the time he was 12 Wills performed in tent shows, vaudeville and with stock companies (no doubt the reason why he was so much better an actor than many of his B movie contemporaries). In the 1930s he formed the western singing group The Avalon Boys, which played nightclubs and on radio, and this became his path to success. The Avalon Boys were booked as an act in B movie westerns from 1935 through 1937.
Wills’ uniques bass voice also cemented his place in classic comedy. His very first film role was as one of the campfire singers in W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934). That’s him singing the bass part in that dance number in Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937). And he supplied the voice of Francis in the “Francis the Talking Mule” movies!
In the late ’30s he broke away from the Avalon Boys and went out on his own in films, usually B movie westerns. For a time he was the sidekick to George O’Brien. But unlike most cowboy singing stars (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, etc), Wills had actual acting chops. So he worked his way up to “A” pictures like Western Union (1941) and Barbary Coast Gent (1944), all the way to top-of-the-line prestige pictures like John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), George Stevens’ Giant (1956) and John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960), for which he was nominated for an Oscar. On the latter occasion, Wills campaigned to a strenuous degree, sending out mailers to all the members of the Academy, referring to him as his “cousins”. Groucho Marx sent him a reply that read, “Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo. Signed, Groucho Marx.”
In addition to westerns, Wills was also in musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Harvey Girls (1946) and family fare like The Yearling (1946) and The Over-the-Hill-Gang movies. Politically, Wills was somewhat paleo, supporting candidates ranging from Barry Goldwater to George Wallace (Nixon was too liberal for him, apparently). Oh well. Who better to play 19th century men than a 19th century man?
To learn more about vaudeville, where Chill Wills performed in his youth, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,