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The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.



(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)
Benny Corbett

Full name:
Benjamin Ervin Corbett

1888, 1890 or 1892 - 1961

Nickname:
"Smiley"

First and last name variations:
Ben
Benny
Bennie
Corbet
Corbett



I always considered Benny Corbett as rather nondescript western film performer. I remember him as an occasional sidekick, but mostly as the fourth or fifth henchman through the door. The old adage that "you can't judge a book by its cover" is applicable to Ben. In real life, he was more complex - and more rough and tough - than what came across in his several hundred appearances in front of the camera.

Let's begin with Yakima Canutt writing about his pal Ben Corbett in Stunt Man, The Autobiography of Yakima Canutt (Walker and Company, New York, 1979 by Canutt with Oliver Drake):

"I decided to stay in Hollywood for the winter. I had met quite a few screen personalities during the rodeo. Westerns were very big in Hollywood at that time, and many of the stars were former rodeo contestants and cowboys. Tom Grimes and Ben Corbett, close friends with whom I had rodeoed, now worked in pictures, and promised to show me around." "During the winter, I did work in two or three pictures. Ben Corbett took me to the studio that was starting a twelve-part serial titled Lightning Brice, which starred Jack Hoxie and Ann Little. Paul Hurst was directing." (Note: the correct title is LIGHTNING BRYCE (Arrow, 1919) and it was 15 chapters long.)

Corbett history indicates a hitch in the U. S. Cavalry as a young man. Digging further, I discovered more on his lengthy rodeo career and that he was a respected movie stuntman with a specialty of horse falls. And his friendship with Canutt must have been strong as he was best man when Yak married rodeo performer Kitty Wilks (Katherine Wilkes) in 1917.

There are many newspaper references circa 1911 - mid 1920s of Ben Corbett / "Smiley" Corbett as a contestant at the Pendleton, Oregon Roundup, the Livermore, California Stockman's Rodeo, many other events. His specialties were steer bulldogging and Roman riding (standing on and riding two horses at breakneck speed).

Following are a few highlights from the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune and Spokane (Washington) Spokesman Review newspapers:

Made inquiries to several rodeo organizations, and in January, 2013, I received the following from the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame: "... Ben Corbett was a contestant 1911 through 1917 and 1924. The early lists do not say what event the person entered. His name does not appear on the winner's list."

Corbett's movie work began circa 1915, and he was in dozens of silent westerns starring Hoot Gibson, Art Acord, Fred Humes, Don Coleman, Jack Hoxie, Leo Maloney, Ted Wells, Ken Maynard, others. Work was difficult and dangerous and an April 17, 1925 newspaper had a report about Jack Hoxie breaking his shoulder on a Universal western when his horse stepped in a gopher hole. Also mentioned: "Right behind him rode an unsung actor named Ben Corbett. Mr. Corbett's horse followed the leader and Mr. Corbett is laid up with a broken leg."

By the mid 1920s, Benny exited the rodeo profession and concentrated on the film business as both an actor and stuntman. "Smiley" had a brief period of stardom when he and Gilbert 'Pee Wee' Holmes headlined the "Dirty Shirt" and "Magpie" comedy western shorts from Universal. These were based on W. C. Tuttle stories published in Adventure magazine, and about two dozen two-reelers were produced during 1925 - 1927.



Above - a crop from a June, 1925 Universal tradepaper ad for their Mustang two-reel shorts. Note the "Smiley" moniker for Corbett.



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Benny Corbett, Don Coleman and Eugenia Gilbert in a lobby card from the silent THE BOSS OF RUSTLER'S ROOST (Leo Maloney Productions/Pathe, 1928).



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Fred Humes, Benny Corbett, Gilbert 'Pee Wee' Holmes, Scotty Mattraw and Nelson McDowell in a lobby card and crop/blowup from the Humes silent THE ARIZONA CYCLONE (Universal, 1928).


In sound B westerns, Corbett played just about every role imaginable, including sidekick, henchman, townsman, cowhand, barfly, etc. Short in stature, and with a pot belly that hung over his gunbelt, he was a frequent player in 1930s oaters. Most of his work was unbilled as he was just another gang or posse member. He occasionally assisted or sidekicked with a few of the sound era cowboys including Jack Hoxie, Buck Jones, and Lane Chandler. However, the bulk of his saddle pal roles occurred in a series with Tim McCoy and with a mix of heroes at Reliable Pictures:

Benny didn't have the personality or screen presence to be a successful hero helper. I always thought that his sidekick facial expressions were either laughing / smiling or dumbfounded. Basically, he was better suited as a henchman, cowboy, or ranch hand.



(From Old Corral collection)

Above - Tom Tyler and Corbett (as saddle pal 'Windy') in a scene from COYOTE TRAILS (Reliable, 1935).



(From Old Corral collection)

Above from left to right are Benny Corbett (as sidekick "Magpie"), Julie Sheldon and Tim McCoy (as 'Lightning' Bill Carson) in a lobby card from STRAIGHT SHOOTER (Victory, 1939). In a few of McCoy's Victory series, Benny wore that light colored gunbelt. Occasionally, he even wore a suit.


In the first film of McCoy's Victory eight film series, Benny was a member of Ted Adams' gang.

In the other seven, he was McCoy's buddy 'Magpie'. Though most of Benny's film work was uncredited, he was billed third in the McCoys. The title/credit screen on the left is from THE FIGHTING RENEGADE (Victory, 1939).


His stunt work is generally not recognized, but there are a few newspaper articles highlighting that aspect of his career:

By the early 1940s, Benny was over 50 years old, and years of rodeoing and stunts had taken a toll on his body. He looked noticeably older ... there were more wrinkles and lines on his face ... and additional poundage around his waist. In those later years, he still did henchman duties but was more often a townsman, barfly, or cavalry trooper. You can also spot him in a few A grade westerns and early television shows.

In sound films, Benny's movie roles were mostly for the lower echelon production companies such as Reliable, Imperial, Victory, Big Four, Beacon, Willis Kent, Robert J. Horner, and others. Sometimes, he landed a job in higher quality westerns and examples include George O'Brien and Tim Holt oaters at RKO and a half-dozen of the Hopalong Cassidy series at Paramount. I found it strange that Corbett worked in only a few films for Republic Pictures. Les Adams has him identified in about 200+ sound era movies - that includes about 190 westerns and eight serials.

Corbett was a member and the 1938 president of the Riding Actors Association of Hollywood, a group of stunt men, riders, and bit players that organized a union circa 1933, and their goal was reasonable wages and safe working conditions. The 1948 Motion Picture Production Encyclopedia has a section on various Unions, Guilds and Associations. Ben is listed as a director of both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Screen Extras Guild. In the 1952 Production Encyclopedia, he's no longer on the SAG board, but is still a Screen Extras Guild director.

Ben Corbett was another familiar face in the B western, and his Hollywood career spanned about forty years, from about 1915 through the early 1950s.

He passed away from emphysema on May 19, 1961 at the Motion Picture Hospital, Woodland Hills, Calfornia.

As to personal and family life, Benny was married twice. Wife number one was Edna May Haynes and they had two children - daughter Dolores / De Loris was born circa 1913 - 1914. And a son was born and died on December 24, 1917. Unsure when he and Edna divorced, but the 1930 census lists Corbett's second wife as "Helen H."




(Courtesy of Leota Whitaker Gandrau)
On the left is a personalized photo given to prolific western movie performer Charles 'Slim' Whitaker by Benny.

The inscription in the upper right reads:

To Slim
Done the Best
May you always
Have the Best
Ben



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above are Edna Marion, Jack Perrin and Benny Corbett in a lobby card from the lost/missing ROMANCE OF THE WEST (Arthur Hammond Prod/Capitol Film Exchange, 1930).



(From Old Corral collection)

Above from left to right are Buddy Roosevelt (with moustache), Benny Corbett, Tom London (on horseback), Jay Wilsey (Buffalo Bill Jr.) and Bob Roper in a scene from WESTWARD BOUND (Webb-Douglas Prod/Syndicate, 1931). Wilsey was the star of this early sound film which was directed by Harry S. Webb, the later owner (with Bernard B. Ray) of Reliable Pictures.



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Lafe McKee, George Chesebro, Jack Perrin, Slim Whitaker, Benny Corbett (on Whitaker's back), and in the background at the desk is Charles K. French. Scene from RIDIN' GENTS (Reliable, 1934), one of the Bud 'n' Ben shorts starring Perrin (as 'Bud') and Corbett (as 'Ben').



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above are Ethan Laidlaw and Jack Perrin in a lobby card for RAINBOW RIDERS (Reliable, 1934), one of the Bud 'n' Ben featurettes/shorts which co-starred rotund Benny Corbett (photo inset, upper left). Standing between Laidlaw and Perrin is Mack V. Wright. In addition to some acting jobs, Wright spent time behind the camera as the director of oaters such as the Three Mesquiteers' in ROARIN' LEAD and RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL, and co-director/assistant director/second unit director of THE VIGILANTES ARE COMING and THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK serials, several of the Rough Riders films, and more.



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from L-to-R are Benny Corbett, Blanche Mehaffey (billed in this film as Janet Morgan), and Rex Lease as the star of THE COWBOY AND THE BANDIT (Weiss/Superior, 1935).



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Above from left to right are Carl Mathews, Pat Harmon, Barney Furey and Benny Corbett in a lobby card from the Kane Richmond mountie adventure SILENT CODE (International/Stage & Screen, 1935).


On the trail of Benny Corbett


More info on Benny Corbett came from the Family Search website (free), Ancestry.com (subscription), California Death Index, and death certificate. There is conflicting information on his birth location (Ohio vs. Hudson and Lexington, Illinois) as well as birth year (1888, 1890, 1892). Both Hudson and Lexington, Illinois are in McLean County, Illinois, and the distance between those two towns is about a dozen miles. I've highlighted the birth location and year confusion in red font below.

Benny was married twice - his first was to Edna May Haynes and daughter Dolores / De Loris was born circa 1913 - 1914. There was also a male child who was born and passed away on December 24, 1917. However, the only marriage record on Benny and Edna is a January 12, 1918 California license which is AFTER the births of their two children. Perhaps they tied the knot somewhere else and at an earlier date. Or perhaps, their early years were in a common-law marriage arrangement.

Wife number two was a "Helen H." (born in Kentucky) and she appears in the 1930 census.

More on Benny's first wife, Edna M. Haynes and her family:

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on Benny Corbett: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0179131/

The digital collections at Washington State University has a photo of Corbett riding two horses roman style at the 1914 Toppenish Roundup and Rodeo in Yakima County, Washington: http://kaga.wsulibs.wsu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/toppenish&CISOPTR=70&CISOBOX=1&REC=3

The University of Oregon Libraries - Special Collections and University Archives has several photos of Corbett winning the roman style horse race at the Roundup in Pendleton, Oregon. No date is mentioned, but it has to be circa 1915 or so:
https://oregondigital.org/catalog/oregondigital:df712k47x
https://oregondigital.org/catalog/oregondigital:df712k14c
https://oregondigital.org/catalog/oregondigital:2n49t2288

Corbett is among the stuntmen enshrined at the Hollywood Stuntmen's Hall of Fame: http://www.stuntmen.org/members.html



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