|In 2000, writer and western film researcher Bill Russell authored the original biography on Bill Cody and it was one of the early bios on the Old Corral. Since then, a lot of new information has become available. Ye Old Corral webmeister did some tweaks to Bill's original writeup ... and added more images and lots of info from tradezines, newspapers, census, marriage records, etc.|
Independent producers along Hollywood's Poverty Row generally needed every gimmick they could think of to attract the Saturday matinee crowd. It was tough in those days competing with the bigger studios. In the case of Westerns, what better than to give them the same name of a real-life Western hero.
So when a fellow actually named Bill Cody came to Tinseltown, studio heads didn't have to conjure up some fake name to entice the audience. They had the real 'McCoy'.
Bearing no known relationship to the famous buffalo hunter and showman except for the moniker, the reel Bill Cody was born on January 5, 1891 with sources having his birth location as either St. Paul, Minnesota or Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Saint Thomas Military Academy in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and later St. Johns University in New York.
Fresh out of college, he joined the Metropolitan Stock Company and toured the U. S. and Canada for a number of seasons. His touring eventually led him to Hollywood in 1922 and he got a job, first as a stuntman, and then small bits as an actor.
When indie producer Jesse J. Goldburg was looking for a star, he signed Cody for a series of eight features for the 1924 - 1925 season. Cody had worked for Goldburg previously in two independent pictures under the name of "Paul Walters".
Goldburg's Independent Pictures, while cheaply made, were smooth little westerns, shot in picturesque locations with good scripting and casting. J. P. McGowan, Robert N. Bradbury, and B. Reeves 'Breezy' Eason handled the directing. The first of the series was DANGEROUS DAYS, directed by McGowan. It was followed in short order by THE FIGHTING SHERIFF, with the remainder on the market within six months. Cody's Arabian horse, 'Chico', usually had a prominent role and he also rode a horse named 'King'. Of rather short stature he was a good scrapper and handled himself much in the style of Bob Steele. It was not unusual to see him take on comers of all sizes, and the bigger the better.
(From Old Corral collection)
Above is the title lobby card for THE FIGHTING SHERIFF (Jesse J. Goldburg / Independent Pictures, 1925).
Above - 1926 trade ad for Cody - and his "Bill Cody Film
Corporation" company - doing westerns for Associated Exhibitors.
(Image courtesy of Jay Wilsey's granddaughter and
daughter, Tamera Mankini and Frances Eldene Wolski)
Above from left to right are Bill Cody, an unidentified man, Wally Wales, and kneeling is Jay Wilsey (Buffalo Bill, Jr.). This was taken circa 1927 during a Pathé Company / Pathé Exchange exhibitor / distributor get-together. The back of this still has a notation of "Jean Brainerd Okla City" which may be the unidentified man. Wilsey's early silents for Lester F. Scott, Jr.'s Action Pictures were distributed by Weiss Brothers - Artclass, then Associated Exhibitors, and beginning about 1926, Pathé Exchange handled the westerns. In addition to Wilsey, Wally Wales was also starring in a series for Scott and Action Pictures. Circa 1927, Bill Cody also did a few silents for Pathe. There's a few more photos of Wilsey, Cody and Wales from this Pathe meeting in the Old Corral section on Buffalo Bill, Jr.
Following the Goldburg series, Cody made two pictures for Pat Powers' Associated Exhibitors, THE GALLOPING COWBOY, and KING OF THE SADDLE, released in 1926. That same year, he made ARIZONA WHIRLWIND for Myron Selznick through Pathe Pictures before forming his "Bill Cody Film Corporation" company. Probably the best of this series was BORN TO BATTLE (1927), with Cody doing some nice stunt riding and work with the bullwhip.
With the silent era coming to a close, Pathe dropped Cody's releases scheduled for the 1928 - 1929 season, leaving him without any work. However, he obtained a contract with Universal for three detective yarns that rounded out his silent career. He also toured with the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Show in 1929 and was on the main card when Miller opened in Kansas City in March of that year. In 1930, Cody was introduced to sound, appearing in his first talkie, UNDER TEXAS SKIES, a Bob Custer starrer for W. Ray Johnston's Syndicate Pictures that also featured former silent star Lane Chandler. It was a somewhat bizarre and dark film with Cody held captive most of the time by an ape-like mute (Bob Roper). Not an auspicious start for the former silent star.
Nevertheless, Bill was back in the starring saddle when he signed with Monogram for a series of eight, co-starring young Andy Shuford (who'd previously appeared with John Wayne in THE BIG TRAIL) in oaters billed as "The Bill and Andy Series". Those were popular and contained the necessary amount of action to sustain interest.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above are Bill Cody and Andy Shuford (1917 - 1995) in a scene from one of their "Bill and Andy" westerns, LAND OF WANTED MEN (Monogram, 1932). Shuford's last name has one 'f', not two. A year or two later, Cody was using his real son, Bill Cody, Jr. as his sidekick / helper. Does Cody's large sombrero look familiar? Somebody else wore a similar style - click HERE.
(Courtesy of Ed Tabor)
Above from L-to-R are Andy Shuford, Sheila Mannors (Sheila Bromley) and Cody in a lobby card from the lost/missing western LAND OF WANTED MEN (Monogram, 1932). Shuford is also shown in the round inset in the bottom right corner.
First off the production line was DUGAN OF THE BADLANDS (Monogram, 1931), with Robert North Bradbury handling the directorial duties. Harry Fraser then took over and cranked out the remainder, last of which was TEXAS PIONEERS, released in 1932. In addition to Cody, Monogram's other western star for season 1931 - 1932 was Tom Tyler. For release season 1932 - 1933, Tyler and Cody were gone, and Monogram replaced them with Bob Steele and Rex Bell.
That year Cody joined Bostock's Wild Animal Circus with his "Cody Ranch Wild West Show" as the featured attraction. It's likely he continued into the next season since no film credits are shown for 1933. He returned to the screen the following year, doing three for Robert Horner's low-grade Aywon Pictures, of which BORDER MENACE (Aywon, 1934) has the dubious distinction of being termed "the worst B-Western ever made". BORDER GUNS (Aywon, 1934) fared only slightly better, benefitting mostly from a cast that included former silent stars Franklyn Farnum (in a good role), Fred Church, William Desmond, and Wally Wales. Then it was back to the sawdust trail for Cody, replacing Jack Hoxie as the star of the Downie Bros. Circus.
In late 1934, Cody signed with producer Ray Kirkwood for a series released by Spectrum Pictures, although one, THE RECKLESS BUCKAROO (1935), was issued by Crescent Pictures. With the possible exception of THE TEXAS RAMBLER (Spectrum, 1935), the pictures fell somewhat below the quality of the Monogram series. Significant, perhaps, was the appearance of his son, Bill, Jr., in four of them. OUTLAWS OF THE RANGE (Spectrum, 1936) was the last of Cody's starring series.
A few years later, Cody returned to the screen briefly, playing a sheriff in George O'Brien's THE FIGHTING GRINGO (RKO, 1939), a cowboy in John Ford's epic, STAGECOACH (UA, 1939), and bits in two cliffhangers, G-MEN VS. THE BLACK DRAGON (Republic, 1943) and THE MASKED MARVEL (Republic, 1943). He also may have appeared in other minor roles during the forties, but no other credits have been found to confirm this.
An unanswered question is whether Cody played an unbilled English guard in Ingrid Bergman's JOAN OF ARC (Walter Wanger/Sierra, 1948) which was filmed in 1947 - 1948. If he's a costumed guard milling around in a background scene, it's very doubtful that anyone will be able to spot him. He probably did not appear in the film as ARC filming began in September, 1947 and Cody was having health issues and passed away on January 24, 1948 at St. John's Hospital, Santa Monica, California.
Above - Bill Cody Jr. in a screen capture from OUTLAWS OF THE RANGE (Spectrum, 1936).
Bill Cody, Jr. (1925 - 1989; birth name: William Joseph Cody) was the real life son of Bill Cody.
In addition to youthful sidekick roles with his father, the younger Cody did other films - among his credits are portraying Nelson Eddy as a child in the Jeanette MacDonald THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST (MGM, 1938) and appearances in the chapterplays, SCOUTS TO THE RESCUE (Universal, 1939) and THE OREGON TRAIL (Universal, 1939). Cody, Jr. enlisted in the Navy during World War II and never went back to the film business upon returning home from military service.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - Bill Cody Jr. and his dad attend to the injured Ed Cassidy in THE RECKLESS BUCKAROO (Crescent/Spectrum, 1935).
|Cody Senior did nine films under the Spectrum banner, and Bill, Jr. was in four.|
There were tentative plans for more, and on the right is a tradepaper ad announcing an eight film series with Bill Senior and Junior for the 1936 - 1937 release season.
Note the similar ad from Spectrum with info about their completed Cody films being available from "26 key exchanges" ... as well as the announcement of the 1936 - 1937 group of Cody Sr./Cody Jr. oaters.
Alas - plans changed and the Codys were out. Singing cowboys had become the rage, and Spectrum's new range hero for the 1936 - 1937 season was melodious Fred Scott.
(From the 1936 Film Daily Yearbook available at the Internet Archive)
(From Old Corral collection)
(From Old Corral collection)
(From Old Corral collection)
Above - singin' cowboy Fred Scott
Cody's last fling as a western movie hero was in a series for Spectrum in the mid 1930s. The Cody series was dropped and Fred Scott, the "Silvery-Voiced Buckaroo", became Spectrum's resident range rider beginning in 1936.
Spectrum did not produce either the Cody or Scott series, but simply released the films under their logo. Ray Kirkwood's Gemini Productions churned out the Cody group, and Jed Buell and C. C. Burr did the Scott singin' cowboy flicks. Circa 1939 - 1940, Spectrum bit the dust, a victim of financial problems.
|Cody's paychecks from his sound films were meager. And he supplemented his income by touring with established circuses.|
In the early 1930s, Cody - and his "Cody Ranch Wild West Show" - toured with the Walter L. Main Circus and Bostock's Wild Animal Circus.
Below - 1935 newspaper ad for Cody and trusty paint horse 'Chico' headlining the Downie Bros. Circus.
Above are screen captures of Bill Cody, son Bill Cody Jr., and trusty steed 'Chico' in FRONTIER DAYS (Spectrum, 1934).
Bill Cody and his wife Victoria Regina had two sons, Bill, Jr. and Henry, and both boys were in the service during World War II.
The star of about three dozen silent and sound Westerns, plus three detective films, had a film career that spanned nearly 25 years. And he was a Wild West Show performer in the tradition of his namesake. As mentioned, the "reel" Bill Cody died at St. John's Hospital, Santa Monica, California on January 24, 1948 at the age of only 57. Bill's wife, Victoria 'Regina' Kenah, passed in 1965. Son Bill Jr. committed suicide in 1989 after losing his wife Liz a year earlier to cancer.
Bill Cody may not have achieved the fame of the original Buffalo Bill Cody. But fans of those early, exciting days of Western filmmaking remember the feisty little battler as one of the true pioneers of the Western genre.
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect - Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc. Bill Cody never achieved a ranking in these polls.
In the mid 1980s, there was a story about a "Wild Bill" Cody/Bill Cody, Jr. living in Evansville, Indiana, and that person was either impersonating Bill, Jr. or was a case of mistaken identity. Sometime after that story surfaced, someone located the real Bill, Jr., who was living and/or working in the Los Angeles area. See additional information from Bobby Copeland and Luther Hathcock at the bottom of this page.
Bill Cody Links
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on Bill Cody, Bill Jr., and Andy Shuford. Click below:
YouTube and the Internet Archive have several of Cody's sound films for you to view or download:
On the trail of Bill Cody
To supplement Bill Russell's bio on Cody, ye Old Corral webmeister researched the Family Search website, Ancestry.com, California Death Index, ProQuest obituaries, death certificate, trade publications, and other sources for additional information on Bill Cody and family.
Bill Cody's wife, Victoria 'Regina' Kenah (1896 - 1965):
The Google Newspaper archive has a January, 1929 Montreal (Canada) Gazette newspaper article on Cody, including his Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada birth location: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1946&dat=19290116&id=j3AtAAAAIBAJ&sjid=K4wFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6733,2375014&hl=en
Bill Cody's actor son, Bill Cody Jr. / William Joseph Cody (1925 - 1989)
A few tidbits on Bill Jr. and his wife Liz from additional research by ye Old Corral webmeister:
Bill's wife Liz (Elizabeth Sidford Mac Gregor):
Find A Grave website notes that Bill Cody, Jr. and wife Liz are interred next to each other at Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills:
About the "Bill Cody, Jr. in Evansville, Indiana" information/misinformation:
In 2000, Bobby Copeland provided information on the "Bill Cody, Jr. in Evansville, Indiana person". Bobby writes: "I offer the following comments from expert researcher, Luther Hathcock: On Jan. 2, 1986, the AP ran a story nationwide on a former radio performer born Frederick Garfield Penniman who changed his name to 'Wild Bill' Cody and became a star of over 40 Westerns at Columbia. This man whose claim was far over exaggerated as star was now living in an Evansville nursing home at age 72. If he was in 40 Westerns, O. K. then where are his credits? We couldn't find them. Many people mistook this man to be the long lost B-Western kid star. Mentions appeared in publications that Bill Cody, Jr., was still around, now in an Indiana nursing home. When later informed of the mistaken identity, and the protest over it, Cody, Jr. found the matter amusing."
Bill Cody's other son, Henry Joseph Cody (1927 - 2010)