May 5th, 1889 — December 28th, 1968
Craggy-faced, tall, and brawny, with a harsh voice and a brusquely overbearing manner, Harry Woods was one of the most intimidating heavies in B-westerns, menacing heroes and heroines in over three decades’ worth of silent and sound cowboy films. He most typically played characters that were both shrewd and tough, “brains heavies” quite capable of physically executing their own schemes. Woods played five major roles in serials as well, playing (with one exception) nasty and exceptionally tough villains.
Harry Woods was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He abandoned a career as a Midwestern millinery salesman to become a stage actor, moving to Hollywood in the early 1920s. His first film was the 1923 Jack Hoxie Western Don Quickshot of the Rio Grande. He would work principally in Westerns (Jesse James, as the infamous Bob Ford), serials (The Fast Express, Wolves of the North) and other action films (the big-budget epic The Viking) throughout the silent era, almost always as a heavy. The coming of sound caused no problems for Woods, whose gruff voice complemented his formidable appearance perfectly. He kept working steadily in Westerns and other films throughout the early 1930s, playing outlaws, gangsters, bullies, and occasional law officers in films as varied as Buck Jones’ Range Feud, the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, and the Fox jungle adventure Devil Tiger. Most of his films during this time were B-movies, with only a few (the above-mentioned Monkey Business and Walter Huston’s Law and Order) approaching A status; his 1930s film work also included multiple serials, beginning with three efforts all released in 1935.
The first of Woods’ cliffhangers was Universal’s The Rustlers of Red Dog, an excellent Western serial with a strong cast and plenty of action. John Mack Brown starred as a marshal who tried to clean up the town of Red Dog and found himself in a battle to the death with a gang of rustlers and bank robbers led by Woods as the redoubtable Rocky. Over the course of the serial, the rustler leader developed a grudging respect for his antagonist, even as he did his best to kill him off, and accepted his final defeat with a gambler’s philosophy. Woods handled his unusually complex villainous role with skill, not only in his confrontations with Brown but in his interactions with his men. His Rocky would harshly rebuke rebellious followers, but also conveyed a genuine concern for the cohesion of his gang, even displaying believable sorrow at one outlaw’s death. Throughout the serial, Woods managed to make Rocky’s nasty deeds and his occasional sympathetic actions seem equal aspects of one consistent character.
Woods quickly followed Rustlers of Red Dog with a second Universal serial, the entertaining jungle adventure Call of the Savage. For the first and only time in his cliffhanger career he played a true-blue good guy, a mysterious stranger named Borno who helped the Tarzan-like jungle boy Jan (Noah Beery Jr.) fight the schemes of crooked scientist Walter Miller. It turned out that Borno was the Captain of the Guards in the lost city of Mu, exiled for threatening the schemes of a would-be usurper (John Davidson); eventually, he and Jan and heroine Dorothy Short–the lost princess of Mu that Borno had been seeking–returned to the city and defeated the usurper. Woods, looking less villainous without his customary mustache, brought an appropriately military toughness and decisiveness to his role; he also made Borno seem upright, gentlemanly, and kindly, a far cry from the typical Woods character.
Call of the Savage was followed on Woods’ serial filmography by the enjoyable but forgettable The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935); this chapterplay featured Woods as a heavy again, an “unscrupulous sportsman” named Crawford who had the stallion Rex stolen from the Island of Sujan (where the horse was worshipped as a god),and attempted to turn him into the world’s best polo pony. Crawford stopped at nothing, including murder, to hold on to the valuable Rex, but was still undone by the horse, his canine pal Rinty, human hero Kane Richmond, and the irate people of Sujan. Woods’ sneeringly aggressive and completely selfish Crawford was probably the most purely nasty of all his serial villains, although he still gave the character an air of swaggering confidence and unflappable authoritativeness that would have seemed admirable if Crawford hadn’t been so thoroughly ruthless.
Above: The polo-helmeted Harry Woods rebukes his henchmen in Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935). The standing thugs are (left to right) Jack Rockwell, Charles King, and George Chesebro; Al Bridge is seated next to Woods.
Woods followed his 1935 burst of serial activity with several roles in features–chiefly B-westerns–and then returned to cliffhangers for Universal’s 1936 effort The Phantom Rider. This solid chapterplay starred Buck Jones, Woods’ frequent antagonist in silent and sound Westerns, as a ranger battling a gang of land-grabbing outlaws. Woods played Harvey Delaney, a seemingly affable rancher with a romantic interest in heroine Marla Shelton; unknown to her and Jones. However, Delaney was also the secret leader of the gang, which he was using to drive Shelton and other landowners off their property in anticipation of the railroad’s needing a right-of-way through the area. Phantom Rider allowed Woods to play a more suave villain than he usually did, and he made Delaney’s friendly and understanding pose convincing. For some reason, Woods was filmed from behind in all his plotting scenes with the outlaws, his face being revealed in the final chapter–but this official revelation of Delaney’s duplicity was no surprise to the viewers, who could easily recognize Woods’ inimitable snarling voice in the many scenes in which the “mysterious” leader sarcastically berated his men.
Above: Marla Shelton and Buck Jones confront Harry Woods in the final chapter of The Phantom Rider. That’s Eddie Gribbon as the Sheriff covering Woods; Joey Ray is between Jones and Woods, Cactus Mack between Woods and Gribbon, and George Cooper on the far right.
Woods returned to features after Phantom Rider, spending the rest of the 1930s playing many notable heavies in B-westerns for Republic, Universal, Columbia, and other studios, as well as smaller roles in big films like Beau Geste. In 1940, he played his last major serial villain, King Carter in Universal’s Winners of the West. A first-rate Western, Winners featured Woods as King Carter, a crooked rancher, saloon owner, and trader who controlled a large tract of unsettled Western land. Determined to prevent the railroad from laying track in his domain and bringing in settlers that would break his hold over the area, Carter organized continual Indian and outlaw attacks on the railway construction crew and their leader Jeff Ramsay (Dick Foran). With the exception of Rocky in Rustlers of Red Dog, Carter was the meatiest of Woods’ serial villain characters; the outlaw king was rough, tough, and nasty, but also possessed plenty of bravery and even a sense of humor. As in Red Dog, Woods expertly handled the various aspects of his role, savagely growling out threats to railroaders or henchmen, defiantly exchanging insults with hero Dick Foran, and genially chatting with unsuspecting heroine Anne Nagel. Carter exited the serial after an impressive climactic brawl with the hero, bringing Harry Woods’ run as a cliffhanger villain to an appropriate close.
Woods remained a busy B-western badman throughout the 1940s, opposing almost all the major cowboy stars at one time or another. Occasionally he would play a sympathetic lawman or other non-villain, while also making a few appearances as toughs or bullies in major films. In 1943 he made a brief return to serials; while simultaneously appearing in several Republic B-westerns, he essayed a one-chapter bit as a thug in The Masked Marvel, impersonating a professor to deceive two of the heroes but misspelling the name of the real professor on a receipt; this error brought on a fight that resulted in Woods’ demise.
Woods closed the 1940s with several excellent villainous turns in several of Tim Holt’s B-westerns (Thunder Mountain, Western Heritage) and notable parts in the Joel McCrea western Colorado Territory and John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. In the 1950s, Woods’ feature appearances began to diminish as he made numerous appearances on TV. In some of his guest shots on shows like The Lone Ranger, Adventures of Kit Carson, and Bat Masterson he played his typical roughneck character, but in others was cast as respectable types; he even served as a regular cast member, a helpful doctor, on the show Tombstone Territory from 1957 to 1959. Woods’ final feature was the 1958 Allied Artists police drama New Orleans After Dark, and his final screen appearance was a guest appearance in an episode of The Lawman aired in 1961. Retiring in that year, Woods resided in Los Angeles until his death in 1968.
Harry Woods’ combination of scowling menace and swaggering bravado in his serials, particularly Rustlers of Red Dog and Winners of the West, made him the epitome of the villainous but formidably daring badman of frontier folklore, the type of heavy who would shoot a man in the back if the situation required it, but had no qualms about taking his opponents on in face-to-face showdowns. Woods used his ability to be both convincingly threatening and convincingly tough to create innumerable badmen in B- westerns through the years, and, fortunately, also graced the serial genre with some choice samples of his rough-and-tumble villainy.
Acknowledgements: I am indebuted to the Old Corral’s page on Woods for some of the above information on his early years.