Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback

By Gary Eugene Brown

When the theater lights dimmed and the picture show began, the boys and girls were thrilled when he came riding across the screen, hell bent for leather, on his famous steed. According to the late, western film historian Buck Rainey, he "was one of the greatest movie cowboys to ever set a saddle."  The featured star was an All American hero, easy going, "aw shucks" bashful type around women, was most respectful of the opposite sex, always willing to risk his life to help those in need, avoided anything stronger than sarsaparilla, never uttered a swear word and was a most agreeable sort of guy. However, that was his on screen persona. Sadly, in the opinion of those who worked with him on location, when the director yelled "cut", he was just the opposite....a one eyed Jack. He was the one and only

Photo of Ken MaynardKEN MAYNARD

Vevey, Indiana was the birthplace of Kenneth Olin Maynard, not Mission Texas, as studio publicists claimed. Born on July 21, 1895, he had three younger sisters and a kid brother Kermit. Ken's father owned a small construction company. Not a lot of information is known about his youth, however it is reported Ken was somewhat incorrigible, demonstrated by his running off at age 12 to join the circus. His father caught up with him and brought him back in tow with a firm grip on his ear. The wanderlust however was not dampened, so at age 16, Ken, this time with his parents' permission, joined a traveling carnival. Early studio publicity releases noted that he joined the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1911, which is highly suspect as the great showman's farewell tour began in 1910. Supposedly, Ken also was with the Ringling Brothers Circus for a season. Also, he was reported to have won the title of World's All Around Cowboy at the Pendleton Round Up in 1920. However, according to Boyd Magers of Western Clippings, there are no records of him having done so; evidently another publicist's pipe dream or something perhaps that Ken perpetuated on his own.  However, one thing for sure, Ken was a great trick rider who learned his craft well in one of the smaller Wild West shows of the day (1913 - 1922). 
In WW I, Ken joined the US Army with a desire to serve in combat, however he was given the duty of a Civil Engineer and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky. It was there that he collected wife one with more to follow. Ken supposedly returned to the Ringling Brothers Circus where he was their featured cowboy trick rider and roper.  By 1922, he had a following which included Tom Mix. Tom encouraged Ken to try the movies due to his exceptional riding skills. Ken who enjoyed the limelight of the circus arena was of the opinion he could do as well as Mix, Buck Jones or Hoot Gibson, so he came to Hollywood in 1923.
Ken obtained small film parts at Fox Studios as well as stunt work, however his breakout role was as Paul Revere in Janice Meredith (1925), starring Marion Davies for William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studios. This lead to a contract with the Davis Corporation to make a series of five western films beginning with Fighting Courage (1925). Two of the series, $50,000 Reward and The Grey Vulture, have been available in VHS in the past. These cowboy action films were well received and as such, Ken signed with First National, beginning in 1926, where he would be the leading man in eighteen western films. The well-produced series, beginning with SenĂ³r Daredevil and ending with The Royal Rider (1929), elevated Ken Maynard to the same super star status as Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson and Fred Thomson. He had finally arrived at the top of the mountain. A studio press book sent to theaters showing Gun Gospel (1927), as printed in the Palm Beach Post, read as: "one of the fastest, most dramatic and powerful western pictures to be shown in many a day - that is Gun Gospel; starring that most magnetic and popular of all western stars - Ken Maynard." 

Ken Maynard with his horse TarzanAs an aside, for the Davis films, Ken Maynard found a palomino horse for $600, a hefty price in that day. Ken told folks that his friend Edgar Rice Burroughs suggested he name his new horse "Tarzan" after his jungle hero. As an aside, there was eventually a lawsuit later filed by the estate of the famous author over the use of the name Tarzan, however it was resolved in court. It was the best investment that Ken ever made, bar none! Often there is a debate as to whose horse was the best trained of them all; however you might win if you said "Tarzan the Wonder Horse". Buck Rainey in his book Saddle Aces of the Cinema states: "He (Tarzan) was a consummate actor and took direction well." "He was the Rin-Tin-Tin of the equestrian world, with his own fan club and several doubles." Ken, later in the role of producer, would write scenes to show off the skills of Tarzan, such as: untie knots, play dead, laugh, jump, dance, perform amazing rescues, vault walls, jump canyons, buck or rear on command and play cupid by nudging Ken and the pretty starlet into an embrace. Rainey's personal favorite duo was Buck Jones and Silver, however he opined that "Tarzan was probably the smartest horse in the movies and certainly performed more tricks than any of the others." We'll leave that up for you to decide, as you may have preferred Tony, Champion, Trigger or Silver. However, if it were me, I wouldn't bet against Tarzan.
Due to his immense popularity as result of the First National westerns, Ken signed with Universal (1929) with the first picture being The Wagon Master, directed by the legendary Harry Joe Brown. Also, it was noteworthy being the first "singing cowboy movie". It was filmed both as a silent movie and as a partial "talking" picture show. After eight films for Universal, Carl Laemmle released Ken Maynard, even though he was arguably the number one cowboy star at that particular time. The powerful studio CEO was still unsure as to the future of western films in the emerging sound era.

Ken Maynard with horse TarzanKen was immediately picked up by Tiffany Pictures, who were not overly concerned about making "all talking" cowboy action movies. He made eleven pictures for the fledgling studio which included fast paced oaters such as The Two Gun Man (1931) and Hell Fire Austin (1932).  Then KBS/World Wide pictures selected Ken to make seven cowboy films which were well received. They included the popular Come On, Tarzan (1932) Drum Taps (1933) and The Phantom Thurderbolt (1933). Carl Laemmle recognized the error he had made by letting Ken go and that there truly was a future in western sound films. As such, he signed Ken to a new contract (1933) with a budget of $100,000 per film. Ken also was able to form his own production company with complete artistic control in the dual role of actor and producer. The Fiddlin' Buckaroo (1933) and The Strawberry Roan (1933) were well done productions for Universal, which featured Ken singing old cowboy tunes. His voice was not as honed or smooth as Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, who were soon to follow; however, he sounded more like an authentic, old time cow puncher. Ken would accompany himself with a fiddle, banjo or guitar.
Also, an interesting note, during this period, Ken wore basically the same cowboy attire, right down to the large, white Stetson with the "reach and grab" crease, shirts with arrow pockets and jodhpurs with a piping trim and silver buckles made famous by the legendary Tom Mix. After all, if it worked for the number one box office star only a few years earlier, why not keep a good thing going.
While Ken was gaining in popularity among the adoring public, his reputation among studio executives, film crews and costars was in steady decline. Actress Cecilia Parker, who would go on to gain popularity in the Andy Hardy series playing Mickey Rooney's sister in the late 30s, costarred in a few of Maynard's Universal westerns. Bobby Copeland, biographer for several B Cowboy stars, in his book Trail Talk, noted that Ms. Parker once had to have a heart to heart talk with her leading man and producer. "I made four pictures with Ken Maynard and I finally laid it out in front of him. I said 'You pay my salary but if you can't behave yourself and curb your language, you'll have to get another actress.' He shaped up after that - at least I never had any more trouble with him." Carl Laemmle also found Ken often disagreeable and the two had a dispute over the actor's behavior.  Ken reacted by walking away from Universal in a huff, not a wise move on his part, as he would never again have the same financial resources nor the artistic freedom he had been given at Universal.

Lawless Riders PosterHowever, Ken once again seemed to do alright for himself, as Nat Levine of Mascot Pictures signed Ken to a two picture deal at a salary of $10,000 per week. The first - In Old Santa Fe (1934) was important in that it also featured a popular radio cowboy crooner by the name of Gene Autry in his first motion picture, along with his pal Smiley Burnette. Ken then followed with a 12 chapter serial Mystery Mountain which was immensely popular. Joining Ken, were the who's who of western character actors: Edmund Cobb, Syd Saylor, Lafe McKee, Bob Kortman, Wally Wales, Tom London, George Chesebro, Art Mix and an encore by Gene and Smiley. Whatever happened to those two guys?
Ken Maynard continued to bounce back and land contracts with major studios as he soon signed with Columbia for eight films, beginning with Western Frontier (1936) and concluding with The Fugitive Sheriff (1936). Overall, the Columbia westerns were well done, however the budget per picture was $70,000 compared to the $100,000 with Universal and he no longer served as a Producer
After the Columbia series, Ken's personal life was unraveling. His wife of ten years, Mary Leeper Maynard divorced him in 1939 due to his ongoing problem with alcohol and his wandering eye. Ken was also tired of making cowboy films and having to kowtow to studio executives and their green eye shade, snooping accountants. As such, he began to form an old fashion wild west show called Ken Maynard Diamond K Ranch and Wild West Circus and Indian Congress. He invested all his available capital ($100,000 +) in the show; however it folded within two weeks. The major setback didn't dampen his desire to return in the circus life and so he signed with the Cole Brothers Circus and they billed him as: "KEN MAYNARD - The Screen's Greatest Western Star and Congress of Rough Riders." Ken was with the circus through the 1937 to 1940 seasons. When he was not out on the sawdust trail, Ken made four films for Grand National including Boot of Destiny (1937) and four for Colony commencing with Flaming Lead (1939). However, Ken could no longer compete with the younger leading men like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter, as to his chagrin; he was getting long in the tooth.
In 1943, Ken returned to the cinema in a series of oaters featuring a trio of seasoned buckaroos. Monogram Studios were following the successful model established by The Three Mesquitters with Bob Livingston, Crash Corrigan and Max "Alibi" Terhune; and the Rough Riders with the late Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton. Ken was teamed up with his old pal Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele in the Trail Blazers series.  However, it was evident that Ken and Hoot were both showing a paunch. Also, the original Tarzan The Wonder Horse had died in 1940. Ken bailed out after the sixth film due to his being upset over the salary he was given. He came back one more time to star in a low budget film - Harmony Trail, for a fly by night, poverty row studio - Mattox Productions. He and his third wife Bertha, a former circus aerialist, were married in 1940. Overall, it was a pretty good marriage; however they were just getting by in later years. They lived in a small mobile home in the Shady Tree Trailer Park in San Fernando Valley.

Code of the Scarlet PosterKen would do an occasional public appearance and even performed a vaudeville act. The Desert News (1944) ran an ad announcing the great cowboy movie star Ken Maynard would be performing at  a local theater in a "novel act of comedy singing and music" and would also feature his famous horse Tarzan (the second Tarzan). Ken also performed a trick shooting act at the Corriganville Movie Ranch for $50 a day. However, one day he came driving down the main street of the cowboy town at Corriganville swerving back and forth in his station wagon. He wiped out a porch post and came to a roaring stop. He got out, quite disheveled, staggered and asked "Where's that old fart Corrigan?" Needless to say, he never worked another day at the movie ranch that belonged to Ray "Crash" Corrigan.
In 1951, Ken was featured in a syndicated, national 15 minute radio show Tales from the Diamond K. He also had a propensity for getting arrested on occasion, mostly for minor, alcohol related incidents: DUI, Hit and Run and Simple Assault. The lowest part in Ken Maynard's life was when he was fired on the spot from a traveling carnival at the Chicago State Fair on August 10, 1952. Ken had been hitting the bottle pretty heavy and then went out on stage and commenced to swear like a drunken sailor in front of several admiring boys and girls who had watched his old movies on TV. He had stooped pretty low at this point in his life. Ironically, earlier in his career, he had once commented in a newspaper interview: "Because so many children have an avid interest in 'westerns' I try to set an example" " never smoking or drinking or shooting anyone (dead) in his films." "He feels he's been repaid in letters and endorsement from women's clubs." Demon Rum is a liar and a cheat. We all, but for the grace of God, are potential victims, even though we think we can't be tempted. Ken had an incurable disease known to bring down many a man and woman.
Bertha died in 1968 and Ken remained alone in their small trailer. A so-called girlfriend, agent, part time film stand in and lounge singer by the name of Marilyn Marlowe, obtained all his memorabilia and sold it off. When the supply ran out, she is alleged to have started selling any old cowboy gear she could find, listing it as having once belonged to the great Ken Maynard, a major cowboy film star of yesteryear. His brother Kermit, who became a cowboy film star and in fact, may have been a better horseman than his older brother, and his wife would check in on Ken on occasion and try to sober him up and get him to eat something healthy. Also, a silent benefactor would continue to pay for his monthly rent as Ken was at the poverty level.
Ken entered the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills in January 1973 undernourished and related maladies associated with alcohol abuse. Ken died there on March 23, 1973 at the age of 77. Again, the unknown benefactor paid for all of his funeral expenses.
Fortunately, the mass 24/7 news media of today didn't exist back then, to saturate the public with all the sordid details of the stars in the 20s, 30s and 40s. As such, with exception of Hollywood insiders, most people, especially his young adoring fans, were spared learning of all the bad habits of their former hero Ken Maynard.  They continued to remember him kindly as being that carefree, dashing silver screen cowboy who would save the starlet's ranch from the greedy cattle baron. Ken and Tarzan were able to accomplish all of the required heroics to make things right in Happy Valley, all within a 60 minute time span. That's the way I prefer to remember Ken Maynard.

The Phamtom City PosterEPILOGUE: Regardless of his dark side, Ken Maynard was a major cowboy star of the 20s and 30s. He delighted young and old alike. My dear friend Joe Hannah, of the wonderful cowboy harmony trio - The Sons of the San Joaquin, shared a fond memory when he was a small town boy in Missouri in the mid-30s. He went to a small, traveling carnival, complete with a side show and exotic animals. However, the most memorable event was held in a small, midway tent. They were showing a Ken Maynard western. It was his first cowboy movie! It made a significant impression on Joe as it did on boys and girls around the world. A case in point, half way around the world in Cambodia, a young boy, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who passed away recently, eventually becoming King of his country, never missed a Ken Maynard western movie: "He was my idol as a cowboy dispenser of justice. He had an incomparably beautiful white horse who was as intelligent as a man and behaved like an angel." Two boys in two completely different worlds shared the same cowboy hero!
We also owe a lot to Ken Maynard in terms of his influence on cowboy music. In addition to being the first singing cowboy on film, Ken Maynard on April 14, 1930 went to the Columbia Records Studio and recorded eight traditional cowboy songs, accompanying himself on guitar. Only one 78 record was released as result of that recording session: The Lone Star Trail, Side A and The Cowboys Lament, Side B.  In 1952, The Lone Star Trail was added to the iconic collection of an Anthology of American Folk Music. The Editor Harry Smith deemed "this passionate description of life" to be "one of the very few recordings of authentic 'cowboy' singing'." In 2009, The Bear Records of Germany released a wonderful CD of the eight original recordings by Ken Maynard with great liner notes, his filmography and terrific images. The album is entitled Ken Maynard sings The Lone Star Trail. It is available through
No doubt, Ken Maynard made a major contribution to western film. In a Los Angeles Times article (April 5, 1969) covering an interview with the aging, former cowboy star, the reporter referred to him as being a "legend", Ken Maynard in a caustic response said: "Hell, I'm no legend! I hate the word." Sorry Mr. Maynard, in spite of your self-destructive ways, you were and still are a legend!
Oh yes, the secret benefactor was a man who Ken Maynard helped get a start in motion pictures. Gene Autry was forever grateful.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Smoke Signals Monthly eMagazine

Roaming Range Reporter

Continued from June 2012, Smoke Signals

Photo oa Gary E BrownReel Cowboys of Western Cinema

A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback

By Gary Eugene Brown

A continuing series on the leading men who made western films a special art form. Many, in the beginning, had been actual working cowboys; while others were accomplished actors who applied their craft in such a manner as to appear as though they had just rode into Hollywood on horseback. This is the story of one of them.


When two of the most respected cowboy icons pay homage to a former stage actor from the Bronx, one takes notice. Will Rogers said Harry Carey "was the most human and natural of the Western actors." John Wayne hailed him as "the greatest Western actor of all time." In addition, the legendary director John Ford who once remarked "[Harry] Carey was a great actor," dedicated his 1948 film, Three Godfathers to "Harry Carey - the Bright Star of the early Western Sky." However, if it wasn't for Harry Carey, we might not have heard of John Ford. The story begins in New York City on January 16, 1878.
Collage of Harry Carey PhotosHenry Dewitt Carey, the 2nd, was born the son of a future New York Supreme Court Jurist. Harry attended military academy before going on to college. At age, 21, Harry was stricken with pneumonia. During recuperation, he wrote a play he called Montana. Harry would go on to produce, direct and play the lead role of Cheyenne Harry in his play for four years, beginning in 1903.
Harry in 1910 joined Biograph, a motion picture company in New York City and became a stock player for the pioneer director D.W. Griffith. He was given an opportunity to make 1- and 2-reel western pictures, which led to a contract with Universal (1915) and a one way trip to Hollywood.
This venture led to meeting his future wife, 18 year old starlet, Olive Golden. They had two children: Harry Jr. (Dobe) and Ellen. Universal's Carl Laemmle, upon the urging of actor Francis Ford, gave Harry his own film company. In turn, at Francis's request, Harry helped his benefactor's younger brother, Assistant Director Jack Ford by giving him an opportunity to direct films for him. Harry and John Ford, made many westerns together; however, the full length western Straight Shooting (1917) is the only surviving film of the Carey/Ford era. The two also filmed Marked Men (1919), a remake of Peter B. Kyne's novel Three Godfathers that had earlier also starred Harry Carey.
In 1922, Universal, due to the popularity of Fox's Tom Mix films, decided not to renew Harry's contract and replaced him with his former costar Hoot Gibson. Harry, age 44, went on to make films for lessor known studios, as well as Pathe' who featured him in westerns: Silent Sanderson, The Prairie Pirate, and Satan Town, among others. Pathe' released him in 1928. To maintain the ranch he and Ollie owned in the San Francisquito valley near Newhall (now Santa Clarita), the two formed a vaudeville act and went on tour. On March 13. 1928, the St. Francis dam, constructed for the LA Aqueduct, collapsed at midnight and Carey's ranch caretakers along with 300 to 600 souls were swept away. The Careys lost everything and had to rebuild, however they were alive.

Ollie Carey, in a rare interview for the outstanding 1980 documentary: Hollywood Series - A Celebration of American Silent Film, commented on her husband's fascination with the West: He was not your typical cowboy, "he was an Easterner"; however he was "romantically in love with the West...absolutely and with the pioneer spirit...he just loved being a cowboy." In the same segment, John Wayne shared that he "loved" both Harry and Ollie and looked upon Harry as a father figure. Wayne was also impressed with Carey's natural way of acting. At the conclusion of John Ford's classic western The Searchers, the Duke recalled the final scene where he returns his niece Natalie Wood to safety after years of captivity. The scene is blocked so it is a black frame looking on Ethan Edwards. He notices Ollie Carey, who was featured in the movie along with Dobe, standing with the film crew. The thought came to him to convey a subtle message to her and so he took his left hand and grasped his upper right forearm, a habit that her late husband "incessantly" did in his films. Ollie picked up on the silent tribute and the tears came flowing down...a special moment just between the two of them.
In 1931, MGM released a major epic on the larger than life Trader Horn and his exploits on the Dark Continent. They had Harry play the lead with a young Duncan Renaldo (later TV's Cisco Kid) as costar. The film was a major hit for MGM and rejuvenated Harry's movie career. After returning to B westerns for Artcraft Studios, Harry made two 12-chapter serials in 1932 for Mascot Studios, including the classic The Last of the Mohicans. He then costarred with Walter Houston in the B+ western Law and Order for Universal Studios. RKO later chose Harry to head up an all-star B western cast in 1935 - Powdersmoke Range. Joining Harry were Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, Tom Tyler, Big Boy Williams, Wally Wales and Buddy Roosevelt, all whom had been leading men in B oaters. His last starring role was in 1936 in RKO's The Last Outlaw...Harry was 58 and the title was fitting as he was no longer young.
Harry Carey played all types of roles besides cowboys and starred on Broadway in Eugene O'Neil's Ah Wilderness. Harry even received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Frank Capra's revered Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Interestingly, the Oscar went to Thomas Mitchell for his role in John Ford's Stagecoach. Ford last used Harry in 1936 in The Prisoner of Shark Island. Harry went on to play key roles in The Shepherd of the Hills, The Spoilers, China's Little Devils, Angel and the Badman, Duel in the Sun, The Sea of Grass and Red River, among others. His last film was Walt Disney's So Dear to my Heart (1948).
Harry Carey was ill with emphysema and later cancer. On September 21, 1947, Harry crossed over the Jordan River. Present in his bedroom was the Doctor (a close friend), a nurse, his son Dobe and John and Mary Ford. John Wayne flew back from Catalina Island that morning to be with his friend and mentor. The Duke, according to Harry Carey Jr.'s fine book My Life As An Actor In The John Ford Stock Company, was keeping himself busy running errands for the family while Ollie played hostess to the visitors who came by to pay their respects. After the physician closed his father's eyes - Dobe claims - "Then the wake began. It went on for about a year. I'm serious, it did."
A year before Harry died, Dobe asked his father, why Ford hadn't used him in many years. Harry, instead of complaining or criticizing Ford's many "faults and egomania," paused, puffed on his cigarette and replied, "He won't ask me...But you will [be asked]...not till after I croak...but then you will. You can bet on it." His father was right as Ford on the day Harry died told Ollie that he was going to feature Dobe as "the Kid" in his next western - a remake of Three Godfathers. Ford kept his word. In essence, the kind gesture of an older, leading man, many years ago, in reaching out to a youthful, would be director, was repaid to the son (Harry Carey Jr.) many years later. The son went on to be a major stock player in some of the finest westerns ever made.
"But you will...not till after I croak...but then you will. You can bet on it."
is the retired Police Chief of Monterey, CA; Ashland, OR and San Clemente. However, his avocation is collecting western art and memorabilia including many Tom Mix items. Tom Mix was his father's hero, so he is Gary's as well. Gary wrote an article on Tom Mix for The National Film & Collectors Magazine - Hollywood Studio Magazine, as well as a recent article on Tom Mix's final day for American Cowboy magazine. He has also written articles on the Western Photoplays of the Golden Era and lectured on the Western Heroes of the Silver Screen. He can be reached at or found, most mornings, at his son Jordan's Mavericks Coffee House in Visalia, CA....the site of "possibly the best coffee in the world" with walls of vintage cowboy movie posters and a collection of 66 original, autographed photos of yesterday's cowboy heroes.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

Roaming Range Reporter
Photo of Gary Brown on Horsebak
As we close our series of Gary Brown articles for Smoke Signals, we thank Gary for his passion, his opinions and the beautiful words he used to deliver them to us.   ---Linda Kohn Sherwood, editor

Article 5 in a Series of 5:

Top 10 Memorial Silent Westerns Worthy of Watching (second half)
(The first half can be found in February 2012 Edition of Smoke Signals)

By Gary Eugene Brown

There are five other films that are worth watching, provided you've gotten over your bias regarding the silent era westerns. These are not full-length films (ninety minutes or more), however the quality and entertainment value are there nonetheless.

The Tole Gate (1920) - Another film by William S. Hart which is perhaps his finest role. The Toll Gate is a film of revenge and redemption, like many of his films. Bill starts out as an outlaw, but by the end is convinced by either a mother, sister, or pretty school marm to reform his ways and go straight. The story line is still relevant today, as one eventually has to pay for his past transgressions. You must "pay the fiddler" when the dance is over.

The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926) - There was only one Tom Mix. Larger than life, he personified the western hero, perhaps not the way he really was, yet perhaps the way he should have been. Mix was and still is the symbol of the cowboy film star, "an idol of a million boys." This is one of his best movies that have survived. It has non-stop action, fearless stunts, and humor. It was filmed on location in the Royal Gorge area of Colorado.

Riders of the Purple Sage (1926) - This was based upon Zane Grey's finest novel, and it too stayed true to the novel. Filmed in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, it is one of Tom Mix's rare serious roles. Mix portrays the vengeful Lassister, one of many who played the famous Grey character on the silver screen. However, the film was not as popular with Mix's fans as it lacked his signature non-stop action and was almost totally void of humor. It is a fine movie nonetheless.

Thundering Hooves (1924) - One of the best cowboy stars of the '20s was Fred Thomson. Almost forgotten today, he was number two in the box office behind Tom Mix and was about to pass him in popularity when, unfortunately, this former national decathlon champion died of tetanus at only age 31. This one surviving, complete film demonstrates the agility of Thomson, who was as acrobatic as the famous Douglas Fairbanks Sr. One wonders what could have happened to his career if Thomson survived and entered the sound period as the number one cowboy film star.

The Roping Fool (1925) - This is a testimony to the roping skills of probably the most beloved man of the 20th century. Will Rogers was unequalled in history as a roper and this semi-documentary film verifies the fact. See it for yourself. There is a humorous story line of Will's being obsessed with roping. His arch-nemesis is "Big Boy" Guinn Williams who went on to star in silents as the hero, and later as a sidekick. With Will being a vaudeville performer, famous movie star, honorary Mayor of Beverly Hills, champion roper, humorist, newspaper columnist, noted speaker, aviation pioneer, and goodwill ambassador to the world, if he died today in a plane crash, with instant main stream and cable TV news and the internet, people would be glued to their TVs. In 1935, the world was in complete shock, while sitting in their living rooms in front of their family radio.

Honorable Mention - There were other films that played an important role and helped pave the way for the western cinema. The Squaw Man (1914), based upon a famous play, was directed by a young Cecil B. DeMille. It supposedly was the first major film made in Hollywood. In 1917, John Ford directed his first feature film Straight Shooting starring Harry Carey, Sr. and co-starring a young Hoot Gibson. James Cruze filmed the first major western extravaganza The Covered Wagon (1923) that told of the settling of the West. Even though it seems more dated in its appearance compared to the highly recommended films, it has many memorable scenes portraying the hardships that the early pioneers had to endure. It is worth a "look-see" as a recreation of the migration West, and could have been an actual documentary, as some of the people in the film were actual participants in the earlier wagons west movement. Due to the immense success of The Covered Wagon, Cruze went on to direct The Pony Express in 1925. It was not close to the same production values of Cruze's earlier film, but is a historic film nonetheless.

With hope, this article will encourage you to venture forth and discover for yourself some of these mostly forgotten gems. They will help you fill the void before the next western film of some quality plays in your local theater. Film historians are aware of their existence, however the masses are not.

In closing, remember the saying "Silence is golden." In this case, it surely is.

© 2010, Gary Eugene Brown; all rights reserved. A version of this article appeared in September, 2010 in Movieguide magazine.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reel Cowboys of Western Cinema
A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback

By Gary Eugene Brown

For those of us who grew up in the 30s, 40s and 50s, cowboy movie stars were often heroes we wanted to least us boys. Sure, Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Jack Dempsey and Sammy Baugh were worthy role models (minus certain off field antics). However, there was something special about those knights on horseback who rode across the screen on their trusty steeds to save the rancher's daughter from a steely eyed banker with foreclosure papers in his vest pocket or to halt a range war between the nesters and the cattlemen.

This is the first installment of a continuing series in which I will share a little background on who those western leading men were (in chronological order) in an attempt to keep their memories alive. Since there were over 100 leading men in cowboy movies from Broncho Billy Anderson to Jeff Bridges, who starred in B Oaters to A Westerns, the list had to be pared down considerably. As such, the following thirty stalwarts are those who, in my opinion, made a major contribution to the genre and/or had an interesting tale to tell. As a disclaimer, if your hero is not one of those featured, don't hold it against the kind folks at High Noon's Smoke Signals. I even had to exclude some of my own favorites.

Photos of William S HartWILLIAM S HART

William Surrey Hart was born in Newburgh, NY in 1864. His biography My Life East and West, begins when he was a small boy in Oswego, IL, where his father ran a flower mill along the Fox River. Bill later accompanied his father on his travels among the Plains Indians in the Dakota Territory where his dad taught them how to establish flower mills. This gave the youngster an opportunity to learn firsthand about the culture of the Lakota and to walk the boardwalks of cattle towns where cowboys reigned. Bill returned to the east coast where he became a world class Race Walker. However, his career interest was to become an actor. He had an opportunity to star in the original production of Ben Hur and a countless number of Shakespearean plays. The first attempts at making westerns by people who did not know their subject matter was appalling to Bill Hart. After all he had been among the real cowboys in Kansas' cow towns. He once remarked after seeing a two reel, so-called western, that the film actor who portrayed the Sheriff looked more like a cross between a "Wisconsin woodchopper and a Gloucester fisherman." This prompted Bill to call his former roommate Thomas Ince, who was making motion pictures in the new town of Hollywood, and plead with him to allow him to make westerns.  In turn, Bill Hart went to the West Coast in 1914 and began making 2 reel films (approx. 20 min.) for Thomas Ince and The New York Motion Picture Company. He soon progressed to making 5 and 7 reel films and eventually became a director with his own production company.

William S Hart went on to become the first major western cinema star and made over 60 films between 1914 and 1925. At the height of his career, he was as popular as the royalty of Tinsel town which included Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford as King and Queen and Charley Chaplain as the Court Jester. Bill's films were serious attempts to portray the West the way it really was at least in Bill's opinion. He was not as flamboyant as Tom Mix and kept his private life to himself. The story lines of his films often began with Bill being a two gun outlaw, who had a mother, sister or pretty school marm who prayed for him to change his evil ways and by the end of the fourth reel; he had turned over a new leaf and began to seek redemption. Bill Hart was also credited with being the first cowboy star to give costar billing to his horse Fritz, a 13 hand Tobiano Paint. His home is the same as it was when he died in 1946. The Santa Clarita, CA museum/historic home which contain a great collection of western art, is open to the public, as Bill deeded the 200 acre ranch to the County of Los Angeles.

The most notable films of his storied career that have survived that are available on DVD/Video are: Hells Hinges; which evidently influenced Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter; The Toll Gate and Tumbleweeds. The latter film, a first class A production, released in 1925, caused a financial burden for Bill who bucked the studio system by distributing his own movie. William Fox and others, controlled the production, distribution and showing of films in their own theaters. The film was rereleased in the late 30s with a prologue added by Hart. This was the first time the public had an opportunity to hear the former Shakespearean actor turned cowboy hero speak. He told the story of Tumbleweeds - The Oklahoma Land Rush and then closed with an emotional, final adieu to his many fans that had spent their nickels to watch his movies as children and now were adults with children of their own. He shared from the heart how much he enjoyed the making of western films..."Oh, the thrill of it all!" and then took off his Montana peaked, sombrero and closed with "Adios Amigos, God bless you all, each and every one." He bowed, turned and walked off into eternity.

For further information: William S Hart, Projecting the American West, written by Ronald L. Davis, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 2003

You Tube has the 8 minute moving prologue: "William S Hart, Farewell to the Screen"