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.

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