Before Hollywood beckoned, Indiana native Ken Maynard had been a champion rodeo rider in the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Maynard was, possibly, the most popular of the “B” Western stars from the late twenties through the mid thirties. Audiences loved him, but virtually everyone who worked or dealt with Maynard thoroughly hated him. Excessive drinking, foul-mouthed, ego-driven tirades, supreme arrogance, and prima donna ways eventually burned every single bridge Maynard ever crossed, despite being given numerous chances to straighten out his act. Eventually his excesses, reckless spending, womanizing, and difficult personality all caught up with him. His last few films, from the mid-forties, show a dissipated, grotesquely overweight star well past his prime. Since Maynard’s popularity had severely waned, his antics were no longer tolerated, and he was forced into retirement. After his film career ended, Maynard did a few rodeo circuit shows, a radio show, started a circus, lost it, went through several more marriages, and filed bankruptcy. His last few years were spent living in drunken solitude at a run-down trailer park, being cared for by his brother and fellow “B” Westerner Kermit Maynard, hawking off memorabilia (fake and real) and (secretly) receiving financial assistance from Gene Autry (Maynard gave Autry his start In Old Santa Fe, below). Ken Maynard died destitute and suffering from severe malnutrition in the early 1970s.
When he was in his prime, one can easily understand Maynard’s appeal. Personality quirks and sad ending aside, Maynard had undeniable, amiable charisma and, with his famous palomino horse, Tarzan, he seems the quintessential idea of a period “B” Western star.
Tombstone Canyon (1932) is a grand-guignol western directed by Alan James. As Ken and Tarzan are riding along Tombstone Canyon (actually Red Rock Canyon) they encounter the masked, cloaked Phantom Killer villain Sheldon Lewis (a hold-out, villainous favorite from the silent era). Some bad local hombres try to jump Ken and Tarzan, but cutie Cecilia Parker appears from nowhere to lend Ken a helping hand in driving away the thieves. When Cecilia introduces herself, Ken amiably exclaims, “Well that’s a might purty name you have there.” The Phantom Killer, having observed from the rocks above, gives off a banshee cry and Ken tells Cecilia, “I’d like to meet up with that Phantom fellar.”
Cecilia finds out that Ken is in search of his identity and long lost father. Local baddie Frank Brownlee has reasons for not wanting Ken to find out and it was his men who tried to bushwhack Ken in the desert. Plenty of intrigue is afoot and Ken finds himself in numerous predicaments, including a run-in with the hideously scarred Phantom Killer (shades of the Phantom of the Opera, and even of Darth Vader to come). The Phantom has sworn revenge against Brownlee and his gang, since it was they who beat him, scarred him, left him for dead in the desert many years ago, and, he believes, killed his young son.
Ken and Cecilia fall in love and get engaged, but not before it is revealed that Ken is indeed, yup, you guessed it, the long lost son of the Phantom Killer. Ken’s daddy turns from the dark side in order to save his son from Brownlee, exact his last revenge, and die in his son’s good arms. Shades of Return of the Jedi abound. Unlike Luke, however, Ken gets the girl.
If Tombstone Canyon is a good representation of Maynard in his prime, then In Old Santa Fe (1934) signals the beginning of the end and passing of the torch to newcomer co-star Gene Autry. Autry has only a brief musical bit in the film, but it’s clear he is a far better singer than Maynard. Autry was on the dawn of his superstardom here, and it was he who soon ushered in the era of the “singing cowboys” (one can take that for what it is worth). In Old Santa Fe also introduced Smiley Burnett , who sings one song to Autry’s two. This film also gave Gabby Hayes his real starting niche as the crusty, old sidekick comedy relief.
Film history notes aside, In Old Santa Fe (1934) is quite good , although not remarkable. H.B. Warner is, as usual, a fine villain. There is an exciting horse race, intrigue, crooked double-dealing modern gangsters vs. noble good guy cowboys, country music numbers (one too many), plenty of western stunts and a pretty girl (Evelyn Knapp) to fight over. Director David Howard serves up an attractively packaged western Hershey Bar for 1934 audiences. It’s an entertaining mix and signifies many things to come (for good and bad) but, it’s not much more than that, nor does it need to be.
By the time of Riders of the Whistling Pine (1949), Maynard was a forgotten, alcoholic has-been and Gene Autry had been crowned the King of the “B” Westerns, a title which he still has. Autry went onto success after success, retired, bought a baseball team, invested money everywhere and died a near-billionaire, loved by all. Autry used his supreme good luck and put it to equally good causes. He was a dedicated liberal and humanitarian. In this film, Autry espoused his usual concern for environmental issues, although time proved that in this case, he was on the wrong side of the issue. Moths are destroying the forest. Ranger Charles Carter knows this and is about to report it but is silenced when he is shot and killed by a logging official in the forest. The logging company is well aware of the moth problem but since they have a contract with the state for the timber, they are motivated to let the trees die so they can strip the forest clean.
Meanwhile, Gene mistakenly believes he is responsible for the “accidental” shooting death of Carter when he was aiming for a mountain lion, in the same forest, and missed. Carter’s daughter, Patricia White (later, Patricia Barry) is understandably in mourning. Gene decides to sell everything he has and leave the state for all the unintentional grief he believes he has caused. However, on the eve of his departure Gene discovers for himself the damage the moths are doing to the trees and reports it to the officials. They want Gene to spray the area with DDT and Gene agrees this is the best way to save the forest (!) The film almost veers off into a commercial promoting the use of DDT, but luckily gets back to the drama at hand. Seen today, the film, with its heavy message of promoting use of the chemical, comes off as a quite bizarre time capsule. There are several more odd time capsule qualities to this film. Jimmy Lloyd is Gene’s good-nature, alcoholic buddy who has been in and out of a drunken stupor since his wife died. When Lloyd drops a picture of his wife, Gene picks it up and reveals that Lloyd’s wife is budding young starlet, Marilyn Monroe. Gene pays tribute to his buddy’s late wife when he sings a song called “Hair of Gold and Eyes of Blue.” Also, Clayton Moore (before achieving his own fame as the TV Lone Ranger) shows up as a villainous logging henchman, out to stop Gene from spraying the forest-saving DDT.
This is a post-WWII, modern western that mixes cowboy songs, promotion of ecological issues, cowboy songs, aeroplanes, cowboys, cowboy songs, automobiles, high drama, a damsel in distress, and ending with a cowboy song. Of course, Gene finds out he didn’t kill Carter, stops the villains, and, with his DDT, saves the day. If life could only be as simple as a “B” western.