Saturday, October 3, 2009

Movies in the Santa Clarita Valley - Part 5: Ken Maynard

Way, way back in 1999, I was going through my grandfather's personal papers for the first time. They were a mess, I'll tell you. Two big boxes full of smelly paper, none filed in any kind of order, and most of it was almost seventy years old. But it was still full of treasures that were priceless to me. I had never known my grandfather when I was growing up and, until that year, had not known that he was a successful pulp fiction writer during the Great Depression. In among the manuscripts and the dozens of letters from Wild West Weekly, I found a letter:
At this point, my grandfather was writing Westerns almost exclusively and his characters were wildly popular with Wild West Weekly readers. Kid Wolf and Sonny Tabor were the most popular, and both had already appeared in book form - reprints of Wild West Weekly stories. Kid Wolf was a quirky kind of hero: he was originally from the Rio Grande, a rancher who didn't have to worry about money so he roamed the southwest looking for people to rescue and bad guys to punish. He carried a Bowie Knife hidden in a sheath sewn into the back of his buckskin jacket, talked with a very heavy Texas drawl and rode a huge white horse named Blizzard.

I looked at the letterhead again. Ken Maynard Productions. Ken who?

After a little reading, this is what I found out.

Ken Maynard was one of the most popular cowboy stars of the 1930s. While cowboy stars like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers had their singing abilities to carry them through a movie, Maynard had only minor talent as a singer. Still, he was in more than 80 movies. He was more known for his chiseled good looks and, more than anything, his superb riding skills. His brother, Kermit, was a cowboy actor as well and appeared in over 300 films, most of them in supporting roles instead of starring.

The history is murky as to Maynard's early life and how he became such a good rider. It is known that the two Maynard boys grew up in Indiana. Some accounts say Ken was a rodeo competitor, while others say he started in the circus. There are some accounts that say he won the "All Around Cowboy" award at the Pendleton, Oregon roundup in 1920. However, the site author says he was able to confirm that this did not happen. He began his movie career in the mid-1920s with non-Western roles.

It seems that Maynard's life began to change in 1925 when he acquired a beautiful big palomino named Tarzan. The two seemed made for each other.

An interesting note of trivia: many of Ken Maynard's early films with Tarzan -- movies shot when he was working with First National Pictures -- became stock film. First National eventually became Warner Brothers, and when a young John Wayne began filimg Westerns for Warner in 1932-33, some of Maynard's stock film was used. Wayne rode a palomino he named "Duke" so it would be easier to match Wayne and Duke to Maynard and Tarzan stock scenes.
Maynard began to acquire a name of his own after the acquisition of Tarzan and by the end of the 1920s had filmed eight Universal pictures. But the transition to talkies was creating tumult throughout the studios and Universal dropped their Western productions, for the time being at least.
After the Universal meltdown, Maynard went through a string of film companies; his leaving some weren't of his fault but due to the economic hard times of the Depression. Other times it really was his fault. He went from Poverty Row productions, releasing films through Tiffany, to KBS Productions that were released through World Wide. But he was making a lot of productions, including several serials, and he was gaining in popularity. But World Wide was struggling financially, and then Universal came back and wooed Maynard back. The icing on the cake in Universal's offer was his own production company, Ken Maynard Productions. This was where my grandfather and Kid Wolf came in.

Universal gave Maynard a nice little budget per film: $100,000 and he made several movies for them. But Ken was starting to show a dark side: he had a bad temper, didn't care much for having to worry about such things as budget, and swore like a drunken sailor in front of people like Carl Laemmle. I've read in other sources that he was starting to acquire a drinking problem at this point.

In this next letter to my grandfather, Maynard says he is in the middle of 'closing down his production company' and moving to Europe. I can't find any verification that he actually did make this trip; but it is known that by 1934, Maynard was out at Universal and working for Mascot Pictures.

Even though Maynard was continually burning bridges and was making some real flops, his popularity with the matinee movie crowd remained strong. By 1935 he was working for Darmour, whose films were released through Columbia. Although he made some good oaters there, the partnership between Darmour and Columbia ended in 1936 and so once again Maynard was looking for a home.

Maynard spent the rest of the 1930s and 1940s filming for other companies, but change was in the air. He was getting older and heavier. He was drinking heavily. He eventually divorced his second wife during this time, and the original Tarzan died. The palomino was replaced by Tarzan II. Maynard also began his own circus groups and was busy touring with those, but eventually he lost those to creditors.

The early 1940s found Maynard teamed up with Bob Steele and Hoot Gibson and doing pictures for Monogram Pictures, most notably the Trail Blazers series of movies. This is where the Santa Clarita Valley and Vasquez Rocks comes into the story (although I'm sure many other Maynard pictures were filmed in the area before but in the interests of time, I'm not going to confirm those). This photo is from Death Valley Rangers (1943), the fourth movie in the Trail Blazers series, and it was taken at Vasquez Rocks.

Maynard's movie career petered out after the mid 1940s. The site says the following about Maynard's last years:
"The ending of Ken Maynard is a sad one. In the last few years of his life, Maynard was associated with a gal who claimed to be his wife/agent/girlfriend. They (or she) sold off much of Ken's belongings. They (she) acquired cowboy stuff at local shows and peddled it as authentic 'Ken Maynard Memorabilia'. But the scheme was discovered. Ken Maynard died a pauper at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California on March 30, 1973, sick with a variety of ailments including alcohol abuse and malnutrition. He was laid to rest at at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Cypress), Orange County, California, in a grave next to his wife Bertha. Ken's mild-mannered brother Kermit passed away in 1971."

Ken Maynard had been married several times but left no children. His brother Kermit seems to have fared better: he ended up working for SAG (the Screen Actors Guild), stayed away from excess alcohol consumption and had a stable married life that produced at least one son.

My grandfather's movie dreams with Kid Wolf never transpired. Maynard seems to have lost interest or perhaps the budget didn't come through. Either way, I like to think that my grandfather was none the worse for having missed out on the movie. Chances are that he wouldn't have made much money, as Street & Smith (the publisher for Wild West Weekly) had complete control and rights over any money made from the characters in their magazines. So any film profits would have gone straight to them.

If you ever visit the Museum of Western Heritage (formerly known as a Autry museum) in Los Angeles, there is an area dedicated to the early cowboy stars of the 1930s. Ken Maynard has a small exhibit. But next to his exhibit is a television that plays a video of some of these stars in action. Maynard is seen on Tarzan, galloping down a dirt road. With Tarzan at a dead run, Maynard reaches down and, in just a few seconds, pulls his saddle off his horse, never losing his seat and grinning the whole time. He is clearly having the time of his life.

I prefer to remember Ken Maynard that way.

Ken Maynard - Whirlwind Horseman
Ken Maynard - Wikipedia
Photo of Maynard and Tarzan property of Old Corral Images


Charles Gramlich said...

That's so neat having those letters. I can't imagine finding a treasure trove of papers like that.

Richard Prosch said...

This has been a wonderful series of posts! And...I just rcvd. your book in the mail today. I didn't realize it was a Bison Book from U. o' Nebraska. Cool! They have a nice run of old SF stuff.

Laurie Powers said...

Charles - going through my grandfather's papers was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Richard, thank you! I really am having a great time doing them and plan on continuing it for a while, with other subjects in between. And thank for you buying Pulp Writer - I hope you enjoy it!

Evan Lewis said...

Fascinating stuff here. It would sure be great to have a Maynard/Kid Wolf film to watch. Were any of your grandfather's stories adapted for other films?

I have a few old cowboy song recording credited to "Ken Maynard," but can't swear it's the same guy. They're pretty hard on the ears.

Laurie Powers said...

If they are hard on the ears, chances are it is Ken Maynard. He was a singing cowboy too. None of my grandfather's characters made it to the big screen, but there was at least one Sonny Tabor radio show - there are 18 radio transcripts in the Street & Smith archive. I also have an LP of one of the shows.

Joel Towler said...

Hi Laurie;
Good post on Ken Maynard. Ken was a good friend of mine for the last 10 years of his life (1963-1973). The letters of his you uncovered are unique in that they display his 'off and running globe-hopping days.' We had some amazing talks about the early days, from silents to sound, and the behind-the- scenes details on the various sets. I sure miss my ol' amigo. Treasure those letters, Laurie! They are great history!

penny havard said...

Dear Laurie: I read with great interest about your grandfather and his letters. I would like to make a suggestion that you read Jon Tuska's 'Filming the American West' if you have not already done so. It is still available as a used book pub. 1976. The list of the people Jon Tuska interviewed and knew personally reads like a who's who in the history of the Western Film. And, yes he knew KM for many years.

I was a horse crazy young girl and I just soaked up every moment of KM's
superb riding flashing across the TV screen. It wasn't until years later that I knew he had severe personal problems that led to the collapse of his career and health.

His many positive creative contributions to the American Western Film can not be denied. And, in spite of all that I now know about this troubled, complex man, I still get such a thrill watching his superb riding and lack of fear while doing incredible stunts. Simply put, he and Tarzan were the best!

Keep up the good work.

Penny Havard

Laurie Powers said...

Hi Penny - thanks for such a great comment. I know Jon Tuska and yes, he has done some great reference books. I don't have the one you mentioned - I will have to pick it up.
Funny how those that were our heroes when we were young still resonate with us now, no matter how flawed they were.

penny havard said...

Dear Laurie: I will be very interested to hear what you think of the Tuska book after you finish. Don't give up as it's a big book but so well worth reading.

I think childhood heroes resonate with us as adults because they bring back happy memories. Finding out later that they were far from perfect is just part of growing up and realizing that no one is.

We all need to work on ourselves.

I will check back to see what you are up to and if you've gotten the book.

Best Regards,

Betty L. Willard said...

I discovered this site FAR too late! I am Betty L. Willard, first cousin once removed to Ken & Kermit Maynard & their sisters. My grandmother (Minnie Pearl Stewart Willard) was the sister of Ken's & Kermit's mother, Emma Stewart Maynard(Aunt Em to me). She got Ken to send me a signed photo in the 1950's but he didn't respond when I wrote him in 1970.

Betty Willard said...

It's Betty Willard again (family nickname "Bitsy.") I tried to contact a couple of people who knew Ken & couldn't get anywhere. If any of you out there knew him, I'd like to know more about him. His mother, to whom I was close, died when I was about 10. All the people who knew him are now passed away. I think my letter to Ken got there too late, also.