Wednesday, October 5, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: In Old Santa Fe (1934)

Two cowpokes, Kentucky (Ken Maynard) and Cactus (George “Gabby” Hayes), are en route to a dude ranch when they encounter a fetching young woman in Lila Miller (Evalyn Knapp), to whom they offer a helping hand when her car runs off the road.  As movies would have it, Lila is the daughter of the man who owns the ranch, Charlie Miller (H.B. Warner)—but dude ranching isn’t the only thing on Miller’s plate; he’s amassed a goodly amount of wealth from a lucrative gold mine.

Lila accepts a lift to the ranch from a passing stagecoach, on which ride passengers Chandler (Kenneth Thompson) and Tracy (Wheeler Oakman).  These two city slickers are planning much mayhem; Chandler knows that Miller has a shady past (Charlie’s a wanted man for violating his parole) and not only does he want to get his greasy mitts on the Miller gold he’s taken a shine to the sweet and demure Lila as well.  But he’s got a rival in Ken, and Chandler not only arranges for our hero to lose a horse race at the ranch (he also talks Cactus into betting Ken’s trusty steed, Tarzan, on the outcome) but frames him for robbery and murder!  Will Ken triumph in the end?  (I’d bet the ranch on it!)

At one time in Hollywood, Ken Maynard was one of the motion picture industry’s highest-paid B-picture cowboy stars.  The handsome matinee idol practically began his career in silent Westerns as an extra and stuntman (an exception was the D.W. Griffith-directed Janice Meredith in 1924); he then graduated to starring roles in a number of popular oaters for Warner Brothers, and then smoothly transitioned to sound with stints at Universal, Tiffany, and Sono Art-World Wide Pictures.  The reason why Maynard made the rounds at so many movie factories is because the sagebrush actor had acquired a reputation completely at odds with his squeaky-clean image onscreen: he drank, swore, womanized…and in general, was an obnoxious, egomaniacal prima donna who generated unbridled hostility from everyone who either worked or had dealings with him.  (Even his horse Tarzan gave him justifiable side-eye.)

Nat Levine, a film producer who founded the independent Mascot Pictures studio in 1927, hired Maynard for what was going to be a series of Westerns…but Ken wouldn’t straighten out his act so he got the old heave-ho after making a serial, Mystery Mountain (1934), and today’s B-oater—In Old Santa Fe (1934).  In retrospect, it’s a shame Maynard was such a dingus because while Santa Fe isn’t the greatest of sagebrush programmers, it’s a very entertaining saga that features one of Ken’s best performances.  (Maynard, to put it simply, was a bit limited in the thespic department.)  Santa Fe also boasts a pretty good supporting cast: Evalyn Knapp is much more animated than the usual Western leading lady; Kenneth Thompson is so oily he probably leaves a residue after finishing in the bathtub; and Wheeler Oakman is also at his villainous best (in true Oakman fashion, he plans to double-cross Thompson…and fails miserably in the process).

In Old Santa Fe also features an early turn from George Hayes (honest, that’s how he’s billed, dadgummit) in his cantankerous sidekick persona, which would put him in very good stead working alongside later B-western heroes like William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd and Roy Rogers.  (Gabby tells Oakman at one point in the movie the reason he’s called “Cactus” is because he’s “prickly.”)  Hayes would also work with a cowboy star that made his motion picture debut in Santa Fe—none other than The Singing Cowboy hisself, Gene Autry.

Gene and his longtime sidekick Lester Alvin “Smiley” Burnette (also making his movie debut) appear in a brief sequence making music at a hoedown being held at the Miller ranch; Gene performs the title tune and Wyoming Waltz while Smiley warbles Mama Don’t Like Music Played in Here (a song co-written by he and Gene…though I always thought the title was Mama Don’t ‘Low).  (Not to be outdone, star Maynard belts out That’s What I Like About My Dog and Because You Didn’t Get a Girl—though the credit for Ken’s vocals goes to Bob Nolan of The Sons of the Pioneers.)  Despite his limitations as both a singer and actor (even Autry acknowledged this), Levine saw much potential in “America’s Favorite Cowboy,” and cast him in the studio’s 1935 serial, The Phantom Empire (a role that was originally slated for Ken Maynard, until he spoiled a good time for everyone else).  You pretty much know the rest of the story: Autry became a huge movie star (Levine’s Mascot studio was one of several that was folded into Herbert J. Yates’ Republic the following year, where Gene would work until 1947), not to mention a major recording artist with successful ventures into radio (Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch) and TV (The Gene Autry Show).  To demonstrate that Gene was gooder and kinder and decenter than the star of In Old Santa Fe, he arranged for financial assistance on Maynard’s behalf when Ken eventually hit the skids.

The print of In Old Santa Fe that I DVR’d off The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ gives Gene Autry top billing (“Nat Levine presents Gene Autry”) even though Mr. A’s participation is pretty minimal; I suspect this was a re-issue print, and that Nat decided to tamper with the original credits in an effort to cash in on Gene’s popularity.  Santa Fe’s passed into the public domain, so finding a copy won’t be too much of a trial; the TCM print runs 62 minutes, which is a couple of minutes shorter than the running time listed in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide.  Len also gives the flick three stars—which I think is a bit on the generous side, though it is quite enjoyable.  (Anybody who rides a horse called “Tarzan”—that’s just incredibly cool.)


hobbyfan said...

No, I don't know the story about Ken Maynard and the "Phantom Empire". How's about rehashing that one, Ivan, so some of us "late-comers" can catch up?

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

hob asked puzzledly:

No, I don't know the story about Ken Maynard and the "Phantom Empire". How's about rehashing that one, Ivan, so some of us "late-comers" can catch up?

I may have phrased this part poorly -- what I was saying is that people know the rest of the story regarding Mr. Autry and his career (rumor has it he did pretty well for himself). As for Ken Maynard, he had a brief comeback in the 1940s as one of Monogram's "The Trail Blazers," but left after the seventh film (he got along okay with co-star Hoot Gibson but not with the third member of the trio, Bob Steele) and embarked on a career of state fair and rodeo appearances. (He owned a small circus at one time, but the creditors snapped that up when it went south.) The end of his days found an alcoholic Ken living in a rundown trailer, propped up by an undisclosed benefactor (a few people have identified him as Autry). Kind of a sad story, to be sure.