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!)
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.)
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).
(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.
(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.
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.)