Tuesday, May 29, 2018


For someone who was one of the major series-western stars of the late silent and early sound era, and who was still starring in B-westerns as late as 1944 (in his series with Hoot Gibson, and sometimes Bob Steele, at Monogram), KEN MAYNARD is not as well-remembered as he should be. Of course, he did not stay with one studio the way that Tim Holt or Charles Starrett or Roy Rogers did, so there’s no unified body of work for the present-day rights-holder to want to exploit. Also, while he did work for Universal and Columbia, most of his sound work was for the minors and thus have been in the public domain for decades, so the films wind up on You Tube (if we’re lucky) or at Alpha Video. Ken’s cantankerous personality----which often gets as much coverage as his films do in modern-day write-ups----hasn’t helped matters any either; there are no heartwarming stories or uplifting anecdotes floating around. Also, a number of Maynard’s films have an outrageous quality that could strike today’s viewers as bizarre. When he had the money behind him at Universal, he was able to indulge his taste in pulp-influenced over-the-top adventures in odd settings; when he was on Poverty Row, where he usually was, the films had a lot of comedy, as this one does.

When I was first watching old B-westerns as a child, I asked my father about his personal favorites. He would have been a movie-going boy in the late silent and early sound era. The first name he mentioned was Ken Maynard. I forget the wording he used, but he said something to the effect that Maynard’s films were always entertaining and always delivered the goods. Say what you will about Maynard’s crusty personality, the man understood that audiences wanted to be entertained and that his target audiences—children and adolescent boys, and men who still had a large juvenile streak, like me----enjoyed both comedy and off-the-wall elements that they could talk about among themselves over the week after the Saturday matinee where they saw the Maynard films.

This 1931 entry starts off with a bang----a brawl on a dusty Western street----and you know you are in store for an entertaining film when you notice that Ken Maynard has TWO comedic sidekicks, not one. First, there is lanky Irving Bacon, who is in the kind of role later played by a Sterling Holloway (see the BTC review of Wildfire with Bob Steele, which SH is in) or in the 60’s by Will Hutchins. The IMDB describes Bacon as someone who “could always be counted on for expressing bug-eyed bewilderment or cautious frustration in small-town settings with his revolving door of friendly, servile parts - mailmen, milkmen, clerks, chauffeurs, cab drivers, bartenders, soda jerks, carnival operators, handymen and docs,” and that is certainly accurate. Interestingly, his real last name is Peters! Bacon was a man who paid his dues—he was in many films a year, usually uncredited unless it was a comedy short. This is the kind of trouper I really respect—he was in films and shorts that millions of people saw at their local theater, yet in a number of them he didn’t even get billing. You didn’t see him whining about that. He just did the work, was so reliable that he was cast regularly, and he knew the fame would eventually come—it was all about the daily work. This film was quite a feature for him, and he makes the most of it. Bacon was still doing small comedic roles in television in the mid-1960’s!

Maynard’s other sidekick is the amazing Billy Bletcher. His career goes back to 1914 and early silent comedy. His short stature and great comic timing made him the perfect “character” actor in silent comedy, but when sound came about, he really blossomed as he had a magnificent deep voice, which was somewhat at odds with his size. In addition to comedy (he even had comedy shorts starring with Billy Gilbert), he was one of the busiest cartoon voice artists from the 30’s on, doing many things for both Disney and Warner Brothers. While westerns were not his specialty, the man did everything and did it well, so besides this film with Ken Maynard, he was also in early 30’s westerns with Hoot Gibson and Tom Keene. My personal favorite role of his is as Gorzo, the sympathetic hunchback dwarf in the over-the-top 1935 serial, THE LOST CITY, starring Kane Richmond and, in a performance that’s got to be seen to be believed, William “Stage” Boyd (in other words, NOT William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd or Bill “Cowboy Rambler” Boyd). I bet Ken Maynard would have loved that serial, as it’s got the same loopy pulp-magazine outrageousness that he always valued.

After the brawl, a bystander comes up to Ken to tell him how impressed he was by the boys’ performance as scrappy fighters, and introduces himself. Ken explains that they are just passing through and looking for work. The man suggests a ranch that could use them and suggests they head out there, but warns them of horse thieves in the area. Well, these horse thieves out-do most in that line….they steal the horses from right under you as you are riding them! These crooks are led by a man who was one of the greatest and most active western villains of the 30’s and 40’s, Charles King. King had been a leading man sort in the silent era, could actually sing, and was in some comedy shorts in the late silent era, but he somehow got slotted in as a western bad guy, and he must be in hundreds of films. He brought those comic talents to a number of his roles….although he could be brutal too, when needed. He was great when paired with BTC fave Guy Wilkerson (as Panhandle Perkins) in the PRC 1940’s Texas Rangers films.

The boys wind up horse-less in the middle of nowhere and are then forced to walk back to town, their hopes of employment on the ranch totally shot. At that point the “plot” kicks in and involves the weak-willed son of the rancher who is losing his shirt gambling with the crooks, who use that as leverage to take over the ranch. As Ken and the boys don’t have any work prospects, they take the bartender’s tip and become sheriff and deputies for the town, since no one else wants the gig and no one is willing to stand up to the various crooks.

It’s hard to describe to present-day audiences the nature of Ken Maynard’s appeal. He’s both tough yet affable, he’s a great horseman, and he certainly commands the screen. We sometimes forget that humor was often a good-sized element in the classic B-western, and some cowboys—Hoot Gibson, for instance—were VERY good at it. Maynard is an excellent straight man (whereas Hoot Gibson was usually the comedian himself) and perhaps the secret element in his bag of tricks is that he always seems comfortable on-screen. He was still in his heyday in 1931—he later put on weight and slowed down somewhat in the 40’s (though he was always good and still had the comic timing—wisely, he softened the persona as he got slower in later years)—and he was really at the top of the low-budget western field at this point. He would go back to Universal again after this and make higher-budgeted films involving exotic locations and strange almost-fantasy elements, but by 1934 he was at Mascot doing the serial MYSTERY MOUNTAIN and after that strictly rode the B-movie range. He continued to deliver the bread-and-butter Western goods until about 1944, when he was working for $800 a film (as the star!) and decided to retire from the screen and pursue other interests.

The low budgets of these B-westerns have turned out to be a great asset in that there was a lot of location shooting and also shooting at available movie ranches, which tended to have a ramshackle look to them. The outdoor shooting, back when you could drive for an hour north or east of Los Angeles and be in pure rural country that looked like the 1880’s, has so much dusty atmosphere you can taste it. Costumes, sets, etc. all have a lived-in, worn appearance, probably because they WERE lived-in and worn.

In 63 minutes, BRANDED MEN delivers thrills, laughs, romance, intrigue, fights-a-plenty, and a nice camaraderie among the three saddle pals. You would feel you’d got your money’s worth and then some if you happened upon this film at your small-town theater circa 1931. You’ll still get your money’s worth if you get the new Grapevine Video DVD of this which gives you a fine Maynard double-bill (also with 1930’s ALIAS THE BAD MAN) at a low price, sourced from quality prints. Trust me, there’s NO ONE in Ken Maynard’s league today, and the world is a poorer place because of it.

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