Ken Maynard: Circuses and Sagebrush

If not for a couple of important factors, western film star Ken Maynard (1895-1973) might be as well remembered today as peers like Tom MIx, Hoot Gibson, Gene Autry, or Bob Steele. The primary detriment was a lousy temper, an arrogant ego, and an alcohol problem which caused Maynard to squander several lofty situations and opportunities. The second element? This is subjective of course, but I think “Ken Maynard” is a terrible, quotidian-sounding screen name. It was his given one, of course, but it’s never going to stick in your memory like “Hoot” or Steele”.

Maynard was originally from Indiana. It is generally given that he spent his early years in rodeos, carnivals, state fairs, and circuses, that he served in World War One, and that he was a trick rider with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, but some of this may be lore generated by studio publicity operatives. A good looking guy and a superb horseman, with an entree from Buck Jones, he began to work as an extra, in silent pictures in 1923. These rapidly led to supporting parts, in films like Janice Meredith (1924) with Marion Davies and W.C. Fields. Within a year Maynard was starring in his own features, and he became a star. Part of the appeal was that he did all his own stunts, clearly on camera, many of them hair-raising. By 1927, he was such a success that his younger brother Kermit Maynard (initially billed as “Tex”) followed him into the industry, but with less success. Early studio publicity gave out that the Maynards were from Texas. In addition to his rodeo skills, Ken was known for his big beautiful white horse “Tarzan”. He also could play several musical instruments, and did, in films like The Fiddlin’ Buckaroo (1933).

MAYNARD (to his horse): Whoa!…AUDIENCE (with excitement): Whoa!…MAYNARD (after 1944): O, Woe! Woe!

Maynard’s early years were spent at larger studios like Universal and Columbia. He made such huge sums of money that he owned (and flew) his own airplane. He actually competed against Hoot Gibson in an air race in 1933. But boozing interfered with his stunts and his delivery of dialogue, and messed with his looks. That plus his difficult personality often got him fired, and he spent most of the ’30s working for the smaller outfits like Republic, Monogram and Tiffany. In a famous incident, he starred in a picture for Mascot Pictures called In Old Santa Fe (1934) that was supposed to be the first in a series. But his monkeyshines on the job got him canned and the series was taken over by a couple of newcomers who’d made their debuts in that movie — Gene Autry and Smiley Burnett.

By the later ’30s he was needing to supplement his income with live appearances at circus like Clyde BeattyCole Brothers, Arthur Brothers, Biller Brothers, and his own Diamond K Wild West Show. He didn’t make any films at all in 1941 and 1942. Then, once more, good luck came his way only to be discarded. He was hired by Monogram to co-star in The Trail Blazers series with Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele. He left after seven pictures due to personality conflicts. His last film in the classic era was Harmony Trail (1944).

The lore is that Maynard returned to rodeos and state fairs for a time, and operated his own small circus, which went broke, and he subsequently lived out his remaining years drinking away his memories in a broken-down trailer. Late in life, he returned to the screen for a couple of Grade Z affairs. Bigfoot (1970), cast him alongside John Carradine, Joi Lansing, Doodles Weaver, and John and Christopher Mitchum (Robert Mitchum‘s brother and son, respectively). His last was the never-released The Marshal of Windy Hollow (1972), with Sunset Carson, Tex Ritter, and other old western vets. He died of stomach cancer a year later.