skip navigation
Singing Cowboys - Star of the Month
Remind Me

Ken Maynard
1 Film - Friday, July 29

One of the screen's first singing cowboys, Ken Maynard made the transition from silent Westerns to talking films largely on the strength of a pleasant singing voice and his genius as a horseman. The tricks he performed with his equine co-star, Tarzan, kept fans flocking to the theatres through the '30s despite his problems with on-screen fighting, a skill he never mastered, and his growing reputation as a difficult actor in Hollywood. Although fans loved the tall, good-looking cowboy, executives and technicians soon tired of the foul-tempered drunk who made their lives miserable. Eventually, his behavior rendered him unemployable.

Publicity passed Maynard off as a native Texan who had fought in World War I and worked as a circus performer and rodeo rider. In truth, he was born in Indiana in 1895, and many of those other claims have not been verified. He learned riding at some point, which led to his first billed role in 1924 as Paul Revere in Fox's Janice Meredith, starring Marion Davies. When low-budget producer J. Charles Davis offered him the chance to star in two Westerns, he jumped at it, building a fan following in $50,000 Reward (1924) and The Grey Vulture (1926). He then moved up to First National Pictures, reigning as their top cowboy star until 1929.

By that time, he had bought the palomino Tarzan, one of the best horses to appear on screen. Tarzan became so popular that he was often second billed as Maynard's "wonder horse" and the studio even used his name in the film title, Come On, Tarzan (1932). He also played an integral part in the plots of many of Maynard's films, often saving the day when the odds proved impossible for the star to beat on his own. Scenes in which Maynard talked to Tarzan, often relating to him more convincingly than to any of his human co-stars, became a trademark of Maynard's films.

In 1929, Maynard moved to Universal. Their current cowboy star, Hoot Gibson, had his own production company, and Maynard received the same treatment, scoring a hefty salary and exercising complete control over the eight films he made there during the transition to sound. With the coming of sound, music became a natural feature of Maynard's films, though it was never as prominent as in the films of such later singing cowboys as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. That may be the reason Maynard never fared as well as a recording artist as the later stars.

Faced with financial problems at the time, Universal decided to focus on its horror pictures in 1930 and dropped both of its cowboy stars, sending Maynard away to a series of Poverty Row studios. By 1935, however, Universal was doing better and asked him back to once again head his own company, producing films with ten times the budgets he had had at studios like Tiffany and World Wide. He made eight more films there before his temper tantrums and budget overruns led the studio to drop his contract, replacing him with Buck Jones.

Fortunately, Mascot Pictures snapped him up and he debuted there with In Old Santa Fe (1934), which marked the film debuts of Autry and his sidekick, Smiley Burnette. Maynard had discovered the pair while doing personal appearances in Chicago and brought them back to Hollywood to learn the movie business. Some think the two stole the picture with their rendition of "Mama Don't Like Music." Autry and Burnette also co-starred in the serial Mystery Mountain (1934). Despite his generosity to the two budding Western stars, however, Maynard was up to his old tricks on the set. According to legend, a cameraman surreptitiously filmed one of his expletive-laden temper tantrums and sneaked it into dailies. When Mascot's head, Nathaniel Levine, saw the reel, he was so shocked he fired Maynard as soon as the serial was completed, even though both of the star's movies at Mascot had been big hits. According to studio writers, Levine had been planning to star Maynard in another serial, The Phantom Empire (1935). Instead, he put Autry in the leading role, which made him a star. When Astor became a part of Republic Pictures, Autry became their top cowboy star, a position that might have gone to Maynard under different circumstances.

Fortunately for Maynard, Columbia had just parted ways with its own singing cowboy, Tom McCoy, and brought him in as a replacement. He started there with one of his best films, Western Frontier (1935), in which he ends up hunting down his own sister. After eight films, however, Maynard left Columbia, which was to be his last major studio. From there he moved to smaller outfits like Grand National and Condor Pictures. After Lightning Strikes West (1940), he left the screen for three years, first touring with his own short-lived circus, the Diamond K Wild West Circus and Indian Congress, then joining the Cole Bros. Circus. By that time the original Tarzan had died, to be replaced by Tarzan II.

Maynard returned to the screen in 1943 for a series of films at Monogram co-starring Hoot Gibson. These were designed to replace the studio's Range Busters series, starring Ray "Crash" Corrigan and Max Terhune. As "The Trail Blazers," Maynard and off-screen friend Gibson played veteran cowhands, but Monogram insisted on adding younger stars to the series, which led Maynard to quit after just six films. The series continued for five more films with Gibson and Bob Steele, one of the younger actors Maynard had objected to. Maynard made his last starring appearance in Harmony Trail (1944), a low-budget film for Walt Maddox Productions. Astor re-released it in 1947 as White Stallion.

By that point in time, Maynard's film career was almost over. He starred in a radio series, Tales from the Diamond K, in 1951, did more circus appearances and lent his name to the comic book Ken Maynard Western, which ran for eight issues. He finished his career with small roles in two low-budget features, Bigfoot (1970) and The Marshal of Windy Hollow (1972). The latter, which co-starred Sunset Carson and Tex Ritter, was never released and is now believed lost.

Maynard entered retirement with little money in the bank. Although he had been highly paid in his best years, earning $10,000 a week between 1934 and 1940, he had squandered it on cars, horses and airplanes. He eventually moved fulltime into the trailer he had used for touring. Drinking heavily and virtually penniless, he needed handouts from his brother Kermit, who had followed him to Hollywood though without hitting the highs his brother had, and a mysterious benefactor rumored to be Autry. He died penniless in the Motion Picture Home in 1973.

by Frank Miller