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Monday, March 26, 2018

A Maynard Whoop-Up In Twelve Chapters

Mascot On Mystery Mountain (1934) With Maynard

Look at the six-sheet above and tell me it's not good as a circus coming to town. And I submit it's art, too. Just think: displays like this were once hung outdoors, left to mercy of rain or punishing sun, then peeled down, tossed out, so another could fill the billboard. Here, then, is why so few survive. Was Ken Maynard doing a serial news? For boys of action age, the biggest. Ken took saddle chances no one else dared. He was Superman before there was such a character. Maynard was no actor. In fact, I'll bet he never memorized a stitch of dialogue, vague ad-lib of tissue narratives getting a job done nicely. Give me Ken in conversation with miracle horse Tarzan over Method improvisation anytime, KM addressing T as "old man" (so indeed, what age was Tarzan, and how long did he live?). Mystery Mountain was for cheapest-of-serial-makers Nat Levine of Mascot Pictures. How cheap? I read once he made players change costume in the open with a rain barrel for privacy. Even Jim and Sam might have blanched later at that.

The Rattler Strikes --- And He Could Be Anybody in Mystery Mountain!

Ken Maynard got princely sum, $10,000 a week, for doing Mystery Mountain, idea being to finish in a month. Nat didn't know his Ken, but realized the cowboy was ornery beyond endure of last employer Universal, where Maynard had a talking series, made enemies of most, and got tabbed as meanest of mean drunks. Was he self-medicating a sad past, stunt injuries that still pained, Daddy issues? (they say he pulled a gun on a director once) Alas, some drunks are just cussed, and that's the whole of it. We'll never know, of course, for who's left that put magnifier to enigma that was Maynard? But he was loved by a public, have no doubt of that. Story I once heard was that Walter Matthau was doing location for a 1972 comedy, Pete 'N Tillie, when someone told him Ken Maynard was shopping at a nearby market. Matthau stopped everything, left a crew standing, while he rushed off to meet and shake hands with his boyhood idol. This was near the end for Ken. He had a squalid finish, but let's pass that. I'm here today for Mystery Mountain, clocking all twelve chapters on my punch card, and ripe to sing praise of a chapter-play to rank among immortals.

To the punch card reference: These were once issued to children going in for Chapter One of a new serial. If you came back each week and got the card punched, there was free admission for a final installment. Think of that dime you saved! Enough to buy lots more than we could imagine today. Mystery Mountain was a hit for Mascot. In fact, it was Levine's biggest but for The Miracle Rider with Tom Mix. Later, after folks stopped caring and Nat was back managing a small theatre (one interviewer found the old man atop a ladder to change marquee letters), Mystery Mountain went into tar-pit that was Public Domain. Buccaneering Tom Dunahoo of Thunderbird Films began selling 8/16mm prints to all comers, which I'd guess were aging men who recalled magic that was Maynard. Would Walter Matthau have bought one had he known? Now we can have Mystery Mountain on DVD from Jack and Jason Hardy at Grapevine Video, outstanding source for silents and early sound rarities. Here's how service-conscious the Hardys are: They released Mystery Mountain on an OK disc several years back, found better elements more recently, and invited buyers of the initial offering to swap in their purchase for the upgrade. I took advantage and was rewarded with a best-yet Mystery Mountain. Do I recommend Grapevine for this and other vintage product? Definite yes.

Mystery Mountain has a masked villain called The Rattler. He can assume disguise of all other characters, including Ken. This is a serial where you can't be sure of anyone, for is it them or ... The Rattler? I admit my disorient when Maynard does spectacular ride work, then turns out to be ... well, you know. The Rattler is so adroit as to make me wonder why he doesn't move to greener fields than scrub where whole of this serial was shot. Turns out there's gold in that thar Mystery Mountain, and a wagon service run by the heroine to be sabotaged throughout twelve serves (that's twenty-five reels, including a long first chapter, if anyone counted). Again a consumer warning: Don't watch serials in a lump --- limit yourself to one or at most two chapters, for these are like hot fudge cake, gooey and fun, but in moderation, please. I'll admit confusion over who The Rattler ultimately turned out to be, for he was unmasked repeatedly in a last couple of chapters, and focused as I was, the progression just lost me. There were also more red herrings than my humble mind could absorb, all in apparent phone conversation with The Rattler as weeks wore on, then each exonerated, or seeming to be, as Ken dug deeper. I tell you, Mystery Mountain is The Big Sleep of serials.

More Ken Maynard and other cowboys at Greenbriar Archive: Back In The Saddle Again, Teams On The Ups and Down, and John Wayne Learns His Trade.


Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

An old girlfriend of mine's mother went to see a Ken Maynard film which boasted an appearance in person of Ken after the show. After the show only Tarzan showed up. The mother told me the disappointment was monumental among the boys.

9:26 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts points out the very good actor that was Ken Maynard:

John, Ken Maynard "no actor"? I must respectfully disagree, for a cowboy star with the off-screen reputation that makes Wallace Beery sound positively loveable and sweet, in a business where the camera does not lie, and well-known bastards like Frank Fay and Al Jolson are always shown less-than-charming no matter how heart-rendering they try to be, Ken Maynard never shows one scintilla of that crankiness in the frame, he is as likable and easygoing a camera presence as one could ever want to see. It was real-life gentleman brother Kermit Maynard who played cowboy henchmen and movie meanies for much of his later career, but not Ken, even in his sad later roles in such drive-in “classics” like BIGFOOT(1970), Ken still exhibits that same air of likable and honorable, it really is amazing especially if one knows his life circumstances by then, living in his trailer drinking his monthly fan-annuity from Gene Autry, buying cheap western-gear and selling it to gullible fans claiming it was from his pictures. A friend of mine who worked on Maynard’s last film, the still-unreleased MARSHAL OF WINDY HOLLOW, summed up the character of one of his childhood idols he had waited a lifetime to meet with one short phrase, “mean old man”.

And Ken also had the innate ability to make work even the silliest and weirdest plotlines of many of his pictures, even the ones he wrote himself. Ken’s self-scripted westerns seem to like adding horror and science-fiction elements into his stories, and Ken also seemed to like disguises. He has to prove himself an aged song and dance man in HONOR OF THE RANGE (1933) when finding himself onstage with a bevy of chorus girls and an audience, so Ken gives us an old soft-shoe, and does a pretty-good job. In the truly-surreal SMOKING GUNS (1934), accused and wanted criminal Ken decides to return to his hometown to clear himself of his charges by pretending to be the now-dead lawman Walter Miller who was hunting Ken down in South America before he was chomped by a crocodile. So Ken removes the lousy blonde wig he was wearing, and goes home pretending to be Walter where he even fools Walter’s former fiancé into the deception…….and we go along with it (though Carl Laemmle didn’t, he fired Ken from Universal after that film, sending him over to Mascot to do MYSTERY MOUNTAIN).

So whatever Ken’s actual faults, it never showed on the screen, and one still must almost admire the survivalist instincts the man had, considering his film career basically ended in 1944, save those last few late-in-life returns, and his irascibility lessened not one whit as he aged, he continued to hold on, lived in some ways as he wanted to live, and even pickled in alcohol and conning and conniving the cash to keep going, Ken managed to outlive his kindly and tee-totaling younger brother Kermit by several years, which must say something about orneriness as a lifespan-lengthener, there’s hope for us yet.


5:10 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

At least some Greenbriar regulars must have "Tickets to Paradise", a nifty 1991 coffee table book about old movie houses. Page 104 has one man's memories of The Higginsville in Missouri, highlighting a 40s Saturday Matinee visit by a genuine cowboy star ("Tex", the writer uncertainly recollects) and his horse. The horse was an obvious ringer and the star himself was a lot fatter than he'd just appeared onscreen. But it was memorable.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, I ordered this plus the Blu-ray of WHISPERING SHADOW with Bela Lugosi as I only have the poor, out of focus, poor sound dirt cheap Alpha Video version of that.

Look forward to a print I can actually hear and see.

6:13 AM  
Blogger Matthew Clark said...

As I understand it, Nat Levine didn't want to use Maynard after this, and so promoted the young singer Gene Autry, along with Smiley Burnette, who both appeared in chapters 6 and 7 of Mystery Mountain to headline his next project; The Phantom Empire. Besides being a wacky scientifiction western, The Phantom Empire was the start of the singing cowboy genre. Even though it was Maynard who had introduced singing into westerns earlier. Autry was already an acknowledged singer on the radio, and he was not as hot headed as Maynard. And once he stepped up to be the host of Radio Ranch, Autry's career took off. Throughout the 1930s Autry would rival Shirley Temple as the top nationwide movie box office money maker. Part of the appeal of this type of movie for the low budget production companies was that it was cheaper to pad out a film's running time by just putting the hero up against a fence with a guitar and have him sing a song now and then instead of staging gun fights or shoot outs. Curiously the big studios could never figure out the formula for making this type of film.
Nat Lavine's serials and his work at Mascot are really good. And have great imagination to them. Once Mascot and others were absorbed into what became Republic Pictures, a lot of Lavine's creativeness appeared to be reined in by the studio bosses. Looking forward to seeing a clean print of this serial, and enjoying a chapter or two now and then over a number of weeks.

9:46 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Nat Levine had had enough with Ken Maynard, who had been very difficult during the shooting of MYSTERY MOUNTAIN, causing budget and schedule overruns on the serial, a big no-no as far as Levine was concerned, and it was really stupid on Maynard's part, because after being fired from Universal for SMOKING GUNS, his two Mascot films were some of the best pictures he had made in some time and were big hits that would have revived his career had he stayed at Mascot. THE PHANTOM EMPIRE was planned as the next Maynard serial, and would have cemented his career revival, and if he would have stayed at Mascot, he could have perhaps continued on as a Republic star when Herbert Yates absorbed Nat Levine's company into his operation.

I think Autry would have become a star whether Maynard had been fired or not, he was a popular radio performer, and Levine knew talent when he saw it, but Maynard's departure just hurried his slide along that much quicker, and though he ended up at Columbia after leaving Mascot, it was the beginning of the real downward curve of Maynard's career, as he aged, drank more, and headed towards cheaper and cheaper westerns.


1:00 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

THE PHANTOM EMPIRE,when I saw a digest of it serialized on TV as a kid, absolutely blew me away. It's probably my all time favorite cliffhanger. I love the plot: Keep Autry from singing! Supposedly it was dreamed up while under nitrous oxide in a dentist's chair. Whatever. It is loads of fun. My friends and I rode around on our bikes as the masked riders.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

A local friend told me of how his father took him to a nearby National Guard Armory circa 1933 to see Ken Maynard and Tarzan. The place was packed, he said, and Ken made his entrance into the 'arena' atop his steed. Before making one trip around the perimeters of the performing area, Maynard was clotheslined by a pipe attached to the ceiling, knocking him to the concrete floor. He picked himself up and started to hit Tarzan. Crew folks restrained him, taking him out of the public's eye, then came announcement the show was over.

A youngster's hero image dashed.

6:11 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

To the punch card reference: These were once issued to children going in for Chapter One of a new serial. If you came back each week and got the card punched, there was free admission for a final installment. Think of that dime you saved!

That's the same system as the SCENE™ program at Cineplex Odeon theaters here in Canada (you get a SCENE card, swipe it every time you pay for a movie, and once you accumulate a certain amount of points, you get a free movie.)

9:06 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

How in the world did he ever get away with calling the horse Tarzan???.... considering Burroughs would sell rights to various companies, some simultaneously, can't see that he'd let that slide...

6:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I understand that Burroughs was the one who suggested that Maynard name his horse Tarzan.

6:09 AM  

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