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Monday, August 30, 2021

Rangers, Show Your Colors

 Buck Jones As Guiding Light for Generations

“Critic’s Choice” has out a DVD of nine Buck Jones westerns produced by Columbia in the early thirties. My question is, what critics chose Buck Jones for a 2021 disc set? He is gone as gone gets. Even those who profess to love old films go blank at Buck’s name. All of B westerners are rode off for that matter. It may be time for me to shut up about them ... maybe had they been less integral to past collecting, I’d step off and let memory of cowboy dominance drop. Those after all were not my memories, but ones of old men who guided me through thicket that was film and paper chase once upon past time. Again it was question of whose nostalgia was this? Not mine surely, even as I long to have been part of generations that saw cowboys and serials on first times round. Old timer enthusiasms really were contagious, but thing was, if you didn’t live it, you couldn’t truly love it. I always felt a little left out at cowboy cons, as if they all had secrets I never would know. And surely no one in my age group cared for clip-clop westerns … they could barely be bothered with westerns at all, lest they were Italian and had Clint Eastwood in them. Question just occurs: Did any college or university ever screen a B western? (Take your time, we’ve plenty of it) Closest they may have come was in the seventies when Clayton Moore visited campuses as the Lone Ranger, but that was more TV nostalgia than front row feeling. There was something mildly inauthentic about tube cowboys, mere toothpaste to squeeze out each week between jarring commercial breaks, no more reflective of the old west, or even old westerns, than lunch boxes that bore their likeness. Cruel was passage of time that saw cowboys disappear, then fans to fade the same. What film scholar will claim these now?

I want to talk about Buck Jones for few others that are likely to. Per usual with lecture I brought slides, plus watched some of what he left, feature/serial samples, to better understand how this man commanded loyalty likes of which few of any genre would inspire. But this was love of then, to sustain no longer than lives of devotees. When Buck died tragically in 1942, there was grief not limited to child patronage, for he had been around and performing since the early twenties, sufficient to engage one generation, then a next. Longevity of film stardom was a thing not realized until lifetime of movies caught up with lifelong popularity of players who stayed the course. Age or fate would claim a Buck Jones, or Gary Cooper, or John Wayne … otherwise they might still be here selling tickets, with help of digital jiggery I’ve seen applied to Al Pacino, De Niro, more lately Eastwood, judging by a trailer for Cry Macho, his latest starring vehicle, seeming impossible made possible for a man aged ninety-one playing “Macho” as he has since I was born (so maybe it's my turn to go out and be a leading man). Will digital bring Bill Hart back? I mean not his old movies, but a reanimated him. Or Buck Jones? No good, because wizardry however adept could not restore what they stood for, or a world they bestrode. Anyhow, Bill or Buck would probably take one look at a world we’ve made, and say Thanks Pard, but No Thanks.

Buck is Guest for Recital of a Buck Jones Rangers Band

Buck Jones had been a real cowboy in Oklahoma, this after serving in the US Cavalry, entry papers faked (with his mother’s assist) to effect he was eighteen rather than actual sixteen. Buck was shot in the Philippines trying to put down the Moro rebellion on Army behalf, nearly left a leg there. He could ride a horse as wind blows, agreed to try acting so long as it amounted to no more than rugged stuff he was doing anyway. Silent hoof-beating for Fox got him to number two at the studio behind Tom Mix, and by twenties end, he was earning $2,500 a week, which at that time bought much cake and ale. Jones was a man of moderation, bent toward family and seeing jobs through. What he lacked was business acumen and ability to spot snakes in his grass. One of them wheedled him into a Wild West show Buck underwrote after leaving Fox, and poof went the cowboy’s fortune. He took after said snake with a gun, but like all knaves, this one vanished truly into the night, passage bought with Buck’s hard-earned fortune. What was it with western stars fronting Wild West shows and circuses gone splat? What chance did any greasepaint cowpoke have of hauling tents, livestock, clowns, and popcorn back/forth across rugged country that was still America up to and through a Great Depression? Blind optimism I suppose, and boy, were these heroes blind, like rubes challenged to find peas under walnut shells. Their talent lay spectacularly elsewhere. Men of Buck’s sort were seldom put among us, them of ability foreign to virtually all who acted for screens. In his and their case (Mix, Maynard, too few others), it mattered not how dialogue was spoke, or anything done standing still. People who went to see a Buck Jones had no interest in inertia.

Here and below: Some of What You Got With Your Buck Jones Ranger Suit

Fans loved cowboys because they were the only ones taking real chances at otherwise make believe. Children especially knew hazard duty when they saw it. I looked at a chapter of Gordon of Ghost City (from VCI in HD) where Buck does a horse to wagon transfer, as in under the wagon and between charging team, to hoist up and rescue Madge Bellamy. Cold chill watching? Yes, and largely because action like this seems no longer attempted, latter-day superheroes anything but super beside Buck and brotherhood who really did danger as opposed to floating about in computerized space. Other instance: Buck bulldogs a man off his mount and they fist-scrap, not on choreograph terms to come courtesy Yakima Canutt who knew how to make fights look real without being real, but with punches to the face and elsewhere not necessarily pulled as Canutt and company would master later. Reduced circumstance as befell Buck by the early thirties cut pay packet to $300 per week, from which he was honor bound to repay debts from the kaput tent show (my query: Did he ever track down that snake who stole?). Thing is Buck seldom played stalwart as in hero blueprint pervaded by others later in the decade. Jones often as not arrives broke and hungry, chased off ranch hand jobs for slacking, or in the case of Forbidden Trail (1932) handy with a slingshot and too bone idle for useful work. Buck employed humor as much as action; you could never be sure he’d make it to the burning cabin on time or even be inclined to do so. What we call “commitment issues” were written all over Buck. He made bumming around a signature, and I wonder if the character wasn’t based on observation Jones made of men who in hard times said Why Bother?, figuring to give little as they could for what they could get, except Buck gave all once roused, the wait always worth it as he would exceed whatever was expectation.

You Can Hear It at You Tube. Nice Banjo Accompany.

So it was for something other than conventional heroics that Buck Jones’ devotees looked up to. Columbia initiated the Buck Jones Rangers in 1932, a logical outgrowth of Mickey Mouse Clubs which had been in place and successful for several years. The Rangers were organized and prolific. Membership estimates were from two to four million, cooperation had from Parent-Teacher groups and the Boy Scouts of America. Girls were welcome to become Rangers. Club chapters were dotted nationwide. “The Rangers keep the theatre-owners out of the red and help him to greater profits. It means that a nationwide organization of enterprising boys have endorsed your theatre and are out boosting it. The volume of such exploitation cannot be estimated. Every exhibitor owes it to himself to see that his theatre is designated as the home of a troop of Buck Jones Rangers.” Nat Farber’s Majestic Theatre (NYC) announced formation of a chapter and saw 2,500 children sign up within a week. To celebrate, he staged a parade through the heart of upper Manhattan where Rangers were joined by two Boy Scout troops and a Bugle and Drum Corps. Arrival at the theatre saw all participants reciting Rangers’ and Scouts’ pledges. Buck Jones committed to teach Rangers “everything a cowboy knows,” including how to throw a rope, ride a horse, and “shoot dead straight.” There was ranking among Rangers, chevrons issued to reflect individual status. Depending on individual achievement, you could become a First-Class Ranger, Corporal, Sergeant and so on up to Assistant Chief and Chief.

Ranger tunes had lyrics customized for members (theatre singalongs a weekly tradition), plus Buck gave tips on how to learn the harmonica and bugle (“almost anybody can master these instruments immediately”). Instruction was offered to help members become expert western “story tellers,” with a book explaining “how you can work out many thrilling western tales for yourself … The book gives all the parts and the plot and dialogue.” Did Rangers grow up to write for series westerns? Looks as though they were being groomed for it here. Single-round boxing matches of three-minute duration were organized for one chapter. Another event saw 15,000 Rangers turned out for a picnic and swim event at Luna Park on Coney Island. A Rangers Rodeo drew 10,000 to bleachers. Obvious benefit for Columbia was enhanced by chapters operating independently, none relying on the company for financial support. The Buck Jones Rangers had become a self-perpetuating force, “the biggest fan club in America,” as one exhibitor labeled it. No western star, save Tom Mix with his talkie series for Universal, came near popularity Buck Jones enjoyed. Among Columbia westerners, Jones regularly outpaced, for instance, Tim McCoy, The Thrill Hunter (Jones) taking $100K in domestic rentals, while End of the Trail (McCoy) saw $65,000, money not so dazzling as A’s done by Columbia or elsewhere, but reliable, plus bear in mind, the pictures themselves cost in low five figures, patronage in many if not most situations paying mere dimes, at most quarters, to see them.

Have Yet To Come Upon This Scene in Gordon of Ghost City, But Will Keep Looking

Jones had signed with veteran producer Sol Lesser for the initial eight talkie westerns to be distributed by Columbia, a point at which $300 per week looked good, at least on Depression era terms. The star’s stipend rose as cheer-led by Ranger ranks swelled via merchandising to meet need of boys and girls who sought to emulate Buck. Consider the Rangers Cowboy Suit, with hat, kerchief, lariat, other accessories, then imagine going to-fro for Saturday shows, becoming one with Jones as role model. There was singular state of mind inspired by cowboys, a philosophy complex as way of life proposed by Transcendentalists of an earlier age (left-field notion which I'm more and more believing). These were children who would grow up and win a next World War after all. How much may we credit Buck Jones and men like him for this? To think series westerns were simplistic is to reveal too little familiarity with them. They would not have lasted so many decades, gathered such mass support, had water been shallow as detractors propose. I had an encounter just recent with a townsman now in his late seventies who worked as an usher at the Liberty during the late fifties-early sixties. Colonel Forehand hired a lot of boys that he knew could use the work, and their families the income. One stipulation however: Each of ushers had to present his report card whenever schools issued them, continued employment dependent upon keeping up your marks. I have gone years seeking to understand the cowboy credo better, when perhaps there was no better testament to it than policy like this. The Colonel upon retirement became scoutmaster for our Presbyterian Troop 336. More Eagles came of his stewardship than any the troop had recorded. Like other small-town theatres through the Southeast, the Liberty went decades supplying life lessons on Saturdays via cowboy instructors. I know I’m the poorer for not being there for them. Maybe attendance at all those collector caravans was effort by boys-to-men to finally understand what it was about westerns and idols populating them that made matinees teachable moments for so many.

Slow Period in the Dealer's Room at the Seventh Annual Buck Jones Meet in 1989

Years ago, I guess around 1977, some of us drove to Greensboro, a local theatre rolling weekend dice with westerns just like in Good Old Days, except this was no downtown house crowded with kids, but a strip mall cracker box sat empty except for us. Management surely recalled better days from youth, but these would not be recaptured by 16mm prints, fuzzy and muffled, of John Wayne in Riders of Destiny, along with Buster Crabbe and Bad Fuzzy St. John in something-or-other. You Can’t Go Home Again should have been writ large upon the marquee for these and other of heroes ridden away to stay. Buck Jones was then gone thirty-five years, a lifetime by ’77 reckoning, him a most notable of 492 fatalities from 1942’s Coconut Grove fire in Boston. The Rangers had meantime hung up spurs, a Rochester, NY fan, Dominick Marafioti, of Rochester, NY, reviving the concept in 1979, his annual Buck Jones Festival running till 2004, when Marafioti left us, after which there was no one to take over the Festival. Celebration of series westerns fell like dominoes. To my knowledge, there isn’t a round-up left going. Jon Tuska and Packy Smith, stalwart among western historians, have passed. I found a Buck Jones Rangers of America ball cap on Ebay, ordered it, and will await some hombre asking me who hell Buck Jones is. Meanwhile, I watch his westerns. One from the Critic’s Choice set was Range Feud (1931), wherein sheriff Buck’s boyhood pal, who he must now take in charge for murder, is played by boyish-still John Wayne. Latter was said to idolize Jones, “a genuine hero” said Wayne, because he sacrificed his life saving others at the Coconut Grove. There’s little indication it went that way, but I, like Duke, will gladly cling to Buck as real-life hero to the last. A lovely scene that opens Range Feud will do to sum up Buck Jones as first among exemplars. He speaks to warring cattlemen from the pulpit of a frontier church, pistol drawn to keep factions from pulling theirs. “Remember … we’re in the House of God,” says Buck, as sincere a line reading as one could hope to hear. Dedication of those kid multitudes, of adults they would become, make plentiful sense by such evidence as this.

UPDATE (8-31): Scott MacGillivray presents evidence of Buck Jones' appeal to an older and younger generation circa 1941:

Hi, John — In today’s post you say, When Buck died tragically in 1942, there was grief not limited to child patronage, for he had been around and performing since the early twenties, time enough to engage one generation, then a next. Longevity of film stardom was a thing not realized until movies were around long enough to confer lifetime popularity upon ones who stayed the course.

Right you are. Here’s a trade ad for the penultimate Buck Jones serial, and Columbia is reminding exhibitors to aim for both generations. (The kids’ hats aren’t anachronistic — the serial was released in January 1941, so this is a winter scene!)


Blogger DBenson said...

Another great piece, plussed by the other great pieces linked. A couple of thoughts:

As late as the 30s-40s the Old West almost close enough to touch. Screen cowboys could plausibly claim actual experience. While beef was big business, it wasn't yet agribusiness. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry set westerns in the present, mixing bandit gangs with radio broadcasts. Dads and grandpas could spin yarns, gently casting a rural or small town youth as wild and woolly. Those little rangers might well have seen cowboy as a realistic career ambition.

By the 50s the Wild West was definitely and undeniably beyond reach. It was history, not something in living memory. And pop culture polished it into a sterile mythology, as plausible as backlot Olde England with ever-gleaming armor and hygienic peasants. Postwar cynicism and cold-eyed history were just extra nails in the pine box. Eyes were on an equally mythological future of rockets and super-science, which in time would suffer the same evolution. Even superheroes, once straightforward fantasies of nice guys having the power to sort things out, have been stylized, satirized, deconstructed, reinvented, and DAG-ed (A friend's coinage: to make some bit of light pop culture gratuitously Darker And Grittier).

Found a collectibles book, "Hopalong Cassidy, King of the Cowboy Merchandisers" by Harry L. Rinker, 1995. At one point Rinker holds forth on the collectibles market, stressing that age and rarity don't automatically translate into value. He goes on to point out that Hoppy fans were (in 95) senior citizens, and without a new generation of western fans Hoppy relics were going to plunge in price. His depression at the fading of the western was slightly mitigated by the thought of all the stuff that might be had cheap.

3:06 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

After a late 50s/early 60s diet of tv westerns,most of the usual prime time suspects plus a lot of Saturday morning stuff like Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and especially the Lone Ranger(did any syndicated show, maybe other than Superman, enjoy such a widespread saturation of so many regional markets?), when I caught up with 30s/40s serials, I was pretty shocked by how violent they seemed to be, compared to tv fare.... even the "good guys white hat" trope was just a tad darker(dare I say
noir?)than what I was used to... of course, now these all seem relatively harmless, compared to more modern efforts but to my young eyes, it was still quite a jolt.... imagine my shock when a "pre code" would turn up about 3 in the morning!!!

5:31 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

A riff on “Remember … we’re in the House of God...”

There is an old saying "The nearer the church/synagogue/temple the farther from Allah/The Buddha/God."

"The heavens are the throne, the earth is the footstool. How can you build a house big enough for God?" David and Solomon were told.

"Where two or more are gathered in my name there I am," said Jesus.

In these days when people are complaining they can't gather in church thanks to Covid it is even more important to reflect that the word "church" actually means "community."

One day in a church I quoted the poet, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp..." I never got to, "or what's a Heaven for." The entire congregation and the minister said as one, "WE WON'T HAVE THAT HERE!"

The minister around the corner spoke about the sorry state of sin the world is in. I said, "These are the signs of the times. We are called to be joyful."

He looked at me in surprise and then hugged me.

"You knew the context. Why don't you come here more often," said a priest who had done a triple take after I made a comment on the homily.

People came up to me on the street and said, "Why are you coming to our church? Service is lasting much longer now. I only go because it is good for business."

One day I was seized on the way in on both side by six hands. "What are you doing here?" I was asked. I replied, "My father's business." They replied, "We don't care about your father."

Neat post. Good to see Buck Jones back in the saddle. Digital makes all things possible.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Along with the serials in cinemas, there were the published "pulp" westerns, too, stories and serials with western themes in periodical magazines dedicated specifically to that kind of story.
People sometimes forget that most cinema trends - mysteries, westerns, sci-fi, superheroes - all have a "pulp" literature concurrently in existence outside of the cinema and moreover that the popularity of those literary forms usually predates the popular cinematic forms by decades.
Eisenhower for example read western stories for pleasure and relaxation during World War 2 - do people still do that?
I think sci-fi and mystery anthologies are still around, while comic books are ubiquitous and more popular than ever, too.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The only cowboy stars my mother liked were Hart, Jones, and Mix (in that order). She associated the Coconut Grove fire with Jones alone, almost as if his was the only fatality.

9:40 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The late Fabio Manes told me that he used to play 16mm prints in a cineclub of "Bujones" (boo-ho-ness) films and the audience were always old retired people that vividly remembers him. It is sad that we can't have access to the majority of his Fox output because there is where he build up his career and personality. But the few that exist are very good, and even those ocassional A pictures in which his credit switched from Buck to his real Charles his performances are excellent.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi John,

You might find these websites of interest.


2:19 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Semi-related: The last Disney Store in my approximate neighborhood is closing. Not a big deal for me, as they largely pivoted away from the nostalgic grown-up Disney nuts in favor of actual kids, and these days you're hard pressed to find a store that DOESN'T carry some line of Disney stuff. But the signage carried the slogan "Now It's Time to Say Goodbye" -- a reference to the close of the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club (last seen in syndication in the 60s, I think), and therefore likely as puzzling to any normal adult as "Happy Trails to You" or "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit". Inside joke, or was somebody assuming a high percentage of shoppers would get it?

1:41 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Quite appropriate response.... watched the end of an episode a few weeks ago, sandwiched in a video of 50s open/closing sequences, along with lots of the western series, especially those, like Roy Rogers, who had a different closing theme to the opening(Have Gun,Will Travel was in there....was any kid immune to a singalong Western ballad in those days?)....When MMC was in syndicated reruns, mid 60s?, even then I noticed that the ending was so much more low key and gentle,compared to even the kids shows of that time.... by the early 70s, stuff like this, ROMPER ROOM,etc looked and felt like something of a different time, even though it was only 15 or so years....

6:05 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

And as for the last time I set foot in a Disney store,or the like, must be at least 20 or more years ago, about the time that the Warner Bros shops Disappeared in the UK.... even the Harry Potter shop at Leavesden got rid of most of the more adult aimed merchandise when I was last there....and that franchise is soon to be joining the list of "retro" type interests, as the kids who weighed in on the books and films at the time are all approaching middle age!

6:10 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Years ago, a Disney store opened nearby. My wife and I went there on a lark, to see if there was any merchandise with Humphrey -- the bear in the mid-1950s Jack Hannah shorts. The 20-something clerk had not only never heard of Humphrey, but insisted vehemently that Humphrey was never a Disney property. We insisted otherwise, and the clerk -- determined to prove us wrong -- reached under the counter for the hardbound "Disney Encyclopedia" and triumphantly looked under H. There was Humphrey. The look on his face (as though a cigar had exploded in it) made our day.

7:22 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Did parents of the boomer generation encourage their kids to embrace pre-war cowboy heroes flooding the airwaves? Or did they simply chuckle at memories of thrilling to the same B westerns at matinees, and smugly turn to grown-up fare?

Looking ahead, will parents who grew up on Harry Potter try to nudge their youngsters into the books/movies, scowling at whatever newer franchises compete for attention? I imagine debates by child psychologists and the like over the proper age and circumstances of viewing the first video. The first generation of Harry Potter kids was a unique phenomenon: Like the earliest Sherlock Holmes fans, they had to wait for stories to come off the presses and experienced each one roughly simultaneously. But where Holmes and Watson were reassuringly fixed points in a changing world, Harry Potter -- and the books themselves -- matured along side his first fans. Current kids are faced with a tidy box of tales whose outline and conclusion is now general knowledge, so regardless of whether or not they embrace the saga, it'll be as distanced readers.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Sooke said...

Bill Cosby was a big fan, and talked about him on one of his albums.

It's on Youtube;

3:23 AM  

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