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Columbia In Transition
Bob Allen and Jack Luden

Columbia Pictures had a strong sagebrush hero lineup during most of the B western era. In the early 1930s, Tim McCoy and Buck Jones were their resident range riders. In the middle of that decade, Ken Maynard was there for a single season of reasonably good oaters which were produced by Larry Darmour and released through the studio for the 1935 - 1936 season. Charles Starrett came on board around 1936 to begin a near twenty year stay with the studio ... and he made an impact and garnered ratings in the Motion Picture Herald poll for 1937 (9th place) and 1938 (6th place). And Buck Jones, who had earlier left Columbia for Universal, returned for a series of eight Coronet productions which Columbia released in 1937-1938.

Above - lobby cards of Tim McCoy and Ken Maynard at Columbia ... and both being harassed by Ward Bond.

When Maynard exited, Columbia needed to fill his slot and they tried two different actors in brief series - these were Bob Allen and Jack Luden.

Bob Allen is fondly remembered by many fans because of his half dozen sagebrush adventures, his appearances at film festivals ... and because he was a genuinely nice guy. Jack Luden was a "Hollywood mystery" as he seemed to have disappeared in the late 1940s - early 1950s.  Many years ago when I was doing columns for Classic Images, I happened to save a great article by Luther Hathcock titled Whatever Happened to Cowboy Star Jack Luden? ... and through Luther's superb investigative efforts, the history and mystery of Jack Luden was solved.

As with the earlier Maynard films, producer Larry Darmour was in charge of both the Allen and Luden groups. Before getting involved in westerns, Darmour did the Mickey McGuire shorts starring Mickey Rooney. Later, he'd be in charge of the Ellery Queen mysteries at Columbia. Darmour passed away in the early 1940s.

In total, Jack Luden and Bob Allen starred in ten oaters for Darmour, and I view these players and films as "Columbia in transition".

Transition to what, you ask? Some note that Columbia was looking for a singing cowboy ... or was at least concerned with Republic Pictures and the success of Gene Autry (and in 1938, Roy Rogers made his first starring western for Republic). Others suggest that the Starrett series was given higher priority because of the popularity polls (meaning fan and theater owner appeal equates to box office receipts and film rentals).

Regardless of all these reasons and guesses, Columbia found a cinema cowpoke who didn't sing nor strum a guitar - his real name was Gordon Nance. In his initial starring roles, he was billed as Gordon Elliott, but he became better known as that "peaceable man", Wild Bill Elliott.

The studio tried him in the chapterplay, THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK (Columbia, 1938), and liked what they saw ... and apparently, so did the Saturday matinee fans.  He'd do a bunch of successful sagebrush adventures and two additional serials for that studio from 1938 - 1943. Elliott and Charles Starrett would be Columbia's popular "1 - 2 punch" for a number of years.

(From Old Corral image collection)
On the left is an ad for Elliott's first starring western feature, IN EARLY ARIZONA (Columbia, 1938). That film was released in late 1938, several months after he had the lead in the 15 chapter THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK (Columbia, 1938).

In these early screen adventures, the man who became "Wild Bill" was credited as Gordon Elliott.

The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s.  With a few exceptions, the annual poll results would list the "Top Ten" (or "Top Five") cowboy film stars.  In most cases, the winners were what you would expect --- Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc.  Neither Bob Allen nor Jack Luden achieved a ranking in those polls.

Bob Allen was good lookin' and could easily handle the anemic dialog.  If Columbia (or another production outfit) had given him a starring series a few years earlier, he might have had a greater impact and lengthier/loftier sagebrush career.

Jack Luden's story is a sad one.  Once deemed star material at the end of the silent era, Luden found himself in a downward spiral toward bit parts ... and it would get worse.

In retrospect, neither Allen or Luden made a significant impact on the B western genre.  They were simply two more silver screen cowpokes who rode the cinema trails for a brief time ... and then were gone.  But, short-lived western film heroes were relatively common, and other examples that come to mind are Fred Scott, Reb Russell, Lee Powell, Eddie Dew and George Houston.

Click the 'Next' button below, and let's proceed to Bob Allen and Jack Luden.

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