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Nat Levine and Gene Autry ... and Smiley Burnette

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

Ken Maynard's first for Levine and Mascot was the feature IN OLD SANTA FE (Mascot, 1934). Leading lady Evalyn Knapp is pictured in the bottom left. Trusty steed Tarzan is prominently mentioned and also note the reference in the center of this title lobby card to:

(From Old Corral collection)

In front are Smiley Burnette and Gene Autry providing musical support in this Ken Maynard oater. Left to right in the back row are Gene's buddy Frankie Marvin, unidentified guy, Art Dillard and Jack Jones.

Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette were performers on the National Barn Dance radio program which originated from station WLS in Chicago. And both headed to Hollywood in 1934 to work for Mascot.

Prior to THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, Autry and Smiley appeared in a Mascot feature and serial with Ken Maynard - they were unbilled teamsters in MYSTERY MOUNTAIN (Mascot, 1934) and both did tunes in the feature IN OLD SANTA FE (Mascot, 1934).

Burnette also picked up a another paycheck from Levine - he had a credited role in THE ADVENTURES OF REX AND RINTY (Mascot, 1935) which starred Kane Richmond.

Nat must have been pleased with Autry as he signed him to a contract and planned to star him in eight musical oaters for Mascot. His series was put on hold for a few months until the formation of Republic Pictures was completed. Trade publications covered the original Levine and Autry deal:

  • May 20, 1935 Motion Picture Daily: "Hollywood, May 19. - Gene Autry has been signed by Mascot for a series of eight musical westerns. Armand Schaefer will supervise production of the radio singer's first film venture."
  • June 4, 1935 Film Daily: Headline - "Autry in Mascot Musicals" and "Gene Autry will be starred in eight musical westerns to be produced by Mascot Pictures."

Jack Mathis' Republic Confidential, Volume 2, The Players (Jack Mathis Advertising, 1992) has more on Gene's contract:

  • He was under a 3 year contract(s) from July 1, 1935 through June 30, 1938 which included 6 month options. This was a "Nat Levine / Mascot contract" which was transferred to Republic at the time of the formation of that studio in 1935.
  • Gene's initial salary was $100.00 / weekly which escalated to $350.00 / weekly by mid 1938.

(From Old Corral collection)

Released in September, 1935, TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS (Republic, 1935) was Autry's first starring B western. The title lobby card above shows him on the original Champion (with that unique face blaze and three white socks). Armand Schaefer was associate producer and Levine was the producer.

Armand Schaefer (1898 - 1967) became a business associate and personal friend to Gene Autry, and they first connected at Mascot and Republic Pictures. When Autry returned from World War II duty, he did a few westerns at Republic to finish out his contract. Then he began a series of oaters for Columbia Pictures as well as creating various TV programs via his "Flying A" television company. Armand 'Mandy' Schaefer was president and executive producer of Gene's production company.

Nat Levine and John Wayne

(Courtesy of Les Adams)

A young John Wayne starred in three cliffhangers for Levine, and gave him a boost as a good lookin' action hero. His first was THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLE (Mascot, 1932) and the above lobby card is for Chapter 1. "The Carnival Mystery". The other two were THE HURRICANE EXPRESS (Mascot, 1932) and THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Mascot, 1933).

In 1932 - 1933, Wayne starred in six B westerns for Warners.

Then came sixteen "Lone Star" sagebrush adventures released 1933 - 1935 by Monogram and produced by Paul Malvern.

Wayne and Malvern were swept up in the new Republic Pictures organization and teamed for another eight oaters released by Republic in 1935 - 1936. Trem Carr was producer on these, but after he exited Republic, Nat Levine took charge of Wayne's last two, THE LONELY TRAIL (Republic, 1936) and WINDS OF THE WASTELAND (Republic, 1936).

The next stop for Wayne and Paul Malvern was Universal Pictures where Wayne starred in a half dozen non-westerns in 1936 - 1937, the first of which was SEA SPOILERS (Universal, 1936).

He and Johnny Mack Brown starred in BORN TO THE WEST (Paramount, 1937; alternate title: HELL TOWN).

In May, 1938, Wayne signed a multi-year contract with Republic and his first assignment was portraying "Stony Brooke" - and replacing Bob Livingston - in eight of the Three Mesquiteers trio series released in 1938 - 1939. His first was PALS OF THE SADDLE (Republic, 1938), released in August, 1938.

There was a break in filming those eight as Wayne was loaned out to producer Walter Wanger and director John Ford for STAGECOACH (United Artists, 1939).

Nat Levine and Frankie Darro

(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
Frankie Darro did a half dozen serials for Levine:

THE DEVIL HORSE (Mascot, 1932)
THE WOLF DOG (Mascot, 1933)
BURN 'EM UP BARNES (Mascot, 1934)
THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935).

I can still recall Frankie yelling "To the Rescue!" as he, Betsy King Ross, and the "Junior Thunder Riders" gallop off to assist Gene Autry in THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. Frankie was about 17 years old when he did that serial.

(From Old Corral collection)

Above - Betsy King Ross and Frankie Darro - in their "Junior Thunder Riders" capes and "bucket" helmets - come to the aid of Gene Autry in a lobby card from Chapter 1 of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (Mascot, 1935).

Nat Levine and stunt man Yakima Canutt

(From Old Corral collection)
Stunt wizard Yakima Canutt was a regular in Levine's serials, and purportedly, helped Gene Autry develop his riding skills.

A few highlights of Canutt at Mascot:

Below are screen captures from Chapter 4 - "Flaming Arrows" in THE LIGHTNING WARRIOR (Mascot, 1931) with Yak doing his fall and slide underneath a six-horse team and wagon. He reprises the same stunt in FIGHTING WITH KIT CARSON (Mascot, 1933).

Below are screen captures showing Canutt doubling Harry Carey, Sr. and holding on to 'Apache' at the end of Chapter 1 - "Untamed" in THE DEVIL HORSE (Mascot, 1932). 'Apache' was owned by horseman / trainer Tracy Layne.

Above - Frankie Darro on top and Yakima Canutt underneath the wagon in a screen capture from THE LIGHTNING WARRIOR (Mascot, 1931), Chapter 4 - "Flaming Arrows".

Above - screen grabs from THE DEVIL HORSE (Mascot, 1932), Chapter 1 - "Untamed". This became popular stock footage and used in other westerns and serials. For example, in TRAIL TO SAN ANTONE (Republic, 1947), Gene Autry saves Peggy Stewart from getting trampled by a horse. Gene wears a light colored shirt so he (somewhat) matches this DEVIL HORSE footage. It was also used in another Autry, COMIN' ROUND THE MOUNTAIN (Republic, 1936).

Nat Levine and stunt man Cliff Lyons

(From Old Corral collection)
Stunt man Cliff 'Tex' Lyons worked in at least a half dozen Mascot serials.

In the 1920s, he had a brief starring career as 'Tex' Lyons. And in the 1930s - 1940s, he doubled Buck Jones, Bob Baker, Johnny Mack Brown, Ken Maynard, others.

Circa 1948, he began a relationship with director John Ford and longtime friend John Wayne that lasted through 15 films, the first being FORT APACHE (1948). In many of the Wayne and Ford films, Lyons wound up doing stunts as well as stunt coordinator / second unit director duties.

Above - Cliff Lyons doubling Tom Mix and chasing down Charles Middleton in a screen capture from THE MIRACLE RIDER (Mascot, 1935), Chapter 15 - "Justice Rides the Plains".

Nat Levine ... and horses and dogs

Horses and dogs had major roles in Nat Levine serials:

Silverstreak / Silver Streak, "King of Dog Actors":
THE SILENT FLYER (Universal, 1926)

White Fury (horse) and Tornado (dog):
HEROES OF THE WILD (Mascot, 1927)

Rin-Tin-Tin (Senior):
THE LONE DEFENDER (Mascot, 1930)
THE WOLF DOG (Mascot, 1933)

Rin-Tin-Tin Jr.:
THE LAW OF THE WILD (Mascot, 1934)

Rex, "King of the Wild Horses":
THE LAW OF THE WILD (Mascot, 1934)

Apache, the "Devil Horse":
THE DEVIL HORSE (Mascot, 1932)

1930 tradepaper ad for Rin-Tin-Tin (Senior) in THE LONE DEFENDER (Mascot, 1930).

(From Old Corral collection)

THE ADVENTURES OF REX AND RINTY (Mascot, 1935) was the next to last serial from Mascot. And Rex and Rinty Jr. got billed ahead of hero Kane Richmond.

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