The Trail Blazers
8 Films
Released 1943 - 1944

(From Old Corral collection)

From L-to-R are Bob Steele, Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard in a lobby card from DEATH VALLEY RANGERS (Monogram, 1943), Steele's first Trail Blazers' film and he is billed third.

(From Old Corral collection)

Above is the title lobby card from SONORA STAGECOACH (Monogram, 1944), the eighth and last of the Monogram Trail Blazers series. On the left is Betty Miles riding her horse Sonny. On the right are Chief Thunder Cloud, Hoot Gibson and Bob Steele (helping Bud Osborne off the stage).

The members of the Trail Blazers:

Edmund Richard 'Hoot' Gibson (1892 - 1962)
portrayed "Hoot Gibson"

Kenneth Olin 'Ken' Maynard (1895 - 1973)
portrayed "Ken Maynard"

Bob Steele (1907 - 1988)
(real name: Robert Adrian Bradbury)
portrayed "Bob Steele"

Chief Thunder Cloud (1899 - 1955)
(real name: Victor Daniels)
portrayed "Chief Thunder Cloud"

In 1941-1942, Monogram Pictures had Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton as their "Rough Riders". But the series ended with Buck Jones' death in the Boston Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire and McCoy's return to Army duty. Monogram's other trio, the "Range Busters", ended with some 1942-1943 releases. Little Monogram was in dire need of another multi-hero offering ... something that was quick and cheap and could still bring in the Saturday matinee fans.

They coaxed two oldtimers back onto the screen - Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson had been among the major cowboy heroes in silent and 1930s sound westerns, but neither had a starring series for several years.  Both were well past the youthful image which was typical of sagebrush heroes. Maynard was approaching fifty years of age and Gibson was a few years older. Monogram was hopeful the pair would trigger some nostalgia in the minds of the movie-goers. The plot line for the Trail Blazers was simple - Ken and Hoot were veteran (older) undercover lawmen out to clean up the west.  Ken's original palomino Tarzan had gone to 'hoss heaven', and he was now riding a white steed named Tarzan II.  He also had added some significant poundage around his waistline.

The first entry, WILD HORSE STAMPEDE (1943), had Ken and Hoot being assisted by one-time Universal singing cowboy star Bob Baker (real name: Leland T. Weed).  Maynard had a reputation for being cantankerous and ornery, and Hollywood legend is that Ken didn't care for Baker. Whatever the reason, Baker didn't return to the series.

Robert Emmett Tansey was a jack-of-all-trades at Monogram and the production boss in charge of the series. He had been involved in low-budget oaters for years, doing chores like script writing, film editing, directing and producing, and working under a variety of names including Robert Emmett, Bob Tansey and Robert Emmett Tansey.  His greatest talent was the ability to function with meager budgets, a requirement at Monogram.  Tansey left Monogram in the mid 1940s for Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC).  There, he would experiment with a two-strip color process called Cinecolor and use it in a few color westerns starring songster Eddie Dean and the black-garbed Al 'Lash' LaRue.

Tansey brought in Alan James to direct the initial two Trail Blazers adventures, WILD HORSE STAMPEDE (Monogram, 1943) and THE LAW RIDES AGAIN (Monogram, 1943). Ken must have been comfortable with James at the helm. In the early 1930s, he directed about a dozen Maynards for KBS/WorldWide and Universal. Then producer Tansey opted to handle the directing job on the remaining six films.

The initial three Trail Blazer films were OK, as Hoot and Ken worked well together.  With film number four, DEATH VALLEY RANGERS (1943), Monogram added veteran Bob Steele, who still looked young and could handle the fisticuffs, action sequences, and romantic entanglements.  Steele was available as he had been cut loose from Republic Studios when they shut down the Three Mesquiteers trio adventures.

WESTWARD BOUND (1944) is fun to watch, but there is a noticeable lapse. In the rootin' tootin' finale, Hoot throws dynamite sticks at the fleeing baddies. The dynamite lands in the street but the set explosions go off about five feet away. As the dust and smoke from the blast dissipates, you can spot the fake dynamite sticks still laying on the ground.

Supposedly, Maynard wanted Steele off the series.  Instead, Ken was gone after film number six, ARIZONA WHIRLWIND (1944). Maynard had one more starring role but not for Monogram - the film was HARMONY TRAIL (Meridan/Western Attractions, 1944; AKA WHITE STALLION) for low-budget producer Walt Mattox. Bob Tansey directed.

Joining Hoot and Bob for the final two Trail Blazers was Victor Daniels, who called himself Chief Thunder Cloud, and had portrayed Tonto in Republic's two Lone Ranger serials.  Tansey was familiar with Daniels and had used him in a minor supporting role as an Indian in the second Trail Blazers feature, THE LAW RIDES AGAIN (1943).

After eight films, the Trail Blazers rode off into B western history.

One tidbit: this was one of the few western series in which the real names of our heroes were also their screen names - i.e., Ken, Hoot, Bob, and Thunder Cloud portrayed "Ken Maynard", "Hoot Gibson", "Bob Steele", and "Chief Thunder Cloud".

Most, if not all, of the Trail Blazers were shot at Corriganville (Semi Valley, California) which was a movie location ranch owned by Ray 'Crash' Corrigan of Three Mesquiteers and Range Busters fame.

Gibson and Steele remained at Monogram for three more oaters, none of which were billed as 'Trail Blazers' - these were MARKED TRAILS (Monogram, 1944), TRIGGER LAW (Monogram, 1944) and THE UTAH KID (Monogram, 1944), and all were produced by Lindsley Parsons. Afterwards, Gibson retired and Steele went looking for a new job.

Monogram's production shortcuts are evident in all of the Trail Blazers movies, and the best of the bunch is probably DEATH VALLEY RANGERS (1943), which was Steele's debut as a member of the team.  There's lots of better westerns, but I still like the Trail Blazers ... because it's the last fling for Maynard and Gibson. And while Steele looks and acts like his old self, the end of his starring career is fast approaching.

As to Monogram, Johnny Mack Brown did his first of many westerns for that company in 1943. And singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely began his series in late 1944.

Bob Steele found lots of work for the next twenty-five years or so - he starred in a few more B-westerns in the mid 1940s for Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). And he became a supporting actor and appeared in many A-features such as HANG 'EM HIGH (1967) with Clint Eastwood, and RIO LOBO (1970) with John Wayne.  One of my favorites is Steele as "Canino", a nasty killer who gets gunned down by Humphrey Bogart at the end of THE BIG SLEEP (1946).  He had good luck 'stepping out' of hero roles, and one of his best is mean spirited "Curley" in OF MICE AND MEN (1939), which starred Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr.  I vividly recall the scene of Chaney Jr. (as "Lennie") crushing Steele's hand during their brawl.  Steele even wound up on TV as "Trooper Duffy" on the F Troop series of the mid-1960s.  In ill health during the last dozen or so years of his life, Steele passed away at the St. John Medical Center, Burbank, California on December 21, 1988 from a combination of pneumonia and emphezema. Of all the Hollywood cowboys, multi-talented Bob Steele had the longest active film career (equating to fifty plus years from the early 1920s through the mid 1970s).

In 1960, Hoot Gibson was diagnosed with cancer, had several operations and lengthy hospital stays, and passed away on on August 23, 1962 at the Motion Picture Home and Hospital, Woodland Hills, California.

Chief Thunder Cloud (Victor Daniels) had surgery for stomach cancer and passed away at the General Hospital, Ventura County, California on December 1, 1955.

The ending of Ken Maynard is a sad one.  Although he earned much money over the years, he died a pauper, sick with a variety of ailments including alcohol abuse, and living out his final years in a trailer.  Maynard's legacy are scores of films, many of which are among the finest of the B-western genre.  I prefer remembering the Ken Maynard of the early 1930s, riding the original palomino Tarzan, and galloping across the screen at breakneck speed.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)
On the left is a pressbook ad for the first Trail Blazers film, WILD HORSE STAMPEDE (Monogram, 1943), and the ad proclaims "Two of the greatest cowboy heroes of all time join forces ...."

Notice that Ken Maynard is given the larger photo while Hoot Gibson is pictured in the smaller round photo inset on the right.

That's onetime Universal cowboy hero Bob Baker in the center, rearing on his trusty hoss, but not being billed.

May, 1943 trade ad announcing Monogram's new Trail Blazers series with Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson.

(From Old Corral collection)

Ken Maynard (left) was still carrying a pair of sixguns, former Universal cowboy hero Bob Baker is in the middle, and Hoot Gibson is on the right in the first Trail Blazers' film, WILD HORSE STAMPEDE (1943).  Old Hooter is wearin' a gunbelt in this film but often tucked the six-gun in the waist of his pants or in his boot.

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above from L-to-R are Hoot Gibson on Rusty the Wonder Horse, Betty Miles atop her steed Sonny and Ken Maynard on Tarzan II in one of the early entries in Monogram's Trail Blazers series (prior to Bob Steele joining the group).

(From Old Corral collection)

Cornering Bob Steele are veteran baddies Al Ferguson (left) and George Chesebro (right) in a lobby card from DEATH VALLEY RANGERS (Monogram, 1943). Both Ferguson and Chesebro were born in 1888, and in their mid fifties. This was the fourth Trail Blazers film ... and the first with Bob Steele (which made the team a trio versus the earlier Maynard and Gibson duo).

(From Old Corral collection)

With Maynard off the series after film number 6, they filled his slot with Chief Thunder Cloud (Victor Daniels), shown on the left riding Rusty the Wonder Horse which had been ridden by Jack Randall and Tom Keene in their series at Monogram. Bob Steele is center and Hoot Gibson on the right.

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