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Ken Maynard was 44 when Phantom Rancher was released in March, 1940.
(The copyright date in the film is 1939.) His physical appearance was
still strong and that of a classic western movie hero, although older
and slightly heavier. In Phantom Rancher we see Ken Maynard on screen
almost the entire time. His acting was top notch as it should have
been. Unfortunately, Maynard's career in films was coming to an end as
he worked himself down from the bigger movie studios to Colony Pictures
for this movie. The once great Ken Maynard was making poorly put
together movies while Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the kings of the
The problem with this movie is the "phantom rancher" idea itself. No one can recognize the phantom as Ken Mitchell. He wears a simple mask and a cape, speaks with the same voice, and rides the same horse. Collins, the villain, is face to face with the phantom and never gets it. If there is a first rule of B westerns, it has to be "don't count the shots coming out of a six-gun." The same thing applies to the plot of this movie. You really have to be willing to let the story unfold unquestioned because the whole mask thing does not work in this movie. It is a major part of the plot, so you have to take it or quit watching.
Ken Maynard was known for his riding skills, but we do not really see any trick riding in Phantom Rancher. There is a great scene that has Ken as the phantom riding back to his ranch to avoid being caught, and as Tarzan gallops at full speed he takes the bridle and saddle off. Ken jumps off with the saddle and Tarzan jumps into his corral. This looks like something Ken Maynard would have done years before, but the scene is carefully edited to give that appearance. I suspect it was a good stunt double. The scene is short, but it is the kind of thing that makes B western heroes larger than life.
Dave O'Brien played many different types of roles in his career, and I am used to thinking of him in the Texas Rangers series. In Phantom Rancher he plays the part of the lead henchman. His character is the only one to suspect that Ken Mitchell is really the phantom rancher.
The Republic Lone Ranger serials, The Lone Ranger and The Lone Ranger Rides Again, came out in 1938 and 1939. Equity's The Adventures of the Masked Phantom, starring Monte Rawlins, came out in 1939. I wonder if there was a rush by the smaller studios to cash in on the "masked hero" franchise of the Lone Ranger that Republic appeared to have locked up. Columbia would later do the Durango Kid series, with Charles Starrett using a bandanna for a mask.
Some of the later movies in that series were a bit hard to believe.
Phantom Rancher is good and not good. Ken Maynard is wonderful in this movie. The gimmicky plot is the weakness. I do not want to discourage anyone from seeing this movie, but it is better not to expect much and be pleasantly surprised rather than to expect a great movie and be disappointed.
When Ken Maynard's uncle is murdered, he finds out that the old man was
apparently a ruthless land baron and moneylender, who cheated and/or
destroyed the other landowners in the area. Ken tries to make amends by
pretending to go along with the gang that held sway over his uncle and
by highlighting as the Phantom Rancher in order to help the put-upon
farmers and thwart the bad guys.
As far as Saturday matinée westerns go, Phantom Rancher is okay entertainment, but not really very action packed in it's first half. When Ken puts on the mask though, things pick up and the climax is pretty good.
At this point in his career, Maynard was noticeably older and a bit heavier. However, he still had presence enough to pull off a decent performance, though he may have benefited from wearing a duster over his tight-fitted shirt.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I assume that Ken Maynard's horse Tarzan has some Jedi mind control tricks, because no one ever recognizes the fact that the "Phantom Rider" and one of the main characters ride the same horse. At one point, Tarzan rolls in the mud, to become a horse of a different color, and feigns lameness. Then, the next scene, Tarzan appears without mud and not lame. Good thing that cowboys don't pay any attention to anything besides the color of horses!
That is only one of a number of deeply implausible aspects of "The Phantom Rider". In its favor, the title character is likable and the plot a little different than the standard -- the writer plays a little with whitehat/blackhat conventions. While he doesn't break the cardinal rule of westerns of this era that it has to culminate in a fight on a rock outcropping, at least the lead doesn't ever break into song. His telepathic horse, though, is worth at least three stars.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ken Maynard was heading towards the end of his career when he made this
film in 1939 - come to think of it "Tarzan" was getting long in the
tooth as well (he died in 1940). Seeing this is almost Maynard's last
film and age and weight issues were catching up with him, I think it is
wrong (like one of the reviews) to judge his popularity on his last few
films. He had been a big cowboy star since the mid 1920s.
Ken Mitchell rides into a hostile town. He has been sent a will from his uncle, begging him to come and help at the ranch and in the event of his death to take over. By the time Ken gets to town his uncle has been killed. His uncle, Jim Mitchell, was the most hated man in town, squeezing out the small ranchers and foreclosing on mortgages. Ken vows to help the ranchers and to try to fix things. He swears he will never be like his uncle. However, to find out if Collins is at the bottom of things, Ken decides to pretend to go in with Collins' mob - sabotaging the heroine's water supply, foreclosing on poor farmers with starving children. He then becomes the "phantom rancher" - anonymously giving money to the ranchers so they can pay their mortgages.
Harry Harvey, who has almost 400 film credits in his resume, plays Gopher.
Dave O'Brien (from "Reefer Madness" (1936) and the hapless guy from Pete Smith Specialities) plays the chief henchman, Luke.
Dorothy Short (star of the cult exploitation films "Reefer Madness" and "Marihuana: Assassin of Youth" (1937) - I wonder if she smoked!!) plays the heroine Ann. Surprise, surprise - she was married to Dave O'Brien for quite a few years!!!
I thought that it was an okay western.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The lower end westerns are not known for cerebral plot and character
development. This one scrapes the bottom with a hero hardly anybody
recognizes because he's wearing a mask, a black hat, and a black cape.
His voice (same flat drone--is he reading his lines?) never changes,
his horse never changes, and the tack his horse wears never changes.
Horse people NOTICE individual horses. I notice individual horses in these movies being used in ways that defy continuity. I also notice their bridles, especially the ornate ones. Surely in the setting of the movies such things would be noticed as well? While this is annoying on one level, on another it is so bad that it is entertaining. Obviously, this was produced for an audience that was none too picky, but even so, the target is set absurdly low. I liked the dismount/unsaddling maneuver, with Tarzan leaping into his own paddock.
Ya gotta see it to believe it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I love these old Westerns, but I have to call 'em as I see 'em. This
one requires a major suspension of disbelief with the character of the
Phantom Rancher, a pretty good gimmick except that he and Ken Mitchell
(Ken Maynard) rode the same horse and no one could figure that out.
Maybe that's why by the time Columbia Pictures put Charles Starrett to
work as The Durango Kid, they had it all worked out that Durango would
switch off between a white one and a black one.
But whoa, wait a minute! Did they really use a trip wire to make old Tarzan go down the way he did in that crazy spill he took early in the picture? Like many cowboy movie stars of the era like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Maynard owned the horse he rode in his pictures, so I can't imagine he would allow that just to make an exciting scene. Maybe I'm wrong about the trip wire, but watch the scene closely and both horse and rider take a mean tumble. Later on Maynard (or a stunt rider) do another gimmick where he drops off Tarzan saddle and all making a getaway from the bad guys. That one wasn't as dangerous but still takes some kind of effort to pull off.
Story wise, what you have is the hero making the scene as a result of his uncle's will that puts him in charge of the Mitchell ranch. Only thing is, the uncle was hated in these here parts because he held the mortgages on the other ranchers and began foreclosing on them. He was in cahoots with the film's main villain Collins (Ted Adams), but was murdered on orders from Collins because he wasn't playing ball the way he should have been. Nephew Ken's plan is to smoke out the bad guys using the Phantom Rancher gimmick, dropping money off with the neighbor victims so they can buy back their mortgages from Mitchell. Like the man said, that roll of money was getting just about worn out.
You can say what you want about aging cowboy star Maynard, well past his heyday as a top flight draw for this flick. The real show was put on here by Tarzan, who somersaults, leaps fences, rolls in the mud and limps on command to fool the baddies. If he had a better agent, he'd be as well known as Trigger and Champion.
Ken Mitchell arrives to take over the ranch belonging to his recently deceased uncle, but when he arrives he finds himself hated by all the townspeople, since his uncle was trying to acquire all the ranches in the area, and then foreclosing all the mortgages that were being taken out. What Ken doesn't realize is that his uncle was working hand in hand with realtor Collins, who had a rancher, Markham, killed when he wouldn't sell his ranch to him, and now everyone in town (especially Markham's daughter Ann) believes Ken killed Markham. In order to right the wrongs his uncle did, Ken garbs himself as the Phantom Rancher, where he pays off all the ranchers who wouldn't accept Ken's charity as well as round up Collins and his gang. So-so western where nothing is really spectacular, but nothing boring. It could have used more action, but Maynard's persona helped carry it in dull spots. Rating, based on B-westerns, 5.
I've seen about a half dozen of the low budget poverty row B westerns
that Ken Maynard made in the 1930s, and I am consistently amazed at how
poor an actor he was. How did he ever get to be a leading cowboy actor?
They say that he could ride pretty well back in the silents, but he
doesn't do anything particularly impressive in these later sound films.
Still, maybe he got the leads because he was big and could ride.
Phantom Rancher isn't as bad as some of the other Ken Maynard films I've seen, but it still isn't much. Some of the other characters refer to him a couple of times as a "young fella," where it appears to me that he's just as old as the other older actors.
And if that's not silly enough, there's a rather significant script problem in this film. At one point, one of the characters makes a remark about how the phantom had prevented the poisoning of a well, something that hadn't happened yet. Just a couple of minutes later, we then see that particular scene. No, it wasn't a flashback. At first I thought perhaps that when Treeline Films was doing the DVD transfer, they might have reversed two of the reels. But in those days film reels contained approximately 11 minutes of film, and the whole reversal only took about 3 or 4 minutes tops. Everything else was in a logical order. So, it looks like that was a genuine continuity problem in the original film. Maybe that's one reason why Colony Pictures didn't last very long.
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