JONES, Buck

(1889–1942)
   Born Charles Frederick Gebhart in Vincennes, Indiana, Jones changed his name soon after making his first Western, The Last Straw, in 1920. Like other early Western stars, Jones started out with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West show and other touring shows. He married one of the performers, Odelle Osborne, and for a while the couple toured with their own show. After settling in Southern California in 1917, Jones sought a steady income by working as an extra in the newly popular Western movies, including some of William S. Hart’s films. Throughout the 1920s, Jones found steady work in silent films for Fox Studios. Almost none of these films survive, so we must rely on the early reviews from such sources as Variety to learn that they were high on action and entertainment value and not much else. Adispute with Fox led to Jones’s departure from Hollywood and an ill-fated venture with his own high-budget Wild West show. The project bankrupted Jones, and he was forced to return to Hollywood just as the transition to talkies was taking place.
   Early producers assumed that Westerns, because they were mainly outdoor action films, would not work well as talkies, so they were reluctant to back them in the new format. One producer, Sol Lesser, took a gamble with Jones and signed him to a contract with Columbia for eight pictures at $300 apiece. The films were successful, and Jones’s asking price increased accordingly from then on. In 1936 the Motion Picture Herald, a trade paper for distributors, ranked Buck Jones as the top box-office draw among Western actors. After a career with Columbia, Jones signed with Monogramin 1940 to film the Rough Riders series in which he costarred with Tim McCoy and Raymond Hatton. What most fans remember about these films is the stirring theme song, “The Rough Riders Ride Again,” with which each film begins. Though Jones’s move to share billing with two other stars might have been evidence of a career in decline, the series proved immensely popular and Jones was clearly becoming the dominant star—so much so that McCoy left the series after Jones was killed in the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942. Jones was guest of honor at a dinner party when the fire broke out. He died of severe burns two days afterward.
   Buck Jones’s films defined the 1930s low-budget Western, especially in the days before the rise in popularity of the Hopalong Cassidy pictures and the singing cowboy pictures of, primarily, Gene Autry. When he had control of his pictures at Columbia, Jones, unlike most B Westernstars, sought to vary his roles and not play himself primarily, though he still emphasized stunt work and action. His earliest films stretched conventional morality as far as they could in pre-code days. In Timber Wolf(1925), Jones forcibly abducts a dance hall girl (Elinor Fair) to prevent her from marrying the villain. He then tames her and marries her. Even in 1935 in Stone of Silver Creek, Jones played a saloon proprietor and professional gambler—roles not acceptable for cowboy stars of most B Westerns. Jones described himself as “an old-time cowboy.” He wore a very basic, practical costume and though he kept his white horse, Silver, through his best pictures, his horse never dominated the film. Whatever one makes of Buck Jones’s career, he deserves notice for keeping the masculine cowboy tradition of William S. Hart alive for a few more years before the streamlined Westerns of the singing cowboys took over.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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