Action figures. Before 1964 the two words never were put together. Then Hasbro came out with G.I. Joe and since boys couldn’t and wouldn’t be caught dead playing with dolls – unless you count putting a naked Ken on top of a naked Barbie – action figures came into being.
Up until the debut of Joe, boys either had to be the action figure themselves with their stash of toy guns or the commanding general with their hordes of little men in static poses. Joe changed everything and to one toy manufacturer, it was a helluva change. Louis Marx & Company began back in 1919 and in the 1950′s and early 1960′s they dominated the toy market, garnering 20% of the sales (that may not sound like a lot, but you have to remember the number of toy manufactures then and the size of the market as us baby boomers were the consumers then). Louis Marx was on the cover of Time magazine in 1955. But Hasbro and G.I.Joe were like a kick in the crotch and, after catching their breath, Marx jumped into the action figure market.
But, contrary to popular notion, Johnny West was not the first Marx action figure. That position went to “Stony Smith, the Paratrooper.” He was a 12-inch tall guy with unarticulated legs (like Ken and Barbie). His head moved from side to side and his arms were jointed, but that was it. Also, unlike Joe, Stony was a victim of plastic injection technology. What that meant was that his body and all his gear were the same O.D. Green color. His body and uniform were one in the same. There was no changing clothes to make Stony into a sailor or pilot. What you saw was what you got. And that OD Green. Well, it was boring. Unlike Joe’s painted accessories everything from weapons (and he came with a butt-load) to radios and binoculars were green. It was almost as if the Soviet GUM store had directed some factory out in Siberia to crank out a Comrade Klem. One look at Stoney and you turned your head and moved down the toy aisle to G.I. Joe. To their credit, Marx fixed the leg issue in 1965, but Stony was never more than a second stringer. In retrospect, he should have come with a pair of glasses, desk and typewriter and he could have served as the Company clerk to G.I. Joe.
Marx was, however, not a quitter and introduced a fully clothed figure called The All-American Fighter, a.k.a. “Buddy Charlie.” He was available as a marine, pilot, sailor, or combat soldier. Buddy was the strongest effort to compete directly with Joe, and had cloth uniforms. He had articulation very similar to Joe except that his hands were formed in a semi-grip so he could easily hold anything you put in them. G.I. Joe, in contrast had the strangest hand articulation that looked like he was developing arthritis. Other military items included the accessories from Stony, a Jeep Set, and a General Eisenhower figure. Despite Marx’s efforts, none of the military figures did well in the action figure market. During the production run of the Marx military figures and sets, they were diligently planning a counter attack with the production of a new line of action figure toys. These would become Marx’s largest sellers with a very long production run of 10 years….
The frontal assault on G.I. Joe was as successful as Operation Market Garden (and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery should have been fired for that murderous fiasco, but that is another blog for another time) so Marx looked around at what had been popular and next to soldiers, cowboys were the cat’s pajamas. TV was crowded with western folks and considering there were only three networks that was a lot of horses, gunfights and Indian raids. One of the first was the figure “Daniel Boone” which was a tie into the TV series and/or the “Davy Crockett” (Disney) show. The head mold carried a Fess Parker look and the body was molded in caramel tan. Like Stony, this figure also did not have articulating legs, but did well in 1965 unlike the Stony figures. To further capture market share, they branched into more TV themes, i.e. “Wild Wild West”, “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.”
I think that this was a test of the waters because following the TV cowboys, Marx debuted 12-inch tall Johnny West and Chief Cherokee and the horse Thunderbolt in 1965. Although both Johnny and the Chief had the plastic injection molding bodies, but they were fully articulated and came with enough gear to fill a wagon (Chief Cherokee even had a peace pipe as smoking was still cool in 1965). The gear was unpainted, but there was a lot of it and Thunderbolt came with a full tack. Marx had a viable TV commercial campaign to support Johnny and suddenly G.I. Joe had some serious competition and this guy had a winchester!
Over the next few years more western figures were created. These included “Jane West” (I was never sure if she was supposed to be Johnny’s wife, girlfriend, sister or just some bimbo into leather), her horse “Flame” the non-jointed trotting posed horse. And, to the surprise of Marx, Jane was a hit with girls. I guess the combination of a cowgirl and a horse was appealing to some women who were concerned with that tramp Barbie. Marx even had commercials showing boys and girls playing with both Johnny and Jane together. I often wondered if the boy in the commercial got beat up by his friends when the commercial hit the air waves.
Major department stores chains such as Sears, Penny’s and Montgomery Wards added many nice sets in the early stage of Johnny West. Some examples include a ranch jeep set, Indian teepee set, and a Johnny West wild mustang set. Many parts of the combo sets were also sold individually depending on the retailer.
Other figures added to the Johnny West line include animals and more horses than you could possibly rustle in a single night, and the West kids! These include two boys Jay and Jamie West, two girls Josie and Janice West, a chestnut or palomino “Poncho” pony for the kids, a wild buffalo, and two dogs Flick (shepherd) and Flack (Setter). A horse and rig (buckboard, covered or surrey wagons) were added. Like Jane, it was never really explained who these kids were and what relation they were to Johnny. I mean, even if you put Johnny on top of Jane, they were both still fully clothed, so that seemed to end that possibility.
Moving down the list, Marx developed the cardboard “Circle X Ranch” playset. More color versions of Thunderbolts were created (black, brown, pinto) along with a new horse called Buckskin. Buckskin was available in brown or palomino and had fixed legs with articulation in the head and neck.
In the latter part of the 1960′s Marx branched out into the Fort Apache Fighter Series. This series brought in the Cavalry theme and more Indians. Marx seemed to be again targeting TV shows, i.e. “F-Troop”, “Rin Tin-Tin” etc. Figures added included Captain Maddox, Zeb Zachary, and the now rare hard to find Bill Buck, Geronimo, Fighting Eagle, and lastly General Custer. Two Fort Apache Fighter horses called Commanches were added, and were available in brown and tan/palomino colors. These were fully jointed and are notorious today for having loose joints and fail to stand and display well as a result. They included the same set of tack as the other large horses except they had a special cavalry saddle. Other playsets added included a cardboard full-scaled Fort Apache for the 12” figures.
In 1972, Louis Marx retired and sold off the company to Quaker Oats. QO updated figure construction, added some sets, changed packaging, and eliminated a few items. Two figures added were “outlaw” Sam Cobra and Sheriff Garrett. Quaker Oats also added a Johnny West camping set. This set had a hard plastic yellow/orange jeep with a variety of camping gear.
QO/Marx brought out another western series in 1974. This was “The Best of The West” series. It offered an across the board packaging change for all figures and horses. The main new addition to the series was the addition of a female Indian figure “Princess Wildflower.” The princess came with a papoose! No tomahawk, bow & arrow or rifle, but a papoose.
In 1975 Marx western / cavalry packaging and figures changed yet to another new series. They became the Johnny West Adventure Series, a.k.a. JWA series. In this series, the boxes changed more to watercolored lithographed illustration on the cover and were one piece constructed. JWA offered big color changes to the standard blue and caramel tan molded figures. Johnny West and Sam Cobra were changed to “Quick-Draw” figures. These had a right arm, controlled by a lever in their backs, which would allow the two figures to draw their “special” pistols out of their “special” holsters. Most figures were molded brighter colors, and accessories were all changed to look more colorful. JWA figures and accessories are uncommon today due to such a short production run. Finally…. the most sought after JWA figure was developed. Jed Gibson was a black cavalry scout and is quite hard to find today.
Additionally, Marx cranked out the Nobel Knights and Mighty Viking Series; Secret Agents and, in the U.K., the Lone Ranger; Safari Adventures; and – believe it or not – the Archies.
The next few years were typical for a company that had lost their inspiration. Mergers, acquisitions and failed products foretold the inevitable doom of Marx. 1978 was the last full year of U.S. production. But it was a helluva ride and many kids have lots of fond memories of Johnny West and his friends. So, put that in your peace pipe and smoke it G.I. Joe!