The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

 
The greatest cowboy of the silver
screen

On the afternoon of October 12, 1940, a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton, one of the
great cars of automotive history, was speeding along dusty Arizona roads. These $2500
roadsters were capable of well over 100 mph and the driver liked taking the car
to the limit. Bright yellow, the Cord boasted medallions on the hood given the
driver by the King of Denmark, a dashboard holster for a revolver and an
outsize accelerator pedal to accommodate a cowboy boot. Just outside Florence
the driver appeared to miss a detour sign, the car swerved as the driver lost
control, and it rolled.
 
Cord
 
Inside,
a silver steel suitcase which had been stowed just behind the driver’s head
shot forward and broke his neck.

That was
how the great cowboy of the silver screen, Tom Mix, died.

Early
days

Thomas
Hezekiah Mix, destined to make nearly 300 Westerns between 1909 and 1935 and
become the dashing cowboy of the
silent era, was born on January 6, 1880 in Mix Run, Pennsylvania to Edwin and
Elizabeth Mix, the third child and second son. I say ‘Hezekiah’: Wikipedia
gives ‘Hezikiah’ and different biographies give different spellings. In any
case, Tom later abandoned the Old Testament middle name in favor of his
father’s, Edwin.

 

 

His
father managed the stables on the estate of a successful lumber merchant and
Tom learned horses there. He seemed to have a natural way with them. It is said
that as a boy he practiced knife-throwing using his sister as assistant and he
and a friend managed to shoot Tom just above the knee as they attempted to
dislodge a cartridge stuck in the chamber of a pistol, using a penknife.

Army

When the
Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Tom hastened to enlist, exaggerating
his age to 21, but to his disappointment was not sent to Cuba but posted to
guard the DuPont gunpowder factory in the savage wilds of Delaware. He was promoted to
corporal and transferred to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he met veterans in a hospital
and heard tales of battlefield valor which would be absorbed into his own
public relations CV later on.

In October
1902 Sergeant Thomas Mix went on furlough with his new bride Grace Allin, did
not return, was posted AWOL and then officially listed as a deserter. Later on,
during his Hollywood career, this would have been very embarrassing had it come
out and efforts were made for years to hide the fact.

This
later became the central tenet of an utterly brilliant short story penned by
that Tolstoyan writer Jeff Arnold, one of the finest flowers of Western
literature, indeed of great writing tout
court
, and as you are very well-behaved I have posted it here and you
can read it free (or for free as they say nowadays). Never let it be said that I don’t reward my faithful readers.

Still,
let’s get back to Tom’s career.

Women

Tom was
rather a serial marrier. His union with Grace was dissolved after one year. In
1905 he married Kitty Jewel Perrine but that lasted only a year too and then he
married Olive Stokes in 1909. This marriage lasted until he made it big in
movies, when he left her for a glamorous film star, Victoria Forde, to whom he
was married 1918 – 31, and finally in 1932 he wed Mabel Hubbell Ward, with whom
he remained till his death in 1940. There were certainly other, extra-marital
affairs as well.

But then
I guess five wives was not that excessive for Hollywood stars.
 
Olive

 


Victoria, with daughter Thomasina

 

Mabel. Fit babe.
 
Wild West shows

In 1905
Tom took part in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade, led by Roosevelt’s
great friend, the Deadwood resident Seth Bullock, and the parade included
former Rough Riders. Hollywood publicists used this to imply Tom had been a
Rough Rider himself and before you knew it, Tom had taken San Juan Hill single
handed and was Roosevelt’s right hand man.
 
Tom, 1909
 
Tom got
work at the famous 101 Ranch of the Miller brothers
in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma before
statehood. There, one of his duties was telling ‘windies’ to gullible tourists
and tall tales became part of his repertoire. He developed his roping and
riding skills too, alongside his pal Will Rogers, and became highly
proficient. He won
national riding and roping contests at Prescott, Arizona in 1909, and Canon
City, Colorado in 1910 (both centers of the early Western movie making
industry) and he appeared in various rodeos and Wild West shows, including his
own venture in Seattle in 1909.

The movies

‘Colonel’
William Selig had founded, in Chicago in 1896, one of the very first movie
companies, the Selig Polyscope Company. In 1909 he was the first movie producer
to settle on the West coast, establishing studios in what is now the Echo Park
area of LA. No more a colonel than I am, he nevertheless was generally accorded
the honorary title. He made almost a thousand movies and launched the careers
of Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, among others.
(He also started the Los Angeles Zoo and wanted to turn it into a Disneyesque
theme park before Disney was thought of).
 
William Selig
 
It was Selig
who gave Tom his first break into the movies. Mix’s
first appearance was in a
short film titled The Cowboy Millionaire, released in October, 1909.
In 1910 he appeared as himself
in a short and highly successful documentary film titled Ranch Life in the
Great Southwest
in which he displayed his rodeo skills.

Between 1909
and 1917 Tom made over a hundred films for Selig Polyscope. I say ‘made’
advisedly because he often produced, wrote, directed and acted in them himself. They were mostly comic one- or two-reel shorts. After
Canon City, Las Vegas, NM (not the vulgar gambling place in Nevada, but the
proper Las Vegas) became the center of the world as far as Western movie making
was concerned. Tom and Olive installed themselves there, along with Tom’s great
friend and co-actor and stuntman, Sid Jordan (1889 – 1970).

Sid

Sid was a
part-Cherokee Oklahoman. It was his father, Col. John Jordan, who had secured
Sid and Tom jobs as night marshals in Dewey, Oklahoma, in 1904 (which gave rise
to the Hollywood legend that Tom had been a US marshal). Sid and Tom became
inseparable and had similar tastes in wine, women and song – and general
rowdyism.
 
Tom and Sid
 
The two goaded each other on to ever wilder stunts. On one occasion
they both got into a barrel and rolled down a hill, just for the hell of it,
till the barrel smashed and they emerged black and blue. Sid would entertain
them by shooting Tom’s bowtie or shooting his hat off – once it came off with
part of his scalp attached.

Becomes a star

The vast
majority of Tom’s Selig movies were one- and two-reelers, i.e. shorts of
between 12 and 24 minutes in length. Sadly, many have not survived and
some of the ones that have are not generally available on DVD. A few are. Try The Man from Texas (1915), Sage Brush Tom (1915) or The Taming of Grouchy Bill (1916). Many were comic in tone. They were
evidently extraordinarily popular. Selig liked them because they were cheap to produce but much in demand at the nickelodeons. He pressured Tom not to make four- or five-reel feature films, which cost more to make but didn’t necessarily bring more in at the box-office.
 
A five-reel epic
 
The last film
Tom made for Selig was The Heart of Texas Ryan, in 1917. This was a five-reeler, no less, and actually really rather
good. But Selig was in difficulties and Tom signed for Fox.

Fox

William Fox
merged theater chain, distribution and production companies to found the Fox
Film Corporation in 1915. Two years later he bought the LA studios of Selig
Polyscope. Fox soon became a major studio and the place to be. For Tom this had
many advantages, not least budget, staff and a high salary. But he chafed under
the increased control of studio bosses telling him what to do. Selig had almost
never come on location and had given Tom carte
blanche
to produce the movies. Now there were bean counters and
screenwriters and directors getting in his way.

A new kind of cowboy

While William S Hart was, as the 1920s neared, certainly the king of the cowboys, his rather
austere and authentic style of cowboy was giving way to stars with more dash
and zip, brightly costumed and doing remarkable stunts. Tom was the first and
greatest of these. Hart had been born during the Civil War and in 1920 was in
his late 50s. Tom was a vigorous, athletic 40 – throughout his life he kept
himself fighting fit – and square-jawed and handsome.
 
Hero of the silver screen
 
In 1922 Fox
came out with Sky High. In many ways
this is the archetypal Tom Mix Western.
It was
shot in and around the Grand Canyon. The area made, of course, a spectacular
setting and even on the grainy print we see today, the photography (Benny
Kline) is pretty spectacular. It is also an ideal setting for Tom to gallop
along the rim and alternately shimmy up and abseil down in order to save and
protect a maiden.
 
Right, I’ll get out here
 
Mix oaters had no
complexes about period setting and were quite happy to include cars and planes,
and the aerial shots in this movie are remarkable. Tom tells the pilot of his
biplane to dive, then he slips down a rope and drops off into the Colorado
River.

In 1925 Riders of the Purple Sage appeared, a
remake of the 1918 silent. In some ways this is rather an unusual Western for
Tom because he appears dressed in a sober black as Lassiter, does not smile and
the whole thing is quite somber. He was trying to make a ‘serious’ Western and
a faithful interpretation of the Zane Grey novel. But it is an excellent movie
and was a big hit.
 
More serious
 
The following
year Tom starred in one of his best efforts, The Great K & A Train Robbery. It was based on the actual
foiling of a train robbery by Dick Gordon as related by Paul Leicester Ford in
his book The Great K & A Train Robbery originally published as a
serial in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1896. Railroad detective Dick
Gordon becomes Tom Gordon (Mix). Disguised as an outlaw, Tom boards the train
of the K & A President whose daughter, Madge (Dorothy Dwan – Dorothy in the
1925 Wizard of Oz and a big star),
senses that Tom is not a criminal and soon falls in love with him. Madge is lusted
after by her father’s secretary, Burton (Carl Miller), who is in league with
the bandits. Tom eventually discovers his skullduggery, and with the aid of
Tony rounds up the villains and wins the hand of Madge. Classic stuff.

Megastar

In the mid-20s
Tom was at his height. He had a fabulous salary of $17,500 a week and lived an
extraordinary life. Money flowed out as least as fast as it flowed in. A huge $250,000
Beverly Hills mansion and an Arizona ranch, swimming pools, custom-made
automobiles, thoroughbred horses, sumptuous clothes and diamond-studded spurs,
all these became part of his everyday life – and everything was emblazoned with
his TM Bar brand.
He
had all his cars fitted with custom-manufactured tires specially molded to
leave tracks with his initials TM in the road.
He also gave a huge amount away to charity,
especially children’s charities. He was known all over the world and feted
wherever he went. He toured Europe and was received by kings and presidents. He was
invited by President Coolidge to the White House.
 
Superstar Tom
 
In LA Tom built a 12-acre (49,000 square meter) set he called
Mixville. It was a “complete frontier town, with a dusty street, hitching
rails, a saloon, jail, bank, doctor’s office, surveyor’s office, and the simple
frame houses typical of the early Western era.” Nearby, an Indian village
of lodges was ringed by plaster mountains which on screen were said to be
“ferociously convincing.” The set also included a simulated desert,
large corral and a ranch house with no roof, to facilitate interior shots.

In 1929 Tom acted as pallbearer at the funeral of Wyatt Earp.

The dark clouds gather

But the black clouds were gathering. Tom made his last pictures for Fox in
1928. The studio bosses were unimpressed at what Mix cost them and were
grooming Buck Jones, another ex-101 Ranch cowboy – on a salary of $150 a week.
The talkies were coming. Tom always dreaded the speaking roles. He had smashed
his teeth in countless stunts and the false ones of the day clacked and moved
as he spoke. And of course the Wall Street crash hit in 1929. Tom lost about $1m, his mansion and his ranch – in fact he lost his whole embroidered shirt.
 
Back to the sawdust
 
He went back to the Wild West show and signed up for three seasons at the
Sells Floto Circus. He did extraordinarily well, reaching a salary of $20,000 a
week at his peak. He actually preferred this life. He didn’t have to ‘act’, just be himself, show off and receive the adulation of the crowds. He launched his own show and toured extensively. But times were hard, they had bad luck and the show started to lose money. In 1938 he
made another European tour, again very successful, and recouped his losses. He was very much following
in the hoofprints of Buffalo Bill.

Comebacks

Mix made several returns to the silver screen. He did nine pictures for
Universal, two of which, a 1932 talkie Destry Rides Again very loosely based on the Max Brand novel Twelve Peers (in which Tom wears a
pair of sixguns, so no pacifist James Stewart he) and My Pal the King with young Mickey Rooney the same year, were
actually great fun.

 
Tom with his pal the king
 
They showed that there was still a market for his brand of
Western and although he now resorted occasionally to stuntmen, including Yakima Canutt (Tom was in his
fifties after all) he was still athletically riding and jumping all over the
place.


My late beloved father, born 1917, was a huge fan of these movies and
would often declare that Tom Mix was the best cowboy of them all. Astute man.
There is probably something genetic therefore in his son being a Western
blogger. It’s doubtless a DNA thing.
 
Tom with Will Rogers
 
Tom’s last screen appearance was a 15-episode sound serial for Mascot, The Miracle Rider, available on DVD. He
received $40,000 for four weeks of filming. In fact, because of a fire at Fox
in which many Mix movies were lost, sadly few of Tom’s films survive and
many people judge him on this rather low-budget talkie serial. It’s a pity, and
it isn’t fair to form an opinion of Tom Mix on that basis alone. So do watch
the other films that survive! Tom was essentially a silent star and he is best judged
by looking at some of his early 20s work – particularly Sky High, Riders of the Purple Sage and The Great K & A Train Robbery.

Legacy

Even after his death his fame continued. Tom’s cowboy boot and palm
prints, and the hoof prints of Tony, can be seen at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on
Hollywood Boulevard. The Tom Mix Radio Show continued until 1953 with various ‘Tom Mix’ actors. A series of
comic books featured him well into the 1950s. Cereal boxtop premiums from the 1940s relating to Mix are still traded by collectors. In 1958 he was inducted
posthumously into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. The Tom
Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma opened in June 1968 with a highly impressive
collection of Mixiana (though sadly his guns were stolen from there in 2002). Tom’s
wrecked Cord has been restored. Tom Mix festivals are frequently held.
Tom is one of the figures on the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
He pops up in Woody Allen’s movie Zelig.
Bruce Willis played him, very well, opposite James Garner’s Wyatt Earp in the
1988 Blake Edwards Tristar movie Sunset. Have
a look at
Wikipedia’s
entry
on Tom for an extraordinary list of references and mentions of Tom Mix and
how he has appeared again and again in every form of popular culture.
 
Museum
 
There are many books about Tom. His third wife Olive wrote a biography, The Fabulous Tom Mix, in 1959. Robert S
Birchard wrote a life in 1993. I have read two: a descendant, Paul E Mix, wrote
The Life and Legend of Tom Mix in
1972, which is solid and sound, and Richard D Jensen published a dismally badly
written account, The Amazing Tom Mix: The
Most Famous Cowboy of the Movies
, in 2005. One of the problems about
e-publishing (including blogs) is that anyone can put out unmoderated and unedited text at will –
that may be a good thing in a police state but it’s painful when you read ‘English’
that wouldn’t have passed muster in 5th Grade. Still, you do get some pictures.
And the illustrations are also excellent in the Paul E Mix book.
 
Worth a read if you can find it
  

Let’s leave the last word to Tom:

“I try
to make the pictures so that when a boy pays, say, 20 cents to see it, he will
get 20 cents worth, not 10. If I drop, you see, it would be like putting my
hand in his pocket and stealing a dime.” (Tom Mix)

Tom and his Cord

Mix memorial with representation of a sad Tony


 

4 Responses

  1. This is a great post – I love Tom Mix and he’s the reason I fell in love with the West.

    Here’s the story: when I was a boy, I HATED westerns. Loathed them. Then, in the early 1990s, I was writing a novel about the 1939 World’s Fair. I wanted as one of the main characters a representative of an earlier, more mythic America. Tom seemed to fit the bill, so I started researching his life and the western genre. I quickly became besotted. I grew to love Tom and the mythic west (as well as the historic west) became a passion that has made me blissfully happy ever since.

    So Tom holds a special place in my heart as the guy who ‘started it all’ for me. Thanks for the post!

  2. Wow. Tom Mix as redeemer, bringing you from the outer darkness of not liking Westerns to the true path of light.
    Did the novel ever get written and published? I'd like to read it.
    Jeff

  3. It was written and accepted by Simon and Schuster. Then…. my editor got canned, along with all of his projects. I was so disheartened, it has just sat in my desk for years.

  4. Damn. I know the feeling and have a vol of short stories and the first two novels of a trilogy gathering dust in my desk.
    Sigh.

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