“The World’s Greatest Western Star”
Although it is not easy to do a career summary of a Western actor only one of whose Western movies now exists (as far as we know), and that one unavailable, I thought I’d say a word or two about Fred Thomson, because he was a huge star in his day and rivaled William S Hart and Tom Mix as one of the great cowboys of the silver screen.
Furthermore, it isn’t every day that a Presbyterian preacher is known for his Stetson and six-guns.
Frederick Clifton Thomson was born in Pasadena, California, in 1890, the third of four sons of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Fred went to the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1910 and in 1913 himself became a minister. He still found time to be noted for his athletic prowess, and he won the All-Around Champion title given out by the Amateur Athletic Union in 1910, 1911, and 1913.
In 1913 too he married his college sweetheart Gail Jepson, though she died of TB three years later.
During World War I Thomson joined up as an army chaplain, and was sent to France in August 1918, though the armistice arrived in November before he could see action. He did break a leg playing football, though, and because his regiment, the 143rd Field Artillery, was known as ‘the Mary Pickford regiment’ – the huge star was a keen supporter – Ms Pickford visited Fred in hospital. With her was her friend, Frances Marion, the most renowned female screenwriter of the 20th century. Fred and Frances were married in 1919, with la Pickford as maid of honor, in New York, according to Wikipedia, but one source (external link here) says it was in the Edouard VII Hotel in Paris on November 19, 1918. Maybe it was both.
While still in the military, Fred served as a technical adviser for the film Johanna Enlists (1918), a Pickford war feature.
Fred was first interested in directing, but he acted in a film Frances both directed and wrote, Just Around the Corner, in 1921 when an actor failed to show up for a shoot, and the movie was a hit. He then had a co-starring role in a Pickford movie, The Love Light, the same year, which was also directed and written by Frances. In 1923, Fred starred in his own action serial for Universal, The Eagle’s Talons, in which he performed his own stunts.
His Western career really began when he signed to Film Booking Offices of America. Largely forgotten today, FBO was huge at the time and famous for being acquired by Joseph P Kennedy. Kennedy put Fred in The Mask of Lopez in 1924. This Western was directed by Albert S Rogell, who specialized in tight little action films and oaters and who became a regular for Fred. They did seven Westerns together in 1924. They were, after The Mask of Lopez: North of Nevada, The Silent Stranger, The Dangerous Coward, The Fighting Sap, Thundering Hoofs and Galloping Gallagher, though this last is not credited on IMDb. These Rogell/Thomson Westerns were produced by a young Harry Joe Brown (later to work so well with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott).
In Thundering Hoofs, Fred performed a dangerous jump from a moving stagecoach to one of the horses pulling the coach. He fell and suffered a compound fracture of his right thigh. Yakima Canutt completed the stunt but production of the movie was delayed for weeks while Thomson recovered from his injury. There’s a brief clip of the stunt here (external link) though it isn’t clear if it’s Fred or Yak doing it.
These pictures made Thomson a big name (he was the No. 2 box office star for 1926 and 1927) and his lifestyle was commensurate. He and his wife built what Frances described as “the largest house on the highest hill in Beverly Hills.” They called it The Enchanted Hill. His April 1925 contract paid him $10,000 a week and also gave him his own independent production unit at FBO. He was promoted as “The World’s Greatest Western Star.”
Asked if he regretted no longer being a preacher, Fred said, “The most effective idealist is one who is nine-tenths entertainer.”
There were thirteen more silent Westerns in the mid-20s, and all were hugely popular.
Fred’s horse Silver King, a white palomino of seventeen hands, became as famous as Fred himself. Rogell later said, “He did all of the work…everything in the early pictures—the mouth work, the jumps, the chases, the falls, quick stops—and could untie knots, lift bars, etc. He could wink one eye, nod his head yes or no, push a person with his head. Thomson trained him to do certain things and expected him to perform them.”
However, in 1927, Kennedy, sensing that Thomson had perhaps reached the peak of his popularity and seeing a financial opportunity, made a four-picture deal with Paramount Pictures, the biggest of the Hollywood studios of the time. Kennedy advanced $75,000. Thomson would star in the Paramount productions and in return, Paramount would return the 75 grand and pay an additional $100,000. Furthermore, Paramount would pay Fred $15,000 a week, thus wiping Thomson’s salary from FBO’s books.
It was a sweet deal for Kennedy and a good one for Fred too, because Paramount was more prestigious and it had a bigger and better distribution network. Lloyd Ingraham, successful actor for DW Griffith who also directed, had helmed the later FBO Westerns with Fred and he went to Paramount too. Their first picture together for Jesse Lasky was a major production, Jesse James.
I talked about this picture in my article on Jesse James and the silent movies, so click the link to read more on that. Here, just to say that of course Fred’s Jesse (written by Frances again) was a spotless hero. In an interview with Photoplay, Fred compared James to Robin Hood (not the first or last time that parallel would be drawn) and said, “He was a strong, fearless man without the trace of a mean trait.” He stressed how many people “still cherish the memory of him for the many kind deeds that he performed.”
Nevertheless, the picture was pretty controversial. There was a strong puritan current of opinion that felt that outlaws should not be glorified on the screen. It did well at the box-office, however, grossing $1.2m – very good money for the late 20s, especially as it was competing with the talkie The Jazz Singer. And some reviews praised it – more or less. The New York Times called it “entertaining, chiefly because it gives to the bandit-hero a lightning-like mental equipment and an unrivaled acrobatic ability.” Thomson was still doing his own athletic stunts. But the review did also say “it is as a whole disappointing as a character study of the famous outlaw.”
But there was very negative press too. Variety sententiously judged that “It’s strictly a film for the roughnecks and the gallery … an uncalled for, useless and dangerous story of Jesse James.” Ouch. And a theater owner in Chicago let people in free, saying, “After seeing the picture it was impossible for me to take their money.”
Although the film is now lost, we know quite a lot about it from reviews and studio documents. Johnny Boggs, in his book Jesse James and the Movies, gives quite a detailed account of it.
It wasn’t all good career news for Fred. Although Paramount’s exhibition circuit was more prestigious than FBO’s, its theaters, many located in larger cities, charged a premium for a ticket. In addition, Paramount boosted the price of a Thomson picture to cover the Kennedy deal and Thomson’s hefty salary. This new arrangement meant that Fred’s fans in rural theaters – and they were the core of his audience – often had to wait months for a chance to see a new Thomson picture, if it was even released in their theaters at all, or were forced go to a larger city where the movie was playing on the Paramount circuit. Furthermore, Wikipedia says (forgive the dodgy syntax but it’s theirs, not mine), “Some critics found that a Thomson Western, which essentially were B-pictures, were not suited for the high-end, more expensive theaters they were being shown in. As a result, the Thomson-Paramount Westerns proved not to be as profitable.”
Three more Westerns followed Jesse James, all written by Frances and co-directed by Ingraham with Alfred L Werker. They were Pioneer Scout, The Sunset Legion and Kit Carson – which would be Fred’s last film.
Kit Carson, released in June 1928, was not a biopic (Jesse James hadn’t been, either!): the Variety review said, “It is not the whole story of Kit Carson but an incident in the hectic life of the famous Indian scout. In truth, it’s just a screen story … fitted out for the Carson character or, rather, the Carson name.” Variety didn’t care for the picture much, calling it “Just an ordinary western, in spite of possible drawing ability through the title and the star.” The reviewer added that it “Runs overlong [and] offers more than a sufficient number of opportunities for pruning.”
Jesse James, Kit Carson, those earlier ones, nearly all Fred’s films are now lost. It’s tragic. Only three of Thomson’s movies have survived to the present day, and only one of them is a Western: Just Around the Corner is in the collection of the Library of Congress; The Love Light, starring Mary Pickford, has been released on VHS and DVD; and Thundering Hoofs has been released on VHS – though is not currently available that I know of and it’s not up on YouTube. I’d love to see it.
There’s a reason for this loss, beyond the natural wastage to which silent movies are prone: Harry Joe Brown, who produced those earlier Thomson Westerns at FBO, also seems to have acquired the negatives of others. After Fred’s untimely death, theater owners withdrew his films from circulation, “considering it poor taste to profit from a deceased star”. In 1951 Brown was approached by a major network keen to buy Thomson Westerns for TV. “When Brown admitted that he had burned the negatives,” Johnny Boggs tells us, “the network official nearly swooned.” What a tragedy.
For in early December 1928, Fred Thomson stepped on a nail while working in his stables. Contracting tetanus, which his doctors initially misdiagnosed, he died in Los Angeles on Christmas Day, 1928. Pallbearers at his funeral included Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
Frances lived on, winning Oscars in the 1930s and later marrying director George W Hill, and did not die till 1973. She once said, “I spent my life searching for a man to look up to, without lying down.”
The Lost Hollywood website tells us that:
Within a few weeks, the grief-stricken Frances put the Enchanted Hill up for sale, unable to stand the memories or continue the upkeep herself for what the Los Angeles Times luridly described as the “Memory-Haunted hill.” … A few months later the Enchanted Hill changed hands for a reported $540,000 in cash, an enormous amount for a home in 1929, but it was no doubt worth it. The buyer was an oil man, Lejene S Barnes, president of the Elbe Oil Land Development Company. By 1945, the property had passed to Paul Kollsman, inventor of the Altimeter, who lovingly maintained the Enchanted Hill for the next four decades. After his death in 1982, Kollsman’s widow remained on the estate until 1997 when she sold it to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Allen paid $20,000,000 for the legendary estate and then quickly ordered the entire Enchanted Hill and its outbuildings, Silver King’s mahogany-floored stable; the guest house; Cowboy’s House; the two riding rings; tennis court; acres of mature and lush gardens; and the 100-foot swimming pool to be bulldozed into oblivion. More than a decade later, it sits as a vacant, weed-covered lot.
After Fred’s death, Silver King appeared in a series of three-reel Westerns from Imperial Studios, starring Wally Wales.
There isn’t all that much on Fred if you want to dig deeper. He has a walk-on part in various books about Mary Pickford and Joseph Kennedy, and Frances wrote an autobiography, Off With Their Heads. There’s a biography, More Than a Cowboy: the Life and Times of Fred Thomson and Silver King by Edgar M Wyatt, Wyatt Classics, 1988, but it’s rare and currently unavailable. There’s quite a good bit at the website Readers of the Purple Sage (external link).