"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The great Tom Mix



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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. 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.
 
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 version of the Max Brand novel Destry Rides Again (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 mémorial with representation of a sad Tony

4 comments:

  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!

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  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

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  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.

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  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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