By Fred Muenz
Of all the different genres of films, only westerns can trace their origin back to the very beginning. The first American film to tell a story, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903), was a western. Despite a loss of popularity in recent decades, the industry continues to produce western movies. Here are three of the early pioneers of movie westerns:
Maxwell Henry Aronson, aka Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, was born in March, 1880, the sixth child of a devout Jewish family living in Little Rock, Arkansas. When Maxwell was three years old, his father, a travelling salesman, moved the family to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to take a job with his brother-in-law, as a cotton broker. Five years later, the family was on the move again, this time to St. Louis. While in high school, Maxwell became interested in performing and, upon his graduation, left for New York and a career in vaudeville. To supplement his income, he worked as a photographer’s model and newspaper vendor. In 1903, he met movie pioneer Edwin S. Porter, who hired him as an actor and script writer. Now using the name, G.M. Anderson, he played three roles in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903), although the film only ran 12 minutes. The following year, he directed, and acted in, RAFFLES, THE AMATEUR CRACKSMAN (1904). In 1907, believing that the public would pay to see good western movies, he moved to Chicago and formed a partnership with George K. Spoor. Using their initials, S and A, they created Essanay Studios. While turning out quality, two-reel westerns, the studio was a major player in the early days of movies, with the likes of Francis X. Bushman, Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin under contract. Writing, acting and directing, Anderson appeared in over 300 films for Essanay. Many camera techniques, still in use, were created by Anderson. In 1916, after a disagreement with his partner, he sold his interest in Essanay and semi-retired, making occasional appearances and producing films over the next four decades. In 1958, he was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contribution to the development of motion pictures. He died in January, 1971 at age 90. A park in Chicago, near the Essanay back lot is named in his honor. In 2002, his image appeared on a U.S. Postage Stamp.
Although born in Newburgh, New York in December, 1864, William Surrey Hart was raised in the Dakotas, where he lived until he was 16. Leaving school, he made his way to New York, where he worked as a postal clerk while studying acting. He made his stage debut at age 20, with a local touring company, and within a few years had become a successful Shakespearean actor on Broadway. His appearances in the Broadway productions of The Squaw Man, and later, The Virginian, made him a western hero. More Broadway successes followed, over the years, until 1914, when, at the age of 49, he finally went west to Hollywood. His fascination with the Old West quickly led to starring roles in realistic films, using authentic costumes and props. By 1916, he was the biggest money-making movie star in the U.S. In 1921, when comic actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was charged with rape and manslaughter in the death of actress Virginia Rappe (see my 3/25/20, Silver Screen Memories article, A Travesty of Justice), most of Arbuckle’s fellow actors refused to comment. Hart, however, who had never met Arbuckle, made numerous statements stating that he believed that Arbuckle was guilty. Arbuckle was finally acquitted, but his career was ruined. In retaliation, he wrote an outline for a movie parodying a character like Hart, as a thief, bully and wife-beater. Arbuckle’s friend, Buster Keaton, co-wrote, directed and starred in the film version of the story, THE FROZEN NORTH (1922). By this time, Hart’s brand of rugged westerns, with their drab costumes and moralistic themes, were falling out of favor with audiences. The public now wanted more action and cowboys with flashy costumes, epitomized by newcomers like Tom Mix. His career in decline, William S. Hart finally retired and, other than occasional public appearances, lived quietly until his death in June, 1946, at age 81.
Charles Frederick Gebhart, aka Buck Jones, was born in December, 1891, in Vincennes, Indiana. In December, 1907, after his 16th birthday, his mother signed a consent form stating that he was 18, and he joined the army. Stationed with a Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines, he was wounded in the Moro Rebellion. After his return to the U.S., in December, 1909,he was given an honorable discharge. By October, 1910, he had re-enlisted in the army. He wanted to learn to fly and requested a transfer to the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Signal Corps. but was rejected as only officers could become pilots. In 1913, he received his second honorable discharge from the army. Following his military service, he worked as a cowboy on an Oklahoma ranch and rode in equestrian shows. Married, with a pregnant wife, he left the cowboy life behind and came to Hollywood, and a $5 per day job as a stuntman and bit player for Universal Pictures. Later, working at the Fox Film Corporation, he was promoted to backup for Tom Mix, at a salary of $150 per week. His first starring role came in 1920, and by 1928, already had 160 film credits to his name and ranked with Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard as one of the top cowboy stars of the day. With the coming of talkies, however, the crude sound equipment made filming outdoor westerns difficult and their popularity faded. By the late 1930’s, singing cowboys had replaced the early stars, and Buck Jones, was relegated to small, non-western roles in “B” films, radio appearances and product endorsements. In 1942, he was one of 492 victims of a fire at the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. 50-year-old Buck Jones died two days after the fire. News reports at the time claimed that he had successfully escaped the fire, but had gone back into the building in an attempt to save others, and was trapped.
NEXT WEEK, ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY.