The American movie Western: Part IV: Streamlined Westerns

By Bill Monson

In the 1920s, silent movies competed with vaudeville as America’s prime form of entertainment. Hollywood became the center of movie production; and larger studios began to appear. These studios opened their own theater chains and distribution arms which required a constant flow of films. As westerns were a reliable and profitable product, most studios made them and tried to develop new stars.

Audiences were becoming more picky, however. A cowboy star could not depend on just looks or horsemanship. He needed a gimmick or unique character, some sort of different style to differentiate him from the flock of new faces vying for success.

Flamboyance was the answer for Thomas Edwin Mix, born in Pennsylvania but taught to handle horses at an early age by his teamster father. Mix wanted to be another Buffalo Bill Cody but settled for becoming a rider with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show.

When a crew from the Selig Polyscope Company came to the Millers’ Oklahoma ranch to shoot a documentary, Mix hired on to handle livestock and do occasional bits in their short films. Tom so impressed them that eventually he went to California where he made almost a hundred one- and two-reelers for Selig. In most of these, he played a hard-riding, two-fisted cowboy similar to other Hollywood hopefuls like Art Acord and Fred Thomson. Mix was responsible for the stories and direction as well as starring and began to develop a flair for comedy and wild stunts. But the quickie quality of the Selig films did not allow much latitude.

In 1917, however, Mix was signed to do features by Fox Studios. He no longer had to do his own stories or direction but got his own first-rate production unit which concentrated on making him into a star. Fox’s bigger budgets also allowed him to grow.

The studio and Mix created a bigger-than- life character who never drank, swore or even used violence without due cause. He rarely shot a villain, preferring to lasso him or slug it out atop a careening boxcar. Action dominated, but comedy became a principle ingredient; and Mix also introduced automobiles, modern trains and stories set in the 1920s. Many of the films were shot at National Park sites with spectacular scenery which was used in the plots.

Mix avoided the reformed outlaw type of character favored by William S. Hart or the just plain cowpoke of Hoot Gibson. He played essentially an outsized hero from the first reel to the end and wore elaborate clothes and a big white hat. Like other early stars, he featured his horse Tony. Comedy, escapes, tricks, stunts and showmanship remained his formula; and by 1925, Fox was paying him over $17,000 a week for five- and six-reel features (about 55—65 minutes). Despite stiff competition from Gibson, Mix replaced Hart as filmdom’s number one cowboy.

When Tom’s contract with Fox ended, he moved to an indie studio called FBO to continue his success – but sound arrived, FBO was reorganized into RKO Pictures, and the new company did not like Mix’s handling of dialogue. Universal was willing to use him, however, and he made a series of successful sound features for the studio.

Part of Mix’s heart always remained with the Wild West show, and he joined the Sells- Floto Circus to headline their western unit. Later, he lent his name to the Tom Mix Wild Animal Circus and to a children’s radio serial (where he was impersonated by an actor because of his dialogue difficulties.)

On October 12, 1940, while driving one of his many fancy cars, he took a curve too fast near Florence, Ariz. and died of a broken neck when the car rolled over. (The radio program outlived him by a decade.) But the thrills and flamboyance of his "streamlined westerns" completely changed the American western movie.