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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
TOM MIX

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1920's Tom Mix 5x7 Fan Photo1923 Tom Mix MPDA PhotoAn entire book could be written about the many different facets of the life of legendary Tom Mix (or Thomas E. Mix, as he allegedly used to sign his name). Tom Mix was already almost 30 when he began screen acting, but he was an extremely prolific actor. He was the king of cowboys for most of the 1920s, thanks the new, whimsical style of Western films he helped create. Tom was a writer, a director, a producer, and an entrepreneur. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. Tom was also a ladies man, having married five times in a 30 year period. There is so much we’ll never know about the way this man ticked, but one thing is certain: he was one of Hollywood’s real movers and shakers during the silent period.

Tom Mix was born with the distinguished name of Thomas Hezikiah Mix on January 6, 1880 in a town that was probably not named for the family: Mix Run, Pennsylvania. His father, Edwin (from whom Tom got the “E” of his adopted middle name) worked as a lumberman, and Tom was raised to work hard; he actually became an Artillery sergeant in 1898, a position he filled for three years while never being called into the line of action. He moved closer to his natural interests when, around 1903, he assumed the role of drum major with the Oklahoma Cavalry Band, with whom he performed at the Lt. Louis World’s Fair that year. A year later, he has switched ‘careers’ again, bartending and acting as sheriff-marshal of Dewey, Oklahoma.

It was at this time that he started performing in earnest, taking part in some Wild West shows between 1906 and 1909. These gigs too him from Oklahoma to Amarillo Texas, and eventually to Seattle with his wife Olive, where they performed in the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Another gig was with Will A. Dickey’s Circle D. Ranch, which supplied the relatively new Selig movie studios with the so-called “cowboys and Indians” of those types of movies. By 1910, Selig hired Tom to procure and take care of horses on set. It wasn’t long before Tom parlayed this gig into a career as a movie actor.

For seven years, Tom stayed with Selig, ultimately making 236 movies with them. What we think was his first film was made the year he started working there: 1910’s Ranch Life in the Great Southwest (there is uncertainty over his involvement in some other films made in 1909 and 1910, and it is nearly impossible to verify this, as these one-reelers have not lasted to this day). Between 1910 and 1917, Tom appeared in a staggering 208 films, which means he was making, on average, around two films a week. Just to provide a sampling of the kinds of titles one would expect to find on a roster of short, comical Western films: Pride of the Range (1910), Life on the Border, Dad’s Girls (both 1911), A Reconstructed Rebel (1912), Religion and Gun Practice (1913), Chip of the Flying U (1914), A Matrimonial Boomerang (1915), The Girl of Gold Gulch (1916), and The Heart of Texas Ryan (1917).

Granted it didn’t take nearly as long to make the short one-reel films as it does a feature, but the sheer volume of Tom’s work speaks to an age Tom Mix Ringer's Cigarette Card1929 Tom Mix Movie-Land Keeno Game Cardwhen movies were consumed as TV commercials are today – all the time, and in large quantities. Film-as-art would come later. Nevertheless, Tom was learning the tricks of the trade, often writing and directing as well as acting. Throughout his career, Tom would direct 110 films, write 77, and produce around 50. In other words, he was a major player in the first years of the popularity of the movies. Westerns may not be as popular now as they were then, but they were the action films of today, and Tom turned the genre on its head by adding comedy to the traditional Western dramatic fare, and by injecting his films with more action than had ever been seen before. More remarkably, he usually insisted on doing his own stunts.

In other words, Tom became a household name, a brand, and an icon as (funny) daredevil of the West. Between 1917 and 1928, Tom worked under contract with Fox Studios. The volume of his oeuvre decreased to about five to ten films a year, but these were features he was making now, and he had a trademark: his smart horse, Tony, who would appear in his films with him. As the 20s raged on, Tom was at the height of his popularity; one could scarcely think “cowboy” without thinking about him. Some of his films from these years include: Fame and Fortune (1918), The Feud (1919), The Daredevil (1920), The Road Demon (1921), Do and Dare (1922), North of Hudson Bay (1923), The Deadwood Coach (1924), The Best Bad Man (1925), The Great K&A Train Robbery (1927), and King Cowboy (1928).

In many of these films, his characters would reappear: he played Tex Benton, The Half-Breed, and Chip more than once. More interesting, his characters were very often named Tom: Tom Martin, Tom Forde, Tom Melford, Tom Meyers, Tom Gilmore, Tom Manton, Tom Travis ... you get the point. This no doubt helped create an enormous fan base around the real Tom Mix. He also has his famous horses that appeared with him over and over in his films. Among them, the most famous were Old Blue and Tony (Tony Jr. followed Tony).

By 1928, which we all know marked the beginning of the sound age, Tom realized that his future in the pictures was not bright. He finished off his 1930 Tom Mix BAT Tobacco Card1916 Tom Mix MJ Moriarty Playing Cardsilent film career with the Film Booking Office in the late 1920, and was by then living the luxurious life of a star. Essentially a legend in his own time, Tom’s brand of cowboy appealed to adults and children alike, who lived vicariously through Tom’s wild adventures on screen. Tom offered a light, easy version of the Western as an alternative to a darker, more gritty realistic style (offered, for example, by William S. Hart), which was becoming less popular. Tom was big, grand, and ostentatious, and for this, he earned a whopping $15,500 at Fox per week, at the height of his fame.

Ever an entrepreneur and entertainer, Tom left films with grace, and began touring with the Sells Floto Circus (from 1930-31). But his career in the pictures was not over yet. Universal Studios was also in the business of making Westerns at the time, but this lucrative industry was in jeopardy when their two stars, Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson, didn’t have their contracts renewed. For a little while, Universal strayed from making Westerns, and business suffered. In a bind, Universal convinced Tom to come back to the movies, and to give talkies a try. He made a few films here, including My Pal, the King, Hidden Gold (both 1932), Rustler’s Roundup (1933) and his last film, 1935’s The Miracle Rider.

A year later, Tom quite literally ran away with the circus: his own, the Tom Mix Circus, which he ran from 1936-38. He died two years later in a car accident, on October 12, 1940, in Arizona. But his memory lives on: in comic books (Tom Mix Comics 1-12 came out between 1940 – 1942) and on the radio for at least a decade after his death, and in the long-running annual Tom Mix Festival, which ran in Pennsylvania from 1980-89, in Las Vegas in 1990, and in Oklahoma from 1991-94. The festival – which celebrates the life of Tom Mix, as well as the ranching life he made so famous through his movies – lives on still. (For more information on the festival, visit www.tommixfestival.com).

Did Tom Mix fight in real wars, as rumors hold? Did he ever become a real Ranger, or just an honorary one by the State of Texas (as allegedly happened in 1935)? What was his real middle name? These are just some of the questions that remain unanswered and are likely to remain so. Tom Mix may be an enigma, but he left behind a true vision of the American Wild West, and created an iconographic persona that persists to this day.  
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at tammystone444@yahoo.ca with any questions or comments on her column.