Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Tom Mix: Budding Western Star.


image Tom Mix on an open-air set in Newhall, 1916. Click image to enlarge.


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Robert S. Birchard.

Tom Mix and his Selig-Polyscope crew came to Newhall in the latter half of 1916 and set up an open-air filming stage on the triangular parcel that is now the Veterans Historical Plaza. According to Gladys Laney, who was a young girl at the time and lived directly across the street, Mix purchased his future costar, Tony the Wonder Horse, off a truck in front of her house. When Mix signed with Fox in 1917 his primary base of operations switched to Edendale (Glendale), but he continued to film occasionally in the Newhall area.

Writer Robert S. "Bob" Birchard is the author of "King Cowboy: Tom Mix and the Movies" (1993), the go-to history and anthology of Tom Mix films. Unlike many writers for pulp Western magazines in the 1950s-60s-70s who often treated legends as fact, Birchard (1950-2016) was a renowned film historian.


During his years, 1910-1917, at Selig-Polyscope, Tom Mix achieved an authentic taste of cowboy Americana he was never able to capture again.

* * *

Tom Mix's early years read very much like a Mark Twain odyssey, heavily salted with strains of Horatio Alger Jr. Born January 6, 1880 at Mix Run, Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, Tom was the son of Ed and Elizabeth Mix. His father had been a member of the famed 7th Cavalry, but throughout Tom's youth he was employed as stablemaster for Pennsylvania industrialist J.E. Du Bois. Tom, of course, learned to ride almost before he could walk.

At age eighteen, Tom left home. He would later say, with tongue in cheek no doubt, that he left because he couldn't stand the smell of the animals in his father's stable; but in reality, he had been indentured to Du Bois' foundry, and the prospects of factory life did not appeal to him.

Tom Mix's military record has long been a matter of dispute, but it would seem that he did serve in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and that he saw action in the Philippine Insurrection and was a member of the American Expeditionary Force sent to China in the Boxer Rebellion. Wounded at the battle of Tien Tsin, he was shipped home and mustered out of the service.

After his hitch in the Army, Tom drifted to the Southwest, where he found work as a bartender, a cowboy, a lawman in a series of non-permanent construction camps, and finally as a Wild West show performer, becoming the foreman of the famed Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Show in 1906.

Leaving the 101 Show in late 1908, Mix married Olive Stokes, of Dewey, Oklahoma, his third marriage. For the first months of their marriage, the couple lived on the Stokes family ranch, eventually moving to Colorado, where Tom had a job as sheriff in a construction camp. It was here that Tom received his first movie offer.

The offer came from Wild West show promoter W.A. Dickie, who was then employed by the Selig-Polyscope company to provide stock and cowboys for Western pictures. Dickie knew Olive Mix, and he had seen Tom perform. He wrote, asking if Tom would be interested in appearing in "moving pictures." The reply was affirmative, and Dickie wrote again, asking the couple to meet the Selig company in Flemington, Missouri.

Colonel William N. Selig's Chicago-based Selig-Polyscope Company was one of the most successful of the early motion picture concerns. Established before the turn of the century, Selig had ridden out the first series of bitter patents fights, and in 1907, under the aegis of George Klein, had joined with the other major producers of the day to form the Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as General Film, but more commonly called "the film trust."

With this newly found security, Selig greatly expanded his operation. He was the first producer to establish permanent studio in Florida, and the Diamond S Ranch at Prescott, Arizona, for the production of Westerns. (The ranch name derived from the Selig trademark which consisted of an "S" enclosed in a diamond.) In addition to these permanent facilities, Selig also sent out travelling units to shoot pictures on location.

The company that Mix and his wife met at Flemington was one of these travelling units, and the month spent there resulted in a picture called "The Range Riders." Mix, it is said, was not particularly impressed with his image on the screen, but he was approached by his old friend, Colonel Zack Mulhall, with an offer to appear in Mulhall's Wild West Show. Tom accepted the offer, and in September and October of 1910 he played the Appalachian Exposition with the show at Knoxville, Tennessee.

Back in Chicago, Colonel Selig saw "The Range Riders" and was greatly impressed with Tom Mix. Selig and his studio head, Tom Nash, looked him up on their winter trip to Florida, and asked Tom to rejoin the Selig organization. Mix agreed, and over the winter of 1910-1911 he appeared, largely in supporting roles, in a series of jungle pictures with Kathlyn Williams, of which "Lost in the Jungle" and "Back to the Primitive" are typical.

The spring of 1911 found Mix back in Oklahoma, where he briefly took the job of night marshal for the town of Dewey. Summer brought out Selig's traveling companies, and this time they came to Mix, in Oklahoma. In July, perhaps the most famous of all the Mix-Selig westerns was made, "Ranch Life in the Great Southwest." Mix was riot, as some historians have stated, merely an extra in this film. Essentially a documentary, the picture showed a series of ranch practices and stunts. Olive Mix was shown roping a calf, and Tom bulldogged a steer for the camera. Posters for the production showed Tom bringing down the steer, and he received billing as "U.S. Marshal —Tom Mix."

Tom took a break from picture work in 1911-1912, joining the Young Buffalo Ranch Wild West Show on a tour through the northeast and Canada. His wife accompanied him on the tour, but she later returned to Oklahoma to give birth to their daughter, Ruth, who was born on July 13, 1912. Tom again went with Selig, this time going to the Diamond S Ranch and becoming a member of William Duncan's unit. Duncan wrote, directed, and starred in a series of one-reel Westerns for Selig, and was later to become a top serial star and director. The year and a half that Mix spent with Duncan served as a training ground for his future starring work.

By mid-1914, Selig considered Mix to be ready for a series of his own, and to launch this series he put Tom in two special productions, "Chip of the Flying U," a three-reeler, and the five-reel feature, "In the Days of the Thundering Herd." Colin Campbell, who directed Selig's famous version of Rex Beach's "The Spoilers," directed these two efforts, and both were exceptionally good Westerns.

The Mix series itself, however, was somewhat less ambitious. The first, a single-reeler appropriately titled "The Real Thing in Cowboys," was released on September 29, 1914, and set the pattern for all that was to follow in the next two and a half years.

Mix's output was immense. His unit turned out a single-reel picture every week, along with a series of special two- and three-reel productions, which were produced simultaneously with the regular output and released at four-week intervals. The vast majority of Mix's films were Western comedies, not hell-for-leather shoot-em-ups. In them Tom began to develop the screen personality that was to make him a world-wide favorite.

Mix directed most of his pictures himself: Unfortunately, though his talent as an organizer of scenes was not undeveloped, he had little regard for camera placement, maintaining the "front-row-center" point of view of so many early movies. Details of action were largely lost through this unimaginative use of the camera. "Bill Haywood—Producer" (1915) is a good example of this. In this film cowboy Tom takes over the direction of a stranded picture troupe. Tom writes a script and then sets to work trying to put it on film. He explains the scenes to the actors, they take their places, and Tom pulls out his six-gun and fires a shot into the air to start the action. The shot scares the stock, which proceeds to wreak havoc with the set. Played in one long shot, the humor of the scene is lost in the overall chaos.

In fairness to Mix, however, it must be said that his talent as a director did progress. A comparison of "Roping a Bride" (1915) and "Roping a Sweetheart" (1916) serves to demonstrate this. The earlier picture suffers from the same static treatment that characterized "Bill Haywood—Producer." "Sweetheart" is a different story altogether. The camera seeks the most interesting part of the action; close-ups and travelling shots bring life to this little comedy. Mix was truly maturing as a filmmaker and comedian.

* * *

It was during this period that Mix began to build a stock company of hand-picked cowboys. The company included Leo Maloney, Joe Ryan, and Floyd (Wally Wales) Alderson, who later became Western stars themselves. Others in the group were Dick Hunter, Boss and Goober Glenn, George Pankey, Pat Chrisman (who served as Tom's foreman), and Dopey Dick Crawford.

Mix found Crawford in Arizona. He was an exceptional Western artist, but he was also a dope addict. Mix got Crawford "likkered up" and kept him drunk for three weeks to get him over the withdrawals. After the "cure," Tom gave Crawford a job, and he was never known to take dope again.

The one remaining member of the original Mix company is Sid Jordan, who was with Mix from 1913 on.

"We worked from a script," Sid recalls, "because Tom had to remember what he had to do. Sometimes he would add some more stunts to make the picture more daring. We had to do the stunts the hard way then, but I don't remember anybody being really hurt at Selig, just the usual bumps and scrapes from a day's work."

Working methods were informal to say the least. In one film a cowboy would be an extra, and in the next he might actually co-star with Mix. Hats, clothes, and horses were exchanged among the company to provide a greater variety in the pictures. In fact, Tom Mix's own Tony, the wonder horse, was ridden by the heavy in several Selig films.

Throughout this year Selig's total output remained constant, with the release of some two hundred pictures. But by 1916 the fortunes of Selig were foundering, and the studio combined its output with that of several other producers in the former trust, first under the K-E-S-E (Kalem-Edison-Selig-Essanay) banner, and then with the V-L-S-E (Vitagraph-Lubin-Selig-Essanay) combine. The Selig-Tribune Newsreel became the studio's only regular release. Mix's pictures alternated with Selig's other productions at the rate of one or two a month.

Mix moved his company to Las Vegas, New Mexico, concentrating on the production of two-reel pictures, but the continuing decline of the Selig company forced his return to Edendale. By the end of 1916, the Tom Mix Westerns were virtually the only entertainment releases of the company.

Tom knew the end was near. He also knew that his popularity would permit him to find another producer with very little trouble. But Tom had a great loyalty toward the Colonel, who had given him his big break. He also insisted that any deal with a new producer would have to include the Mix stock company. The end came when Selig sent an efficiency expert to the Mix lot to investigate ways of further trimming production costs. Tom told the story that the only way the "expert" could find to trim costs was to not feed oats to the horses that did not work in the day's shooting, but no doubt the efficiency expert suggested trimming several of the cowboys from the payroll.

Mix would not stand for this and, with Victoria Forde, guaranteed the wages of the entire company while he sought a new producer. He signed with William Fox in early 1917, with assurances on his company and his stock.

Mix's greatest success lay ahead, but it was at Selig that he developed his talents and screen personality. Mix was never to lose control over the production of his pictures altogether, but neither was he to have the same freedom that he had at Selig. Mix would go on to pioneer the so-called "streamlined" Western, and create a new type of Western picture — but the Selig comedies were themselves unique. Rough as they are, the Selig pictures are infused with an honesty and charm — they are a picture of ranch life by a cowboy, and in their way, perhaps, as valuable as all the thousands of Westerns that have been produced in the fifty-plus years since they were first shown in nickelodeons across the nation.


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