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Larger than Life: Tom Mix

The Selig - Polyscope Company employs Tom Mix to handle the horses for its documentary Ranch Life in the Great Southwest, (1909).  Mix also appears in the film.  Over the next eight years, he makes, for Selig, nearly a hundred one and two reel films.  In 1917, his career blooms when he moves to Fox Studios.  The films he makes in the next ten years changes the course of Western film history.

Mix, like Anderson and Hart, bases his character and costume on the cowboy.  His huge success makes certain that the cowboy is the recognizable Western hero.  There are Westerns films about mountain men and scouts, soldiers, miners and outlaws; this includes films about the Great Northwest, based on the Jack London, James Oliver Curwood or Rex Beach novels.

If Tom Mix follows Hart as the cowboy hero, Mix's idea of his role cannot be dramatically diverse.  Hart aims for moral principals and realism, Mix seeks to entertain.  Tom Mix films are a mixture of stunts, comedy, fistfights, chases and above all "larger than life."  During the 1920s, Tom Mix's costumes become increasingly detailed and elaborate.  Hart's authentic Western evolves into Mix's Western fancy.

Often the action is Tom on his horse Tony chasing cars and yes, even airplanes.  Tom Mix's West is a fantasyland with one film Tom Mix in Arabia (1922).  Tom Mix's movies leave the Hart's stern Victorian goodness Westerns far behind.  In Tom Mix, the Roaring 20s finds its perfect Western star.

Mix's films are unquestionably pleasant.  The stunt work is outstanding with Mix doing his own stunt work.  Fights on top of trains are his specialty.  The studio films the movies on location, often at stunning places like the Grand Canyon.  He plays characters with attractive qualities but simple: heroic, polite, and ingenious.  His characters hardly ever kill anyone. 

In The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926), Tom finds the outlaws' hiding place.  Without losing his hat, Tom swims underwater into the outlaws' cave.  He spots a frog and puts his hat over the frog.  It swims away and catches the outlaws' attention.  Tom jumps into the middle of the twelve outlaws and a huge fistfight develops.  Miraculously, he captures the outlaw gang, single-handed.

To match the characters he plays on the silver screen, Tom Mix's biography has been pure fiction.  He claims to have charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, fights in China and the Philippines, joins the Boers to fight the British and campaigns against Diaz in Mexico.  Nothing is true.  In the army, he never sees action and eventually deserts.  His acting career begins with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show, the same outfit that Thomas Ince is later to take over.  Mix's experience with the Miller Brothers show turns him into an excellent rider.  This results in his films heavily relying on his horsemanship.  Hart's movies never had this stunt work.  During their heydays as action stars, Tom Mix is 16 years younger than William S. Hart is.

At the end of his career, his last film, The Miracle Rider, (1935), Mix returns to the Wild West shows with the Sam B. Dill Circus.  Many of the early Western stars have their roots in the circus and Wild West shows.  It is here they gain bull riding, roping, and shooting skills.  Art Acord, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Jack Hoxie, Tim McCoy and William Boyd appear in the arena.

Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and others move back and forth between films and Wild West shows.  In 1920, Maynard appears with the Pawnee Bill's show.  Pawnee Bill has been a partner of Buffalo Bill.  From the films of the 1920s, we see the strong link between the Western film and its Wild West show origins.  For the Western, the Wild West shows commercialization of the cowboy proves more important to the Western than William S. Hart's legitimate theatre background.

More History

History of Western Films & TV
Western Stars
TV Westerns

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