Sunday, January 6, 2019

Born Today January 6: Tom Mix


Tom Mix is such a western fixture that he is one of the stars of silent film (primarily) that is known to people who have no clue that he was an actor in such early films.  In other words, he's basically a legend.  Born Thomas Hezikiah Mix (which he later changed to Thomas Edwin Mix) on this day in Mix Run, Pennsylvania [I've never looked this up, but I have always wondered whether his family surname was adopted from the area that he was born in--and if so, what was it before?]. His years active in the film industry ran from 1909 thru 1935--very, very early stuff for fans of westerns to bandy about his name decades later right next to the likes of Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan and The Duke himself: John Wayne. No doubt, part of the reason for this was a series of comics that he appeared in as a character that were published for around 10 to 12 years or so after his untimely death in 1940.  And, these comics were published internationally, so it wasn't just kids born in the United States and Canada who were introduced to Mix without viewing a single one of his films--it was kids in places like Scandinavia and Germany who also came to know the western icon through the power of print.  But to move onto his actual film appearances, part of his success undeniably had to come from his ease in early action scenes in westerns which came naturally to him, as he was the son of a stable master who taught him everything horses at a very young age.  Mix was first involved in the military before making it into performance during what we now term the Spanish-American War, but was never deployed (and, in fact, was almost court-martialed for being AWOL due to an elopement). After this, he was involved all manner to professions out west--including any that had anything to do with horses. He in fact was a rider in Teddy Roosevelt's inauguration parade in 1905, albeit not in any kind of official capacity. By 1911, he was working at a very large ranch in Oklahoma and married to an Oklahoma native (literally--his wife Olive's ancestors appeared on the Dawes Rolls for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma).  The ranch had it's own version of a wild west show--by then more of a side show of western types of vaudevillian performance--and Mix was, well, mixed up in this production (sorry, couldn't help myself!).  But his first film appearance actually dates from two years prior, when he part of the cast of Selig's The Cowboy Millionaire--filmed in the Chicago area and released in October of 1909.  In fact, Mix had appeared in multiple films in 1909 & 1910 (most of them in the later year)--the vast majority of the them were directed by Otis Turner and all of them produced by Selig.  It was actually Selig that made him into a star of the western screen and he signed a very lucrative contract with the company.  By the time Selig ran into financial trouble in 1917, Mix and his "ten gallon" stetson were stars and Mix was a household name from the matinees. Also a star was the contracted actress Victoria Forde, whom Mix had met on various western shooting locales.  She would not only become his fourth wife, but also his contractual partner at Fox Films after they both left the troubled Selig behind in 1917.  For them not much in the way of shooting environs changed though, as Fox leased the studio that Selig had built up in Edendale for the express purposes of turning out westerns.  Fox went from turning them out to something more like "churning" them out for the matinee audiences that consisted of kids and poorer adults.  Hearts and Saddles appears to be the first film that he and Forde made for Fox in 1917, just a few months prior to their marriage.  Mix had a hand in directing at least a small portion of the film, which was shot in Arizona (the film was a two-reeler, and it almost lost, with only a little more than 5 minutes remaining).  Mix next moved onto A Roman Cowboy (1917), which he not only directed, but also penned; naturally it featured Forde as "The Girl."  Mix started 1918 out with the feature Cupid's Roundup which sported a poster with him and his now famous hat, just above his easy to remember name in big bold letters. Suffice to say that he was a big, big money maker for the studio.  His salary at Fox  topped out at $7500--a comfort that he soon grew used to and led to later contractual disputes at other studios. He did contribute at Fox more than your usual type-cast actor to the making of the films in which he appeared though. The most well known of these was the part of of the Edendale lot that he designed for western shoots that included everything from fake, but realistic looking mountains to a full sized ranching house with no roof for easy interior filming.  The whole thing was dubbed "Mixville."  Though he did appear in the few roles that were not "cowboy" in nature, nearly all of his roles required some sort of horse riding (at this point it should be mentioned that his horse Tony was very nearly as popular with the public as his was).  The highwayman "adventure" Dick Turpin (1925) is a prime example of such a rare non-western role.  One of his best known films to the wider public in the more modern era came in the starring role in Fox's 1925 remake of Riders Of The Purple Sage (which was remade 3 more times in the sound era). By 1928 he was signed for what would be a short period of time with FBO Pictures, where he had financial disputes. The last film that he made at Fox was Painted Post (1928).  He was with FBO through 1929; his last film with them was the late fully silent ranching adventure The Big Diamond Robbery, which was released in May of 1929.  He never appeared in a feature film that sported any sort of sound in the 1920's. It's no coincidence that he doesn't appear again in a film until 1932; it wasn't just the coming of talkies that took a toll on his career, but also the depression and yet another broken marriage.  Mix seemed to have always had a fascination with the circus--something that apparently came up frequently in the late 1920's money negotiations he tangled with. From 1929 through 1931 he appeared Sells-Floto circus, reportedly for a jaw dropping 20 grand a week!  And, this would not be his last brush with "running away to the circus;" in 1935 he appeared in another more local circus, which he would go on to actually "run away with" when he bought it.  The first sound film in which he appears comes in the very non-western The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood for Universal, and it was hardly a starring role for sure.  Universal did, however, want him for talking westerns; and in 1932 Carl Laemmle annoucned triumphantly Mix's return to the silver screen in Destry Rides Again.  The film did well and Universal gave him a contract deal that included perks like script approval. In all, Mix appeared 9 westerns for the studio, but suffered several injuries along the way making him reluctant to renew any contract (I am also not sure how well he really like working in talking motion pictures to begin with). He appeared in just two more productions after leaving Universal in 1933; one of the them is the highly acclaimed 15 part serial The Miracle Rider (1935).  His last film appearance came in 1940 a sort of "who's who" rodeo event that used to be an annual occurrence in Palm Springs; Rodeo Dough is only 10 minutes in length, but packs in several famous cowboys of the silver screen and couple of famous horses, including Tony, to boot (yeah...pun intended). In writing about Mix the cowboy legend of the silver screen--it leaves little room to take on his roles as both a writer and director. In both he was surprisingly prolific. He was a director of more than 100 films, most of them early shorts at Selig and Fox; and a writer of some 85 produced scripts. Almost all of these were, of course, westerns. One of the other reasons for Mix's popularity well beyond his films came by way of radio. It's not he was a radio actor himself; rather a show bearing his name that ran from the 1930's through the early 1950's. Mix died suddenly and tragically in a horrible road  accident driving from Tucson, Arizona that broke his neck on the 12th of October; he was 60 years old.  He was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale four days later. 

Photo: Find A Grave

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