HOMES OF THE WESTERN STARS 

BRONCO BILLY ANDERSON

by

special guest blogger

Bob Siler

THE FIRST WESTERN COWBOY STAR

Max Aronson was born in 1880 in Little Rock (Pulaski County). His parents were Henry, a traveling salesman, and Esther Aronson. The Aronsons had seven children. Most of the children were born in Texas, but Max was born in Arkansas.

PINE BLUFF, ARK.

Aronson moved to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) in the 1890s to work for his brother in law, Louis Roth, who had married Aronson’s sister, Gertrude, and who worked as a cotton broker.

717 WEST SECOND STREET – PINE BLUFF, ARK.

Anderson lived during the last decade of the nineteenth century

 1902 – 1907

NEW YORK CITY

He left Arkansas around the turn of the century for New York, where he became involved with the old Vitagraph Company, a theatrical group.

From 1900 until 1926, Aronson produced, directed, or appeared in more than 600 motion pictures—everything from the one reelers, movies that consisted of approximately 400 feet of film, to full-length motion pictures that consisted of approximately 2,000 feet of film, produced later in his career.

By 1902, Aronson was in New York and, in 1903, was cast in Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery,a classic silent western. In his early films, he played various roles under the name G. M. Anderson, as in the movie Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman for Vitagraph in 1904, the first film Anderson directed.

1907 – 1909

CHICAGO

NOVEMBER 4

Key developments in the Chicago cinema

Recent developments in the Windy City suggest that Chicago is set to rival New York as the leading film making centre in the U.S. In fact, this city is already ahead of New York in one respect: censorship.

The authorities have have passed the first local censorship ordinance in the country “prohibiting the exhibition of obscene and immoral pictures commonly shown in Mutoscopes, Kinetoscopes , Cinematographs and penny arcades”. Earlier this year projectionist Donald Bell and camera repairman Albert Howell founded the Bell & Howell Camera Co. Which hopes to play an important role if the industry continues to grow at the same rapid pace as during recent years. But most important of all has been the formation of the Essenay Company in February by George K. Spoor and actor-producer G.M. Anderson, who is best known for the Westerns he has made for Selig since 1904. Wasting no time Essenay is already filming in its studio at 501 Wells Street.
ESSANAY

Anderson moved to Chicago to produce films. There, he developed the idea that the public would pay to see good western movies, and the era of “cowboy” films, that is, films based on marketing the name of the cowboy, began.

For a short time, he produced films in Colorado, but William Selig, an early movie producer for whom Anderson was working, could not see the advantage of western scenery in their releases. Anderson’s contribution was to develop the western film and the techniques he devised, including the “long shot,” “medium shot,” “close up,” and “reestablishment scene,” have become standard techniques present even in modern westerns.

Back in Chicago, Anderson partnered with George K. Spoor, a theatrical booking agent. The two of them established Essanay Studios in 1907, the name being derived from a phonetic spelling of their initials, S and A. Anderson married Molly Louise Schabbleman in 1908, and the couple had one child, Maxine.

From 1908 to 1915, Anderson made 375 westerns. The most famous of these was the Broncho Billy series. Anderson read a story in the Saturday Evening Post about a character called Broncho Billy. He liked the idea of a series character and developed Broncho Billy into a franchise of films which were extremely popular with the American public.

ESSANAY STUDIOS

Founded in 1907 as the Peerless Film Manufacturing Company but eventually renamed Essanay after the initials (S and A) of its founders, George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson—turned out about 2,000 shorts and features between 1907 and 1917.

Anderson had worked as a janitor at the Thomas Edison Studio when he was chosen to play an outlaw in the first western ever made, The Great Train Robbery. The first characters of Spoor’s and Anderson’s surnames translated into “S” and “A.”, hence the name Essanay.

 

 Filming a “Broncho Billy” film in the Chicago Essanay studio

 1909

DECEMBER 30 – NILES, CALIFORNIA

Cinema’s cowboy hero G.M. Anderson is about to assume a new personna in the name of Broncho Billy, based on the character in a Peter B. Kyne story, Broncho Billy and the Baby, the film will be called Broncho Billy’s redemption. The burly Anderson is already one of the cinema’s bright new stars. Born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Arkansas, in March 1882, he was briefly a travelling salesman before trying his luck as an actor in New York using the stage name Gilbert M. Anderson.

While working as a male model in 1902, he was hired by the Edison studio to play the lead in a one-reeler directed by Edwin S. Porter, The Messenger Boy’s Mistake. A year later Anderson played several parts in Porter’s trail blazing Western, The Great Train Robbery. He was originally cast as the outlaw leader but was disqualified by the fact that he could not ride. On the first day of filming he parted company with his horse – and the role of the outlaw leader.
1913 – 1916 / 1917

ESSANAY STUDIOS

NILES, CALIFORNIA

essanay_film_manufacturing_co

In 1913, the Essanay Studios, a state-of-the-art studio was built in Niles at a cost of $50,000. A complete row of bungalows were constructed for the actors and the crew to live in. Two of the cottages still exist today.

Niles was selected by G.M. Anderson because of its mild climate, almost perpetual sunshine, and the unspoiled scenery of Niles Canyon (currently route 84 between Fremont and Interstate 680). Essanay made some 300 westerns in and around Niles. Charlie Chaplin made at least five silent movies in Niles, including The Tramp.

Charlie Chaplin lived in Niles for three months but accepted a more lucrative pay from Mutual in 1916. With the departure of a big star like Chaplin, Spoors bought G.M.”Broncho Billy” Anderson out, Essanay’s fortunes declined sharply and the studio eventually closed its doors in 1917.

G.M. Anderson fell in love with the perpetual sunshine and rolling hills of Niles and moved his crew here to make his silent westerns in the scenic canyon.

For about four years, Anderson produced, directed and starred as his “Broncho Billy” character which was the mould for all future western characters to come. He was the western trendsetter for the cowboy studded chaps, terrorizing a town with his swaggering gait, an outlaw with a sympathetic heart who always managed to take the bad guys out.
Anderson became a very rich movie star, bought a legitimate theater, began promoting boxers, and was running the Niles baseball team. By 1915 he had hired the biggest movie star of them all — Charlie Chaplin.

Niles Canyon Road.

This is the picturesque Niles Canyon Road today. It was here that more than 300 Broncho Billy westerns were filmed, replete with train robberies and chase scenes along the oak-studded hills of Niles Canyon.
Cloudy commute

This is a scene of one of the silent westerns shot in 1915 with Broncho Billy leading the posse, kicking up dust along Niles Canyon Road.
Broncho Billy westerns at Niles Canyon350 westerns were shot in Niles. Out of which approximately 140 Broncho Billy films were made in addition to 109 Snakeville comedies, starting in 1913 when the Niles Essanay studio opened.

1921
He formed the Amalgamated Producing Company and made movies starring Laurel and Hardy.
Anderson was a very private person and didn’t talk much about his personal affairs, but being a recognizable figure there is some information about the “lost” years. In his retirement he had money, at least for awhile, to live the way he wanted, and whatever he did in the later twenties was probably not very newsworthy, I suspect, just enjoying life. He did sue his old partner George Spoor to collect on the proceeds of Chaplin’s films, but only collected $4000 in 1925. Anderson was also sued several times by various people and in one case, also in 1925, Anderson claimed he was broke and couldn’t pay after he lost in court, another reasonto keep a low profile.

1927

1206 NORTH KINGSLEY DRIVE – LOS ANGELES

Was living here

1930s

Anderson was living in San Francisco and managing an apartment hotel on O’Farrell Street. In 1941 he moved to Los Angeles. In 1950 he and his daughter Maxine tries to get a Broncho Billy series together for television, but nothing came of it. In his later years he was living on Social Security and some money from Maxine, who ran her own successful casting agency.

1957
Broncho Billy was recognized with an honorary Academy Award for his accomplishments.
 RECEIVES HONORARY OSCAR

 He returned to the screen briefly in 1967, 47 years after he made his last silent film, to make his first talking picture—”The Bounty Killer”—with Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen and Dan Duryea.

The confusion about his death location is because of where he’d been staying, the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. In 1970 he was moved to their convelescent home in South Pasadena because of his worsening condition, an invalid near death, and that’s where he died. It’s listed on his death certificate, which I’ve seen. That document didn’t provide his correct birth year, though, it was listed as 1884, thereby further confusing the issue. Nor was his parents listed; those spaces where marked “unknown.” The information was provided by his daughter Maxine. Obviously she didn’t know him that well.

THE BRIERWORN CONVILESCENT HOSPITAL

1625 MERIDIAN AVENUE – SOUTH PASADENA

He’d been living here, where he died in 1971.

CHAPEL OF THE PINES CREMATORIUM – LOS ANGELES

 HIS ASHES ARE HERE IN STORAGE.

Bob Siler grew up in Burbank, not far from Universal Studios and Warner Brothers where they made his favorite monster movies.  A long-time fan of Westerns, he still has a hard time believing that the great John Wayne could die.  Bob has created many lists detailing where the famous and infamous lived, are buried, and the cars they drove.  He has recently completed this list of Western Stars homes after many years.  Burbank Bob now resides in Portland, Oregon.

This 1936 film is surprisingly rich.  The story is credited to John Ford.  I don’t know if this is a remake of a silent film Ford made or if he had been developing this project (with Harry Carey?) and dropped it or was replaced.  Ford had clearly pictured a more expensive film (there are airplane chase scenes, for one thing) and veteran director Christy Cabanne does a good job making it feel that way.

Interesting opening with famous outlaw Dean Peyton being released from prison after 25 years for a 1911 bank hold-up.  Harry plays him as a broken man.

He heads back to Broken Knee, which is now the modern metropolis called Center City.  The film is mainly comic, reminiscent of “The Front Page.”  It co-stars Hoot Gibson, who worked with Carey a number of times.

There are two interesting meta moments in this film.  The first is when Peyton gets to Center City.  Everyone is mean to him and no one remembers his exploits.  However, when he goes to the bookstore and browses the bargain books outside, the second one he picks up is this one:

Another great moment happens when Dean is reunited with his old friends and his daughter.  To celebrate his release from prison, they all go to a movie.

They watch a newsreel featuring ski-jumpers and parachute daredevils. Deans asks, ‘why you suppose so many people are risking their lives these days?”

The film-within-the-film, “The Heart of the Plains,” plays like a real cheapy.  The star, Lenny Dixon, is portrayed on the silver screen withing the silver screen by Fred Scott, who would go on to have a short-lived career as a real singing cowboy.

Dean asks, “what are those?”  His pal answers, “cowboys.”

There is a lot that could be said about this 1933 oater, not the least of which is the oddity of naming the horse after the star, but I am here today to write not about that or John Wayne in one of his first Warner Bros. films.  No, I am here today to write about Paul Fix.

Fix is generally credited with helping Duke to create the John Wayne character.  He was his acting coach for years and years, invented the trademark Wayne walk (fashioned after Duke’s impression of Yakima Canutt’s authentic cowboy amble), and even appeared in later Wayne films so that he could coach him on-set regarding line-readings.

Here he is:

And here is with Duke:

Former movie cowboy Forrest Tucker plays a Roaring Twenties tough guy in this 1968 romp.  It’s a pretty over-the-top performance.

You know what I mean?

Of the hundred-plus films that Tucker appeared in, nearly half of them were Westerns.  I count three Science Fiction films — “The Abominable Snowman” 1957, “The Cosmic Monsters (aka The Strange World of Planet X)” and “The Crawling Eye,” both 1958.

That’s it.  The secret is out.  Forrest belongs to us.

Urgent Business with Mr. Baron

September 12, 2011

 

Jack Holt made dozens of rollicking Westerns.  This is not one of them.

In this 1919 adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story, Holt plays a rich hermit living a strict life of isolation on a lonely island.  On a rare trip to a neighboring island, he befriends and rescues a troubled girl from a nasty suitor.

As a trio of mercenaries follow, Holt explains his philosophy to the girl.

In a “Straw Dogs” sort of twist, he ends up doing both.

“Jesus.  I got them all!”

It’s hard to see a lot of the son, and future cowboy star, Tim Holt in the father.

It’s also difficult to see the relevance of “Victory” to this discussion of Charles Starrett and his contemporary B-Western stars.  I post this with the sincere intention of tracking down and viewing more Jack Holt Westerns.   This film just MIGHT become more important at that point.

Bang!

It’s hard to believe, but director Arnold Laven talked Tim Holt out of retirement to star in this thing.

Commander John Twillinger is a Naval Investigator, a real hard-ass who regularly says stuff like “that’s against regulations, sailor” and “young lady, you are not to discuss that with anyone, do you understand?”  The men call him an eager beaver and he is, always cutting people off mid-sentence and talking over them.

In a word, this former cowboy star and accomplished character actor, son of the great Jack Holt, plays a nerd.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it once more here:  Charles Starrett might be better remembered today if only for two factors, and they are inter-related.  1) if his films had ever shown on TV and 2) if he had continued acting instead of retiring in 1952 at the relatively young age of 49.

Or, like Tim Holt, he had played one really great role in one really great film.  This one:

Not this one:


“The Monster That Challenged The World” features another scion of a cowboy great, Jody McCrea, who plays Johnson, a sailor who gets 2 minutes of screen time and is the 2nd dude eaten by the monster.

Bob Steele appeared on the big screen a couple more times after this TV guest spot in 1970, but, for me, this is his last real role.  It’s called “The Old Cowhand.”

Steele plays a client of Uncle Bill’s, a foreman on a ranch in Pennsylvania.  A long time ago, he was Chaps Callahan, cowboy star, and his films still play on TV.  Freckle-faced Jody is a big fan.  The show features footage from some of Steele’s westerns.  (Anyone know which ones?)  In one scene, Jody and his pals are glued to the TV where Chaps saves a guy from hanging by shooting the rope.  I would guess that the dialogue is not authentic. “That’ll teach you to try and hang an innocent man,” sounds forced, even by B-Western standards.

There is a moment in the show that strikes a note of reality.  When Chaps visits the family for dinner, Jody knows the plots and titles of Chaps’ films better than he does.  Charles Starrett often related the story of how fans would gush about a film like “South of Arizona” or “West of Cheyenne” and he’d have to tell them that the titles were added to his films later, that the only title on a script on set was a number.

As corny as this device is, the plots of the films that Jody recounts sound a lot like real B-Western plots and, later, when Chaps and Jody recruit a reluctant Buffy to help them act out a scene from one of his films, it feels like scene you could easily imagine Bob had played before, maybe more than once.

The episode of “Family Affair” also follows a familiar Western plot.   An aging gunfighter is living on his reputation.  He’s out-drawn by the new kid in town and has to win back the respect of his community.

Here’s how that goes down.  At the park, Chaps regales Jody’s friends with tales of the West, using cowboy lingo like “ornery sidewinder” and “let’s put on the feedbag, pardner.”  He gets goaded into a quick draw contest and humiliated by Jody’s asshole friend, Larry.  He loses the one thing that really matters to a cowboy star — his audience, in this case, Jody.

Uncle Bill lays out the lesson, as he always does, and the lesson is this:  Time changes people but it doesn’t destroy them.

Having lost face in his playground theatrics, Chaps redeems himself in Jody’s eyes with a display of…humility.  Jody: “You’re still the best cowboy I ever saw!”

This really is an awesome role for Steele and he shines in it.  He basks in Jody’s awe, he gets caught up in his own hype and ultimately projects hard-won self-knowledge in his final scenes.  Bravo, Bob.  I’ll watch “something big” and “Nightmare Honeymoon”, but this will always remain my favorite of your final roles.

NOTE TO FUTURE BOB STEELE HISTORIANS; In the TV-show-within-the-TV-show (the one Jody watches and they re-enact a scene from later), Chaps final film was made in 1939.  In it, he rode a horse named Thunder and faced off with a crooked guy named Archer.  Good luck finding it and let me know when you do!