Western film history and its cowboy stars are brought to life through film historian Charlie LeSueur's unique perspective, personal interviews with movie idols and their families and expert research. Riding the Hollywood Trail lassos the imagination, taking readers back to a time when Western film actors were the nation's heros and the silver screen their playground.
|Publisher:||Five Star Publications, Incorporated|
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Riding the Hollywood Trail
Tales of the Silver Screen Cowboys
By Charlie LeSueur
Five Star Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Charlie LeSueur
All rights reserved.
A COUPLE OF FORGOTTEN STARS
— or —
OUR NEW HERO'S NAME IS VINCENT MARKOWSKI?
Broncho Billy most assuredly started it all. Then came William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Then Buck Jones, Col. Tim McCoy, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Fred Thomson, and Leo Maloney.
"Wait a minute," you say. "Who the heck are Fred Thomson and Leo Maloney?" To start with, Fred Thomson was a true western star. For a time, he entered the realm of the "Big Five," Mix, Jones, McCoy, Gibson, and Maynard. He actually entered pictures before McCoy. He was as popular as they were, and was the first western star to have his own production company, something that was unheard of in those days.
Though Thomson was one of the most revered western stars during the silent era, exact information about him is hard to come by. Depending on what source material you read, he was either born in January or February of 1890 in Pasadena, California.
Extremely athletic, Thomson was a star fullback at Occidental Academy High and, at six-teen, he entered Occidental College, where he continued to play football, and was elected student council president in his senior year. In 1910 and 1911 he captured first place in the National Track and Field competitions, and in 1913 he beat the world's record in track and field set by sports great Jim Thorpe.
Like his father, he entered Princeton Theological Seminary to become a Presbyterian minister while continuing in sports. After serving as a pastor in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, Thomson was assigned to Goldfield, Nevada. He had, by this time, married his college sweetheart, Gail Jepson, and his life in the ministry seemed to be assured.
In 1916, however, an event would shake Thomson's life and faith, and send him on the road towards movie-stardom. Gail died of tuberculosis. Soon after, Thomson enlisted in the army were he was commissioned as a second Lieutenant and assigned to Battery F of the 143 Field Artillery as a Chaplain.
If not for joining the army, Thomson would probably never have made it into film. While arranging for an appearance of the 143 in her film, Johanna Enlists, Mary Pickford met the handsome Thomson, while he was recuperating from a football injury he had sustained. Impressed with his handsome features, Mary introduced him to her best friend, screenwriter Frances Marion. They fell in love and would eventually marry in 1919, but not before both of them where sent overseas in the employ of their country. Frances would eventually write many of her husband's subsequent western films, usually using the manly name, "Frank M. Carson."
His career in films got started when a bit player failed to show up for a part in a movie his wife was directing, Just Around the Corner, and he stepped in to take his place. Thomson had decided early on to pursue a career in Westerns, and recognized the importance of selecting the right horse. He purchased a dapple-gray hunter, and christened him, Silver-King.
Thomson then methodically began his plan to become a western star. He moved next door to famed comedian Harold Lloyd and stabled Silver King at Hoot Gibson's stables. He honed his craft by taking small film roles and training Silver King, so they would be ready when the time came. Thomson's rigid religious background more than likely gave him the motivation he needed to never waver from his plan. Never, up until that time, had anyone devised with such precision and skill a plan to become a western movie star!
By the mid-twenties, Westerns were thriving and producers were looking for stars to sign on for the huge slate of western films being produced. Thomson was ready to step up and become one of those stars. Producer Harry Joe Brown notice Thomson, in one of his small film roles, and signed him as his new cowboy star in the summer of 1923. Brown would release these films through Monogram Pictures (not the Monogram of the 1930s). The agreement called for six modestly budgeted films to be produced at the average of one every five weeks. Each film would cost $10,000, of which Thomson would receive $300 per week plus 5% of the profits. This was almost unheard of at that time, especially for a brand new star! The deal further stipulated that Thomson would get a $500 raise and 10% of the profits for the next set of films if the first six were successful. The films were indeed successful.
It's been said that, due to Thomson's immediate success, he opened the Hollywood gates for a new crop of cowboy stars. Tom Tyler, Bob Steele, Bob Custer, Wally Wales, Rex Bell, Buddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill, Jr. and Tim McCoy, to name a few, all came riding in on the popularity of Fred Thomson.
But Thomson's early Westerns were patterned after those of the first western superstar, Tom Mix. Adventure, daring stunts, and light comedy were Mix's stock in trade and Thomson followed this formula.
Harry Joe Brown eventually closed up shop and Thomson moved to Universal for a series, before being signed by Joseph P. Kennedy, father of our future president and attorney general, for his production company Film Booking Offices (FBO). FBO would eventually be the home of many other western stars including: Tom Tyler and Bob Steele. The studio would eventually become RKO where stars like George O' Brien, Tom Keene, Robert Mitchum, and Tim Holt would ride the range.
By the time he was signed by FBO, Thomson was the highest paid western star, making $10,000 per week and his own production company. Even Silver King had a contract plus a $100,000 life insurance policy. By 1926, Thomson was the number two box-office attraction. He would remain as such through 1927.
Even though Thomson was arguably the most popular western star at the time the studios, then as now, only look at the price tag; Thomson's was beginning to outweigh his popularity.
In 1928 Kennedy would sign Thomson's biggest competition for the cowboy hero throne, Tom Mix. By this time Thomson's production company was being paid $85,000, from which he would pay all production costs. With Mix now in the studio fold the handwriting was on the wall for Fred Thomson. He tried to sign with Paramount, but Kennedy refused to let him out of his contract. When his contract expired, Thomson immediately signed with Paramount Pictures. His contract with Paramount called for him to receive $250,000 per film, which would include his paycheck, which now amounted to $100,000 per film.
Paramount, unlike FBO, was a major studio and could well afford a star like Fred Thomson, but they couldn't help but notice that the independent studios were raking in the money with lower budget westerns, starring popular stars like Buck Jones, who was making movies for $4,000 per film and his main rival, Tom Mix working for a surprisingly low $7,500!
Paramount decided to create their very own western star. They found him in a fairly well known athlete of the time by the name of Vincent Markowski. They signed Markowski for only $75.00 per week and the ploy worked! He would get a raise in a year's time to $175. The new star's films were being produced for only $10,000 per film. Markowski's films delivered an audience at a difference of $240,000 between one of his films and one of Thomson's. Markowski's future seemed bright. His star would last through the thirties and into the forties. He would switch from good guy to bad guy with ease as he took on more character parts, even creating some memorable superheroes for the serials. You're probably scratching your heard and saying, "Wait a minute! I've never heard of Vincent Markowski." You're right! Markowski changed his name to Tom Tyler.
Paramount wasn't through, however, with Fred Thomson. They had the most popular western star and they weren't about to let him go. He had been the number two most popular star of '26 and '27 and might have reached number one in 1928 if tragedy hadn't struck Thomson once again. Thomson became seriously ill while working on the Paramount film Jesse James. A few days before Christmas he began limping, suffering from intense pain. Rushed to the hospital, it was found that he had a fever of 104 degrees. First diagnosed with kidney stones, it was later discovered that he was suffering from tetanus he had contracted from a nail scratch he received while working at his stable. The discovery was too late and the misdiagnoses cost Fred Thomson his life. He died on Christmas Day, 1928. He was only 38 years old. His pallbearers included: Harold Lloyd, silent matinee idol Charles Farrell, Douglas Fairbanks, and director George W. Hill, with Buster Keaton, and movie mogul Joseph M. Schenk as honorary pallbearers.
His widow, Frances Marion, would continue writing movies, winning Oscars for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931). She married George W. Hill, one of Fred's pallbearers, in 1930 and divorced him in 1933, one year before he committed suicide. She died in May 1973 after a long career as a writer and director.
Fred Thomson had all the ingredients that could have made him a popular star in the sound era, maybe even more so than Mix, Jones, Gibson, McCoy, Maynard and Tom Tyler. His career lasted less than a decade, but he made more than 30 films plus one serial, The Eagle's Talon. He is a true western star who deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Tom Mix and the rest who I have just mentioned. He is a true pioneer in the western genre.
While Fred Thomson is an almost forgotten super star of silent Westerns, Leo Maloney is one of the forgotten pioneers of the sound Western. While not in the same class as Fred Thomson or the "Big Five," Maloney was a fairly popular silent western star, producer, and director.
Making his film debut in 1914, he starred in a series of films and serials for the Mutual Film Corp until 1920.
His big opportunity came when he signed with Pathe Films, where he began producing, directing, and writing his own films. Maloney had one small problem. He liked the bottle a bit too much. This would eventually be his downfall.
Leo definitely made a recognizable name for himself in silent films, but with the coming of "talkies" he had a plan to make his star shine even brighter, and it could have worked. If nothing else, it would have given him a firm place in the history of sound film. But fate would take a hand and cause Leo to become nothing more than a footnote. Before we talk about Leo, let's take a brief look at the advent of sound on film.
One of the big threats to sound films, and Westerns in particular, was how to utilize all the awkward equipment needed in the new medium. The stationary use of microphones and the whirring noise of the camera were eventually covered up by enclosing the camera, and cameraman, in a soundproof enclosure. This caused problems with breathing. Many times a cameraman would pass out from heat and lack of oxygen. Western film producers were concerned with the logistics of creating an action packed film under these circumstances, especially the problem the outside heat might have on the poor cameraman in the enclosure.
Eventually, creating an enclosure that would simply fit around the camera to muffle the noise solved these problems. Independent producers soon realized that the low-budget Western was actually the most economical "talkie" to shoot. Interior lighting could be kept to a minimum, in some cases simply putting up walls to resemble an interior, using the sun, and reflectors, to simulate indoor lighting.
Many studios hired stage actors in order to take advantage of their trained voices. Actors who had been successful in the silents would either adapt or fall by the wayside. Studios would hire diction coaches to help with the process. This made actors sound phony and effeminate in some cases. Many early talkies became talk-fests that don't hold up today. The stationary microphones required were generally hidden in some prop on the set; flower vases were very popular. This caused actors to have limited movement in order to stay near the microphone. If you've ever seen the classic musical, Singing in the Rain, which is all about this dilemma, you know what I mean.
Early on it was discovered that low budget Westerns could quickly be churned out without such problems. In early sound Westerns, sound could be kept to a minimum, or not used in some scenes at all. Thundering hooves or gunshots could be added later. Sometimes the sound was left out altogether making it appear that the horses might be wearing loafers. Dialogue was kept to a bare minimum to make way for lots of action. "Oaters" could cheaply, and quickly, be cranked out at one or two per week while making an easy profit. Running time was generally kept to less than an hour. Although the independents would thrive in the world of sound film, it would be a major studio that showed the way for producers of early sound Westerns.
By early '29, Fox was very aggressive in the advancement of sound. They produced a Western based on a story by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) called "The Caballero's Way." The film would be called In Old Arizona, and it introduced one of the most enduring characters of western film, the "Cisco Kid." Popular, but non-Hispanic, actor Warner Baxter played the "Kid."
Actor/director Raoul Walsh was set to direct and play the title role, but when he lost an eye in an accident the role went to Baxter. Walsh settled on directing, while Baxter would win an Academy Award ® for his role. He would reprise the role twice in The Arizona Kid (1930) and The Cisco Kid (1931).
Fox proved that a major studio could successfully produce a sound Western, followed by Paramount who quickly released The Virginian, based on the popular novel by Owen Wister. The film starred up and coming actor Gary Cooper, and was directed by Victor Fleming. It too proved to be a success.
Between the releases of these two major sound films there was another sound western film produced and released, and the man behind it was Leo Maloney. Gathering together as much money as he could, Maloney slyly "borrowed' un-used equipment, and gathered up unexposed film stock (the "ends" as they are known) discarded during editing and left on the cutting room floor. In this way he produced Overland Bound, starring himself and Jack Perrin.
The film was crude in every way, but the fans enjoyed it, and the critics were kind in recognizing what could be done on a virtually non-existent budget. It appeared that Maloney had hit pay dirt with his movie, the first independent sound Western. Presidio Pictures, a small releasing company, released the picture and it did quite well. It was a time for celebration and Maloney certainly did, a bit too hard. While throwing a party, and drinking a bit too heavily, Maloney died from a heart attack. He was 41 years old.
Overland Bound should not only be recognized as the first independent sound Western in film history, but also the second sound Western produced at all! With his sudden death, Leo Maloney's hopes for success were dashed. Today most film historians recognize The Virginian as the second sound Western, but Leo Maloney was there beforehand.
By 1930, film companies were trying to figure out bigger and better ways of getting their films into the theaters, to stay in the forefront. M-G-M, and director King Vidor, quickly went into production with a sweeping outdoor production of Billy the Kid (1930) starring University of Alabama halfback, Johnny Mack Brown. It was filmed in a new wide-screen process known as Realife.
Fox and Raoul Walsh tried to repeat the success of In Old Arizona with another major Western called The Big Trail (1930). Walsh wanted Tom Mix to play the lead, but he was unavailable. Walsh hired a fresh young actor, a protégé of John Ford's, to play the lead. The actor, Duke Morrison (real name Marion Morrison) would take the name of John Wayne and become an icon. For the moment, however, he was a small time supporting player, who had been moving props and working as a gofer for Tom Mix and Ford.
Like Billy the Kid, The Big Trail used the gimmick of a wide screen process. The 55 mm format called "Fox Grandeur" was a failure, due in part to the wide screen process requiring theater owners to install special equipment. During the days of the depression theater owners were unable to afford the extra expense, and so the sweeping beautiful landscape of The Big Trail was lost on the regular theater screens of the '30s.
Gary Cooper was already an up and coming actor at the time of The Virginian, and went on to greater fame in short order.
Johnny Mack Brown would make a handful of films at M-G-M before being permanently relegated to B programmers for the rest of his career. He would stay in the Western top ten from 1940 through 1950, and is considered one of the greats of the genre.
It's been said that John Wayne's career would have paralleled Brown's if not for John Ford and Stagecoach. The Duke continued to struggle through films at Fox and Columbia without making much of a mark. He eventually drifted into oaters, supporting Buck Jones and Tim McCoy, and finally jumping from studio to studio in his own series of Westerns Monogram's "Lone Star" series being the most popular.
When Monogram and Mascot, along with other small independents, reformed to create Republic Pictures, Wayne was considered one of the reliable cowboy stars. It would appear that his future would be in B Westerns. But his early friendship with Ford paid off.
The director offered him the role of the "Ringo Kid" and Wayne never had to look back. Brown never had a savior, like John Ford, to take him out of the 2nd feature category.
Excerpted from Riding the Hollywood Trail by Charlie LeSueur. Copyright © 2008 Charlie LeSueur. Excerpted by permission of Five Star Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Mary Ellen Kay,
Chapter One A Couple of Forgotten Stars,
Chapter Two Mixing it up with the Shontz Brothers,
Chapter Three Who was the First Singing Cowboy?,
Chapter Four The Mystery of Singing Sandy,
Chapter Five Too Many Bills,
Chapter Six The Smiley Conspiracy,
Chapter Seven Fuzzy Wasn't Fuzzy, Was He?,
Chapter Eight Making a List and Checking it Twice,
Epilogue End of the Trail, for Now,