Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tom Mix—The Man in the Enormous Hat

Tom Mix with his co-star Tony the Wonder Horse.


Tom Mix was big in every way.  Bigger than you can imagine.  Big, handsome, barrel chested man.  The biggest star.  The biggest hero to a generation or two of boys.  As big as the enormous hats he wore.  He even died in a big, flashy way speeding down an Arizona highway in a fancy open Cord 812 Phaeton on October 13, 1940 at just 60 years of age.
Thomas Hezikiah Mix was born January 6, 1880 in Mix Run, Pennsylvania where his family, as the place name infers, had deep roots.  It was a small, unincorporated village in the remote north central part of the state near what became the Elk State Forest.  His father was a stable master and the boy grew up around horse and was an unmatched rider by his early teens.
He also was enamored of the small traveling circus shows that came through town.  He dreamed of running away to join the circus and practiced act in the barn—including using his sister as a target for knife throwing.  That got him a good whipping from his father.
Restless and eager for real adventure. Mix rushed to enlist in the Army for the Spanish American War under the name Thomas Edwin Mix—he was glad to lose Hezikiah—just the first of many reinventions.  He never saw action in that brief war, but did become a sergeant of artillery serving in the Philippines in 1900-’01 although he was never actually deployed against the Filipino insurrectionists.
Back stateside he met a young woman, Grace I. Allin and married her while on Furlough in July 1902.  He never returned to duty and was officially listed as a deserter that November.  Desertion from the peacetime Army was not uncommon in those days and unless the AWOL soldier was nabbed close to base or picked up by police somewhere on other charges the military did not have the resources to pursue arrests.  Mix often referred to his Army service in later years, including allowing people to assume that he in Cuba, perhaps even as a Rough Rider and some people in the Army must have been aware of his status as he rose to fame.  But no action was ever taken against him and the Army afforded him a veteran’s funeral with full honors.  The revelation of his status as a deserter came only when serious biographers began to research his purposefully murky early years.
Mix’s marriage didn’t last as long as his enlistment.  It was annulled in less than a year, probably because he had run off to Oklahoma to become a cowboy.  A master horseman already and marksman with both a rifle and a handgun as a result of a youth spent roaming the Pennsylvania woods and as soldier, he slid as effortlessly into his new identity as a Colt .44 into a well-oiled holster.  In no time at all he was a top hand with a growing reputation. 
But he also was something of a showman from the beginning, splitting time between real ranch work and playing the cowboy for a young nation still enthralled with tales of the west.  In 1903 he turned up as drum major of the Oklahoma Cavalry Band, at the St. Louis World’s Fair.
The next year he was back in Oklahoma in the dual roles of bartender and Town Marshall of Dewey.  This short stint as a part time lawman would eventually loom much larger in the legend he created about himself.
Always the lady’s man, Mix married again 1905 to Kitty Jewel Perinne of whom little is known but whose name makes the imagination dance.  That marriage, to fizzled in divorce after a year.  A certain pattern in domestic relationships was beginning to emerge.
The same year as his marriage Mix turned up in a troop of 50 cowboy riders led by the legendary marshal of Deadwood and Rough Rider Captain Seth Bullock in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade.  Many of the other riders were also former Rough Riders, leading many to conclude that Mix was as well—an assumption he never did anything to disclaim.
By 1906 Mix was working on the biggest and most famous of all Oklahoma ranches, the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch.  The sprawling ranch, which bred horses as well as raising cattle, employed hundreds of cowboys.  One of the wranglers was a roping wonder named Will Rogers. 
After the spring round-up hands on the ranch traditionally conducted their own cowboy contests—rodeos they would come to be called—displaying riding, roping, and shooting skills.  Up in Cheyenne, Wyoming they had already discovered that such cowboy games were great draws for tourists whose appetite for cowboy adventure had been whetted by Buffalo Bill Cody and other wild west show troupes.   The 101 outfit had also been contracted to provide stock to those shows and to the rodeos springing up around the west.  They own private competition was itself opened to the public and began to draw crowds.  The Miller Bros launched their own touring 101 Ranch Wild West Show in 1906. And Tom Mix was, from the beginning the star. 
He also competed in other rodeos and in another type of completion called cowboy games where riding and shooting events were combined.  He was named national champion in those in Prescott, Arizona in 1909, and Canyon City, Colorado in 1910. 
In the meantime he had married yet again, this time to horsewoman Olive Stokes on January 10, 1909 in Medora, North Dakota.  Together they appeared in other shows including the Widerman Show in Amarillo, Texas, Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and Will A. Dickey’s Circle D Ranch.  His childhood dreams of becoming a circus star were folding into his life as a cowboy
Mix was back at the 101 Ranch in 1910 when the Selig Polyscope Company, an early motion picture studio, contracted with the Miller Bros to provide stock and performers for a series of one reel films. 
Westerns were already a hot commodity in the fledgling film industry.  The first American movie with a plot, the 12 minute long Great Train Robbery in 1903 set the stage for a flood of oaters. One of the leading actors in that film, Bronco Billy Anderson became the first movie star the public knew by name and was by then producing, directing, and staring in popular westerns at Essenay Studios in Chicago.
Mix first appeared as part of the ensemble in a short Selig film, The Cowboy Millionaire in 1909.  The following year he was featured in a sort of documentary called Ranch Life in the Great Southwest which showed off his prodigious skills as a rider, roper, and rough and tumble cowpoke.  The movie was Selig’s biggest hit to date.
In no time Mix was not only being billed as the star, he was writing and even directing his own films, which introduced elements of comedy and romance to the action mix.  Subsequent films were not shot on the 101 ranch but at the Selig studios in in the Edendale district of Los Angeles and later on western sets built at Las Vegas, New Mexico. 
In a few short years Mix made over 100 mostly single reel shorts for Selig, and some two reelers late in the association as the single reel short fell out of favor for dramatic films.  Beautiful teenage actress Victoria Forde became his favorite leading lady and, inevitably, his lover.  After 10 years with Olivia, he divorced her and married Forde the following year.  Mix now had three ex-wives and a daughter, Ruth, born in 1912, who he had to support as well as a current one—a monetary burden that both drained him and made him ambitious of fat paychecks.
As his marriage was crumbling so did Selig studios, which had few hits beyond Mix.  The company went bankrupt and William Fox bought the Edendale studios.  He also signed Mix and Forde to very generous contracts guaranteeing Mix control of his own films and a dedicated production unit.  That was in 1917.  Mix would stay with the studio until 1928 making both him and Fox wealthy beyond either’s dreams.  And in the process would redefine the film western in startling new ways.
Up until this time whatever wild plot and adventures, western films tried with greater or lesser success, for realism in costume, accouterments, and settings.  Not surprisingly.  A lot of their audience could clearly recall the “Old West” and what it looked like.  Real western heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody himself or legendary Oklahoma lawman Bill Tilghman were showing up in films.  Bronco Billy was always careful of realistic setting.
Over at Famous Players-Lasky (the future Paramount) the biggest western star of the day, a former New York stage Shakespearian actor named William S. Hart was a notorious stickler for complete authenticity in his films.
Even his own Selig pictures had mostly been rooted in the realities of ranch life.
Mix, the real cowboy, rodeo rider and circus performer had no illusions about his ability as an actor.  But he had learned a thing or two about grabbing an audience.  He knew that colorful costumes drew attention in big arenas.  Instead of dusty, worn working clothes, he now appeared in highly tailored costumes—tight trousers tucked into richly decorated high heeled cowboy boots, two pearl handled revolvers in tooled belts strapped to his hips, crisp shirts often double breasted with decorative piping around a yoke and arrowhead slit pockets, silk kerchiefs knotted at the neck.  And above all, an enormous hat.  No cowboy ever rode the range in anything like it.
About that hat…Photos of working cowboys from the 1870’s on show that they wore a wide variety of headgear.  Usually wide brimmed hats but depending on the region personal taste, and what was available at the general store when they needed one with peaked crown or flat ones, stiff brims or floppy ones, brims curled or slouched or pushed up in front—a popular look borrowed from cavalry troopers.  Around the turn of the century cowboys on the northern part of the range began to sport what was called the Montana crease, a hat with a high crown peaked in back sloping forward with a center crease.  This became the famous ten gallon hat described in dime novels.  Along the southern border with Mexico, some Texas cowboys sported a trimmed down version of the vaquero’s sombrero with a high, round crown and wide brim turned up all around.  Mix began to wear specially made Stetsons combining both styles.  They were big, flashy hats—he wore them in white or black interchangeably.  Soon other cowboy stars like Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, and Col. Tim McCoy were wearing them.  And in a case of life imitating art, they took off with real working cowboys as well, supplanting other styles for a decade or so.  Cowboys also saved up for fancy shirts and boots to wear to town on Saturday night or to dances, going back to ordinary working clothes the rest of the week.  Even they wanted to be Tom Mix.
Mix’s films were filled with humor.  He seemed not to take himself too seriously in stark contrast to the grim propriety of William S. Hart’s heroes.  And they were chock full of action from the beginning to the end, lots of chases, trick riding, fist fights, leaps from great heights, and daring-do stunts of all kinds.  And Mix did all of the stunts himself, with the camera catching him in the kind of close-ups that actors who used stunt doubles could not duplicate. 
Audiences ate it all up.  Every Fox film seemed to top the previous one.  He did six or seven films a year now, far down from the hectic pace of the Selig one reelers.  He had a budget for large casts, impressive scenery, big props like steam engines, paddle wheel river boats, epic wagon trains, mass herds of real long horns—whatever he needed.
Fox built him his own facility at the Edendale studios, a 12 acre set nick named Mixville with “… a complete frontier town, with a dusty street, hitching rails, a saloon, jail, bank, doctor’s office, surveyor’s office, and the simple frame houses typical of the early Western era.”  Also on the lot was an Indian village with tepees set against plaster mountains that looked real on film, and a whole ranch set up.  When scripts call for it Mix could shoot on location in California, Nevada, and Arizona.
A big part of the show was now Mix’s horse, Tony the Wonder Horse, a big handsome chestnut with a white blaze face and white stockings.  Tony could perform all manner of tricks and stunts including untying Mix’s hands, opening gates, loosening his reins, rescuing Mix from fire, jumping from one cliff to another, and running after trains.  Tony became so popular that he was sometimes co-billed with Mix and had his name in the title of three films.  His popularity inspired other equine co-stars—Ken Maynard’s Tarzan, Gene Autry’s Champion, Roy Rogers’ Trigger, Hopalong Cassidy’s Topper, and the Lone Ranger’s Silver.
In his first films at Fox Forde was his co-star and love interest.  She decided to retire and devote herself to homemaking with the coming the couple’s daughter Thomisina (Tommie) in 1922.  After that a parade of beauties to turns being rescued and swept off their feet by the hero.
As Mix’s films became more and more popular, his salary grew.  He made $4,000 a week in 1922 and just three years later Fox was glad to shell out $7,500 a week—an enormous sum at the time.  And Mix spent it as fast as he made it, always paying his share to his train of ex-wives.  He always wore his immaculate trade mark Stetsons and expensive tailored clothing, much of it western style.  He drove the latest, fastest, and most expensive cars.  He erected one of the biggest mansions in Hollywood with his own stables and an electric sign of his name on the roof.  He liked to make the rounds of nightclubs, studio parties, premiers and film events.  He and William S. Hart, and a young filmmaker named John Ford, regularly played cards and drank with legendary lawman, gambler, and sporting man Wyatt Earp.  Mix was a pall bearer at Earp’s funeral and famously broke down and cried.
When Fox refused yet another big raise, Mix let his contract there lapse in 1928.  He was tiring of movies and beginning to feel his age and the effects of accumulated injuries from years of doing his own stunts.  Joseph P. Kennedy offered him a fat contract to make films with his independent studio, Film Booking Office of America, soon to be merged into RKO.  He did his last silent films there that year.   The films also featured his first daughter Olive. They were money makers for the small studio, but without the vast network of Fox theaters, couldn’t generate as may viewers as his earlier films.
Mix decided to quit films and return to his first love—the circus.  Olive joined his act.  He was the headline star of the Sells-Floto Circus in the 1929, 1930 and 1931seasons, pulling down $20,000, -n-more than he ever had in pictures.
In 1931 Mix’s marriage to Victoria Forde, likely because of the appearance of Mabel Hubbell Ward who became wife number 5 in ’32.  The expense of yet another ex-wife lured him back to pictures when Universal offered him a contract to make talkies again with complete control of his production unit.  He made nine films for Universal.  Legend has it that they were failures because Mix had a high voice.  Untrue on both counts.  All of the films were box office successes, and Mix had a fine, rich baritone voice.  He was not, however, an actor adept at reading lines and he knew it.  His performances seemed more stilted than in his silents.
Both his beloved horse Tony and here were injured.  He retired Tony and brought on Tony Jr.  But it wasn’t the same.  His own injuries were becoming painful.  Mix decided to retire from film once again and return to the circus.
This time he toured with the Sam B. Dill Circus, which he bought out and re-named the Tom Mix Circus with Olive as his partner.  He toured with the show in 1935 and then went off on a European tour leaving Olive in charge.  Without his draw, with then Depression hurting ticket sales, and the expense of a large troop, the Tom Mix Circus failed while he was away.  Probably unfairly, he blamed his daughter causing a permanent rift between them.  When he died she was cut out of what was left of his estate.
Mix had been approached several times to do his own radio show.  But the money offered was far less than he could make doing either film or circus.  Finally Ralston Purina offered him a deal for a radio series built around his name and character, but in which he would not have to perform.  Tom Mix would be played by a series of actors during the show’s long run from 1933 to ’51.  Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters starred Artells Dickson, Jack Holden from 1937, Russell Thorsen  in the early ‘40s, and Joe “Curley” Bradley from ’44 to the end of the series.  Country comedian and story teller George Gobel was one of the supporting players.
Ralston also issued a highly popular series of Tom Mix comic books and featured his image on cereal boxes.  Through the radio show, comics, and in the early ‘50’s showing of his old movies including his silent films new generations continued to idolize Mix even after his death.
Faced with big bills from the collapse of the circus, Mix was lured back to movies one more time to do a 15 episode serial, The Miracle Rider for tiny Poverty Row studio Mascot Pictures.  The studio paid him $40,000 for just four weeks of work.  It paid off for them.  They grossed over $1 million from the Saturday matinee nickels and dimes of a new generation of adoring fans.  It was Mix’s last film.
Mix spent his last years making various personal appearances around the U.S. and spending money he no longer could replace.
On October 4, 1940 Mix had been larking around Arizona.  He stopped to visit an old pal, Pima County Sheriff Ed Nichols in Tucson.  Later he stopped by the Oracle Junction Inn, a saloon and casino where he had a few drinks and called his agent to enquire about future bookings.  Then it was off to Phoenix.  He was speeding down State Route 79 at an estimated 80 miles an hour when he came upon a bridge that had been washed away by a flash flood.  He slammed on the breaks skidding on the loose gravel.  An aluminum suitcase stuffed with money, traveler’s checks and jewelry tore loose from the luggage rack on the trunk behind him and slammed into Mix’s head, shattering his skull.  The car turned over and slid into the dry arroyo but he was already dead.
After an elaborate Hollywood funeral with full military honors, Mix was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.  Despite earning over $6 million in his movie career he left only a few thousand dollars—and a lot of debt in his estate.  His wife, ex-wife Victoria Forde, and daughter Thomisina each received small bequests.
Tony out lived his master, but died exactly two years later to the day.
Mix was the inspiration of songs, and literature.  Darryl Ponicsan wrote a cult favorite novel, Tom Mix Died for Your Sins.  Hoaxer Clifford Irving imagined Mix joining the Mexican Revolution Tom Mix and Pancho Villa.    Philip José Farmer made him a leading character as   Jack London’s traveling companion in two of his Riverworld science fiction novels. 
Bruce Willis played Mix teaming up with James Garner’s Wyatt Earp to solve a Hollywood mystery in the 1988 Blake Edwards film Sunset. 
In the ultimate pop culture tribute, Mix is one of the faces on the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this entertaining and informative post. best wishes, pete lekousis

    ReplyDelete