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Silent Westerns
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6Page 7Page 8    by Peter Flynn -- page 6 of 8

Douglas Fairbanks in Wild and Woolly.

Fairbanks, Mix and Jazz Age Cowboy

W.S. Hart retired from the screen with little fanfare. Amid the jingoistic, streamlined showmanship that had increasingly come to characterize the genre, few seemed to notice his passing. The Jazz Age required a different cowboy, a more glamorous manifestation of the frontiersman -- one more suited to the era’s upbeat tempo.

An early example of this new breed of cowboy can be seen in several early Douglas Fairbanks films made from 1915 to 1919, during the star’s hiatus at Triangle. Pre-dating Fairbanks’ lavish swashbuckling vehicles of the 1920s, such films as Manhattan Madness (1916), Wild and Woolly (1917) and The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919) brim with the zest and charisma of a star not yet in his prime. Usually playing an Eastern, aristocratic youth seeking only excitement and romance, Fairbanks wove together madcap comedy and action using the West as a metaphor for freedom and adventure where all young men must go to prove their manhood and find true love. A winning formula from the beginning, Fairbanks’ contribution to the Western genre is nonetheless overlooked in lieu of the star’s later association with costume-spectacles.

Publicity still of Tom Mix.

Preceding both Fairbanks and Hart -- and reaching his prime in their wake -- was Tom Mix. Both a Texas Ranger and rodeo championship winner before entering motion pictures, Mix was a natural cowboy. On screen, however, a breezy and clear-cut persona and an abundance of elaborate stunts detracted from the star’s authenticity. Not that authenticity was ever a priority for Mix, serving as producer/director on many of his own films, he would work hard at devising ingenious, far-fetched scrapes and predicaments for his on-screen counterpart (Fenin and Everson 116). In his first six years in the industry, from 1911 until 1917, Mix shot well over 100 one- and two-reelers for Selig. Increased popularity brought him to the attention of Fox, whom he signed with in 1917. Until the end of his Fox contract in 1928, Mix and his trusty steed Tony enjoyed prestigious productions and ongoing appeal. Made at the height of his popularity, such films as The Daredevils (1919), Rough Riding Romance (1919), and The Lone Star Ranger (1923) exhibited the rollicking, good-natured adventure stories in which Mix excelled. Based on a Zane Gray story, Riders of the Purple Sage (1925) is one of Mix’s most notable ventures, if somewhat atypical in its emphasis on violence.

Mix’s buoyant showmanship attracted many imitators, among them Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson, but none could match the star’s presence or rival his takings at the box-office. The changeover to sound with Destry Rides Again (1932) was relatively easy for Mix; his charm and energy remained for the most part intact, despite his stilted delivery of lines. But Mix, attracted by the more lucrative offers of Sells Floto Circus, would retire from the screen in 1934, leaving the riding range free for a new breed of talking and singing cowboys.

page 6 of 8


Page 1 The Myth and Pre-History of the Silent Western

Page 2 Prospecting: The Edison Co. and Edwin S. Porter

Page 3 Trail-Blazing: Broncho Billy Anderson, the Genre's First Cowboy

Page 4 Pioneering: Griffith, Ince and the Western as Art and Commerce

Page 5 Frontiersman: William S. Hart and Western Realism

Page 6 Showmanship: Fairbanks, Mix and Jazz Age Cowboy

Page 7 Epic Mythmaking: Cruze and Ford and the End of the Silent Era

Page 8 Conclusion

[Works Cited]



Other Western articles in this issue:

The Western Menu Page

The Western: An Overview

The Silent Western as Mythmaker

Spaghetti Westerns

Western Web Links


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