Attending the annual holiday event sponsored by The Los Angeles Examiner in the movie capital, the fifty-two year old cowboy star Tom Mix is pictured as he arrived backstage at the Shriners' Auditorium in the hard-bitten December of 1932. The petite lady next to him swathed in fur is the fifth Mrs. Mix (née Mabel Hubbell Ward). The broadly smiling Mix was nearing the end of his time in pictures. During this last decade of his life, he returned to his early show-biz roots, appearing in circuses run by him and others, even as that peripatetic form of entertainment was waning. By the middle of this decade, Mix, who had been a great star in the '20s, made his last film, The Miracle Rider, a Mascot serial, in 1935.
After a lifetime of stunts (and the inevitable injuries that accompanied them), he knew that time was no longer on his side, though in public his high-living style sense masked any self-doubt nicely. The irrepressible showman's duds are actually rather restrained in this image. No rhinestones can be detected (though I bet those boots gleamed as brightly as his teeth). Tom appears to have left his legendary purple tuxedo at home and isn't wearing (or driving) anything adorned with a set of actual long horns as he did in real life. In his day, Mix's flamboyant presence on the screen had a razzle-dazzle that was in striking contrast to the silent cinema's other iconic cowpoke: that grounded, powerfully austere, yet sometimes puritanical Western wraith, William S. Hart. Separated by a vast generational gulf as well as style, both early cowboy stars were born in New York and Pennsylvania--not The Wild West. The flinty, paternal Hart often taught audiences a moral lesson, but Mix seems to have been a somewhat rascally uncle, showing off and sharing escapist fun with his viewers as he gave miscreants a drubbing. He managed to draw the line between good and bad guys without the starch of Victorian stuffiness.
It would be easy to mock the kind of fantasy cowboy that Tom Mix played on screen in hundreds of films from 1909 on, as he evolved into one of the highest paid movie star in the 1920s. Unfortunately, all but nine of his movies were silents and most are now lost (*sigh*). The glimpses that remain remind me of film's ability to transport us to an open-hearted world with chances for adventure and hope as vast as the prairie. As film historian Jeanine Basinger described the cowboy star's showmanship and dazzling stunt work, Mix seemed to dash "through his slam-bang adventures as if his pants were on fire."
His was a career that bloomed under the hot house conflation of early studio flacks, who claimed at various times that Mix was born in El Paso county in Texas, had been a rough rider with Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba (Mix rode in a parade with TR once), had upheld America's "place in the sun" during the uprising in The Philippines, defended Western civilization during The Boxer Rebellion in China, and fought with the Brits during the Boer War in South Africa (even though Mix never went overseas during his tour of duty in the army).
In reality, Mix had learned to love horses from his father in rural Pennsylvania, a genuine, lifelong skill that enhanced his later career. He had earned his show biz spurs in Wild West Shows and had been a genuine rodeo champion after knocking around with traveling circuses. He had also been a deputy sheriff and a marshal for a time. The compliant Mix understood that his fans wanted to believe in his larger-than-life persona and it was good for business to exaggerate his exploits, (so good that when he died, the U.S. Army felt obliged to give the actor a full military funeral after he died in a car accident in 1940, despite the fact that he had actually been technically AWOL since 1902).
Today, if Mix's movies are remembered, they are often cited as the precursor to the highly popular flicks of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers from the '30s through the '50s, which also dressed frontier tales in tinsel, sometimes setting stories in contemporary times, complete with streamlined convertibles and villains who wore snap brim hats, pin-striped suits and gats alongside the Westerners in chaps, pistols and Stetsons. Mix's characters had never smoked, drank alcohol or used his gun in anything except self-defense or the defense of another, though alcohol was a part of his life for many years in private. In a revealing comment made to a journalist in the Yuletide season during The Great Depression, the cowboy hero expressed his wish that children might have a Happy Christmas, adding "I hope their parents [and] guardians take an interest in them too, and bring them up to be better citizens than we are. We've made our mistakes."
Mix's extravagant bravura reached an army of children and he took his influence on them seriously. Among those who could be transported back to a moment when he left his brand on the imagination of myriad boys and girls was Peter Cushing, the elegant British actor noted for his intelligent (and subversively amusing) portrayals in numerous Hammer Studio films from the '50s on. Cushing often reflected on his own re-enactments of Tom Mix adventures in his family's garden when he was a boy. On one notable occasion, the distinguished actor recalled how one of his imitations of his cowboy idol nearly led to the wiry boy's accidental hanging. Something involving leaping off an imaginary horse onto a tree branch, no doubt?
Even though I was born years after Tom Mix left the world, some decades ago his then unknown-to-me name came up in an unexpected setting. This small event taught me that I can never really know diddly about what goes on inside the people around me. On one of those warm days in May when being in high school is an insult to our inner siren call, a stork-like nun named Sister Sardo was given the unlucky assignment of hammering some English Lit into the dull skulls of pubescent girls. This nun was unusually tall for her era, with glasses and a dry, high voice probably earned from years of speaking to the often intellectually deaf herds of students. There were nuns in that generation who came up to my shoulder when I was in fourth grade (and I am only 5'3" now), but she towered over everyone.
On this particular afternoon, one minute she was nattering about the wizened spirit of a character in Silas Marner. In the next moment something happened to her. Her eyes glowed, her voice softened and (thankfully) she put down the pointer. The teacher had been describing what an epiphany was and how it can occur when something unexpected and wonderful might come into our lives when we least expect it. It was startling to note that there was something nearly rhapsodic was about the way that Sister Sardo went on to describe a day when a train arrived in town when she was a girl. A reference to pre-convent days, much less girlhood, was highly unusual coming from a nun, so my ears perked up.
The nun's rigid posture relaxed, she moved toward her desk and sat on the edge of it while her words seemed to tumble out of her. Next to the railroad, Sister Sardo (what was her real name back then, I wondered d?) and her friends hadgathered as the last boxcar eased to a stop on a late summer day. The door of the freight car slid open. From the shadowy interior, a splendidly attired horse and rider alighted, wearing black and silver regalia and moving fluidly toward her and the other children present--it was Tom Mix riding Tony, the Wonder Horse. This man and his steed, neither of whom we had never heard of before, was something special to her, she explained. The years and the weight of her vows seemed to fall away as she described this smiling man and the way that Tony reared with Mix on his back while the horse's hooves waved through the air in greeting. Even more unlikely, she said, Tom Mix climbed down from the horse and spoke to each of the children clustered around him. None had money to visit the show he was scheduled to give that evening. Yet, the cowboy star encouraged the small girl who had grown up to be a nun to pet the velvety white nose of the highly intelligent Tony, a mixed breed horse who had been purchased for $18 and whose hoof prints appeared next to Mix's at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
There wasn't any profit to be made for Mix by sharing a few moments with a passel of ragamuffins during a tour of a failing circus. Yet, here we were, more than forty years later, reflecting on this precious memory and learning that the most improbable individuals have had their lives brightened by just such a seemingly trivial incident. The moment passed, the nun straightened up, and returned to asking us to consider the random power of incident in fiction and in reality in her customary erudite manner. The cowboy image had faded from movie screens, but clearly, not from her heart, as she proceeded to grill us about imagery, plot, themes and metaphors in George Eliot's novels.
But it was too late. We'd glimpsed the girl inside her all over again. Just as Tom Mix, who once slid inadvertently across a highly polished marble floor on his keester after entering a mansion wearing high heeled cowboy boots: "Go on and laugh. I'm just trying to be entertaining."
Basinger, Jeanne, Silent Stars, Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2000.
Jensen, Richard D., The Amazing Tom Mix: The Most Famous Cowboy of the Movies, iUniverse, 2005.
"Tom Mix-Twentieth Century Knight of Adventure," The San Jose News, Dec. 1, 1931.
Some Tom Mix Films and Clips online can be seen here.
For past entries in The Christmas Album on this blog, please click here.