It all began with the legendary Tom Mix, the yardstick by which all B-Western stars are measured.
Born in 1880, Mix had worked with the Texas Rangers, had been a bartender, a sheriff, and a champion rodeo rider in his Wild West Show. Hollywood had a bona fide true blue western legend. After becoming THE cowboy movie star at the age of 30, the extremely prolific Mix worked and played equally hard, developing a love for fast cars, fast women (married five times) , and reckless spending. Most of his 20’s westerns were adapted from Zane Grey novels and were high quality entertainment for the masses. Mix often wrote, produced and directed in addition to acting. He was the polar opposite to William S. Hart’s dusty realism. Mix combined humor, increased action which featured his own stunt work, a star horse named Tony, flashy showmanship and enthusiastic energy in his films. When his stardom naturally began to dim in the 1930’s, mainly due to age, he toured with his beloved Tom Mix Circus before an untimely high speed auto accident and a flying metal suitcase to the back of the head on an Arizona highway put an end to all the Circus in 1940, but not to the legend. For ten years after his death, the Tom Mix Radio Show continued on with immense popularity. Tom Mix comic books were also extremely popular for several decades, as was the touring Tom Mix festival which finally ran down (but not entirely out) in the mid 90’s. Since most of his films are silent, few today have even seen a Tom Mix film, and his reputation by far exceeds the actual films. Here are two Mixs from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun collection.
Just Tony begins, aptly enough, with a trailer. “Hit the Trail! The Gun Ranger is out to clean up the town! Bob Steel, two-gun deputy whose twitching fingers itch for fights! Outlaws Rustlers Cowboys Posses and Bob Steel as the Gun Ranger! A Republic Release.” This trailer promises white hat cow dude Steel kicking black hat bad guy butt, a mix of masked bandits, pencil-thin mustached villains and a pretty girl exclaiming “Oh, Dan!”
Tom has his eyes on the beautiful black wild stallion, Tony, that he wants to tame, but first things first as he has a score to settle with the SOB J.P. Lockney who shot him in the leg a few years before for playing his banjo in the middle of a card game at a bar. Unknown to Tom, Lockney’s gang has rounded up a bunch of wild horses, including Tony, who is being abused by one of Lockney’s scumbag men. Tom finds Tony being abused, saves him from the lash, and turns the whip on the low life.
Tony actually has a role here other than merely being Tom’s horse. Tom is the first human who has treated Tony well, and the expected bond between man and horse has begun. All of this is witnessed by Lockney’s daughter, Marianne Jordan, who immediately falls in love with Tom from a distance. Tom finds that Tony has been entered in a local rodeo horse race and that Lockney has bet against his own horse. Tom does not take to this bit of double crossing Tony and sees to it that Tony wins.
Winning the race only brings Tony more grief and, after another whipping, Tony tramples his tormentor and escapes to the hillside, rejoining what remains of his former herd. Tony plots his revenge against man and frees the captive horses at Lockney’s ranch (1920s audiences hardly subscribed to our realism fetish). Lockney and his men declare war on this horse from hell. Marianne calls on Tom to set things right and, of course, you can be assured he will indeed, but not until he has to deal with a conspiracy by Lockney’s men to stop him. Tom is ordered to go and answers, “Maybe I will, but likely I won’t.” After that bit of business and some derring-do, Tom captures Tony, tames him, and cements the bond between man and horse.
Tom, Lockney, his men and Marianne all find out that Lockney is the man that Tom has sworn revenge against. More action packed escapades follow. Tom is kidnapped and beaten. Marianne saves Tom, then Tony saves them both from Lockney’s gang . In the end, Tom forgives Lockney, Tony forgives mankind and the three walk off into the sunset together. Just Tony is well paced, charming and a great balance between story and action. It’s easy to see why 1920’s kids ate this stuff up.
Sky High also begins with a trailer: “Tim McCoy in Bulldog Courage. Tim McCoy! Tim McCoy! Tim McCoy! He gives his fans the best of everything! Including love! Tim McCoy in Bulldog Courage!” Featuring rip-roaring action aplenty and feisty Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr, Reporter).
Sky High is another William Fox production, written and directed by Lynn Reynolds. Mix is a deputy immigration inspector and he has his work cut out for him. Mix’s boss warns him of all the “Chop-Suey China Men trying to sneak into the border.” Of course, Tom finds out his employer is intent on double-crossing him. The high drama begins. Sky High was shot in the Grand Canyon and the film certainly takes advantage of that (and promotes it in the film’s opening credits). Unfortunately, Sky High does not have the amiable charm of Just Tony, nor is there much plot-wise. Still, there are some well-done shots, including Mix’s stunt in an aeroplane, and the Tom Mix personality almost saves the film from it’s shortcomings.
Mix’s last film was the 1935 sound serial Miracle Rider (to be reviewed at a later date), which gave the actor a near perfect swansong. Sinister Cinema’s love of this stuff is infectious, and their packaging is exemplary.