Saturday, December 5, 2015

Tom Mix in The Great K&A Train Robbery -- December 5, 2015

This post is part of The "Try It, You’ll Like It!" Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently ( and Janet at Sister Celluloid (  They want to put together a list that can be used by anyone to proselytize for classic films.
 I became interested in silent films when I was very young, perhaps because I watched The General on television with my grandfather and he told me how much he liked Buster KeatonI don't think anyone else tried to get me interested.
On the other other hand, I have tried to share my love for silent and other classic films with many people over the years.  One of the first dates I took my wife on was to a Charlie Chaplin festival at the Surf Theater in San Francisco.  When she cried at the end of City Lights, I knew she was a keeper.

I am happy that my daughter's two favorite movies are Bringing Up Baby and Roman Holiday.   They aren't silent, but I try to be broad-minded. 

Moving Picture Magazine, November, 1928
I was able to introduce several people to silent movies in a great environment by taking them to the Friday night shows at San Francisco's Avenue Theater.  Several friends saw silent movies accompanied on the Mighty Wurlitzer by Bob Vaughn.  Wings made a big hit with my high school friends.

Nowadays the Avenue Theater is a church.  There aren't many public places left to go see old movies, but we have Turner Classic Movies, streaming video and DVD/Blu Ray disks.  I have had some luck showing people items from Ben Model's Accidentally Preserved series.  My wife used to teach public speaking and acting during the summer.  She always showed the acting class at least one silent comedy so they could get the idea of non-verbal acting.

Cine-Mundial, February, 1921

When Fritzi and Janet announced this blogathon, I tried to think of a good movie to write about, one that could get people interested in old movies.  I thought, who made movies that everyone found entertaining?  Who was a big star in the silent era, but isn't so well known now?  I thought of Tom Mix.

Tom Mix was the biggest cowboy star in silent movies.  In fact, he was one of the biggest stars of all.  He told many stories about his early life and most of them were not true.  His name really was Tom Mix.  He was not born in the west; he was born in Mix Run, Pennsylvania.  He did serve in the US Army during the period of the Spanish American War, but he was not one of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders and he did not serve overseas.  He did not serve in the British Army or Boer army or break horses for either side during the Boer War.  He did not serve during the Boxer Rebellion.  He was not a federal marshal, although he was a deputy sheriff for a time.  He was not a Texas Ranger until a governor gave him an honorary appointment during the 1930s.  He did serve as a cowboy on the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch and became part of their traveling wild west show.  Mix displayed wonderful talents for riding and shooting.  He was also a great showman.

In October, 1909, Tom Mix left the Miller Brothers to join the Selig Polyscope Company to make western movies.  First he played supporting parts and did stunts, but in a few years he was writing, directing and starring in movies like "An Angelic Attitude" and "Way of the Red Man." These are entertaining movies but fairly primitive.  Tom was not a very good writer or director.

In 1917, Mix left Selig and went to the Fox Film Corporation.  Mix made features for Fox, and the well-budgeted films became very popular.  There was always lots of action, lots of humor and Tony the Wonder Horse.  Most of his Fox films were destroyed in a 1937 film vault fire.  The Great K&A Train Robbery from 1926 is one of the small number that survives.  It is a good one. I decided that I would write about it for this blogathon.  

The Great K&A Train Robbery would be an excellent film to introduce people to silent movies for several reasons:

Please Note:  I was going to do some screen captures, but my dvd/blu ray drive is hors de combat

1.  Settings that are real and beautiful.  

At the beginning of the film, an intertitle says "The exterior scenes of this production were photographed in the Royal Gorge of Colorado, U.S.A."  Royal Gorge is a deep and narrow canyon on the Arkansas River.  Most of the exteriors feature the river, the walls of the canyon, and the railroad that ran through it.

2.  The railroad that ran through it. 

The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad fought for two years with the Santa Fe Railroad to determine who would build a railroad line through the narrow gorge to reach the boom town of Leadville.  The federal government intervened and the Denver and Rio Grande built the line, but had to give the Santa Fe trackage rights so they could use it, too.  The line opened for service in 1880.

The scenes of railroad action in the gorge are of particular interest to my fellow railfans because, when the Union Pacific Railroad took over the Denver and Rio Grande in 1996, it abandoned the Royal Gorge line.  In 1998, the Union Pacific sold part of the line to the Royal Gorge Railroad, a tourist train operator.

The railroad scenes also include big steam locomotives, many types of passenger, express and freight cars, a handcar, and other pieces of equipment.

3.  Lots of real action. 

The movie races along at a rapid rate and the only obvious special effect that I saw took place when Tom Mix was carrying the heroine on a horse.  The background appeared to be a cyclorama.

Film Daily, 05-October-1926
Otherwise, things were done for real.  This ad shows Tom Mix sliding across the Gorge on a rope.  That is really Tom Mix.

4.  Signs of the times when the movie was made. 

Students of sociology will be interested in the way some of the characters are presented.

Cullen is the president of the railroad. An intertitle introduces another character: "Burton Holt -- Cullen's secretary.  If he's a college man -- it must have been Vassar.  Carl Miller"  Vassar was a girl's school.  Intertitles often told who played a character.  Carl Miller had played a role in Chaplin's The Kid.  Beyond the intertitle, he didn't act in an effeminate manner, but he did get scared easily and later was made to dress in a nightshirt while in the villain's hideout.

The steward in President Cullen's private car is introduced as "Snowball -- One of the few dark clouds without a silver lining."  Notice that the name of the African-American actor playing the steward, Curtis McHenry, is not mentioned in the intertitle.  He demonstrates many stereotypes that were popular at the time.  He leaps in fright when the conductor taps his shoulder.  The conductor asks if he is scared of the robbers.  "Who, me?  No suh -- this here cullud boy is all set.  Hold me up an' ah'll germinate."  He speaks in broken English.  He demonstrates a pistol that will pop out of the back of his jacket when he pulls a string.  Later this fires unexpectedly and he jumps off the back of the train and runs away down the tracks. 

A hobo is seen under a train car, relaxing on a nice hammock.  "Deluxe Harry -- Who wouldn't think of riding under anything less than the president's car.  Harry Grippe."  Hobos, men who travel the country looking for work or just to travel the country, have been part of American popular culture since the late 19th Century.   Keep in mind that a hobo is not usually a criminal like a tramp.  Deluxe Harry later turns out to have served in World War One under Tom Mix's character.  This scene appears to have been shot underneath a railroad car, which would have been very dangerous.

5.  The leading lady is Larry Semon's wife.

Dorothy Dwan was an actress who is best remembered today for playing Dorothy in her husband's peculiar production of The Wizard of Oz.  Larry Semon was a popular comedian who lost his footing in the 1920s.  He was making a comeback as a character actor when he died in 1928 at the age of 39.

Dorothy Dwan plays Madge Cullen, the daughter of President Cullen.  She is feisty, and fights hard when Tom chases her buggy in an effort to save her from a gang which plans to kidnap her.  He is a railroad detective who pretends to be a bandit.  She has romantic notions and looks at a book that has a picture of Dick Turpin, an 18th Century British highwayman.  Tom Mix had played Dick Turpin in a 1925 movie.

Cullen wants Madge to marry Burton Holt.  Madge is nauseated by the prospect. 

6.  Tony.
"Tony -- Whose human intelligence aids his master in his perilous work" introduce Tom's horse Tony, who really was a wonder. People who love horses, and even people who don't, will love Tony.

Film Daily, 06-April-1926
 Some of their movies centered around Tony, like Tony Runs Wild

Tom goes to spy on Cullen's hacienda.  He tells Deluxe Harry to watch Tony, because Tony always wants to go with Tom.  Tom gets spotted by ranch hands and a gunfight breaks out.  Tony breaks away and runs for the house.  Deluxe Harry runs after Tony.  Tony finds Tom and Deluxe Harry in the house.  They climb on Tony's back.  Tony jumps out of a window and falls ten feet or more into the deepest lily pond I have ever seen.  They all climb out of the pond and the men mount up again.  Tony jumps over the gate carrying two men and runs down the road.

Later, Tom rides Tony along the road across the rapids from the tracks.  Tom learns that the train is going to be robbed.  Tom climbs into a hanging bucket and rides it across the river.  Tony runs along the road until he finds a bridge where he can cross.  Then Tony runs along the tracks until he finds Tom. The delighted look on Tom's face when he spots Tony appears to be genuine. 

 7.  Tom Mix
Then there was Tom Mix.  He wasn't a great actor, but he was sincere.  His smile lit up the screen.  And look at his cultural influence.  Peter Blake and Jann Haworth designed the album cover for the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, inspired by a drawing by Paul McCartney. Among the celebrities in the collage is Tom Mix.  Look for the big white hat. 

The Great K&A Train Robbery would be an excellent film to introduce people to silent movies because it has something for many different potential audiences and it moves along so quickly that no one will ever get bored.

I watched it on a Grapevine DVD with a nice quality print and an orchestral track by Lou McMahon.  For comparison, the DVD includes one of Tom's primitive Selig shorts, "An Angelic Attitude" from 1916. 

This post is part of The "Try It, You’ll Like It!" Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently ( and Janet at Sister Celluloid (  Thank you to Fritzi and Janet for all the hard work.  Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read and comment on as many posts as you can.  Bloggers love comments.  

This post is my tenth blogathon post of 2015 and my 41st since 2007.  This is my 23nd blogathon.    This page has a list of all my blogathon posts. 


  1. Interesting. I wouldn't have thought of Mix, and I'm a fan, but you make a compelling case and I'm convinced this would work. Might be a hard sell at first, but then - victory!

  2. Thank you, Caftan Woman. It's a fun movie. I'm looking forward to reading your post on Twelve Angry Men.

  3. Nice review. I haven't watched any Tom Mix movies, but your review has interested me. Especially what you've said about Tony; I've always enjoyed films featuring animal heroes.
    Plus, references to Buster Keaton AND The Beatles add coolness to your review :)
    Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. You've sold me!! I have never seen a Tom Mix film, not because I wasn't interested, but because I just haven't bothered. Well, now I'm going to bother. This looks like a terrific film. Thanks – I know I'll like this very much.

    P.S. Loved the story of you taking your future wife to the Charlie Chaplin film festival and her crying at the end of "City Lights".

  5. Thanks so much for joining in! You picked a challenging one (silent + western) but definitely made a compelling argument. And thanks for the additional fact checking on Mix. Talk about a convoluted biography!

  6. jesgear: Thank you. Tom Mix and Tony were a great team. Glad you liked having Buster and Beatles in there, too.
    Silent Screenings: Glad I could make a sale. Tom Mix had great charisma, and his movies for Fox zip right along. Glad you liked the story about City Lights. I am a lucky guy to be in love with a silent movie fan with a tender heart.
    Fritzi: Thank you for the kind words. Tom Mix's alleged biography is an important part of his entertainment value, I think.

  7. By the way to everyone: I have had a busy weekend but I will get to work Monday on reading all of your posts.

  8. My grandpa sometimes mentions Tom Mix! But he still prefers John Wayne or Randolph Scott.
    I love the scenarios and the action in silent westerns. They never fail to amaze me.
    Just one thing: I'd call the 1925 Wizard of Oz anything but "peculiar" - you were too nice with that disaster.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  9. Hi Lê. I understand what your grandpa means; it's hard to top John Wayne or Randolph Scott. I was trying to be kind about the 1925 Wizard. I'm looking forward to your post; Roman Holiday is one of my daughter's two favorite movies. I've been tied up but I'm getting started tonight.


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