We’ve seen the ladies – now let’s look at the silent era’s men of action.
First and foremost, of course, is Douglas Fairbanks.
Here he is, turning a pulp magazine story by Johnston McCulley into a couple of international archetypes – the man in black and, I think, the playboy/crime fighter** characters did not exist in our culture until The Mark of Zorro came out in 1920:
** Actually, in some versions of the Batman story, this (or the 1940 version) was the film Bruce Wayne’s parents took him to see the night they were murdered.
Bronco Billy Anderson
It didn’t begin with Fairbanks, though.
Most action movies in the American silent era were actually Westerns, and Thomas Edison reportedly started the film genre with Brush Between Cowboys and Indians (I couldn’t find any video).
Then came The Great Train Robbery, made by Edison and directed by Edwin Porter. It’s still pretty interesting today, with hand-tinted FX and a “gotcha” ending, but pay special note the traveler who gets shot and the tenderfoot who’s made to “dance”:
That’s actor Gilbert Anderson, and he played one of the bandits as well as the shot passenger and the dancing tenderfoot.
He went on to help found Essanay Studios, where he played many characters in the studio’s 300 or so films but achieved fame with “Bronco Billy,” the first cowboy film star.
In numerous one reel dramas from 1910 to 1916, Broncho Billy set the standards for Western cowboys: shy with the ladies, good with a gun, fearless in the face of evil, and daring on a horse. He also began the practice of colorful names for Western heroes, and was followed by cowboys named Tex, Hoot, Sunset, Crash, Whip, and Red.
(from “Western Heroes“)
Today, Bronco Billy has a YouTube playlist!
Tom Mix and William S. Hart
Two men who would become huge action stars in the coming decades were also working their way up the ladder as the 20th century dawned.
Tom Mix – a real cowboy whose onscreen persona was anything but realistic – got his film break in 1909’s The Cowboy Millionaire, while William S. Hart – New York Shakespearean actor and pal of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson – started making short films in 1914 and soon got into features. In 1915 and 1916, Hart was said to be the biggest money-making star in the US.
Let’s look at their best known films.
Sky High (1922)
I have to be honest – I just can’t get into Mix and always get hung up on the racism in the opening scenes of this movie.
That said, he helped many people break into the business. Perhaps most notably he got a washed-up USC football player named Marion Morrison a job in the prop department at his studio. Morrison attracted the attention of director John Ford, who eventually changed the kid’s name to Wayne – John Wayne.
That’s quite a legacy in and of itself, but Mix was also the first Hollywood Western megastar and left a strong impression on all the Western writers, directors and actors who followed.
Sky High is one of the first movies to feature aerial photography of the Grand Canyon. It’s also set in contemporary (but Western-style) times, and it’s definitely got a lot of action.
Per Hans Wollstein at Rotten Tomatoes:
Tom Mix went the Douglas Fairbanks route with this silent West, augmenting the usual sagebrush melodramatics with a clear sense of comedy, even satire. The tale of an immigration officer battling a gang smuggling Chinese labor across the border from Mexico was merely an excuse for Mix to perform a series of fanciful stunts, including scaling the Grand Canyon on horseback and rescuing the heroine from an airplane. Diehard Western fans decried the lack of realism but audiences flocked to see this film which, more than perhaps any other, changed Mix from a popular Western star into an internationally recognized showman.
Here’s Sky High – apparently the original print is pretty worn, but it’s still watchable. This one is truly silent, so use your imagination!
Hart was the opposite of showman Tom Mix – authenticity was his byword.
Hart’s films are iconic and immediately recognizable. Known for their gritty realism, they featured dilapidated and dusty sets, sweeping landscapes, minimal action, and plain, drab, utilitarian costumes. In other words, they portray the Old West as Hart remembered from his childhood. Furthermore, Hart himself is credited for creating the role of the “good bad guy” – a character that starts out living an immoral life (outlaw, gambler, etc…) but has a heart of gold, and is eventually set on the path of good, clean, honest living by the end of the movie.
Hell’s Hinges is typical Hart, but Tumbleweeds is what he’s remembered for today.
You’ve probably seen the land-rush scene already – I’ve watched it in commercials and other movies. It’s a breakneck race of wagons, buggies and horses cross-country when the Cherokee Strip is opened up.
This movie is so authentic, particularly in the opening scenes, you’d swear you’re watching a reality show. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit into the Roaring Twenties very well.
With Fairbanks buckling his swash all over the place, and Mix dazzling everybody with thrill-a-minute, impossible action, audiences were more into escapism than gritty morality tales, even when acted superbly. Hart had to finance the movie with his own money, and it did only so-so at the box office – a far cry from his 1915-16 glory days.
Things went better when they re-released Tumbleweeds in 1939. Its story of vanishing jobs and changing times now resonated with a public that had been through the Great Depression.
Hart recorded an introduction to the 1939 release. It was his first sound appearance, and the Shakespearean training comes through loud and clear. Although it was the man’s farewell to Westerns and therefore to be respected, it’s also kind of over the top.
The version below starts at the end of that (Hart is walking away from the camera) and then goes right into the movie.
Other Action Heroes?
There may have been other action heroes back in the day. It’s a little hard to tell now. Have I missed anyone?