Here's what the Iverson Movie Ranch obsession is all about ...

For an introduction to this blog and to the obsession a growing number of vintage film and TV fans have with the Iverson Movie Ranch — the most widely filmed outdoor location in movie and TV history — please read the site's introductory post, found here.
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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Tom Mix, superstar silent movie cowboy, Iverson Movie Ranch pioneer — and the man who made the movies safe for big hats

"Desert Love" (1920): Tom Mix and Francelia Billington near the Venice Pier

Silent movie hero Tom Mix was one of the earliest stars to be anointed "King of the Cowboys," with his silent features for Fox Film Corp. from 1917-1928 helping to define and popularize the Western genre.

Tom Mix, circa 1925 — go ahead, say something about the hat

Among his many noteworthy achievements, Mix made the movies safe for extremely large hats.

Tom Mix and his fourth wife, actress Victoria Forde (ca. 1926)

The big hat thing caught on — at least with Victoria Forde, a silent movie actress who became the fourth in a succession of five women to bear the title Mrs. Tom Mix.

"Do and Dare" (1922): Filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch?

The Tom Mix silent movies "Desert Love" in 1920 and "Do and Dare" in 1922 are said to be filmed on the Iverson Ranch, but we may never know for sure because most of Mix's silent films have been lost.

Aftermath of the 1937 Fox vault fire: All of the movies in the vault were destroyed

It's bad enough that 90 percent of the silent movies that were made have been lost anyway, but to make matters worse, a destructive fire at the 20th Century-Fox facility in Little Ferry, N.J., in 1937 wiped out virtually all of the early Fox Film Corp. catalog — including most of Tom Mix's 86 movies for the studio.

Promo still for "Painted Post" (1928): An elaborate stunt setup near the Garden of the Gods

One Tom Mix silent movie we do know was filmed at Iverson is "Painted Post." The movie itself is extremely hard to track down — anyone out there have a connection at Cineteca Italiana in Milan? — but this remarkable promo still turned up recently in Marc Wanamaker's Bison Archives.

A number of interesting features can be identified in the photo, starting with the familiar rock towers of the movie ranch's famed Garden of the Gods. The shot is taken with the camera facing south.

Also identifiable in the "Painted Post" photo is the distinctive square shape of a fake rock house that was in place for much of the silent film era.

"Three Ages" (Buster Keaton, 1923): The fake rock house is featured

This early movie set is featured prominently in the 1923 Buster Keaton movie "Three Ages," but the set was in place at least as far back as 1920. Click here to learn more about the fake rock house.

The "Forde-12" production number designates a series of Fox Film Corp. releases directed by Eugene Forde. Both Forde and Tom Mix left Fox after "Painted Post," but the two men continued to work together.

Tom Mix with wife Victoria Forde and mother-in-law Eugenie Forde (1921)

Moviemaking was a family affair for the Mix clan. Director Eugene Forde was Victoria Forde's brother and Mix's brother-in-law, while Eugene and Victoria's mom, Mix's mother-in-law, was silent movie actress Eugenie Forde.

Two structures seen in the "Painted Post" promo still are part of an elaborate compound of buildings installed north of Garden of the Gods to pull off a stunt involving a falling oil derrick.

Photo of falling oil derrick, found in Popular Science Monthly (1935)

A third building — the largest of the group, not counting the oil derrick itself — appears at the right in this photo from a Popular Science article about stuntmen published in 1935. The photo shows the oil derrick as it begins to fall, with a stuntman — identified as Matt Gilman — positioned near the top of the derrick.

The Popular Science photo reveals the trick construction of the building supporting the oil derrick — the roof and wall of the building break away as the derrick goes into a controlled fall.

The building at the right is also "tricked out" to facilitate the stunt, as the Popular Science article explains.

Here's how the photo appears in the magazine. The caption reads: "Riding the top of this falling oil derrick, Matt Gilman leaped through a hole cut in the roof of the building at the right, and landed safely in a life net."

Page one of the Popular Science article

I'm including the complete Popular Science article, which runs three pages long. Most of it's not about the Iverson Ranch, but if you want to read it, click on the images to see a larger version.

Page two of the Popular Science article

The article does not name the movie containing the oil derrick stunt, so it wasn't until the "Painted Post" promo still turned up a few years later that the identity of the movie became known.

Page three of the Popular Science article

The promo still was an exciting find, revealing another extremely rare silent movie that we now know was filmed on the ranch. Now if only we could track down a copy of "Painted Post."

Zooming in on the top of the oil derrick in the promo still — which is much clearer here than in the Popular Science photo — I have to wonder whether it's the stuntman or Tom Mix himself. This guy looks a lot like Mix.

Could it be Tom Mix up there?

Mix was known for insisting on doing his own stunts, but I doubt the studio would have let him try this one. Even so, I have to wonder whether Popular Science got it right about who exactly was up on top of the derrick.

The man in the promo still is holding what looks like either a communication device or a "detonator" to put the oil derrick in motion. I was thinking it might be a walkie-talkie, but they hadn't been invented yet. Any theories?

"The Miracle Rider" (Mascot, 1935): Tom Mix's last movie, and an Iverson spectacle

The centerpiece of the Tom Mix filmography on the Iverson Ranch remains the 1935 Mascot serial "The Miracle Rider," which has been discussed previously on this blog. Mix made the movie late in his career, at age 55.

"Tom Mix Rock," on the Iverson Movie Ranch

One part of the Tom Mix legacy is literally etched in stone on the Iverson Ranch, on a rock near the Garden of the Gods that's known today as "Tom Mix Rock." (I will admit to being at least partly to blame for the rock's name.)

"The Miracle Rider" (Mascot serial, 1935): Tom Mix on Tom Mix Rock

Two holes that were carved into the rock in 1935 so Mix could place his boots in them can still be found at the site. You can click here to see the story behind this unusual rock.

William S. Hart

Tom Mix is sometimes called the first of the big cowboy heroes of the movies, but that's not quite true. In the early silent era, William S. Hart was the man.

"The Return of Draw Egan" (1916): William S. Hart and Margery Wilson

Hart was known for his realistic representation of the cowboy, in contrast to the flashier Western hero — in a bigger hat — who would evolve into the movie cowboy archetype thanks in large part to Tom Mix.

"The Silent Man" (1917): William S. Hart and Vola Vale in one of the earliest known Iverson movies

Hart paved the way more than 100 years ago for Tom Mix and other "Johnny-come-lately" cowboy actors on the Iverson Movie Ranch, making movies there at least as far back as 1917.

But even though William S. Hart appears to be the first in a long line of superstar movie cowboys to find steady work on the Iverson Ranch, neither he nor Tom Mix could lay claim to being the movies' first big cowboy hero.

Broncho Billy Anderson — the movies' first cowboy hero

The first cowboy star was Broncho Billy Anderson, and when we say "first," we mean it literally. He was in the movie that pretty much started the motion picture industry, "The Great Train Robbery," way back in 1903.

Ad for "A Gambler of the West" (1910), starring Broncho Billy Anderson and Clara Williams

I've never been able to place Broncho Billy on the Iverson Ranch, and he probably never worked there. His pioneering film work as an actor, director, writer and producer predates not only Iverson but also Hollywood.

Broncho Billy

Born Maxwell Henry Aronson in Little Rock, Ark., Broncho Billy wasn't a "real" cowboy. It's been said that he couldn't even ride a horse at the time "The Great Train Robbery" was made.

"Western Hearts" (1912): Broncho Billy Anderson and Vedah Bertram

But Broncho Billy — sometimes spelled "Bronco" Billy — became a key player in the early movie business, and almost single-handedly diverted the film industry from Hollywood to Northern California.

Along with acquiring cowboy skills, he went through a series of name changes, first assuming the stage name Gilbert M. Anderson. But he played Broncho Billy in so many movies that he took on the character's identity.

Above is a two-minute clip that includes footage from "The Great Train Robbery," along with Broncho Billy Anderson himself talking about the movie and how the audience responded to it.

Essanay Studios logo

Anderson was a partner in the Essanay Film Manufacturing Co., an influential Chicago-based studio founded in 1907. The studio's name is a spelled-out version of "S and A," signifying partners Anderson and George K. Spoor.

Essanay headquarters in Niles, Calif., ca. 1912-1920

The studio set up West Coast operations by 1909, initially migrating seasonally between Northern and Southern California. But Anderson wanted to live in the Bay Area, so in 1912 Essanay built a headquarters in Niles, Calif.

The company already had a star in Broncho Billy, but it scored a coup in late 1914 when the studio lured Charlie Chaplin, one of the biggest stars of the era, away from Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios.

Chaplin's comedies made during his one-year stint at Essanay proved to be durable hits, and are still widely seen today. I'll include a link to a DVD and Blu-ray set of Chaplin's Essanay comedies at the bottom of this post.

The landmark Chaplin movie from this period is "The Tramp," released on April 12, 1915. Often cited as one of Chaplin's most important films, it launched his signature "Little Tramp" character.

"The Tramp" (Essanay, 1915): The iconic closing sequence

The final image in "The Tramp" finds Chaplin's character walking down a lonely dirt road. I don't have personal knowledge of the location, but I'm almost sure the scene would have been shot in Niles Canyon.

"The Tramp" — Anyone interested in looking for a pipe?

This is the kind of thing almost nobody has the time to pursue, but I would love to know where this scene was shot — and whether that big pipe is still there. Here again, I'd begin the search in Niles Canyon.

Three big Essanay stars (L-R): Francis X. Bushman, Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson

Along with Chaplin and Broncho Billy, the Essanay star roster included Francis X. Bushman, seen here in 1915. Other big names on the company payroll at various times included Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson.

"Adventures of Buffalo Bill," starring William F. Cody (Essanay, 1917)

Essanay was a prolific operation, producing some 2,000 movies from 1907-1920, and establishing Niles, Calif., as an early hub of the film industry.

But the industry eventually coalesced in L.A. anyway — in no small part because it wasn't as rainy as the Bay Area. And through a series of mergers, Essanay eventually became a part of Warner Bros.

"Vera, the Medium" (1917) — produced and directed by Broncho Billy

After hundreds of "Broncho Billy" movies, Gilbert M. Anderson shifted his focus to producing and directing ...

William S. Hart (promo still for "Tumbleweeds," 1925)

... and William S. Hart soon rode past Broncho Billy to become the movies' most popular cowboy star.

Tom Mix at the races with Victoria Forde — and another enormous hat

Hart, too, would in turn be eclipsed — by Tom Mix, who became one of the biggest celebrities of his era.

Mix, who inspired multiple comic book series celebrating his exploits, was declared the "King of the Cowboys" long before Roy Rogers would inherit the title.

His time as a comic book hero would extend well beyond his years as a movie star, and even beyond his death. The issue in which Mix warned of the "Death Pass of Earthquake Hills" came out in 1952, 12 years after he died.

Mix's comic book heroics would also extend beyond his familiar role as a cowboy. The "Tom Mix Commandos" comics placed him in various World War II-like settings even though he died before the U.S. entered the war.

And it didn't stop there. In other "Commandos" issues, Tom Mix — or rather, a shirtless beefcake bearing little resemblance to Mix but using his name — might be seen fending off terrifying flying dragons.

Tom Mix encourages kids to bug their moms for some Ry-Krisp

It was all part of a sprawling multimedia Tom Mix industry. As an icon to a generation of kids, Mix became the focus of one of the largest celebrity merchandising campaigns in history.

The campaign included a "genuine" Tom Mix cowboy outfit — even though it seems unlikely that Tom himself ever wore camo pajamas as cowboy pants. Note the unsubtle parental guilt-tripping, "Your Boy Wants This Suit."

If you were lucky enough to get a pair of the Tom Mix children's cowboy boots, they came in a gorgeous box featuring a color portrait of Mix on his horse Tony.

Taking a look inside the box today, one thing we can say for sure is those boots saw some use.

Tom Mix-branded Hot Ralston whole wheat cereal

Much of the Tom Mix marketing operation was orchestrated by the cereal company Ralston, which entered into a partnership with the cowboy that included plastering his face all over its products.

The master stroke was the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters Club, which had Mix's young fan base convinced they all wanted to be "Straight Shooters."

You could make sure you were a Straight Shooter by sending in Ralston box tops for a wide range of Tom Mix-branded junk: stamps, pocket knives, flashlights, signal kits and much, much more.

The Straight Shooters had their own comic book series, too.

Ad on the back of the Ralston Straight Shooters Tom Mix Comics (1942)

On the back of the Straight Shooters comic book was an ad that would clearly be considered racist today, touting the vitamin B1 in Ralston wheat cereal and proclaiming that the cereal "am magnoliscious."

The mom card gets played again too, and in a shockingly racist manner: "An' your mammy'll be mighty pleased if you axes her to git you some o' dat golden brown Ralston next time she shops!"

The Tom Mix merch machine flooded the market with catalogs, prompting his young fans to lust after Tom Mix-branded items they otherwise would have had no idea they "needed."

"Tom Mix Trading Post" on the back of the cereal box (circa 1949)

The back of the cereal box, meanwhile, became the "Tom Mix Trading Post," where still more products could be hawked: Tom Mix T-shirts, Tom Mix spurs, glow-in-the-dark belts and a variety of useless trinkets.

For enough box tops, along with a little bit of allowance money, you could own a Tom Mix-approved miniature RCA Victor TV set and a Magic-Light Tiger-Eye Ring that "glows like a ferocious animal eye at night."

A more practical kid might might decide he or she just had to have a Tom Mix pencil.

Tom Mix "telephone" (circa 1938)

How about a Tom Mix telephone set, which ran on the same principle as the old Dixie-Cup-and-string model. By the way, a lot of this stuff can still be found, so if you see something you want, be sure to check eBay.

All kinds of Tom Mix weaponry could be purchased back in the '30s, but the "Me & My Buddy Pistols" were among the more unusual pieces in the arsenal.

The toy gun carried around its own toy cowboy who in turn carried his own toy gun. Here's a closeup of the "Me & My Buddy" message emblazoned on the toy-within-a-toy.

A less whimsical option was the Tom Mix Signature wooden pistol set sold in the early 1930s.

The Tom Mix Straight Shooters logo

Along with the Tom Mix signature, the pistols bore the special Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters logo.

1933 model Tom Mix Signature Revolver

A more realistic variation, the Tom Mix Signature Revolver, had a wooden handle, and once again featured Tom's signature and the Straight Shooters logo.

The Tom Mix "bullet telescope" and bird call

Keeping with the munitions theme, this Tom Mix telescope — one of several different Tom Mix telescopes that were sold over the years — was made to look like a bullet. It also came with a bird call.

Tom Mix "bullet flashlight"

You could also get a Tom Mix flashlight in the shape of a bullet, complete with the Straight Shooters logo.

"Signal Arrowhead" ad promises "22 ways to signal your friends"

A cartoon version of Tom pitched a sparkly arrowhead-shaped doo-dad — some kind of signaling device that included a magnifying glass, train whistle and fire siren — all for only 15 cents (plus one Ralston box top).

Ralston Straight Shooter magnifying glass and compass

Speaking of magnifying glasses, the Tom Mix product line included multiple variants. This one came with a tiny compass on one side and the Ralston Straight Shooter imprint on the other.

A sales flier for a different model of magnifying glass-compass combo announced that the item glowed in the dark — which is usually code for "cheap plastic junk."

The marketers often went to great lengths to ensure that they roped in as many girls as possible, along with Tom's core audience of adolescent boys.

The overhyped glow-in-the-dark magnifying glass and compass

Sure enough, when the piece arrived, it probably wasn't quite as impressive as expected. Here's a shot of it along with a number of other Tom Mix items — a spur, part of the phone set and a Wrangler badge.

If you already had everything else, you could still get a Tom Mix periscope and a mystery ring. The ring had a secret picture of Tom Mix and his beloved horse Tony hidden inside it.

Tom Mix Straight Shooters of America Secret Manual

The real insiders in the Straight Shooters Club had a secret manual. I don't know what was in it — it's a secret. But I have a feeling it included instructions for sending in box tops.

Tom Mix secret code device

Secretiveness was sort of a theme running through much of the Straight Shooters activities. Owning the Tom Mix secret decoder was a must.

Tom Mix decoder badge

If you didn't have the secret decoder — and even if you did — you still had to have the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters of America "brass" six-gun decoder badge — each one with its own serial number.

Tom Mix/Ralston Wheat Cereal good luck spinner

The good luck spinner was part of the 1933 product line. When you spin it, it reveals a secret "Good Luck" message — and I think it might also reveal the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters logo again.

Tom Mix rocket parachute

The club's single biggest secret may have been simply to get Mom to keep buying Ralston cereal so you could keep sending in box tops — if for no other reason than to make sure you could own a Tom Mix rocket parachute.

Or you could send for a sack of Tom Mix marbles and have Tom urge you yet again to eat Ralston cereal.

Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooter badges, circa 1937-1938

Another reward for loyally sending in box tops was you could earn any of a number of badges — and the badges were ranked. I assume "Ranch Boss" is the highest rank in this batch, while "Wrangler" is probably entry-level.

Another way to get your Tom Mix on was by owning your own Tom Mix makeup kit.

The kit came with instructions on how to do blackface and how to become characters such as "Chinaman," "Rube," "Good Time Gertie" and "Senorita." Obviously, much of this would be frowned upon today.

Tom Mix belt buckle with secret compartment

Once you got made up like Tom Mix, you could put on any of a number of different Tom Mix belt buckles. This one included a secret compartment in the back.

Tom Mix Deputy Ring (1933)

The Tom Mix Deputy Ring was just one of too many different Tom Mix rings to even get into, but suffice to say there were Straight Shooter rings, "musical" rings and rings that could help crack a code, among others.

In connection with the deputy ring, the Tom Mix marketing machine also introduced the "Tom Mix Certificate," which came inside Tom Mix Chewing Gum packages.

That's right, Tom Mix Chewing Gum was a thing too.

It's almost as though they were seeing just how far they could push the kids. It took a whopping 75 Tom Mix Certificates to get the "free" deputy ring, an indication that kids must have been chewing a LOT of gum back then.

Tom Mix "Miracle Rider" button (ca. 1935)

One of the most mystifying Tom Mix trinkets had to be the "Miracle Rider" button, complete with dual swastikas. "Miracle Rider" was released in 1935, around the time the swastika was rising to prominence in Nazi Germany.

If you were put off by the swastikas but still wanted a Tom Mix button, there were a number of other ways to go, including this kind of sweet one featuring Tom and Tony.

Tony was also featured on a pretty nice Tom Mix pocket watch.

Tom Mix card game (1928)

There was a Tom Mix card game ...

Tom Mix jigsaw puzzle (1930s)

Tom Mix jigsaw puzzles — this one from the 1930s features Tony Jr.

Tom Mix booklets aplenty ...

And full-length books based on Tom Mix's movies, for the more serious young readers in the audience.

Even decades after his death, books inspired by Tom Mix were being published. This one by Clifford Irving, the notorious Howard Hughes "fake autobiographer," came out in 1981.

Tom Mix was featured on records ...

... and in a bunch of 16MM movies sold to kids to be played on toy projectors.

Durable Toys put out Tom Mix movies for kids in something called "Duracolor."

The bad news was you had to get a pretty heavy-duty Duracolor projector to play them.

A number of countries, including the United States, issued Tom Mix postage stamps.

When the U.S. Postal Service put out a special "Cowboys of the Silver Screen" stamp set back in 2010, Mix was one of the four cowboys chosen for the honor, along with Roy Rogers, William S. Hart and Gene Autry.

Mix was also part of a similar stamp set issued by Mali. That's Tom at top right, in the big hat.

"Tom Mix and Tony" rocking horse

It was said that Tony, who was billed in the movies as "Tony the Wonder Horse," was almost as famous as Tom Mix. So naturally, Tony became an integral part of the merchandising program.

The rolling version of the Tom Mix rocking horse

Both rocking and rolling versions of the Tony hobby horse were sold, and they all featured Tom Mix in his big hat, on the horse's ... um ... quarterpanel?

But here again, the marketers ran into an issue with color. Apparently they figured they could sell more rockin' 'n' rollin' Tonys if they lightened up his complexion.

Tom Mix and Tony the Wonder Horse

In the real world, there was no doubt that Tony was a dark horse. Consequently, the Tony hobby horses don't look anything like the actual Tony, which seems like an odd choice.

The Tom Mix Stetson hat

A key question when it comes to Tom Mix merch would naturally be: Could you get one of those giant hats to wear on your own dang head? And the answer is a big "Yew betcha!"

It isn't just any Stetson — it's the Tom Mix Stetson.

Mix even appeared in ads for Stetsons — big Stetsons.

Tom and Tony as the Sells-Floto Circus' star attraction, early 1930s

It may have been inevitable that a guy who was so into big hats would be drawn to the big top. Mix scaled back on his movie work in the early sound era and pursued his childhood dream of joining the circus.

And the merchandising continued: The Sells-Floto souvenir program all about Mix went for 15 cents — a tidy sum in the early 1930s.

Tom Mix with Comanche at the Sells-Floto Circus (1930)

I suppose Tony was getting up in years, and who knows what Tony Jr. was up to at the time, but Tom Mix briefly worked with a different horse, Comanche, while he was with the Sells-Floto Circus.

Tom apparently liked the circus business. He bought his own circus in 1935 and went full time, leaving the movie business in his rear-view mirror after one last Iverson Movie Ranch spectacle, "The Miracle Rider."

Here's a book that commemorates Tom Mix's circus years but still gives him a chance to punch out one of the locals on the Barbary Coast.

Tom Mix "arboglpyh" in New Mexico

Mix was so famous that even the trees told his stories. A Tom Mix arboglyph in the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico, complete with big hat, is dated 1936. "Arboglyph" was a new vocabulary word for me.

Postcard of Tom Mix's house

A number of Tom Mix's homes over the years wound up on postcards. This house in what is now Silver Lake, Calif., where Tom lived early in his silent film career, is still standing — at 1610 Golden Gate Ave.

Tom Mix's mansion in Beverly Hills

A later postcard shows what Tom was apparently saving up his Ralston box tops for: a mansion in Beverly Hills with plenty of room for his hats. The mansion, however, did not survive.

Tom Mix with his Cord Phaeton

And of course, neither did Tom. After Tony, one of his big passions was his super-fast 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton, and it proved to be his undoing.

Mix was killed in a freak accident on Oct. 12, 1940, while driving the Cord on U.S. Highway 80 out of Tucson, Ariz., headed north toward Phoenix. Newspapers broke out the big block letters to announce his death.

Mix's sudden death at age 60 was bigger news than the war in Europe and the Nazis' seizure of Bucharest — but then, so were the college football scores.

Tom Mix's Cord on the wrecker's hook after the fatal crash

Photos of the banged-up Cord didn't quite tell the story: When the car swerved near a washed-out bridge and wound up in a gully, an aluminum suitcase stowed in the back flew out and hit Mix, breaking his neck.

The Tom Mix death car — fully restored

Once Mix died in it, his car became famous. It was eventually restored to show car condition.

Book about Tom Mix's car

The car then became the subject of its own book. Note the aluminum suitcase featured on the cover.

Tom Mix memorial near Florence, Ariz.

The gully where Mix died, located south of Florence, Ariz., was renamed Tom Mix Wash, and in 1947 they put up a memorial to the fallen cowboy. Tony Jr. was supposedly the model for the horse on the memorial.

Here's a look at the plaque on the memorial.

The memorial site even features a picnic table and barbecue so people can take their time and enjoy a meal — and maybe knock back a few cold ones (unless they're driving) — while they reminisce about the life of Tom Mix.

Mix's birthplace in Pennsylvania has a plaque, too.

Tom Mix's horse Tony attends Mix's funeral (1940)

One of the more poignant photos to surface from around the time of Tom Mix's death shows a tractor towing a cart containing Tony, Mix's beloved mount and longtime pal, at the cowboy's funeral.

Below is a link to a DVD and Blu-ray set featuring Charlie Chaplin's Essanay comedies, discussed above, along with the Tom Mix serial "The Miracle Rider," filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch, and some Tom Mix DVD sets.