When you think of the American cowboy, a certain image springs to mind. You picture a stalwart, clean living hero astride a noble horse who is always ready to right wrongs and champion the cause of justice. Such westerners may have populated the real West but most likely the abovementioned description owes its existence to… TOM MIX. Tom Mix was the first of the colorful, escapist motion picture cowboys.
He was also the most successful. It is hard to measure that success by today’s standards. At the peak of his motion picture career he was paid in excess of $17,000.00 per week, a sum greater than any other salary earned by a Western star. Consider that at this point in history, circa 1920, the average hourly wage was 30 or 40 cents. Movie theater tickets were a nickel or a dime. This was before income tax. Tom Mix made millions for every studio that contracted him. He was one of the most popular men in the country loved by children and adults alike. His juvenile fan club boasted two million members.
His film career spanned 25 years from 1910 to 1935. During that time he starred in between 300 and 400 films. An exact number is not known as few of his films exist today. Many of them have deteriorated and others were disposed of by the studios. Regardless of the precise count, Tom Mix‘s film output was phenomenal.
Thomas Hezekiah Mix was born near Mix Run, Cameron County, Pennsylvania on January 6, 1880. His real life was as adventurous as any created for a screen play. So much of Tom‘s early life adventures are intermingled with later studio publicity that a true picture of just what was what is hard to ascertain. He was born, of Scotch and Cherokee Indian extraction in Pennsylvania.
In 1904, Tom Mix met, fell in love with and married a teacher named Grace Allin. Complications led to him deserting and heading west to become a cowboy. Allin‘s father had the marriage annulled.
Later that year Tom was a drum major with the Oklahoma Calvary Band and performed at the St. Louis World’s Fair. There he met Will Rogers and the two remained friends until Roger‘s death in 1935.
Tom was attracted to ranch life and worked hard to be accepted as a cowboy. He saw rodeo performing as a great challenge and rose to the task. He became a fine roper and a champion class rodeo contestant. After joining the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show, Tom married Kitty Perinne. They were divorced a year later and Tom started chasing champion rodeo girl, Lucile Mulhall. This romance was stopped by the girl’s father who ran Tom off with a gun.
Mix‘s first break in motion pictures came when the Setig Polyscope Company began filming “Ranch Life in the Great Southwest“, a movie that contained some of the earliest live rodeo scenes ever filmed. Mix talked the director into letting him do a bronc busting sequence and the rest was history. The film makers wanted action and Tom Mix gave it to them with, a capital “A.” Heretofore the reigning western film star was William S. Hart, who presented a realistic, austere portrayal of frontier life. Tom Mix was a robust showman who delighted in daredevil stunts and horseback acrobatics. It was new, exciting escapist cinema. The audiences, especially the kids, loved it.
Mix was the first to introduce the horse as a superstar, too. His first show horse, Old Blue, performed several tricks on camera and became a star in his own right. Tom‘s second horse, Tony, was the true superstar. Tony was the most popular horse in the world, was the most photographed horse and helped his master earn millions during their film career. In 1932, while filming “Hidden Gold“, the wonder horse injured his hip and had to be retired. He was replaced by Tony, Jr. who carried Tom through the remainder of his career.
Tom did all of his own stunts and he and Tony became the most action packed duo on the silver screen. The Mix films were loaded with fantastic stunts, furious fights, romance, colorful locations and an element of comedy. After 7 years with Selig, Tom was offered a lucrative contract by William Fox so he signed with Fox Films in 1918. He turned out 6 to 8 pictures a year during the 10 years he was with Fox. He changed forever the Western format and by 1921 he became known as “THE KING OF THE COWBOYS” (a title later bestowed on Roy Rogers). William S. Hart retired in 1925 so Tom‘s title was undisputed. He became the idol of every boy and girl in the country. The example Mix set on the screen, that of a straight shooting, non drinking, non smoking, non swearing champion of fair play, set the mold for a legion of screen cowboys to come.
In private life, Mix was quite different. His films made him wealthy and so he lived life to the hilt. He had a Hollywood mansion with his name emblazoned in Neon lights. He loved fast sports cars, parties and fancy dress. Another big love of his life was the circus. As a great showman, he loved the live performances along the sawdust trail. Tom left Fox and did handful of films for Film Booking Office in 1928-29. This was the beginning of the sound era for pictures and Tom, like many other film actors, was unsure of his future in talkies. In 1929, the Sells-Floto Wild West Show made him an offer that guaranteed his future for the next few years… $10,000 a week to headline their traveling show. Tom gladly accepted and toured with the wild west show until 1932 when Universal Pictures wooed him back to the movie capital. The offer was $10,000 a week so Tom took on the talkies. He made 9 sound films for that company. Rumor had it that Tom‘s voice was high pitched and not suited for sound films. This was untrue as the cowboy star had a deep, husky voice. He declined to star in the long running TOM MIX radio show not because of his voice but because radio acting was such a low paying profession.
Tom was still doing his stunts even though he was now in his fifties. During his professional career he racked up a total of 80 injuries. He survived many shootings, twenty two knife wounds, a fractured skull, a dynamite explosion and others too numerous to recount. The Ralston Purina Company, sponsor of the Tom Mix radio program, even offered a premium diagramming their star’s many injuries.
There is no doubt that Tom Mix could have continued making films despite his age and injuries. Any studio would have been glad to have him. His popularity was simply enormous. Instead, Tom chose to go back to the circus and the thrill of performing to live audiences. In 1934 he purchased an interest in the Samuel B. Gill Circus and changed its name to the Tom Mix Circus. With his own circus, Tom toured through America, Canada and Mexico.
In 1935, Tom Mix made his last film. It was a 15 episode serial for Mascot Studios entitled “The Miracle Rider.”
Three years later, Tom‘s circus merged with the Sells-Floto traveling show and he continued to tour. After a performance on October 12, 1940 in Tucson, Arizona, Tom was driving alone in his custom made Cord high performance automobile when he suffered a fatal accident. He swerved at 50 miles per hour to avoid a road crew. A metal suitcase in the back of the car was flung forward and struck the Western star in the back of the head. This freak accident broke Tom‘s neck. Suddenly, the greatest Western star in the history of the cinema was dead at age 60. His faithful steed Tony Sr., who had retired in 1932, died two years later to the day… October 12, 1942.
The phenomenal popularity of Tom Mix lived on, however. The radio program continued through 1950… 10 years beyond his death. His comic book, began in 1947, continued until 1953, ceasing only because the publisher dropped its comic book line. Another generation grew up with Tom Mix through radio and comics.
Tom‘s popularity is still good box office. The recent Blake Edwards‘ film SUNSET told a fictional account of the meeting of Wyatt Earp (played by James Garner) and Tom Mix (Bruce Willis). Tom Mix still has thousands of fans. The greatest Tom Mix fan was Dr. Richard Seiveriing of Hershey, Pennsylvania. In 1980 he established the National Tom Mix Festival held annually in Dubois, Pa. Over 10,000 people attend the six day event where Tom Mix films are shown and collectors peruse memorabilia. John Samorajczyk in Maryland heads an International Tom Mix Fan Club complete with newsletters and premiums. AC COMICS has produced a copy of TOM MIX WESTERN, the first Tom Mix comic book in 35 years, to introduce this great Western hero to a new generation of fans. Tom Mix will ride on forever!