"Broncho Billy" - Filmdom's 1st Cowboy Star
For more than a century, one of Hollywood’s perennial character-types has been the cowboy. Indeed, much of the world “knows and understands” the American West through our cowboy stars. From the flash, white-hatted Tom Mix, the "good bad man" William S. Hart, daffy Hoot Gibson and the gentlemanly Fred Thomson in the silent era; to square-jawed Richard Dix, the prototypical John Wayne (born Marion Michael Morrison) the singing Oron Grover "Gene" Autry, drunken Ken Maynard and all-American Roy Rogers (Leonard Slye) in the era of talkies; and James Arness ("Matt Dillon"), Clayton Moore ("The Lone Ranger)", Clint Eastwood ("Rowdy Yates"and James Garner ("Bret Maverick") in the television era, cowboys rode and roped, saved towns and strummed guitars (at one point during his interminable apprenticeship even John Wayne played a singing cowboy called “Singing Sandy”), saved maidens and embodied all that which was best, bravest and most heroic about the American West. And we got to know their horses as well:
- “Tony” (Tom Mix),
- “Pinto Ben” (William S Hart)
- “Midnight” (Hoot Gibson)
- “Silver King” (Fred Thomson)
- “Dice” (Richard Dix)
- “Duke” (John Wayne - who gave him his nickname. It's an inside Hollywood joke: "even, Duke, his horse, was a better actor . . .")
- “Champion: (Gene Autry)
- “Tarzan” (Ken Maynard)
- “Trigger” (Roy Rogers)
- “Buck” “Marshall Dillon")
- “Silver” (“The Lone Ranger”)
- “Jouster” ("Rowdy Yates")
- “El Loaner” (“Bret Maverick”)
They were all – with the possible exception of William S. Hart, filmdom’s first and greatest “good bad man”- the epitome of courage, morality and erect, ramrod righteousness. Collectively, they portrayed a type of American icon known from Tirana to Turkmenistan and from Christchurch to Cairo.
Of course, few were real westerners; they were actors portraying cowboys:
- Tom Mix was from Pennsylvania and fought in the Spanish-American war;
- William. S. Hart came from Upstate New York, and before entering movies was a renowned stage actor who starred in the original 1899 production of Ben Hur;
- Fred Thomson (the husband of Mary Pickford’s favorite screenwriter) was a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary;
- John Wayne played football at USC (along with future Western perennial Ward Bond)'
- Gary Cooper, the son of a Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court, was educated in England and worked as a cartoonist;
- James Stewart was a graduate of Princeton;
- Richard Dix (Ernest Brimmer) studied to be a surgeon at the University of Minnesota.
Then there were the classic movie stars (both male and female) who - unbelievably - did make at least one western:
- James Cagney ("The Oklahoma Kid," 1939)
- Edward G. Robinson ("The Violent Men," 1954)
- Humphry Boart ("Virginia City," (1940)
- Barbara Stanwyck ("Annie Oakley," 1935)
- Jack Benny ("Buck Benny Rides Again," 1940)
- Rita Hayworth ("Trouble in Texas," 1937)
- Carole Lombard ("The Arizona Kid." 1930)
- Spencer Tracy ("Broken Lance," 1954)
- Fred MacMurray ("Day of the Bad Man," 1954)
Unquestionably, the least prepossessing of all cowboy stars was the very first: “Broncho Billy” Anderson (that’s him in the photo at the beginning of this essay). Known to the public as “Gilbert M. Anderson,” this pot-bellied six-footer knew next to nothing about guns and when it came to horses, knew less than nothing. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, the movie world’s first cowboy star (and first Jewish star of any kind) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1880. His real name was Maxwell Henry Aronson. At the turn of the century, the 20-year old , Max moved to New York, where he became a photographer’s model and did a bit of acting in little theaters. Adopting the distinctly non-Jewish name “Gilbert Anderson,” Max started hanging around companies which made “flickers” – two, three and four-minute moving photos which “real” (viz. stage) actors considered totally déclassé. Finally, in 1903, Max played at least three separate roles in the seminal Western, The Great Train Robbery (believed by virtually every film historian to be the first narrative movie). If you ever get the chance to see The Great Train Robbery (follow this link to the YouTube video), you will note that Broncho Billy was such an inept horseman that he actually tried to get on his mount from the right side . . . a major no-no. (That’s Billy playing the dancing tenderfoot in the hand-tinted photo on the right.) (That’s Billy playing the dancing tenderfoot in the hand-tinted photo on the right.) Max would go on to write, produce, direct and star in nearly 1,000 films between 1903 and 1965.
In 1905, Aronson (Anderson) along with a partner by the name of George K. Spoor, created his own studio. Putting the first letter of their last names together, Spoor and Anderson became “Essanay.” Originally making films in Chicago with the likes of the teenage Gloria Swanson and cross-eyed Ben Turpin (who received filmdom’s first pie in the face in a 1909, half-reel film called Mr. Flip, directed by Max Aronson), they were able to turn out 3 or 4 short films a week. After a couple of years in the Windy City, they went out west, building a major studio in Niles, California (that’s it on the left), which today is a touristy district within the city of Fremont. In 1915, Anderson stole Charlie Chaplin away from Mac Sennett’s Keystone Studio, where in 1914 Sennett produced 34 one- and two-reel Chaplin shorts. Sennett paid Chaplin the then-majestic sum of $150.00 a week. In 1915, Essanay lured Chaplin away from Keystone by offering him a nearly 850% increase in salary for directing and starring in a dozen two-reel films. His first film for Aronson/Anderson was the aptly titled His New Job. One of these shorts – the twenty-nine minute “The Tramp” – gave Chaplin’s immortal character its nickname. For starring in these 10 two-reel shorts, Anderson (Aaronson) paid Chaplin the unprecedented sum of $1,250.00 a week plus a $10,000.00 signing bonus. (In 1915, a decent income was $500.00 a year.) Chaplin’s time with Essanay would be brief; in 1916, the then 27-year old cinematic genius left Essanay and signed with the Mutual Film Corporation, which agreed to pay him the toothsome salary of $10,000.00 per week plus a $150,000.00 signing bonus for making precisely 12 films.. In 1917, Chaplin would build his own studio at the corner of La Brea and Sunset; today, this property, which still looks like an English village, is the home of the Jim Henson Studios. In and agreed to pay him the toothsome salary of $10,000.00 per week plus a $150,000.00 signing bonus for making precisely 12 films.
What Anderson and Spoor may have lacked in cinematic panache, they more than made up in p.r. brilliance. Case in point: in 1908, they announced a contest to find a one-word equivalent to “moving picture show,” “five-cent theatre” or "nickelodeon," all of which were deemed inadequate. The contest was Essanay’s attempt to uplift the movie industry. Over 2,500 suggestions were received by the closing day, September 1st, and a $100 prize was awarded to Edgar Strakosch, owner of three theaters in Sacramento. Strakosch's winning entry had the term “photoplay.” The name was appropriated for Photoplay, the best of the silent-era fan magazines, and used frequently in those days. It was a combination of p.r. stunts like this and an enormous output of one- and half-reel “photoplays” (costing, on average no more than $800.00 apiece), which made Essanay the most successful of the early film companies. By 1910, Broncho Billy was making $50,000.00 a year. By 1912, he was pulling in three times that amount. And, he continued riding the range, keeping the peace and rescuing the damsels as Broncho Billy in dozens upon dozens of short films with titles like “Broncho Billy’s Marriage,” “Broncho Billy and the Card Sharp,” and” Broncho Billy’s Word of Honor.” Indeed, Anderson was a one-man show. Throughout his career, he directed 469 films (a hefty percentage of which he starred in), acted in 349, non Broncho Billys, and produced another 246. (If you’d like to see an example of a Broncho Billy flick, click here) He could complete a typical one-reel film (about 11 minutes worth of screen time) in two days, and then get it out to theatres across the country within 48 hours. Essanay even had its own train, complete with a car set up as an editing laboratory, which would permit them to travel and do location shooting.
In early 1914, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed Gilbert M. Anderson “The King of the Movies.” In an article saluting him as the shining star of the Bay Area film community, he was compared to the British Empire (upon which the sun never set) saying: “At any time, some place on this earth, Bill is spurring his mustang across the screen. He never quits.” The newspaper estimated 11,000,000 people watched Broncho Billy perform on-screen every day of the year. But alas, Anderson’s success was not to last; unlike up-and-coming independent producers, he and his partner Spoor refused to make full-length motion pictures. By the beginning of “The Great War,” Essanay was beginning to creak along. By the early 1920s, they were out of business. But before Essanay fully collapsed, Broncho Billy managed to get Spoor to buy him out. At the time, estimates of Broncho Billy Anderson’s payday ranged from $500,000.00 to a million dollars.
Anderson took some of this money and bought an ownership stake in the then world champion Boston Red Sox. When Anderson’s Red Sox partner Harry Frazee wanted to raise capital to finance a Broadway play (some say it was No, No, Nanette . . . but that’s an urban legend) he sold, against Broncho Billy’s advice, Babe Ruth, his best pitcher, to the New York Yankees. Shortly thereafter, Broncho Billy left the Red Sox, and the team, suffering from what would become known as “The Curse of the Bambino,” wouldn’t win another World Series for nearly a century. Bill went on to produce Broadway shows himself – none of which earned a penny.
Max Aronson, who, despite being the world’s first great movie star was a fairly solitary man, would spend the remaining 50+ years of his life living in relative obscurity. In the early 1920s he produced a couple of one- and two-reel comedies starring Charlie Chaplin’s former understudy, Stan Laurel. In one of these films, A Lucky Dog, Anderson teamed Laurel with a "heavy" named Oliver Hardy. Though they would not become the revered team of “Laurel and Hardy” for nearly another 10 years, Broncho Billy can claim credit for having first brought them together.
In 1958 the Movie Picture Academy gave him an honorary Academy Award as a “motion picture pioneer” for his “contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment. In 1965, Broncho Billy came out of retirement to go before the cameras one last time: a cameo role as an old man in the Dan Duryea western “The Bounty Hunter.
Anderson was married to Mollie Schabbleman from 1910 until his death in 1971. They had one daughter, a Stanford graduate named Maxine, who would eventually become a highly successful Hollywood talent agent. The motion picture industry honored “Broncho Billy Anderson” with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine St. About three months ago – March 21, 2018 to be precise – a historical roadside marker was dedicated to Max Aronson, aka Gilbert M. Anderson, aka Broncho Billy, in Little Rock, Arkansas, across the street from his birthplace, 713 Center Street. The marker was donated by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation.
At the time of the dedication ceremony, few people had any idea of who Broncho Billy was, let alone the fact that the first western star was a Jewish kid named Maxwell Henry Aronson . . .
Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone