Rescuing the First Cowboy Movie Star From a Canyon of Obscurity
By STEPHEN KINZER in The New York Times
Published: Thursday, July 17, 2003 (p. B3)
|Broncho Billy Anderson
| Max Aronson
Born March 21, 1880 Little Rock, Arkansas
| Died January 20, 1971 (aged 90) Woodland Hills, Los Angeles Occupation: stage, film, actor, film director, film producer
Active career, 1903-1965]
Photo from Wikipedia
The archetype of the brave cowboy who acts alone to fight evil, defend virtue and establish order in a chaotic world is deeply impressed on the American psyche. Few Americans, however, know that this role was effectively invented by the silent film star known as Broncho Billy.
In an effort to rescue Broncho Billy from obscurity, the Library of Congress has transferred nitrate prints of his surviving films to safety stock, and this month it assembled 13 of them to be shown at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
There are other signs of a revival of interest in Broncho Billy. He is the subject of a new biography, and programs of his films have been presented in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Each year since 1998 he has been celebrated at a Broncho Billy Film Festival in Niles, Calif., where he once lived. The most recent festival, held last month, was the largest yet and drew several hundred people.
Hugh O'Brian, who starred in the television series ''Wyatt Earp,'' narrated a documentary about Broncho Billy that was shown on television stations across the country in the late 1990's.
''He was the first movie star,'' said Dale Carpenter, producer of the documentary. ''When you passed by the nickelodeon and saw a Broncho Billy film, you put a nickel in. He wasn't by any means a great actor, and not a better story teller than anyone else, but he was one of the first people to realize that movies could succeed by creating a character that people were drawn to.''
In his drive to crush wickedness and pacify lawless regions, Broncho Billy projected a combination of toughness and laconic swagger that prefigured not only the movie gunslingers who followed him but also, some would argue, the American political style exemplified most recently by President Bush.
Broncho Billy played bad men as well as good, but he was never without a conscience and often allowed himself to be tamed by a woman's love. Although he was not classically handsome he had a magnetic screen personality. Slack-jawed, round faced and wide eyed, he shot villains, subdued saloons full of ruffians and rescued damsels from various predicaments. It takes only a bit of imagination to see him as a forerunner of unforgettable western characters like the romantic loner of ''Shane,'' the obsessed rescuer of ''The Searchers'' and the reluctant gunman of ''Unforgiven.''
Film historians consider Broncho Billy not only the first western hero but also a pioneer in the development of narrative cinema. The formula he helped develop, which he described as ''lots of riding and shooting and plenty of excitement,'' has never lost its mass appeal.
''In his day he was extremely popular,'' said David Kiehn, author of ''Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company'' (Farwell Books, 2003). ''He was the forerunner of all those characters that are referred to as good bad men, the ones who may be rough mavericks on the outside but who have a sense of moral right and wrong that redeems them in the end.''
Broncho Billy was born in Little Rock, Ark., in 1880 as Max Aronson, and later changed his name to Gilbert M. Anderson. He based the name of his film character on an archaic spelling of ''bronco.''
After failing as a stage actor, he became fascinated with the new medium of moving pictures. In 1907 he and a partner, George K. Spoor, who helped refine the technique of film projection, formed the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in Chicago. Soon they were churning out short films and hiring dozens of aspiring actors. Among them were Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and Charlie Chaplin, who is instantly recognizable as a forlorn tramp who crosses Broncho Billy's path in ''His Regeneration.'' Essanay was one of the first studios to make western films in the real West, and it maintained a large lot in Niles Canyon, Calif., in what is now the city of Fremont. The company made about 140 Broncho Billy films; fewer than 50 have survived. The largest collections are at the Library of Congress and the British Film Institute.
''Broncho Billy was incredibly famous and very influential,'' said Michael Mashon, curator of the moving-image section of the Library of Congress. ''Even though some of his films are pretty turgid and interchangeable with each other, he was really a pivotal person in film history. He not only acted but wrote, directed and produced his films, so he was one of the first actors to have control of his product.''
An 80-minute program of Broncho Billy films was screened in Chicago last Sunday [July 13, 2003], together with live piano accompaniment, and a second program is scheduled for this Sunday. The films are hardly gripping by modern standards, and most are closer to melodrama than to the deeper themes that later generations came to associate with westerns. In ''Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress,'' the hero defends a woman who comes to teach in a western town and ends up marrying her. ''Broncho Billy and the Bandits'' shows him being mistaken for a robber, but in the end he captures the real gang.
In 1957 Anderson received an honorary Academy Award, recognizing his ''contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.'' He was already such a distant figure that some in the audience were surprised to hear that he was still alive. After making a cameo appearance in one more film, ''The Bounty Hunter,'' he died in 1971.
''He was a revolutionary,'' said Arnie Bernstein, author of ''Hollywood on Lake Michigan: 100 Years of Chicago and the Movies'' (Lake Claremont Press, 1998), who introduced the showing here last Sunday. ''A lot of the things he does are clichés, but they weren't clichés when he did them. He invented them. They may seem hokey to you, but in 1909 they made an audience jump out of its seats."