Mix, Tom (1880-1940)

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Mix, Tom (1880-1940)

Hero of the silent Western, Tom Mix and his "wonder horse," Tony, revolutionized both the style and content of the genre. Where earlier Westerns had depicted an austere (and fairly accurate) West and had emphasized character and unembroidered sentiment, Mix introduced a fast-paced and light-hearted version of the West, with a cowboy hero who offered youth, showmanship, and adventurousness. Mix films emphasized the hero's riding and stunting abilities and featured the spectacular natural backdrops of many of America's National Parks.

Though he invented a nearly mythic past for himself—one that supposedly included service with Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and military action in the Boxer Rebellion—Mix was actually born and raised in Pennsylvania and moved west to Oklahoma during the early 1900s. He joined the Miller Brothers' 101 Real Wild West Ranch in 1905, and eventually toured with various Wild West shows, before returning to the Miller Ranch in 1910. Mix began working in film in 1911, when he worked as an advisor and stunt double in a Selig studio documentary about the Wild West. Quickly moving into larger roles, Mix began making numerous films. He graduated to feature films in 1914, his first being In the Days of the Thundering Herd. In 1917, he moved to the Fox studio (for whom he made over 70 films), and by the mid-1920s, Mix was making $17,000 per week, starring in the profitable films that enabled Fox to make their other prestigious but unprofitable films. In the late 1920s and 1930s, he appeared in films for the FBO (later RKO) and Universal studios. Though he occasionally appeared in non-Western features, his signature films were all Westerns, including Chip of the Flying U (1914), Sky High (1922), Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), and The Rainbow Trail (1931). When the talkies came to Hollywood, an aging Mix left town and joined a traveling circus. Though he did return to Hollywood to make a few films in the 1930s, his heyday had passed. His final film, The Miracle Rider, was a fifteen-chapter serial that appeared in 1935. Most of Mix's silent features are unavailable today, due to a fire at the Fox studios that destroyed almost all of the prints. In 1940, Mix died in a car accident in Arizona.

Mix's West was theatrical, adventurous, and glamorous, as was Mix himself. Wearing his signature ten-gallon hats (black or white), silk shirts, and round-top boots, Mix and his films appealed to a young audience. An expert horseman and crack shot, Mix performed almost all his (often-perilous) stunts himself. His fancy ropework and riding stunts always saved the day, with the help of his trusty horse, Tony. Mix described his screen persona this way: "I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle, and bridle. It isn't my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it's all ironed out, I never get any money reward. I may be made foreman of the ranch and I get the girl, but there is never a fervid love scene."

Mix's cowboy image lived on well past his death in several ways. NBC radio and later television aired The Tom Mix Show from 1933 into the 1950s. Portrayed by various actors, the Mix character ended his shows with such messages as "Be a straight shooter," or "Crime never pays," and "Fight on the side of the law and you'll never regret it." Mix also appeared in various comic book series, including the Tom Mix Ralston Comics and the Tom Mix Western series, in the 1940s and 1950s. Finally, Mix's good-time cowboy, with his unrealistic and glamorous image, spawned the singing and dancing cowboys and the Western spectacles of 1930s film, and his own lavish lifestyle helped to pave the way for the high-living flamboyance of many 1930s and 1940s movie stars' off-screen lives.

—Deborah M. Mix

Further Reading:

Nye, Douglas. Those Six-Gun Heroes: 25 Great Movie Cowboys. Spartanburg, South Carolina, ETV Endowment of South Carolina, 1982.

Parks, Rita. The Western Hero in Film and Television. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Research Press, 1982.