By Jeremy Carr.

Although many Mix pictures are lost, these illustrative entries showcase his customary assurance, his virtue, and his penchant for showmanship.”

If Hollywood’s classic Western heroes are generally given little positive thought these days, the cowboy celebrities of the silent era in particular are even less familiar. In their time, though, these valiant, amiable men were idols to many, delighting audiences with their daring escapades and do right demeanor. And among these saddle-bound stars of the silver screen, few could capture the imagination like Tom Mix.

After a robust military career as a young man, Mix entered a life of ranching, Wild West shows, and rodeos, all of which lent his later movie roles a notable grade of credibility. When the motion picture industry inevitably came calling—first the Selig Company then, later and more prominently, Fox—the Pennsylvania-born Mix began as a supporting player in short films, appearing in his first in 1909. Eventually defined by his inordinately large 10-gallon hat, his flamboyancy, and his extraordinary stunt work, Mix rode very high indeed until his final turn in the 1935 serial The Miracle Rider. Often accompanied by his trusty steed, “Tony the Wonder Horse,” Mix appeared in nearly 300 films, most of which were silent and, tragically, most of which are lost. Thanks, however, to the always laudable efforts of the Library of Congress and Lobster Films, in conjunction with Undercrank Productions, two emblematic features are now available in superb 2K digital restorations.

The first of these, the best of the recently released collection, is Sky High, written and directed by Lynn Reynolds in 1922. Here, Mix is Grant Newbury, Deputy Inspector of Immigration, who is tracking down a gang of smugglers. At first, the illicit assets are a group of Chinese men crossing the Mexican/American border, but as the story unfolds, those responsible for the criminal enterprise are also shown to deal in jewels and laces. Mix finds himself entangled with the nefarious organization, led by Jim Frazer (J. Farrell MacDonald), and, as luck or convention would have it, finds himself the amorous savior of Estelle Halloway (Eva Novak), who plays the young ward of MacDonald’s mastermind.

Sky High starts at the border with some effectively seedy settings and a suitably unsavory assembly of characters, and from there it canvases Chicago and El Paso. But the real highlight of the picture, and certainly a primary selling point, is its Grand Canyon-based finale. From ground-breaking aerial photography encouraged by studio head William Fox, to the depths of the chasm’s lower levels, Reynolds is devoted to casting an impressive vision of this natural wonder. Opening factoids put the enormity of the Grand Canyon into context, acclimating unacquainted viewers to the scale of the gorge, while the scenic marvel of the site, also less commonly perceived than today, presents itself nicely to the technical capabilities of cinematic spectacle. (Mix himself was drawn to Arizona, going on to purchase a ranch in Prescott, where he shot several of his films, and it was in Arizona, near Florence, that he died in an October 1940 car accident.)

Sky High (1922) - Turner Classic Movies
Sky High

Nevertheless, even with this captivating, enveloping grandeur, Tom Mix is the star of the show, and it’s against the backdrop of this perilous milieu that he displays his stunt proficiency: climbing the rocky edges, hastily galloping along the canyon’s treacherous rims, and, making the most of that aerial imagery, taking to the skies in an airplane. Moreover, Mix is routinely gallant, capable, and good-humored, particularly early on when he discovers the prohibited Chinese men dressed as women. Despite the prominence of its remote western setting and certain generic hallmarks, Sky High is a modern tale, cued at first by the existence of an automobile. But its Western roots remain, largely through Mix’s presence; and, for all intents and purposes, it is as a Western adventure that it best succeeds.

Like Sky High, The Big Diamond Robbery is bolstered by a new organ score from Ben Model, and both films move along at a satisfying, spirited pace.”

Taking this contrast to an even further degree, the second film on the Undercrank disc, 1929’s The Big Diamond Robbery, directed by Eugene Forde, is a Western only as far as a latter setting and in the often comically incongruous comportment of Mix himself. This time, as ranch foreman Tom Markham, Mix meets up with the wealthy George Brooks (Frank Beal), who overly dotes on his rather unruly daughter, Ellen (Kathryn Brooks). A habitual speeder (surely a sign of the times), Ellen is arrested—again—and the only way to keep her out of prison is to temporarily relocate her away from the city. The chosen destination? Suiting Mix just fine, it’s to be the Brooks family ranch. Before all this, though, it is revealed that Ellen’s boyfriend, Rodney (Ernest Hilliard), is the leader of a gang of thieves who hope to make off with some jewels from her family’s mansion. After thwarting the heist, Tom accompanies Ellen and her aunt to the ranch where, having been told to make the trip “exciting” for the ladies, he concocts a staged Indian attack and robbery.

The Big Diamond Robbery (1929) - IMDb
The Big Diamond Robbery

Tom hasn’t seen the last of Rodney, but that build-up is secondary to the fun had out west, where Mix and Forde play with the tropes of the Western in a way that feels like a tribute and, perhaps, a farewell. This was Mix’s last silent film and the sense of time catching up with him, perhaps even passing by the ease of his more accustomed fare, is cleverly utilized as a humorous plot point. With its initially urban setting (including a car chase through downtown Los Angeles), The Big Diamond Robbery is more a contemporary thriller than a Western, but that overt overlap is part of the picture’s charm. Mix looks decidedly out of place in the city, with his oversized hat and characteristic garb, but his cowboy stunts transfer well to such metropolitan sequences as when he hangs out a racing taxicab or scales an apartment building. In many ways, now caught up in the Roaring Twenties, George (and Mix?) is a man out of place and out of time. But he’s not changing for anyone. And by the time he gets to the ranch he is the best of what Mix could be. Joined by trusty Tony he remains unflappable and quick-thinking, sure to stop the bad guys and get the girl.

Like Sky High, The Big Diamond Robbery is bolstered by a new organ score from Ben Model, and both films move along at a satisfying, spirited pace. Although many Mix pictures are lost, these illustrative entries showcase his customary assurance, his virtue, and his penchant for showmanship. With the star front and center as the icon he was, they are amusing, diverting features, unpretentiously traditional with moments of remarkable achievement.

Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *