Friday, September 17, 2010

First westerns: D. W. Griffith and Tom Mix

It's Friday again and time to continue our little survey of the first western movies. This time, two other major figures in Hollywood. One came from New York as a director with a long list of film credits. The other was a  jack of various trades living in Oklahoma. By 1920, the first had already made the one great film he'd be remembered for. The other was on his way to becoming one of the biggest cowboy stars of all time.

D. W. Griffith, c1925
D. W. Griffith. The directing career of D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) began with Thomas Edison’s company Biograph, where he made the one- and two-reelers that the New York-based filmmaking Trust permitted. Two early westerns, made in California, are his Fighting Blood and The Last Drop of Water, both released in 1911.

The first is set in Dakota Territory and concerns an Indian attack on a settler's cabin. The second tells of a wagon train, facing various perils, including another Indian attack and running out of water. In a melodramatic resolution of this latter problem, one man dies and is left behind.

Directed by D. W. Griffith, 1914
His final film before leaving Biograph was a two-reeler western, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914). This film featured yet another Indian attack and rescue by the cavalry. It starred Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish.

After that, given the freedom to make the monumental feature-length films he had in mind, D. W. had bigger fish to fry. But before the end of the decade, after the success of Birth of a Nation (1915) and the failure of Intolerance (1916), it was all over.

According to film historian Jon Tuska, what Griffith brought to the western were filming and editing techniques that would make the story more exciting for the audience. As one example, he advanced the art of crosscutting, taking us back and forth between two different threads of action – the embattled settlers and the cavalry racing to the rescue. These techniques he continued to perfect in his feature-length films.

You can see the entire Battle of Elderbush Gulch below. The film's scope is ambitious for a two-reeler, especially as the screen fills with large numbers of Indians and settlers in hand-to-hand combat, horses milling among them, and dust flying.

Tom Mix, 1919
Tom Mix. The first on-screen appearance of Tom Mix (1880-1940) was in the 1910 western Ranch Life in the Great Southwest. At the age of thirty, he’d been married three times, was an Army deserter, and held various jobs, including employment with the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West show.

Filming on location in Oklahoma, director Francis Boggs found him working as a local deputy sheriff and hired him to handle stock. Asking for a part in the picture, Mix got a scene as a bronc rider in a rodeo sequence. Later the same year, he was starring in a two-reeler, The Range Rider, shot in Missouri.

Released 1920
By 1920, when he surpassed William S. Hart in popularity, Mix had accumulated acting credits in something like 235 films, most of them shorts. Of these he’d directed over 100. Like William S. Hart he’d begun featuring his horse, Tony, in the credits.

But unlike the high seriousness of Hart, Mix had a high-spirited, show-business persona. Gone was the realism and sentimentality of Hart’s post-Victorian portrayals. Comparing the two cowboy stars, you see a major cultural shift happening in almost the blink of an eye.

Source: Jon Tuska, The Filming of the West, New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Picture credits:
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Coming up: More on Rex Beach


  1. IN the game REd Dead REdemption, there is a would be movie maker character. I haven't played out the whole scenario yet but it makes me think of these early western movies

  2. Charles, I'd like to know a whole lot more about how the early movies were made. These filmmakers were inventing the western movie, and it would be fun to watch them doing it.

    Laurie, thanks for dropping by.

  3. My mother always talked about Tom Mix, she and my grandmother loved Westerns. But I have never seen a film.

  4. Tom Mix?........He may have been the first of the Studio Idols, but he had that charm. Plus he always credited his horse!

  5. Patti, a fun way to see a Mix film is to watch Bruce Willis as Tom in Blake Edwards' SUNSET.

    Cheyenne, you're right. He added charm to the cowboy hero and fans loved it.

  6. in the early movies, were they using Native Americans playing the Indian roles? Interesting history.

  7. Sage, John Ford and Thomas Ince are two early directors who used Native Americans. But I believe they were more the exception than the rule.

  8. Thank you for posting the Griffith film. I saw pieces of it years ago. Gish is a favorite of mine. One of my favorite quotes from her biography, THE MOVIES, MR. GRIFFITH & ME: "Pray like it's all up to God, work like it's all up to you."