Monday, September 15, 2014

Broncho Billy and the School Mistress (1912)

Broncho Billy Anderson
Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (1880-1971) was the first great cowboy star. A vaudeville actor in New York when he appeared in Thomas Edison’s Great Train Robbery in 1903, he was so taken by the enthusiastic reception of this short film that he decided to make a career of filmmaking.

By the end of the decade, he was a partner in Essanay Pictures and had appeared in 82 films. The company was based in Chicago, and Anderson, inspired to make cowboy movies, roamed the West with cast and crew cranking out 15-minute films at a rate of one a week for several years.

Anderson understood the importance of having a continuing character, and he bought a story by Peter B. Kyne in Saturday Evening Post, which featured a character called Broncho Billy. Reportedly unable to find an actor for the part, he played the role himself and the series began with “Broncho Billy’s Redemption” (1910). From then on, he was billed as Broncho Billy Anderson, appearing in a series of 144 films during a period that ended in 1915 when he left Essanay.

Anderson produced two more westerns, Shootin’ Mad (1918) and The Son-of-a-Gun (1919), after which his movie career rapidly ended. The introduction of feature-length films had made the old one- and two-reelers outdated. Film historian Jon Tuska argues that the new sophistication of the 1920s also altered what audiences wanted to see.

G. M. Anderson, c1913
Tuska makes a case for the authenticity of the Broncho Billy films. He finds them realistic in their portrayal of a period of time that was not all that recent. Costumes look like the real thing. And the performances are hardly as stagy and hammy as the films D. W. Griffith was beginning to produce at the same time.

Below is a one-reeler in which Anderson plays the cowboy character he created. What strikes me is how natural he was in front of the camera. Also how he frames the characters in medium shots so we can get a better look at their faces. He places characters well in group shots, too, filling the frame without crowding a performer out of view. 

Anderson gives Billy more than a few different incarnations in the films. Sometimes he’s just a regular guy, sometimes a bad guy who then reforms. And while the plots tend to be melodramatic, there’s often room for comedy, as in this film, where six excited cowboys compete for the attention of a new school ma’am.

Plot. Don’t look for Broncho Billy until half way through the story. He rides up to the hotel where the new school ma’am has just stepped from a stagecoach and taken a room. Billy dismounts, looking cheerful and well fed. Making conversation with one of the cowboys, he lights a cheroot, striking a match on the seat of his britches.

Still from The Puncher's New Love (1911)
The school ma’am has shown the men a little pistol she carries for protection, and they cook up a scheme to see whether she actually has the nerve to use it. Billy offers to play a bandit, stopping her along a footpath, while the others watch from a distance.

A rival (Brinsley Shaw), seeing an opportunity to eliminate him from the competition, fires at Billy, who takes a round in his leg and requires a doctor. The school ma’am reveals that her pistol is loaded only with blanks, and the actual shooter is soon revealed. Fortunately for all concerned, Billy survives to appear in yet another film.  

Wrapping up. Also currently available at YouTube is another Broncho Billy one-reeler, "Broncho Billy and the Greaser" (1914). For more Overlooked movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: William Kittredge, ed., The Portable Western Reader


  1. 144 films! They really could crank 'em out back then.

    1. Good word for it, since silent era cameras were operated by a hand crank.

  2. Peformance and production quite strong, and it seems to be at least influenced by The Virginian and his relationship with the new school Marm and Steve.

    1. Competition for the attentions of the schoolmarm was a standard theme of early frontier fiction, no doubt thanks to Wister.

  3. I wonder how this is related, if it is, to the Clint Eastwood Bronco Billy movie.

    1. There doesn't seem to be any connection that I can see.

    2. Sure, there is The name and the movies. A metaphysical connection.

    3. That's me, always forgetting the metaphysical...