Tom Mix
Public Domain | Wikipedia

The Strong Silent Type: Tom Mix, His Hat and His Horse

Silent westerns star Tom Mix – with his ten-gallon hat and his horse, Tony the Wonder – shows off stunt work in Sky High and spoofs the genre in The Big Diamond Robbery.

Tom Mix
Lynn Reynolds
18 July 2023

In a big white ten-gallon hat and unfailingly attired in spiffy, flashy duds, Tom Mix was the biggest western hero of the silent era. Starting in 1909, he appeared in approximately 300 films, usually doing his own stunts. He created a larger-than-life persona and became a highly marketable figure, even lending his name to a popular radio series that lasted for two decades, although he never appeared on it. Even his faithful steed, Tony the Wonder Horse, became a star.

Mix’s career was early Hollywood example of “printing the legend”. Various claims about him, promoted by himself or the PR machine, are usually false: he wasn’t part Cherokee (though his third wife was), he wasn’t a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt (though he enrolled in the military during the Spanish-American war and eventually went AWOL to get married), and he hadn’t been a Texas Ranger (though the Texas governor made him an honorary Ranger in 1935).

Most of his films are lost and none has been released on Blu-ray until this new release from Undercrank Productions in cooperation with the Library of Congress. Sky High/The Big Diamond Robbery puts together two of Mix’s most important titles. Sky High was drafted in the National Film Registry. The Big Diamond Robbery was Mix’s final silent feature.

Sky High (1922)

Director: Lynn Reynolds

Mix is introduced on horseback as Grant Newbury, an immigration agent at the US/Mexico border. He stops a man driving a car with female passengers and orders them out of the vehicle, at which point it’s revealed that the women are Chinese men in drag, a detail intended as amusing. They’re being smuggled into the US.

In today’s climate, with its political to-do about immigration from Latin America, the fact that Sky High concentrates on smuggling Chinese immigrants over the Mexico border may seem mystifying. Audiences of the 1920s, however, were largely aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively blocked most Chinese immigration from the 1880s until the 1940s. That’s the background against which the plot’s “Chinamen” are used as a convenient plot device.

To the extent that we see them, the Chinese are poor and unthreatening, but the scenario isn’t truly concerned with them and doesn’t distinguish them any more than if this were a story about cattle rustling. So even though a policy of racist discrimination is nominally motivating the action, and that sounds inherently interesting and relevant, Sky High is really a story about white guys fighting each other. Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism would argue that the smugglers are businessmen seizing an opportunity and resisting onerous regulation, but that isn’t the angle here either. The baddies are the smugglers, and our hero is the law enforcer in the white hat.

Along the way, Grant catches the eye of a lost damsel named Estelle (Eva Novak), the “ward” of the chief smuggler, Jim Frazer (J. Farrell MacDonald). Knowing nothing of her guardian’s illegal shenanigans, which are evidently paying for her fancy college education back east, Estelle has gotten into an argument with a fresh lad who kissed her (“That’s the second time you’ve failed to be a gentleman”) and gone wandering off by herself in the Grand Canyon, which is being used as the smugglers’ base. Novak was a popular silent star who co-starred in ten films with Mix, and here she plays a typical useless heroine in need of rescuing.

Neither the smuggling story nor the romance are important, or even engaging. What defines the existence of Sky High is the Grand Canyon, where the action was shot on location. Title cards proclaim that the aerial footage of the Canyon is the first ever shot. There’s much scrambling up and down strata of rock until the exciting climax with stunt flying through the Canyon and a scene where Grant dangles from the plane by a rope. Wikipedia informs us that although Mix usually did his own stunts, that little number was performed by a double in conjunction with noted stunt pilot Dick Grace.

Advertised in its poster as “a thrilling and romantic stunt picture”, Sky High proved popular with audiences. That popularity, combined with the impressive location shooting and visual appeal, plus the fact that it’s one of the few Mix films that still exists, plus perhaps how it reveals attitudes expressed in the Exclusion Act, explain its presence in the National Film Registry.

Lynn Reynolds wrote and directed for Fox Film Corporation, where he was prolific. He specialized in writing and directing westerns for many of the day’s biggest cowboy stars: Mix, William Farnum, Hoot Gibson, Harry Carey, Buck Jones. Obviously he was very successful, but he didn’t outlive the silent era. Sadly, he’s probably most well known today for committing suicide during an argument with his wife at a dinner party. He was 37.

The Big Diamond Robbery (1929)

Director: Eugene Forde

A more aggressive and unruly heroine gets herself in trouble in The Big Diamond Robbery. Kathryn McGuire, best known for co-starring with Buster Keaton in two films, plays Ellen Brooks, one of those spoiled heiresses so popular in the silent era. She loves velocity, whether on horseback or in her convertible roadster, and her speeding tickets have become the headache of her wealthy daddy, George Brooks (Frank Beal). The newspapers are consumed with Ellen’s little legal lapses.

To the disgust of upright spinster Aunt Effie (Martha Mattox), a spindly woman in a fright wig, her brother George has just bought a famous diamond for the irresponsible Ellen. Tagging along with Ellen and making eyes at that shiny rock is boyfriend Rodney (Ernest Hilliard), who radiates a “don’t trust me” vibe visible to the balcony.

That’s when Mix enters the picture in his trademark hat and fancy duds. We’re told he’s Tom Markham on his annual visit to the city, but the name never matters because we know Tom a mile away. A hapless taxi driver, Barney McGill (Barney Furey), manages to snag him as a fare, and they promptly run out of gas shortly after Tom mistakenly intervenes to “rescue” Ellen from her horse in the park. He imagines the horse is out of control, and although Ellen sets him straight in a huff, she has to admire his dashing-ness. That’s the “meet cute”.

It turns out Tom manages an Arizona ranch for Brooks, so Ellen gets dispatched there for the last part of the tale after much diamond business, and we get to see Tony the Wonder Horse, who’s billed as Tom’s real co-star. Although the action of The Big Diamond Robbery isn’t conceived on so grand and canyonesque a scale as Sky High, its modesty gets things done in a manner more efficient and pleasing.

As this description makes clear with its big city thieves and heiresses, The Big Diamond Robbery hardly seems like a western. For that matter, Sky High isn’t terribly western-ish either, despite a quick bar fight. It doesn’t matter. Cowboy is as cowboy does, and Tom’s got the hat to prove it.

Actually, the “western” antics in The Big Diamond Robbery are parody. Tom’s ranch workers fool the visiting tenderfeet with a routine they’ve done before. Make-believe “Injuns” in full feather surround the coach for amusement-park thrills, with everyone firing blanks, and then Tom switches hat and outfit to become the villainous Black Bart. Ellen, Aunt Effie and Barney are terrified to see all the movie tropes enacted around them, for they’re the butts of the joke.

Since there’s no literal difference between the joke and when films present the same material seriously, the sequence becomes a “meta” commentary spoofing its own genre. After the joke’s over, the plot goes back to the “real” action about the bad guys and the diamond. The villain and his gang are also masquerading with Ellen as lawful citizens, but their masquerade is the “real” plot. We need only push our thoughts one step further to realize that Ellen and her family are also actors in a movie.

FBO (Film Booking Offices of America) was an important indie studio that held its own in the silent era under the hand of Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the political family. FBO pursued talkie innovations and merged with a theatre circuit to form RKO, a studio very important for the next two decades. Director Eugene Forde spent his career in B pictures, specializing in crime films and series characters like Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes and Michael Shayne.

Both Sky High and The Big Diamond Robbery are presented in 2K restorations from 35mm prints, with new musical scores by Ben Model.