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Monday, September 16, 2019

When Westerns Were a New Thing

Whoever Came After, Broncho Billy Was First

To be venerable meant more in the late 50’s, early 60’s, than now. Old was old then. Now an estimated 80,000 are over 100. G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson was celebrated for being around a seeming forever, plus having been aboard from the birth of movies. Shaking hands with a man who appeared in The Great Train Robbery was not to be believed. When Anderson in 1965 did his Bounty Killer cameo for producer Alex Gordon, there was a line of Paramount talent to pay homage, including a star-struck Elvis Presley. Broncho Billy was eighty-five, increasingly deaf, but had all of marbles. He was earlier interviewed by William K. Everson (1958), responding less to questions than telling what anecdotes pleased him best. Here was a man who knew, chances are worked with, every founding figure in film. There weren’t a lot left who had been on first-name basis with Edison, but he was. Contrast this with elder statesmen of today’s industry. Frankie Avalon turns eighty this week. Will we celebrate the veteran who was present at dawn of the Beach Party era? Like with any field of interest, there is history and there is history. Did Broncho look around in 1971, at age 90 (d. 1-20-71), and realize his was virtually a last voice for movies at infancy?

Future Broncho Billy Runs, and Regrets It, From Great Train Robbers

Had Anderson left only account of The Great Train Robbery, he’d rank among immortals. So what if he exaggerated involvement in that historic single reel? To hear Anderson tell it, The Great Train Robbery was largely his idea, and who’s to argue it wasn’t? One thing is certain, he played three parts in a film that ran, depending on projection speed, ten to thirteen minutes, so I’ll take his telling for fact. Anderson couldn’t ride a horse, swore to hirers that he could, was late to the location because the mount threw him and ran away. He saw The Great Train Robbery at a New York scratch house whose audience went wild for the reel (“stupefied,” he said), demanding it be run over and over. Anderson said this was when he knew motion pictures were here to stay, his lot to be cast with them: “It’s gonna be the picture business for me. The future has no end.”

Anderson and Crew Getting It Done on Another Broncho Billy

Bushman, Chaplin, Anderson: Men At Work for Essanay
Broncho Billy was the first film cowboy. He made an industry realize how popular such a figure could become. That last surprised even him. Billy the entrepreneur saw acting as less essential part of wider pursuits. His was a business head as opposed to a creative one. Billy as physical presence was mostly beef. That made him oddly believable, like hard-rode cowpokes we imagine in real life. Nickel audiences saw that and rewarded Billy with more nickels. An avalanche began with this man and led to westerns being one-third of all movie output by 1911. These were one or two reels, enough to tell stories simple in the extreme, which was how I misunderstood the Bronchos before watching a brace that dealt the unexpected in terms of action and outcome. One was called Broncho Billy’s Love Affair (1912), a lesson in film grammar as taught to way-back patrons not spoon-fed by narratives as would become case when drama got longer. This one tells it visual, our job to divine character without the aid of titles. There are maybe two of those in a whole of fifteen minutes. I wondered if the print was incomplete, perhaps text taken out. They sometimes in those days put narrators close by the screen who would explain action as films unspooled, or management handed out printed synopses to tell stories we’d see. Likely as not, however, they meant us to catch on from movement and expression alone. Nickelodeon reels required focus. That’s why watchers paid rapt attention to them. Observers of the time commented on the hypnotic effect of flickers. People had not behaved so at vaudeville or other amusements. Here was emotional investment that no one had experienced before. Exploding popularity of movies was for many a startling, almost supernatural, occurrence.

Disappointed Father, Worthless Son, and Figure It Out For Yourself

A Happy Engagement That Won't Last
Edward Wagenknect wrote a book in 1962 called The Movies In The Age Of Innocence. It was, and remains, a most valuable eye-ball witness to what attending films during the early silent era was about. Wagenknect was a boyhood fan who would become a teacher and scholar. He saw Broncho Billy and all the others first-run. Wagenknect rejected later notion of viewers passively absorbed by movies. “Silent films seem to me to have required far more active and uninterrupted concentration than sound films do,” he said, “We had to put a great many two-and-two’s together which the author and the actor and the director put together for the audience of today; we collected materials from a rapid-fire hail of images, made in our own minds combinations which left considerable room open for individuality of interpretation, and drew our own conclusions in correspondence with our own personalities and scales of value.”

Years They've Been Parted, Him Unknowingly Here To Arrest Her Husband

Deathbed Confession Leads To a Hopeful Ending
Broncho Billy’s Love Affair introduces two characters in a first scene that we must identify from visual evidence as father and son. Their interaction tells it, the father in stern disapproval of this scapegrace wanting money, impression made clear that the boy-man is no good and Dad is fed up. No titles for a crutch, the presentation flatters us for knowing we’ll catch on. Broncho Billy is ranch foreman for the old man, but blood being thickest, the son talks latter into discharging Billy. There is love rivalry in the son wanting a girl who is affianced to Billy. A forged note renouncing the engagement, supposedly penned by the girl, succeeds in splitting the couple, Billy not staying to inquire further. Cut to years later: Bad son has married Billy’s estranged fiancée and is gambling away what pittance they have. There is offscreen dispute over cards and Bad son commits murder, then is pursued by a posse led by unknowing Broncho Billy, whose deputy shoots Bad son in the head, latter fleeing to the wife who hides him from pursuers. Billy goes there and finds his lost love in attendance to the fugitive. He and the wife have an intense reunion. It is clear each are still devoted to the other. Bad son dies after confessing his perfidy and clearing way for Billy and the wife to eventually pair. All of saga takes a quarter hour. And yes, it merits our full attention, but you could say as much for hundreds of nickelodeon shorts made for patronage willing to do their interpretive share.

G.M. Anderson was head ramrod of a cowboy caravan that started off faking the West on Chicago locations, then migrated to the real thing for kinder weather as much as enhanced authenticity. Several spots in assorted states proved temporary … they'd return home to do interiors … till  sun-kissed skies won permanent berth in California, a town called Niles, this chose by Anderson who, as co-founder of Essanay Pictures and star of the series, made him indisputable boss. Anderson haunted magazines or public libraries for yarns, dreamed up many in a pinch, (under)paid novice writers who’d bring ideas to him. Word was out that there was money in screen stories, so he was inundated. Anderson had a crew including support players, a lead lady, all-purpose villain, the fundamentals. When these weren’t enough, he hired out of local vaudeville or stock companies. Broncho took a “gatling gun” approach to directing, that is, explain it once and woe betide those not paying heed. Typical shooting day: Gather the group at dawn to read out a tale they’d spin. After a while, the crew, accustomed to each other and Billy, took instructions on the fly and guessed for themselves how action would turn out. Anderson gave thesping tips on quicksilver basis, as here to a starter actress: “You’ve got to act in a picture. This is practically pantomime. Turn loose!.” Useful advise, I’d say, as much so as Method instructors would later give.

Billy-picked love interests got no hazard pay, but should have. Cracked bones and all-over sprains saw many limp back to town and not return. Anderson wouldn’t have played Broncho but for an early-cast lead man who didn’t take orders and so got canned. BB was understated, so much so he seemed often like a real West townsman that cameras just stumbled across. Anderson’s star being born was not sudden, but sure as an oncoming storm, his relations with Essanay partner George Spoor got tense for power scale tipped and Anderson playing lone hand where he saw fit (like hiring Charlie Chaplin to join Essanay for what Spoor called an unsustainable price). Anderson told Everson in ’58 that he advised pal William S. Hart to try movies, which latter did, and right away supplanted Broncho Billy. Anderson was sanguine, figured BB to be a done deal anyway by 1915, plus the Harts were better per his frank admission. He'd produce to keep occupied (inc. comedies w/ Stan Laurel), promote deals at board tables or bank desks (loan officers liked Anderson, him sharp and no wastrel). This charter cowboy never lost faith with westerns, assuring Everson "they will never die,” comparing his kind of outdoors with caviar that was then-live TV drama, latter heavy viewing best suited to people “who eat chicken under glass.”

The BB reels were meanwhile run raw, melted for silver, or crumpled to dust from whence they came. Broncho Billy was remembered as a pioneer like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, whose names and exploits we knew despite their faces we did not. Seeing a Broncho Billy meant trucking to a museum or some collector’s basement, and how many got that curious? One who did was writer/historian George Pratt, whose article in the film journal Image, The Posse Is Ridin’ Like Mad (1958) told much of how Anderson developed Broncho Billy. That essay was reprinted in an Image anthology edited by Marshall Deutelbaum and published in 1979. Pratt oversaw the classic anthology that was Spellbound In Darkness in 1966 (call it the LANTERN of a pre-digital age). This still-essential book has a section culled from trade magazines of the teens explaining nut-bolts of Broncho Billy. More recently, there is Broncho Billy and The Essanay Film Company by David Kiehn, a lavishly illustrated account of Anderson’s career and especially his BB epoch. As for the films, we can thank providence for any still around, a Niles/Essanay club latter-day custodians of Broncho legacy, and cheerleaders for BB reviving. They meet often and draw respectful crowds. Broncho Billy Anderson: Film Pioneer, their project, is a best-by-far DVD collection of shorts spread over two discs, and includes as an extra the 1958 Everson interview with Anderson, a 50 minute show in itself.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

About a week after the dvd comes out it will placed be all over the internet.

Kudos to these folk who do great preservation and restoration work knowing they probably won't recover their costs.

This is something I want to see. Thank you.

4:31 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

There's still a nifty museum / shop / cinema in Niles, and a nice bunch of antique / collectible shops in buildings that sometimes appeared in the Essenay films. Joined a walking tour and saw small, still-occupied homes that once belonged to such people as Ben Turpin and Edna Purviance. There's also an excursion train that chugs through Niles Canyon, a favorite exterior. A sort of tribute is the Bronco (sic) Billy pizza parlor, a popular local eatery papered with posters from post-silent westerns.

There are modest festivals celebrating western movies and Chaplin, and the rest of the year they're a visible historical presence. A lot of good books in the shop. On recent visits I've noticed that somebody parks restored antique trucks bearing the Essenay logo.

Don't know if it merits a cross-country pilgrimage, but definitely worth seeing if you're in the Bay Area.

One of the tour stories was that Essenay had a baseball team, and "ringers" from were hired to juice up the team and incidentally play cowboys or do other work. One ballplayer, Rollie Totheroh, became a cameraman and ended up spending his career with Chaplin.

How long was the Edison trust a factor in filmmakers fleeing to the west?

5:06 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

DB: The Patents Trust pretty much collapsed on Oct 1, 1915 when it was ruled unlawful in US District Court. But the Trust had no bearing on Essanay's westward migration, as they were a card-carrying member. In fact, the legal decision probably had much to do with Anderson's departure from Essanay: he knew that the sort of distribution practices that kept the company afloat ("Want the latest Chaplin? You have to also buy our other titles") would be ending - at least until vertical integration was solidified at the end of the decade. He also knew that George Spoor wouldn't be willing to spend a whole lot to upgrade the product and that Chaplin would leave.

John: Two weekends from now, The Niles Film Museum will be presenting a two-day festival on one of our favorites: Harry Langdon. Details here: I've contributed a couple of video introductions for two of his features.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I have vague memories of a syndicated TV series of his silents, particularly of the announcer promising "Broncho Billy Anderson and his bang bang Western movies!", with the theme music provided by a banjo.

11:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I checked the Niles site, Michael. Looks like they have a very active and appealing film schedule. All sound like fun events.

11:21 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Kevin K: I remember something similar. It may have been filler added to a cartoon half hour. I think it showed silent clips with comical music. But the way it was presented, I thought Bronco Billy was a made-up character. I was probably about 10-12 at the time.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Kevin K, the way I remember it, the title was "Billy Bang Bang and His Brother Butch and Their Bang Bang Western Movies." The show definitely ran silent westerns, but I have no idea who the stars were.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

Here's a quote from

"I remember Billy Bang Bang and his Brother Butch and their Bang Bang Western Movies - with rootin tootin fast shootin Bronco Bob! It aired on WABC 7 in the early 1960s. Kids would intoduce silent westerns but they were never seen on camera, only heard - like Mystery Science Theater 3000 or Zacherley's shows - there was a lot of wisecracking commentary."

8:38 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Do you know where exactly his scen4e in THE BOUNTY KILLERS is?

That film uses a lot of great stars.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Holy cow, now it comes back to me. Funny how memories play tricks. Hope I'm never considered an eyewitness to a crime.

12:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Haven't seen THE BOUNTY KILLER since 2008 for a column at that time, and don't recall how far into the picture Broncho Billy is, but I do know he is sitting in a saloon.

3:26 PM  

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