Many famous actors (and actresses) made Westerns. But only a few can genuinely be called Cowboy Actors. We’re going to start this series with the most famous of the early period — William S. Hart and Tom Mix (that’s Mix above).
Some backround: We can almost remember a time when westerns were very BIG BUSINESS. In the 1930’s and early 1940’s, hundreds of “oaters,” as they came to be known, were made each year to fill up the hundreds of small theatres throughout the country.
Often it was the western that introduced young beginners getting their foot in the door, and their faces before the camera. And, of course, they solidified the careers of genuine box office stars.
Although their names — Hart and Mix — may mean little or nothing to moviegoers today, both were huge stars and have earned secure positions in the history of the movies.
Hart (below) was the silent screen’s most famous cowboy. Mix was considered the first Cowboy superstar of the sound era.
Mix was a high-living, big-sending dude (married five times) who changed western movies in the direction of more light hearted fare in which the hero (himself) was decked out in meticulously tailored costumes. Unlike predecessor Hart, he was a dandy in spades.
Born in 1880 in Pennsylvania, Mix worked in travelling wild west show before landing in silents with a contract from Fox Films, for which he churned out as many as five films a year. The public loved him, and his popularity threatened to eclipse that of silent titan Hart.
Mix segued to talking picture propelled by his fancy riding and shooting, and the antics of his ‘Tony the Horse.’ Among his titles: 1932’s Destry Rides Again and 1935’s The Miracle Rider. Mix died in an auto accident in 1940. He logged in his career an amazing total of more than 280 screen credits.
The guy to the right above is none other than Maurice Chevalier, who had been signed by Paramount Pictures and brought over to the U. S. in 1928. The aging guy to the left is Hart.
What was this prototypical Frenchman doing posing in full western get-up next to America’s then biggest silent movie cowboy star?
This photo, it turns out, was a studio publicity shot of Chevalier with veteran figure Hart, whose star power at the time was sufficient to lend some sort of American validation to this new French import. It was an attempt to make the genial Continental crooner appear to be “just one of the boys.” (What an odd juxtaposition.)
For his part, Hart (the”S” was for Surrey) was born in 1870, and by the time he made his first Western for producer-director Thomas H. Ince, he was already a middle-aged at 44. The westerns he created (Hart was also a writer-director) featured documentary-style realism and plausible plots. (Not much of the flash later exhibited by Mix.)
As a result, Hart became America’s first believable cowboy hero. He often played outlaws reformed and saved by the love of a good woman. At the time of his posed publicity shot with Chevalier, Hart was pushing 60, with his movie career ending.
On the other hand, Chevalier (breathing hard on 40 when the photo with Hart was taken) was just embarking on a Hollywood career after appearing in at least a dozen movies in his native France. Of course Chevalier only appeared in sophisticated musical comedies. He never made a western.