Tom Mix: A Superhero from a Forgotten Era

This is the first in a new Kansas City Cinephile Presents series. These articles focus on the wonderful worlds that exist beyond science fiction, fantasy and horror.

When someone talks of superhero movies today, they’ll immediately think of characters like Superman, Batman, Iron Man or Spider-Man. However, years before comic book heroes became commonplace, cowboys were the idols of young boys and girls everywhere. They gave us a glimpse into the days of the old west, always beating the bad guy wearing black and always getting the girl in the end. The stories were simple tales of cowboys on horseback saving the day from the crooked land grabbers or bank robbers. We know now that the world is far more complex and many of the stereotypes are no longer acceptable. However, there are still some great heroes to be found in those tales of old and one such forgotten legend is Tom Mix.     

The Early Years

Tom Mix was born on January 6, 1880 in Mix Run, Pennsylvania. His father was a stable master who taught him to ride and respect horses from a young age. In 1898, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the United States Army during the Spanish-American War and married Grace Allin, the first of his eventual five wives, in 1902. They divorced the following year. Tom rode with members of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905. In true tall tale fashion, he was often incorrectly identified as a member of the Rough Riders. Tom would marry his second wife, Kitty Perrine, in 1905, and divorce her in 1906.

Even as Tom moved to Oklahoma, tales of his many odd jobs would grow over the years. He was a bartender in Guthrie, Oklahoma but he was never a Texas Ranger. However, it’s true that he was a town marshal in Dewey, Oklahoma in 1911. His time in Oklahoma also brought him to work for the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch near Ponca City. The ranch was founded in 1893 in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma and Tom’s time there was instrumental in expanding his skills as a horseman. Winning a roping contest in Prescott, Arizona in 1909 and his wild west shows led to his debut film appearance as himself in Ranch Life in the Great Southwest in 1910 (although some sources indicate it may have been in either Briton and Boer or The Cowboy Millionaire, both in 1909). As Hollywood beckoned, he married his third wife, Olive Stokes, in 1909, and they had a daughter, Ruth, born in 1912.      

Tom Goes Hollywood

Tom would easily transition into his role as a western film star because he was essentially playing an extended version of himself. Between 1909 and 1917, Tom would make 236 movies for the Selig Polyscope Company. His first feature film debut was Days of the Thundering Herd in 1915, which thankfully still exists. By that same year, he met Victoria Forde and, after divorcing Olive in 1917, Tom would marry Victoria in 1918. They had a daughter, Thomasina, born in 1922.

The Selig Polyscope Company soon fell in dire financial straits, and after it was suggested that Tom fire some of his friends and not feed the horses on non-filming days, Tom left the company and signed on with Fox Studios.

Starting out at $350 a week, Tom soon became one of the biggest western stars at Fox and on the big screen. His films expanded from one reel (about 15-minutes in length) to full feature films. As the running times and budgets expanded, so did Tom’s salary and status in Hollywood. He was a big spender and his wife Victoria loved the lifestyle. By the mid-20s, Tom began appearing again with the 101 Wild West Show in between movies. However, his partnership with Fox would sour by 1928 as his films started receiving lesser reviews. He started a brief career with FBO Studios, eventually making six films, all of which exist today.

1929 was a troublesome year for Tom as his marriage was suffering and his films failed to entertain as they once did. His financial success was ruined by charges of tax evasion (due to a less than honest accountant) and the stock market crash. He divorced Victoria in 1932 and quickly married his fifth and final wife, Mabel Ward, later that same year. Films had now transitioned to sound and Universal Pictures approached him with a new contract offer to return to films. Receiving script and cast approval, Tom signed on and he starred in nine films in 1932 and 1933, most notably the original Destry Rides Again (1932) and My Pal, the King (1932), featuring a young Mickey Rooney.

Having done most of his stunts for years, injuries would cause Tom to walk away from films in 1934. He appeared with the Sam B. Dill Circus, which he eventually bought in 1935. That same year, Mascot Pictures coaxed back in front of the camera for what would be his last role, a 15-chapter serial called The Miracle Rider. Following this last film appearance, Tom returned to the circus but it struggled to survive and Tom knew he had to make some good money quickly. Upon accepting an opportunity to do wild west shows in England, he turned over the failing circus to his daughter Ruth to manage. Ruth, who had a brief career in westerns before the circus, she didn’t manage finances well and couldn’t save the failing circus before it went into bankruptcy. While not entirely her fault, Tom would exclude her from his will.

Life on Radio and Beyond

Tom became friends with the legendary Wyatt Earp when Wyatt worked with Hollywood studios as an unpaid consultant in the 1920s. When Wyatt died in 1929 at the age of 80 of liver disease, Tom was one of the pallbearers, along with fellow western star William S. Hart. It was reported that Tom wept at the funeral.

Tom Mix also became a radio star in 1933 when the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters program was launched. The show never featured Tom Mix playing himself due to his voice being declared unfit for radio. He was portrayed by four different actors throughout the show’s run, including Joe “Curley” Bradley, who was the voice of Tom from 1944 until the show’s end in 1950. While the show continued well after Tom’s death and was extremely popular, most of the programs are presumed lost today.

Tom was also featured in comics, making his debut in 11 issues of the early series The Comics from Dell in 1937. From 1940-1941, Ralston Purina published nine issues of Tom Mix Comics and another three in 1942 as Tom Mix Commandos Comics. Finally, Fawcett Comics published 61 issues of Tom Mix Western from 1948 to 1953.

The Tragic End of the Trail and His Legacy

On October 12, 1940, Tom was killed in a tragic automobile accident just south of Florence, Arizona, on his way to Phoenix. He had come upon a washed-out bridge and didn’t have time to stop, swerving off the road into a gulley. Tom suffered a broken neck when a large aluminum suitcase struck his head from behind during the crash. He left many of his belongings to his lawyer and the rest to his fifth wife Mabel and their daughter Thomasina, leaving nothing for his first four wives nor his daughter Ruth.

In total, Tom made more than 290 films, of which only 58 still exist in partial or complete form. Prints are held in various film archives across the world and some in private collections. Sadly, a smaller percentage of the films have been officially released on home media and very few have been properly restored as there isn’t much of a market these days for old silent westerns. In the 40s and 50s when TV and film stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hop-a-long Cassidy and The Lone Ranger became household names, Tom Mix was sadly already becoming a name of the past due to the unavailability of his films.

But Tom has never truly been forgotten. His films that are available are much beloved amongst western film collectors and a large portion of Tom’s personal belongings are on public display in the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma. In 1965, several Dewey businessmen contacted the gentleman who had inherited many of Tom’s personal belongings and, upon agreeing on a price and making the purchase, began working with the Oklahoma Historical Society to open the museum. It’s still operating today, housing personal items, including many of his guns, saddles, clothes and a replica of Tom’s much-beloved horse Tony, along with an impressive assortment of memorabilia.

Tom Mix may not have worn a flashy cape or battled a rogue’s gallery of villains, but he was indeed a superhero of a lost era. There’s still something special about those days of yesteryear, when the good guys were easy to tell from the bad and the world was a much simpler place, always ending with a ride off into the sunset.

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