Notes From The Frontier
Hollywood’s Greatest Trick Horse
In early Hollywood silent films, spectacle was everything. And the more daring the spectacle, the better. Records weren’t kept of the number of actors, stuntmen and women, and horses that were killed during the making of these films. But it has long been claimed that 150 horses were killed during the filming of the chariot scene of the original 1925 Ben-Hur. And, later, during the filming of Errol Flynn’s 1936 “The Charge of the Light Brigade, when dozens of horses died, restrictions began to be placed on the use of horses and animals in Hollywood.
But, in the very early days of Hollywood, no such restrictions existed. Tom Mix and his horse Tony were one of the earliest cowboy and trusty steed duos to grace the screen and the stunts man and horse performed were death-defying. Tom Mix insisted on doing his own stunts and trusted his intrepid mount with his life.
Both Tom and Tony had a very humble beginnings. Tom’s father was a stable master for a wealthy lumber merchant and Tom grew up loving horses. As a child, he had dreams of joining the circus and his parents found him practicing knife-throwing tricks against a wall with his little sister as an assistant!
After a stint in the Army and a couple of failed marriages, he led a vagabond life. He was working as a bartender in Indian Territory near Guthrie, Oklahoma, when he landed a job at the Millers Brothers famous 101 Ranch. It was his first ranch job and he was a greenhorn, but he grew up on a horse and took to cowboying like a pig to mud. He was soon performing as a trick rider in the ranch’s Wild West show.
He was a tall, dark-haired Valentino on a horse and thought he’d pursue his childhood dream of being a performer. He went to Hollywood. There, he landed parts in Western shorts in the 1910s but quickly established a reputation of being a daredevil. He made 87 films between 1911 and 1917, when his longtime mount, Old Blue, broke a leg in a stunt on the set of “Treat ‘Em Rough” and had to be put down. Tom found Tony, a beautiful sorrel pulling a chicken wagon down Glendale Avenue!
Tom discovered that Tony was a quick study and plucky, just like him. They were made for each other. With his strappy, saucy sorrel as his mount, Tom got his big break. He was hired by Fox Studios for $350 a week (an astronomical amount in those days) and by the 1920 he was making nearly $18,000 a week and was Hollywood’s highest paid star. Tom knew he was hired more for his derring-do than his acting. He used to quip to directors: “Do you want my expression number one, number two, or number three?” But, with his magnificent horse, he was a tour-de-force and they were fearless when it came to stunts that would wow the audience.
By 1921, Tom Mix was dubbed “The King of the Cowboys,” and Tony, “The Wonder Horse.” In fact, in 1922, Tony had reached such fame that he starred in his own film, the first of three! “Just Tony” starred an equine stud, Tony. And Tom was in a supporting role. Tony’s movies were so popular, he made two more: “Tony Goes Wild”
and “Oh! You Tony.” Tom and Tony met President Coolidge and both dined in the Hotel Astor, where Tony was served celery on fine China. They even toured in Europe and were so popular, Tom feared fans would rub off Tony’s hair.
In 1927, Tony would become the first Hollywood horse and only the eighth Hollywood star to dip his footprint in the cement at Hollywood’s Graumann’s movie house. He shared that honor with Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford that same year! (Later equine stars, Gene Autry’s Champion and Roy Rogers’ Trigger would follow in Tony’s hoof steps.)
Tony was truly an extraordinary horse—a stunt horse, a trick horse and an actor all in one. He often did interviews with Tom Mix and would interact with reporters. Tom had taught him to nod “yes” or “no” to questions when Tom squeezed with one or the other knee.
Tom taught Tony to dance, buck, rear, paw the earth, and roll over on command. He was given scenes in which he would walk over to a table, pick up Tom’s six shooter and bring it to him. Or, an oft-repeated gag that always got laughs was Tonyfilching Tom’s iconic ten-gallon hat off his head. Tony had scenes where he untied the hero’s hand, nudged Tom into the arms of his sweetheart, and nodded affirmation at a grand-finale kiss. Directors were thrilled that they could give Tony close-ups, reaction shots, and sometimes even punch lines that audiences adored.
But, at the heart of Tom’s and Tony’s performances were rip snortin’, death-defying action. Tony would do anything Tom asked of him: leap steep canyons, swim raging rivers, gallop through fire, plunge off moving trains, even leap through windows and crashing glass.
One of the favorite landmarks of early silent films was a spectacular cut between two towering cliffs called Beale’s Cut near Santa Clarita, California. In 1854, the cut had been dynamited out of the mountain to create a passage for a stagecoach route to San Francisco. The cut was a 20-foot wide opening flanked on each side by 90-foot vertical cliffs. It was such a dramatic symbol of the rugged western terrain that is became one of the most film landmarks in early westerns.
In one of Mix’s first Westerns on Tony, the script of 1917’s "Twisted Trails" called for Tony and Tom to cross Beale’s cut on a beam. Bad guys were chasing the hero and they had to cross the 20-foot expanse over a spectacular 90-foot drop on a two-foot wide plank. Tony didn’t wince.
Through the hundreds of movies Tony and Tom Mix made, they sustained many injuries and cuts. During the filming of one movie, a dynamite explosion went off too close to Tony and his rider, sending both flying, leaving them bloody and concussed.
In the 1923 film, “3 Jumps Ahead,” Tony and Tom reportedly performed the ultimate stunt, regarded as perhaps the most dangerous stunt in Hollywood westerns: leaping across the 20-foot chasm of Beale’s Cut. To this day, the stunt is shrouded in mystery. Tom Mix, who abhorred using doubles, claimed to his death that he and Tony not only did the stunt but did it five times to get the right shots. Others claimed that it was performed by Earl Simpson, a horse trainer. Another rider credited with the jump is Richard Talmadge. It is possible that multiple people and horses performed the jump. Still others claim that the stunt was not performed at all but was created through special effects.
Still, many horse experts claim that the jump might have been possible, but only with an extraordinary horse and under ideal conditions. Tragically, “3 Jumps Ahead” and much of the work that Tony and Tom Mix did on film was lost in 1937 in a 20th Century-Fox vault fire. Many of the greatest films and stunts have been lost to oblivion. Tom Mix made more than 300 films—nine of them talkies—and Tony was in most of them, from Twisted Trails in 1916 to Rustler’s Round-up in 1932.
Although man and horse were Hollywood performers, they were rugged individualists known for their death-defying stunts. They were as tough as the characters of the Old West they portrayed. In fact, Tom Mix was so lauded for being an authentic cowboy, he was asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral of Wyatt Earp in 1929. (Earp had been hired as a Hollywood consultant for some Westerns and Mix and Earp became friends.) In 1935 Texas governor James Allred named Mix an honorary Texas Ranger. Later, he was also inducted in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Mix's path crossed fortuitously with other icons of the West. And, when a football injury caused a young man named Marion Morrison to drop out of the University of Southern California, Mix helped him find work in the back lot of Fox Studios moving props. That was the beginning of another great actor’s career. Marion Morrison changed his name to John Wayne and, in 1930, he landed a leading role in John Ford’s classic movie, Stagecoach, which also featured scenes through Beale’s Cut.
Tom Mix and Tony retired from movies in 1932 when the filming of “Destry Rides Again,” their last film, was finished. Tony was 23 years old and had stumbled on a steep embankment and rolled over on Mix. Mix had already injured his leg badly a few months before, in addition to past injuries—a smashed shoulder, dozens of broken bones, ruptured appendix, broken legs, knife wounds, shooting scars, and numerous concussions. His body was broken down.
Tom Mix had felt for some time that his career was winding down. Talkies were the rage and in 1929 some critics were claiming the silent genre was dead. One wrote: “Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard had better switch to aeroplanes or retreat to the old actors home.” Tom himself did care much for Talkies, although he did nine of them. He believed they would destroy action films. He was 52 years old when he retired but the decades of stunts, hard riding and hard living had ravaged his body.
Tony outlasted his master by two years. In 1940, Mix was killed in an auto accident behind the wheel of a 1937 convertible Cord Phaeton outside of Florence, Arizona, when he came up too fast on a bridge that was out. Unlike his fateful horse, he couldn’t make the jump. Tom Mix died on October 12, 1940. Tony died two years later, exactly, to the day.
After the crash, a monument was installed above the cliff of Tom Mix’s death on Highway 79 that remains there today. It commemorates both Tony and Tom: an iron statue of a riderless Tony, his head hanging low, sorrowful, his body seemingly weary from his empty saddle, his ears pricked forward to the place where his rider was killed, as if to say: “Good bye, old friend.”
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