When you think of western films even thirty plus years after his passing the legendary John Wayne is who comes to most people’s minds.
Who can ever forget his greater than life presence on the screen no matter what film was rolling through the projector like “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “ The Sons of Katy Elder,” “True Grit,” “Rooster Cogburn,” and “The Shootist.”
Many remember Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and even Lash La Rue but do you recall the first generation of western heroes that dominated the silver screen. Tim McCoy, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Harry Carey, Buck Jones, William S. Hart and Ken Maynard. Do any of those names ring a bell?
Unless you are a true western devotee it is likely that these legendary actors some of who demanded huge salaries and drew large crowds at personal appearances bring with them a question mark. Many do not realize that the film industry actually began with a western.
In that short, a cowboy points his gun at the camera and fires. That was the extent of the film and as it was shown around the country, audiences actually ducked thinking they might be hit by flying lead.
As film began the images were simply silent pictures with inserted cards added to share important story points or dialogue written on the screen. Often as the films traveled from theater to theater, a local pianist or organist helped set the mood by performing a musical score. The early film industry actually began in New Jersey before its move to the desert and hills around Hollywood. So even the early westerns didn’t have a real western setting to them.
William S. Hart was the first actor to work to bring realism to western film but authenticity gave way to more entertaining fare in films with Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and later Buck Jones.
Broncho Billy Anderson and Harry Carey rode the range above them all in the second decade of the twentieth century with scores of silent films. Anderson appeared in the Thomas Edison’s “Great Train Robbery” in 1903 that actually is considered the first western feature film.In many of the westerns the premise of being the fastest gun has left many hero standing on a dusty street back to the sun facing down a challenger who wanted to test their mettle against him.
Of all the western heroes there was none that could out draw Tim McCoy. McCoy could draw and shoot in ¼ of a second. He was one of the highest paid and most admired western heroes of that era. While many of the silent stars didn’t easily move into talkies when they began in the 1930s several did and McCoy was among those dominating the 1930s.
Even John Wayne, once a prop guy after three years of extra and bit parts and a couple starring roles played bit parts in Tim McCoy Columbia movies “Texas Cyclone” and a co-starring role in “Two-Fisted Law” in 1932. However, if you catch those on video today you will often find Wayne given top billing while the star is relegated below him.
I never had the pleasure of knowing Tim McCoy but through my association with Ramblin’ “Doc” Tommy Scott, I feel that I do. McCoy traveled with Scott’s road show from 1963 until shortly before his death. I have heard countless stories of his exploits and consider him to be one of the greatest of the western stars.
“Unlike many who played cowboys and were referred to as ‘drug store cowboys’ Tim McCoy was a real cowboy,” Scott said.
Although he was born in Saginaw, Michigan, McCoy longed for the west and that is where he went as soon as he was old enough.
“The first town he settled down in was Lander, Wyoming, a real old timey Western town,” Scott said. “The sidewalks were boards and the streets were dirt and mud when it rained. He had a room up over a saloon. He went to sleep at night to the sound of cowboys walking on the sidewalks, their boots clicking on the hard wood, and horse’s hooves beating on the hard ground, and over it all was the jangle of spurs, the holler of drunken cowboys, laughter of loose women, and high tinkle of a piano. It was like music to his ears.”
McCoy went from being a cowhand, to a rancher, to military officer to Adjutant General of Wyoming all before he ever set foot on a movie set.
His Hollywood career began in a way as an Indian liaison while Paramount was making the film “Covered Wagon” in 1923.
When the film toured Tim hosted a prologue with several of his Indian friends that appeared before the film including at London’s Pavilion to rave reviews.
After returning to America MGM signed him to shine on the silver screen.
According to Tim’s son, Ronald McCoy, who is a professor of history at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas, McCoy also longed for authenticity in his films and he also desired to show Indians in a positive light rather than in the conventional form in movies.
He managed to do that long before Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” was hailed for its approach when McCoy lensed “End of the Trail” for Columbia in 1932 near Lander, Wyoming.
“The story was very pro Indian. It was about how they were being cheated by the whites and how the treaties were being broken,” Ronald said. “It was very rare for the time He helped put the movie together in terms of the writing and they filmed it up on the Arapahoe and Shoshone Wind River Reservation.”
Ronald, who co-authored “Tim McCoy Remembers the West” with his father, said Tim was most proud of that film from his nearly 100 movies.
McCoy also did an educational film on Indian sign language for Standard Oil, Ronald said.
“It was meant for school children and he did it up in Glacier National Park mostly with Blackfeet that he known for 40 years or more,” he said. “It was one of his contributions of putting some knowledge out about Indian sign language.”
He was also able to do that again in his afternoon children’s television show that won an Emmy.
“His idea was he had found history so interesting because of the people and the stories. He felt that too often academics squeezed all the life out of it. Taking a great story and making it dull. His idea was to keep it interesting.”
Tim McCoy was not only one of the greatest western stars but he was one of the greatest westerners who tried to preserve and protect what he loved about the American West. You can read more about him and other western stars in “Doc” Tommy Scott’s autobiography “Snake Oil, Superstars and Me.” Shirley Swiesz and I joined Scott in writing the book. Visit the Randall Franks Store to find out more.