Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Unique Tom Tyler UID silent film arcade/exhibit card

When I first saw this Tom Tyler silent film arcade/exhibit card manufactured by the Exhibit Supply Company (Chicago, Illinois) online I was not really sure what to make of it. It is a standard size at 3 1/4 x 5 ¼", and the scene seems to be from one of Tom’s later silent films made for FBO, possibly from 1928 or 1929. There is no existing match that I could find anywhere online or elsewhere, telling me this card is rarer than most Tom Tyler arcade/exhibit cards. Take a look below to find out what is so different from standard Tom Tyler posters, film stills, and arcade/exhibit cards often seen on Aventuras de Tom Tyler:

This scene could be from one of the following silent films:

The Avenging Rider (1928)
Tyrant of Red Gulch (1928)
Trail of the Horse Thieves
Gun Law (1929)
Idaho Red (1929)
The Pride of Pawnee (1929)

Have you guessed what is so different in this image? Not only is Tom’s western outfit missing the scarf around his neck – but his shirt is unbuttoned to well below his chest. You’re looking very handsome Tom – and sexy.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Calling the murder witness Brilliant: The Blocked Trail

Brilliant the Horse in "The Blocked Trail" 1943
Rarely does the murder-mystery film from the 1930’s to 1940’s have a domestic animal like a dog or cat sitting idly by when its owner becomes a murder victim. What is even more rare, is when the animal happens to be a horse – a smart, seeing-eye horse, who also happens to be a miniature horse. Described in “The Blocked Trail” (1943) as a three-foot high dwarf Mustang, Brilliant is owned by an elderly man by the last name of Martin (Walter Soderling), who lives on the outskirts of a small western town on a piece of land that has a gold. With the mine in claim and a lawyer by the name of Frank Nolan (Charles Miller) to handle the old man’s property after he dies, Martin is capable of taking care of himself, even when he starts to lose his sight. Living in Martin’s cabin, Brilliant is trained to be his eyes, a product of the Clever Hans Effect (Clever Hans was an Orlove Trotter horse owned and trained by Wilhelm von Osten to do math, tell time, read, and spell during the first decade of the twentieth century). Smarter than the average horse, Brilliant takes the viewer on a thrill-filled western adventure, wondering who committed the murder of an elderly man.

Jimmie Dodd with Tom Tyler
The twilight setting of the Martin’s murder arouses intrigue for the audience. A tall male figure clad in all black, including a wide brimmed hat, springs out of the bushes with a gun in hand, attempts to take Martin by surprise. But Martin is ready to take on the stranger, with his rifle in hand and Brilliant by his side. The two men finally wind up in a brawl, the stranger’s face obscured by the camera at all times. Martin gets plugged by the man attempting to vanquish his life, but with the aid of Brilliant, gets ahold of the murder weapon and drops it into her saddlebag. Managing to evade the clutches of the murderer, Brilliant stays by her master until his last breath, then takes off, in hopes of finding someone who might help her. In luck, she encounters The Three Mesquiteers: Stoney Brooke, Tucson Smith, and Lullaby Joslin (Tom Tyler, Bob Steele, Jimmie Dodd) when her rein is caught on a bush and she is unable to free herself. Lullaby untangles Brilliant’s rein, and of the three friends, she immediately develops an affinity for him. Brilliant licks Stoney’s hand upon meeting him, and the men discuss the finding of the horse who a number of people have been looking for, including Martin’s niece Ann Martin (Helen Deverell), the sole heir to Brilliant and the gold mine. Seemingly delighted to meet new friends, Brilliant’s instinct tells her these are good men who will help her track down her master’s murderer, even when they get framed for the murder themselves due to circumstantial evidence: possession of the murder weapon removed from Brilliant’s saddlebag.

Along with The Three Mesquiteers, Brilliant is escorted into town by the sheriff (Hal Price) and his men as being as “evidence” but there is the underlying assumption that she may in fact know who murdered her master. Everyone knew about old man Martin and how smart his seeing-eye horse is. The fact that he had a horse who was smart was no secret to anyone in town, not to the murderer himself, who took special precautions at having Brilliant shuffled away from the stable in town where she was placed, right across from the jail. As suspects, The Three Mesquiteers test Brilliant’s smarts from behind bars with simple math problems, even proving to the sheriff that they are innocent, Brilliant’s identifying the three men as not the murderers of her master. True to form, as Lullaby states, “She knows everything” – and if a smart horse could talk, she could accurately describe the events that transpired the night Martin was murdered – from the time the stage driver Freddy (George J Lewis) dropped off a package of books in Braille to Martin, to when Martin took Brilliant out for a walk, when they ran into the mysterious figure who shot the old man. What is notable is Brilliant’s attitude towards the people she knows, her overall response to them, with the exception of one person: the lawyer Nolan, and with good reason.  Nobody else has an inkling as to any personal vested interest Nolan has in Martin’s property, which is solely for the gold mine. Caught up in the mine situation, Freddy and The Three Mesquiteers are freed from certain destruction by Brilliant, who saves the day and brings the murderer to justice.

Definitely one of the more entertaining Three Mesquiteers westerns made by Republic Pictures starring Tom Tyler as Stoney Brooke, Brilliant figures into the film’s title in a subtle manner – the trail to solving the murder mystery is being blocked by the murderer through her removal, who at times escapes the henchmen and keeps making her way back to The Three Mesquiteers, while being pulled in a third direction, that of her new owner, Ann Martin. The film’s subplot revolves around a Native American medicine man, Chief Plenty Harvest and his wife (Earle Hodgins and Ellen Lowe) who try to swindle the Three Mesquiteers every chance he gets. Unusual for its time period, the film theme of animal-as-murder-witness was repeated in movies like “Shadow of the Cat” (1961, UK) which stars Andre Morrell and Barbara Shelley, and more recently, “Turner and Hooch” (1989), starring Tom Hanks. Directed by Elmer Clifton and written by John K. Butler and Jacquin Frank, “The Blocked Trail” also has support from Kermit Maynard, the brother of western star Ken Maynard. As the real hero and star of “The Blocked Trail”, Brilliant may have you looking at your pets and wondering if they could be as smart in witnessing and solving a murder mystery.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tom Tyler: A conversation piece?

The thought of a Hollywood actor being labeled a “conversation piece” may seem amusing to most people but that is exactly what Clifton Webb, the star of movies like  “Laura” (1944) and  “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College” (1949)  has in fact called Tom Tyler, according to a Hollywood column in The Tampa Tribune (December 11, 1935). This was around the same time when Tom appeared at a party given by Dorothy DiFrasso, the popular Hollywood hostess during the 1930’s, for she was mentioned in the newspaper column at the same time.

Chances are that Webb was probably at the same party that Tom was, admiring the shy handsome B-western star who was the center of attention for some of the actors and actresses in attendance. Enchanted with Tom’s sparkling eyes and dazzling smile, they were struck by Tom’s ability to be congenial yet not an extrovert, especially in a social setting. Being politely brief when engaging with the other Hollywood stars, Tom and his peers discussed their most recent film roles as well as their next roles in the movies. It is unknown if Tom’s weightlifting career was ever the topic of discussion among the A-list stars although it is possible that some actresses took the time to admire his muscular physique, if only to elicit a shy reply from Tom.

Combining the charm factor with his level of attractiveness, there was reason for the most prominent of Hollywood actors and actresses to talk about Tom Tyler, statements made about him to others were always positive and complimentary.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Happy Father’s Day 2020 from Tom Tyler

"The Desert Pirate" 1927
It may sound unusual for Tom Tyler to be considered a father figure, having never had any children of his own in real life, but onscreen, he played the role on more than one occasion with his young co-stars from the silent film era to early talkies.  Whether his co-stars were Frankie Darro, Andy Shuford, Bobby Nelson, or Wesley Giraud, Tom was someone these boys looked up to onscreen, or even admired and respected in real life, as in Frankie Darro’s case. Tom was very good with children in silent films which drew children from all over the United States and the world to the Saturday matinee to enjoy his latest adventure on the silver screen. Even in silent films where there are multiple children – including babies! –  like “Idaho Red” and “The Man from Nevada”, Tom is there, talking to the youngsters, playing with them, protecting them, rescuing them from bandits. In other words, doing all the things a father does with his children. Let’s not forget when Tom delivers a baby in “Clancy of the Mounted” - the baby of his brother’s wife.

"A Rider of the Plains" 1931
In silent films like “The Desert Pirate”, Tom becomes a surrogate father to Frankie Darro, after shooting the boy’s father who is in fact a major criminal. In the movie “A Rider of the Plains” Tom is literally parenting his pal and riding partner Andy Shuford, who has wayward tendencies but with the help of a pastor friend, helps get him on the straight and narrow with a loving but firm hand. Screen portrayals of fatherly figures aside, in real life, Tom was uncle to a number of nephews his siblings had. In “The Tom Tyler Story” by Mike Chapman, there is a photo of Tom holding his sister Katherine’s newborn baby, Raymond, smiling at the tiny guy. After all, little Raymond could have been his own child. Happy Father’s Day to all dads out there.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Calling Agent Tom: Espionage in Tom Tyler’s movies

"The Man from Death Valley" 1931
The average Tom Tyler B-western of the silent film and sound eras may evoke the concept of the vast undiscovered yellow plains and purple mountains beneath the pink and crimson skies, the landscape dotted with cowboys and rustlers. Very rarely a description would include the topic of espionage; surprisingly, espionage as a plot can and does exist in westerns, often in the form of rustler gang infiltration. As exciting as the action can possibly be in a Tom Tyler movie, it seems like espionage is the perfect complement to the fistfight action and suspense so prevalent in these stories.

The book “The Espionage Filmography: United States Releases, 1898 through 1999” by Paul Mavis (McFarland; 2011) lists five movies with the espionage plot; three which star Tom, one which he co-stars, and two which are not included in the Google Books preview. Following are the five entry numbers and film titles:

370. Deadwood Pass (1933). Tom is a government agent who arrives in Deadwood Pass, originally mistaken for The Hawk due to a tattoo of a Hawk on his left arm – the same spot where the real Hawk has the same tattoo. His job is to find a huge cache full of stolen loot from a robbery and bring the robbers to justice.

"When the Law Rides" (1928)
910. The Man from Death Valley (1931). Tom is a Secret Service agent who gets word about a bank heist about to take place and before the robbers can pull it off, Tom decides to rob the bank himself and keep the money in a safe spot. “The Man from Death Valley” remains a lost film.

1185. ?

1321. Samson and Delilah (1949). Based on the Biblical story, the Philistine Delilah (Hedy Lamarr) has been referred to as one of the first female spies. Spurned by the apple of her eye Samson (Victor Mature), she makes the rash decision to cut his long hair which is the symbol of his power – and later the course of Hebrew history forever. Tom has a minor role in the film as a gristmill captain.

1667. ?

1700. When the Law Rides (1928). Tom is a federal agent, a crime fighter in the form of Captain Marvel minus the red and gold superhero costume. Tom’s character is even compared to Zorro by Mavis, possibly for the stunt where Tom swings from a rope tied to the balcony of a hotel and mounting his horse from the rear. “When the Law Rides” is a lost silent film from FBO.

"Deadwood Pass" 1933

In addition to the above named titles, “Trigger Tom” (1935), “Terror of the Plains” (1934), and “West of Cheyenne” (1931) also carry this espionage subplot: Tom Tyler is in a position where he must infiltrate a gang in order to trap the rustlers and bring someone to justice.

Note: If anyone out there has a copy of this book “The Espionage Filmography: United States Releases, 1898 through 1999” or the following entries numbered 1185 and 1667 please contact me so that I can include them in this article. Credit will be given to the contributor. Thank you!

Monday, May 18, 2020

Repackaging Tom Tyler: “Brothers of the West” as “Cowboy Musketeer”

"Brothers of the West" repackaged on 16mm film
It was the following Ebay auction which caught my eye that made me think about how westerns of the 1930’s were repackaged as 16mm or 8mm/Super 8mm for home viewing: “Brothers of the West” (1937). In this case, “Brothers of the West” received the title of “Cowboy Musketeer” for the 16mm print, possibly a paean to Tom Tyler’s silent film made for FBO in 1925.

Outside of the 1925 silent film “Cowboy Musketeer” made by FBO Productions, Tom Tyler’s name has also been attached to a movie of the same name back in the early 1980’s television schedule listings.  “Cowboy Musketeer” is often accompanied by a “no date” in parentheses, along with the name Tom Keene, who was also a western star of the 1930’s:

From The Orlando Sentinel, FL, March 9, 1983

The SAT cable channel abbreviation stands for Satellite Program, with this time showing being at 6:30 AM on a Wednesday, March 9, 1983. While it cannot be determined what this movie actually was – whether it was “Brothers of the West” purchased by Satellite Program or another Tom Tyler western, the nickname “Cowboy Musketeer” seems well suited to Tom as it connotes a heroic figure, someone who seems to arrive out of nowhere to aid someone in dire need. With that, it is not wrong to consider Tom Tyler to be the “Cowboy Musketeer” of FBO.

A still of Tom in the original "The Cowboy Musketeer" 1925

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Riding the Rails: “Hollywood’s First Australian” a look at early Hollywood director J. P. McGowan

“Hollywood’s First Australian: The Adventurous Life of J. P. McGowan, The Movie Pioneer They Called ‘The Railroad Man’”. By John J. McGowan. Display Vision Productions, Norwood, South Australia. Reprint: 2016. 220 pages. 

Aged 32. From Motion Picture Story
, February 1912
The early years of Hollywood had its share of noteworthy directors memorable in American popular culture: Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, D. W. Griffith, and Cecil B. DeMille. But one name all too often overlooked in this esteemed group is John Paterson “J. P.” McGowan, who was not only a silent film director and actor but also an innovator in the use of a motion picture camera for high-level action-adventure silent films. Written by John J. McGowan (not a known relation to J. P., or Jack as he was often called on the set), “Hollywood’s First Australian: The Adventurous Life of J. P. McGowan, The Movie Pioneer They Called ‘The Railroad Man’” documents the life and career of a Hollywood director who became famous through plenty of sweat and blood – sometimes more of the latter, due to injuries experienced by cast members performing stunts on the set. Like Jack’s life and career, the book is written like an adventure, gripping for the reader, the creation of much research conducted both in Australia where he was born, as well as Hollywood, primarily at Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, and Hollywood Museum Collection. John J. McGowan also shares rare photos of Jack and his family from The Gilmour Collection, begun by his mother Marion and younger sister Dorothy. While Jack became an American citizen shortly after coming to the United States in 1904 to re-enact a performance of the Boer War at the St. Louis World Fair, he never turned his back on his Australian roots; if anything, he strongly drew upon these roots to establish himself as one of early Hollywood’s directors. Likewise, Jack’s experience as a horseman came from his being a dispatch rider for Montmorency's Scouts during the Boer War in South Africa. Saving many rare documents and photos about his career, Jack sent these home to his family in Australia for safe keeping.

John J. McGowan traces Jack McGowan’s early life back to Terowie, South Australia, a town with a population of 5,000 when the railway was built in 1880. This is most certainly a significant year for Jack, being born on February 24 that year to Thomas Kennedy McGowan and Marion Paterson McGowan, who immigrated to Australia from Plymouth, England only two years earlier. It was the exposure to the railway Jack’s father worked on, and later Jack himself, which led him to gain enough experience to create exciting action-adventure silent films with the rail as the focus of the plot. These films expanded Hollywood’s offerings to the viewing public in addition to the many romance stories and comedies that frequently played across the country. Westerns with stars like William S. Hart  provided some degree of action, but nothing could compare to the fast-moving trains and daring stunts performed by Jack and his wife Helen Holmes in “The Hazards of Helen”, a film series (versus a film serial, which relies upon a set of chapters each ending with a cliffhanger) which lasted for 119 episodes, each 12-minute single reel story complete unto itself but utilizing the same set of characters. Some of the other stuntmen in “The Hazards of Helen” episodes include the future western star Leo D. Maloney, and comic Harold Lloyd. It is worth noting that Jack McGowan’s use of trains and stunts predates that of Buster Keaton in “One Week” (1920), “The General” (1926) and “Speak Easily” (1932). Buster performed dangerous stunts on a train in the style of Jack McGowan in “The General”, which may as well be a paean to McGowan’s innovative use of trains, stunt work, and the movie camera.

From The Moving Picture World, September 15, 1917
Jack McGowan’s film career began in 1909 with Kalem Company in New York City, where he first got his feet wet acting in one-reel films like “The Lad from Old Ireland” (1910) and “Far from Erin’s Isle”(1911). Sidney Olcott directed the bulk of these films, but it was not long before Jack started directing himself in 1911, his debut being “A Prisoner of Mexico”.  Kalem soon became known for shooting on location in countries like Ireland, and more exotic places like Bethlehem, Egypt and Jerusalem, as it did for “From the Manger to the Cross”, a life of Jesus, in 1912. Jack McGowan portrayed the apostle Andrew; a publicity sheet was distributed to cinemas with his likeness on it, set in what appears to be a genuine Biblical era. It was Jack’s rugged good looks, combined with his physical size (over 6 feet tall), muscular build, dark hair and large, dark brown eyes that made him perfect for silent film and the strenuous demands of the rail films he made.

A poster for "Stormy Seas" 1923
Nicknamed “Let’s Go McGowan” for his penchant for yelling “Let’s Go!” to cast and crew in making a film, Jack’s love of making exciting action-adventure films was infectious, and to say he and his crew had fun doing what they did is an understatement. It was not just Jack’s work ethic but his sense of daring, his approach to performing some incredibly dangerous stunts which on more than one occasion ended up with an extensive hospital stay. Combine the hard work and adventurous element, Jack was like a modern teenage boy looking for fun and having it. He owned two different production companies, Signal Films, then later, J. P. McGowan productions, creating an output that remains unrivaled during the 1910’s and 1920’s. In 1913, Jack directed 31 films; in 1925, 36 films; and in 1929, 22 films. One of the reasons Jack was still making silent films as late as 1930 for his own production company was cost. While sound film, or “talkies”, was possible then due to technology, it was also expensive, not something a small production company could afford for every movie, especially with an average of 20 plus movies being made per year. Jack often acted in the films he directed during the late 1920’s, and by the time silent film was being phased out and sound films were being made, he lost his Australian accent. His voice proved to be perfect for sound films, a mellifluous baritone reaching villainous depths which suited many of the roles he played.

From Motion Picture News, March 3, 1917
What is striking, perhaps not so surprisingly, about “Hollywood’s First Australian”  is why Jack McGowan is considered to be one of the most important men from Holllywood’s earliest days. In this manner, he can be compared to Ernie Kovacs and his use of the television camera during the late 1940’s to 1950’s, exploiting its use to maximum capability, while Jack McGowan used every trick he knew in the implementation of a motion picture camera onto moving trains, cars,  and motorcycles. In other words, if an object moved and entered within range of the camera lenses, it was considered to be usable, offering substance to the completed film.  John J McGowan also takes note of Jack’s use of a camera mounted at the front of the car (nowadays the hood) to film the inside of the car through the windshield plus the rear window – a method still used today by motion picture directors.

Jack McGowan’s most meaningful contribution to Hollywood after his many years of filming was as Executive Secretary for the Screen Directors Guild (now known as Directors Guild of America), which began in 1936. When the Motion Picture Producers Association (now known as Motion Picture Association of America) was formed in 1922, the organization’s intent was to prevent the existence of unions among actors and film writers but eventually failed. With this new union for movie directors coming into play, the MPPA wasted no time in trying to vanquish the guild. Jack’s people skills came strongly into play once again, fighting for the creative rights and salaries of directors who on more than one occasion had to butt heads with the studio owners. John J McGowan stresses that while Jack certainly kept company with the best of the A-list directors like John Ford and D. W. Griffith which helped keep him in the business until at least 1939, Jack never joined that esteemed list, although not doing so certainly did not diminish his contributions to Hollywood in any way.

"Stormy Seas" 1923
Originally titled “J. P. McGowan: Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer” (McFarland and Company, 2005), the main reason for this reprint is The Gilmour Collection, as mentioned by John J McGowan in the Preface to the Second Edition. The Gilmour Collection is presented into several small chapters documenting the different periods of Jack’s life. John J. also includes an extensive filmography which spans 77 pages, starting with Jack’s film career in New York back in 1909 and ending in 1939. The filmography contains notes regarding unconfirmed film appearances like John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1930) as well as some but not all extant film prints and commercial availability. Nevertheless, the filmography is worth glancing through, just to get a grasp of Jack McGowan’s energetic level of film making. Sadly, much of his earliest work is lost, particularly many of the episodes of “The Hazards of Helen”.


Tom Tyler first worked with Jack McGowan in 1929, soon after Tom’s contract with FBO expired that year. It is possible this was not the first time Tom became familiar with the name J. P. McGowan, as Jack directed a number of movies for Robertson-Cole Productions, the distributor for FBO’s films. Even though Tom and Jack were different in personality, they both came from working class backgrounds and loved their work. Tom Tyler’s introvert was a perfect complement to Jack’s extrovert, people-person personality. In a way Tom’s work ethic helped fuel Jack’s new production company under his own name, affording him the ability to crank out just as many movies in 1929 as he did back during the 1910’s.

J. P. McGowan in "Deadwood Pass", 1933
“The Man from Nevada” was the first of eight silent films Tom starred in for Jack McGowan, released in August 29, followed by “Law of the Plains”, “The Phantom Rider”, “The Lone Horseman”, “Pioneers of the West” and “’Neath Western Skies”. In 1930, “Canyon of Missing Men” and “Call of the Desert” were the last two silent films Tom made for J. P. McGowan productions, but this was hardly the last time the two men would work with each other.  With Jack now directing for the recently-formed Monogram Pictures, he got the chance to work with Tom again, this time in “The Man from New Mexico” (1931). Jack then directed Tom for three Monarch Productions westerns: “When a Man Rides Alone” (1932), “Deadwood Pass” (1933), and “War of the Range” (1933). Unlike his own productions where Jack often appeared in the movie, he only had one role than can best be described as a cameo role in “Deadwood Pass” where he plays a character called “The Chief” - a nickname sometimes attributed to the director of a movie. As “The Chief” though, Jack gets shot by one of the henchmen in the gang Tom infiltrated. The last time Tom Tyler and J. P. McGowan worked together in major roles would be “Fighting Hero” (1934), a western which pays tribute to Tom Tyler’s silent film years – and also pays tribute to Jack McGowan’s late silent film years as playing the villain Morales. Sadly, J. P. McGowan died two years before Tom Tyler did at the age of 72 on March 26, 1952, from heart failure.

To purchase a copy of “Hollywood’s First Australian”, click here.