Sunday, July 23, 2017

Luke Plummer: the real star of "Stagecoach"

Much has been made of Tom Tyler's performance as Luke Plummer in “Stagecoach” (1939) by both fans of the movie and film critics, even though this John Ford western was an A-list vehicle for John Wayne. There is a reason for it though: much of Tom's acting technique from his silent film period  proved to be a benefit to his role as Luke, even with his few spoken lines in the movie, his bare minimum of online screen time well used to capacity. It is not just acting mileage, however, but more likely due to Tom's extensive acting career during the silent film period that earned him accolades in “Stagecoach.”

“Stagecoach”, at 96 minutes long, is fast moving, due to the directorial work of John Ford. Yet the most lingering scene in the movie is near the end, from the time Tom Tyler appears as Luke Plummer in a saloon playing poker, waiting for his showdown with the Ringo Kid, until he takes to the streets, ready to take out his enemy. From the time Luke deals out the final hand begins the surreal chapter “Stagecoach”: two black aces and two black eights, neatly placed upon the poker table, the puff of cigarette smoke dissipating from around his hard, angular face, and steely gaze temporarily making contact with the camera while his girl stands behind his chair, his source of moral support, when he gets news of who is in town to see him, Ringo Kid. Luke temporarily leaves his card game, becomes nervous and anxious, sauntering over to the bar for a drink to help him relax. It is Tom Tyler's facial expressions and body language that become the star of the movie, the periodic pans of his face, revealing exactly what he is feeling during the entire time he is onscreen. Most notably, standing right at the bar and glancing at the door of the saloon every time it opens, his nerves on edge become more apparent, as he tries to drown them away in his drink. Soon the time comes when he must leave the bar which is met with
hesitancy from Doc Boone (played by Thomas Mitchell) and take to the streets to deal with Ringo Kid. Luke attempts to leave the saloon with rifle in hand when Doc Boone threatens to have Luke indicted for murder if he steps outside; Luke responds with a comment on dealing with him later after he and his two brothers Hank (Vester Pegg) and Ike (Joe Rickson) take out Ringo Kid. He gives up the rifle and exits the saloon, standing out in the middle of the street under the window from the hotel rooms above the saloon. His lady is by the window and thoughtfully tosses a rifle down to Luke who catches it and says “Thanks” although no matching audio is heard; the scene on the street, as with inside the saloon, is mean to be as silent as possible, the scene relying upon Tom's silent film acting ability alone.

Luke and his two brothers stand in the middle of the dirt street which is dimly lit by lights, shadows alive with suspense. Out of nowhere comes a cat which runs across the men's path, and gets shot at although it appears the bullet missed the cat. The Plummer brothers walk slowly, Luke's brothers a step behind him, their nerves of steel returning, when Ringo Kid finally comes within sight – and Luke takes a shot at him. Unfortunately for Luke, Ringo Kid had the advantage of being hidden in the dark, dropping flat to the ground while firing three shots, while Luke somehow makes it back to the saloon, opening the door, a rather thin grimace on his face and walks towards the camera, eventually collapsing dead in front of the bar. The long, drawn-out walk before dying became a trademark in Tom Tyler's film career, notably repeated again in “San Antonio” (1945) where is shot in a similar manner by Errol Flynn.

Tom's role as Luke Plummer is smoldering, facial expressions revealing killing machine potential despite flawed nerves. The facial stubble on Tom's chiseled face adds to his tough-guy appearance yet also adds a degree of sexual allure. Even though Luke Plummer has a lady of interest in “Stagecoach”, he does not let her keep him from doing what he must do, at one point where he pushes her away from him at the bar. The last thing he needed was to be subdued by a woman, regardless of how much he loves her. Like in “Powdersmoke Range” and “A Rider of the Plains”, the intense scenes with Tom's one-on-one encounters with forces of control and how
In "Powdersmoke Range"
he deals with it, eventually taking matters into his own hands stand out the most. While these two films are most comparable to “Stagecoach” in terms of acting performance, it is worth noting that two of Tom Tyler's later silent films made in 1930 - “Canyon of Missing Men” and “Call of the Desert” also display similar characteristics of intense scenes on Tom's part, and even though he was not the leading man in “Stagecoach”, his scenes as Luke Plummer do indeed bear the hallmark of leading man acting. The main question here is this: would Tom Tyler have been just as suited at playing Ringo Kid, with John Wayne in the reversed role as Luke Plummer? Had “Stagecoach” been a silent film made ten years earlier, the answer is probably yes. The main reason for this is,
In "A Rider of the Plains"
of all the main credited actors in the cast of “Stagecoach”, Tom Tyler was the only one who had an extensive background as a leading man during the silent film years. Following is a brief breakdown of the acting careers of the other cast members of “Stagecoach” up until the time it was made (with thanks to IMDB):

John Wayne was four years younger than Tom Tyler and played mostly “extra” roles in silent films for four years from 1926 to 1930.

Claire Trevor missed the silent film years by being born in 1910.

Andy Devine often had bit roles as character actors from 1926 to 1929.

John Carradine started making films during the talkie period at 1930, again, starting out with bit roles.

Thomas Mitchell made one film in 1923, as a character actor in a minor role, and did not resume his film career until 1936, devoting those in-between years to the theatre.

Louise Platt, born in 1915, made her first film well after talkies became the norm, in 1938.

George Bancroft was a supporting role actor, whose silent film career dated back to 1921.

Donald Meek was a Shakespearean stage actor, making only two silent films, one in 1923, the other, in 1929.

Berton Churchill, another theatre actor, made only four silent films in supporting roles between 1919 and 1929.

Tim Holt, the son of silent film leading man Jack Holt, made one silent film as a child actor in 1928.

As compelling as Tom's performance as Luke Plummer is, a comparable one would be that of Agnes Moorehead as the old lady living in a farmhouse all by herself in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Invaders.” Unlike Tom who has a few spoken lines in “Stagecoach”, Agnes' role is completely silent without any dialogue, relying upon body language and periodic sounds of pain and anguish when she is attacked by the six-inch tall aliens, turning in one of the best performances of the critically acclaimed television series. Even though Agnes was born in 1900, she got her start in acting on the radio using her voice, eventually making her first movie in 1941, “Citizen Kane.” It goes without saying that being able to act using facial expression and body language alone to convey meaning and give depth to a role requires considerable talent, in Tom's case, right up until the moment he is shot, resulting in a dramatic death scene in the saloon.

In 1995, “Stagecoach” was included in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. To fans of the movie, genre, and Tom Tyler, “Stagecoach” is memorable for its glimpse of life in the Old West, and the ease of immersion of interest in the film itself. As a western, it is considered the best, and a springboard for those who wish to become more familiar with Tom Tyler's film career in westerns.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tom Tyler: Not the “ideal” Tarzan

One role that Tom Tyler was considered for his career, but did not quite make it, was as Tarzan. A number of actors have portrayed the Edgar Rice Burroughs character created back in 1912 onscreen (Tarzan made his debut in the pulp magazine, All-Story Magazine), which include Elmo Lincoln,  Herman Brix, and Johnny Weissmuller. One MGM film director by the name of W. S. Van Dyke thought about including Tom in the roster of stars who portrayed the famous jungle man, but changed his mind in favor of another popular actor at the time.

According to “The Tom Tyler Story” by Mike Chapman, Van Dyke was looking for the right actor to play Tarzan in the upcoming 1932 film “Tarzan the Ape Man”. Tom Tyler apparently tested for the role and was declined, due to his “not being muscular enough for the role” (p. 83). Van Dyke wanted Brix as Tarzan but apparently the actor was recovering from an on-set injury while filming “Touchdown!”(1931). Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller was selected instead, and made “Tarzan the Ape Man” a smash hit that year for MGM. Due to the film's popularity, Weissmuller appeared as Tarzan eleven more times on the silver screen.

Perhaps it is because both Brix and Weissmuller look similar facially, and have the sandy hair in addition to the tall, athletic physiques (both Brix and Weissmuller were 6'3”) that make them look suitable as Tarzan. To be fair, it might be worth comparing the role of Tarzan as a Tom Tyler possibility to that of the lead male star in Murnau's “Tabu” (1931). As with “Tabu”, Tom was also passed up in favor of Murnau's desire to go the purist route, employing Tahiti-born actors for this film. The main question is this: If Tom Tyler was originally selected to play a South Pacific Islander – and he was – but not Tarzan, then why?

In "Valley of the Sun"
On the surface, the reason of “not being muscular enough for the role” does not sound logical, at least by Hollywood standards, considering the fact Tom Tyler won the American Amateur Heavyweight Weightlifting Championship in 1928. That was only a few years before casting for “Tarzan the Ape Man” began. In photographs of Tom from that time period, he may have looked like an ideal Tarzan, but on film, it is possible that he did not look like an ape man of the jungle. That is not to say Brix, Weismuller, plus the other Tarzan actors looked like ape men; if anything, these two particular Tarzan actors of that time period were tall, muscular, attractive men. Tom Tyler probably could have pulled off the lead male role in “Tabu” had he been hired by Murnau at the time – he did after all make a great Native American in “Wagon Tracks West” (1943) and “Valley of the Sun” (1942). Had Tom been in “Tabu” he most likely would have had to wear a loincloth. So again – why not Tarzan?

In "Wagon Tracks West"
It is entirely possible that Tom, in looking at his film appearances between 1931 and 1932, which include three film serials (one which happened to be “Jungle Mystery” (1932)), plus twelve feature-length films, looked too “metrosexual” for a role like Tarzan. Granted, that term did not exist back then,   even though early marketing key words to describe Tom included “Adonis” - not just physically but facially. Unfortunately Tom Tyler never had the opportunity to portray the Grecian Adonis onscreen – or any other young male Greek figure from mythology even though he would have been the perfect choice, given the opportunity. So instead of Tarzan for Tom Tyler, a couple of Native American roles  are the next best thing we have on film to appreciate him by.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Spanish titles of Tom Tyler films

The Avenging Rider
While the Hollywood name Tom Tyler became internationally popular during his silent film career, he seems to have held a special position in Spain. It may be that his onscreen characters personified the ideal man in Spanish culture, beating up the bad guys, tenderness when interacting with the ladies, and upright values. As a result of this, Tom became a pop culture idol, his movies not only being routinely adapted into the Biblioteca Films booklets published by El Gato Negro in Barcelona, as well as the Los Films del Far-West published by Las Grandes Obras Modernas, also located in Barcelona. Tom Tyler was also one of the lucky Hollywood stars to have a fan fiction series of twenty-one booklets aptly titled “Aventuras de Tom Tyler El Rey de los Cow-Boys.” It is worth mentioning that a 35mm print of Tom's silent film “Phantom of the Range” (1928) is held at Instituto Valenciano de Cinematografia in Valencia, Spain.

Obviously, Tom's films released in Spain also had Spanish titles. Below is a partial list of his movies, the English title, and the Spanish title:

Silent films:

Let's Go Gallagher (1925) - Vamos, Gálager
The Wyoming Wildcat (1925) - El Gato-montés de Wyoming
The Cowboy Musketeer (1925) - El Cow-boy Mosquetero
Born to Battle (1926) - Nacido para el Combate
Wild to Go (1926) - Dispuesto a Todo
The Masquerade Bandit (1926) - El Bandido de Carnaval
The Cowboy Cop (1926) - El Vaquero Policía
Lightning Lariats (1927) - El Valiente de la Pradera/Lazos Como Rayo
The Sonora Kid (1927) - El Chico de Sonora
The Cherokee Kid (1927) - Veloz Como el Rayo
The Desert Pirate (1927) - El Pirata del Desierto
Phantom of the Range (1928) - El Fantasma del Rancho
The Texas Tornado (1928) - El Huracán de Texas
The Avenging Rider (1928) - El Culpable
Tyrant of Red Gulch (1928) - El Valle del Misterio
Trail of Horse Thieves (1929) - Los Cuatreros
Gun Law (1929) - La Ley del Revólver

Note: “Lightning Lariats” has two different titles: one from the Biblioteca Films booklet, the second one from Cine Mundial, April 1927.


The Man from Death Valley (1931) - El Honrado Salteador
Two Fisted Justice (1931) - Al Que a Hierro Mata
Galloping Thru (1931) - Deluda de Sangre

Friday, July 7, 2017

Meet Beans the Dog

Those who are familiar with Tom Tyler's early silent film work for FBO are no strangers to the main members of the cast: Tom himself, his co-star Frankie Darro, Tom's horse Flashlight, and Beans the dog. Beans was often cast as belonging to Frankie, for what can be more natural in a wholesome western than a red-blooded American boy and his pet dog? It certainly seemed ideal casting by the FBO producers at the time, and it was a combination that worked well, drawing consistent audiences every week as soon as a new Tom Tyler film was released to the cinemas across the nation.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot li
    - Rudyard Kipling

from Motion Picture News, March 11, 1927
Beans is described as being a “dog of doubtful breed but uncommon intelligence” and a “marvelously sagacious dog” in a film review of “The Cowboy Musketeer” in Motion Picture News, December 26, 1925, his earliest mention by name in a Tom Tyler silent film. Prior to “The Cowboy Musketeer”, Beans was simply referred to as “...a dog, a little tad, a pretty girl” in The Richmond Item, Richmond, IN, April 24, 1926 for the movie “Let's Go Gallagher”, and is referred to as part of a threesome “...a child, a dog and a horse” for a film review of “The Wyoming Wildcat” in Motion Picture Magazine, February 1926.

from Motion Picture News, Nov. 28, 1925
Beans was an extraordinary dog actor, for he had what it took to keep up with Tom and Frankie during the many exciting on-film chases and fight scenes, often cheering on his heros from the sidelines in the latter. Beans also had the opportunities on film that other dog actors have not. For example, how lucky could Beans have been to patiently sit and listen while Tom reads the story of King Arthur to him in “The Sonora Kid”? Or watch the hero beat up three men at once, as in “The Texas Tornado”? Beans was one winning dog actor, definitely on a par with Frankie Darro as a boy actor. But his film career did not end with Tom Tyler and Frankie Darro. After his contract with FBO, Beans continued to appear in movies. He appeared with Eddie Dowling “The Rainbow Man” (1928) and with Lew Ayres in “Heaven on Earth” (1931). In all regards it sounds like Beans had a notable career as a silent film animal actor, memorable for his many outstanding performances. One thing is for certain: Beans was as enjoyable to watch on film as Tom Tyler and Frankie Darro were.