Friday, April 27, 2018

An expert swimmer: Tom Tyler

While Tom Tyler's area of athletic expertise was weightlifting, he was also a talented swimmer, a skill which helped in a number of film roles in both silent film and talkies. Even though Tom was not selected to play Tarzan in the movies (that role went to Johnny Weissmuller), he could certainly swim like the famous Edgar Rice Burroughs character. As with the weightlifting, Tom also spent a considerable amount of time in the swimming pool at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, no doubt after a strenuous workout with the weights. Swimming was a great way to cool off, and for Tom, was also a favorite form of recreation. Looking fantastic in his swimsuit, Tom could swim well anywhere whether it was a swimming pool, river, ocean, or one of the Great Lakes. There is a photo of Tom with his newly wedded wife Jean Martel in their swimsuits,  (in “The Tom Tyler Story”, by Mike Chapman) in Michigan by one of the Great Lakes were they spent their family holiday swimming. Having been born in Port Henry, New York, the young Vincent Markowski probably spent many a summer swimming in nearby Lake Champlain, having already developed a well-toned muscular body.

One of the earliest movies that showcased Tom Tyler's swimming talents was “Born to Battle” (1926). In this silent film, he escapes from a boat where he was held after being kidnapped, and swims to shore on the property of a girl's school. Tom emerges from the water dripping wet, right in front of a group of schoolgirls. The same theme was repeated again in “The Avenging Rider” (1928), which allowed Tom to showcase his swimming talents once again. Unfortunately neither one of these silent films are available for viewing Tom's muscular strokes in the water - “Born to Battle” exists as a print in several film archives, while “The Avenging Rider” is a lost film. The good news is, Tom's swimming can still be seen on film in the  movie “Honor of the Mounted” (1932). In this movie Tom is hot on the trail of the man who murdered his friend in a cabin north of the American border. Tom is framed for the murder, and on permission from his superior, crosses the border to track down the murderer, Scott Blakely (Stanley Blystone). This particular role is a plus for Tom, as he plays a Mountie in full regalia and looking handsome as ever. During the climactic scene, he dives off a cliff into the river after Blakely, who has escaped in a canoe, and swims after him. Watching Tom engage in endurance swimming is exciting, chasing the murderer in the water, while he is wearing his uniform. Swimming in such a matter can be no easy task, and requires practice, since clothing can be restrictive in movement whenever one is in the water. Tom Tyler makes it look easy though, just like he makes all his other stunts look easy.

"Honor of the Mounted" 1932

"Honor of the Mounted" 1932

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Collectibles: Tom Tyler lantern slides

Lantern slides, more officially referred to as coming attraction slides, were often displayed through the use of a special projector just for that use on movie screens in movie theatres of the 1900's through 1930's as a means of encouraging audiences to consider patronizing the next silent film being shown there. Often a series of different coming attraction slides were used during the minutes before the showing of whatever silent film was being shown that particular evening. Basically, these slides were the forerunner of the modern movie trailer and are considered highly collectible. While collectible they are also very fragile, being made of thin sheets of glass, which could be easily broken if not stored properly.

Early Tom Tyler FBO silent film lantern slides were manufactured by Combined Photo Industries, Long Island City, NY; National Studios, Inc, NYC; and Photo Repro Co. Inc., Long Island City,  NY. When it came to producing lantern slides, they were either drawn or hand painted, from a photograph taken of the subject, although some were also made directly from a photo, with color later being added by hand in a manner to preserve the transparency of the slide. Standard American lantern slides measured 4” x 3 1/4” in size. Each slide was cleaned then coated with a thin solution of varnish or gelatin. Once the solution dried, the slide was then ready to have an image created upon it.(1) In other words, the slide became the canvas for the work of art, which might contain the leading man or woman's headshot, film title, director's name, plus any other information. Sometimes if there was enough room on the slide, a small scene from the film might be added, too. For many of Tom Tyler's silent films, lobby card images were replicated onto lantern slides, such as “The Arizona Streak” and “Born to Battle”. One particularly beautiful lantern slide is from the silent film “The Cowboy Musketeer” which depicts Tom on horseback, rescuing Frances Dare from the path of a stampede of steer. This scene also appeared on the bottoms of lobby cards created just for this movie. As a coming attraction slide, this particular one was sure to attract the interest of young audiences anxious to view the next action packed Tom Tyler western. Lantern slides like those for “The Wyoming Wildcat” and “Let's Go Gallagher”, Tom is depicted sitting upon his horse, moving like the wind, as a clever piece of marketing. Even more delightful, what American youth would not be enticed to view Tom Tyler's next exciting silent film like “The Wyoming Wildcat” while waiting for “Let's Go Gallagher” to be shown at the matinee? So not only were these lantern slides a vital part of movie marketing, they were targeted particularly to the audience attending the film to be shown at that time – once again, in the same vein as the modern movie trailers shown at the cinema nowadays.

Storing lantern slides requires few special materials such as four-flap wrappers made of acid-free paper, and a cardboard box measured to fit these slides. Lantern slides should always be stored vertically instead of horizontally inside the box to prevents the weight of stacked glass from breaking the ones beneath. Avoid storing the box of slides in the attic or cellar, away from humidity. For further reading about the history and collecting of lantern slides, check out the article “Coming Attraction Slides: A Guide for Collectors” by Kevin John Charbeneu in The Silent Film Quarterly Spring 2016 issue.

1. Optic projection: principles, installation and use of the magic lantern, projection microscope, reflecting lantern, moving picture machine. Simon Henry and Henry Phelps Gage. Comstock Publishing Company: Ithaca, N.Y. 1914.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tom Tyler the expert horseman

Can you imagine having to be an expert horse rider in order to become a movie star? That is what Tom Tyler had to do when he first signed a contract with FBO in 1925 after being slected from among many other young and eager hopefuls at a chance for the brass ring. Being able to ride efficiently was a central requirement according to FBO's contract, and even though Tom had practically no experience in horseback riding, still said yes to his employer on the day he interviewed. Tom also had to figure out how he could get in enough practice before the shooting of his debut film, “Let's Go Gallagher” in 1925. Given the two weeks he had for preparing to memorize his lines in the script, Tom made sure he could fit horseback riding lessons into his busy schedule, since that was also the time he became a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, winning one of his many weightlifting medals that year. Once Tom got in front of that moving picture camera on his horse Flashlight, his director told him he rode just like a real cowboy, as if Tom had been born on a ranch instead of a hamlet by Lake Champlain in New York. ("The Sucker Who Succeeded", Motion Picture Classics, July 1928) Of course, being an expert horseman not only means being able to ride exceptionally well, but to master a number of mounts besides the basic left-side mount, and to perform stunts when the script demanded it. Most importantly, Tom Tyler's horsemanship is what makes his westerns so exciting: the utilization of exceptional riding skills combined with his athletic prowess.

For example, one stunt that Tom mastered early on was moving from his saddle on his horse to a crouching pose directly on the saddle, sideways, then launching himself off onto another rider who was usually the bad guy, taking him down. A lobby card from his silent film “The Wyoming Wildcat” 1925 depicts Tom in this exact pose. A similar stunt was executed in “The Texas Tornado” when Tom is in high-speed pursuit on horseback in rescuing the ranch lease from Latimer, so that he could get to the bank in time to renew it.

Another fairly difficult horseriding stunt Tom learned to perform is grabbing onto an overhead tree branch and swinging the body upwards, leaving the horse completely. Tom did this on “Cheyenne Rides Again”, and while up in the tree, waited until the bandits came riding by to drop onto them and impede their destination. Again, the physical body strength required for this was of no challenge for the world's champion weightlifter.

Tom performing the rear mount in "Feud of the Trail"
One horse mounting method that Tom Tyler excelled at was the rear mount. He apparently had to practice at not leaping directly over the horse, given his upper-body strength ability, but rather land directly in the saddle. Rear mounting is no easy task and not recommended for riders who do not have the physical strength nor the coordination for it. In Tom's case, he had to learn the proper judging distance in mounting his horse, for more than once he would either launch directly over the horse, as if playing leapfrog, or even on the horse's neck, thereby injuring the both of them. By the time Tom was filming “The Man from New Mexico”, he discovered that the rear mount in particular could be hazardous, due to his incredible upper body strength. Over time, fewer to no accidents occurred to Tom during the rear mount procedure, and it is certain that his horse was equally grateful, too.

From The Los Angeles Times, April 10, 1927
The flying mount can be exciting to the viewer, if only for its daredevil appearance. This method requires the rider to hang onto the horn of the saddle while the horse is in motion, both feet and legs off the ground, forming almost a scissor-like position, and mount in the saddle while the horse remains in motion, often at a gallop. Tom would more or less “fly” beside his horse while in the process of mounting the moving animal. He learned this method of mounting early on in his career, and there is even a picture of him executing such a mount on his horse, Flashlight, during his tenure with FBO. Of course, this method of mounting also remained in use throughout his career in talkie westerns, as a means of providing excitement to the western story lines Tom Tyler appeared in.

One fascinating horseriding stunt is the ability remain in the saddle even when the horse is trying to buck its rider. This is what happened in “Ridin On” where Tom's horse was frightened by another man's horse drawn buggy, the two almost colliding into each other. Tom was able to get his horse under control without leaving his saddle – quite an achievement in itself. Most men would be tossed from the horse, resulting in serious injuries. Tom Tyler, however, made all of his stunts look easy though, with all of his hard work, to delight and thrill his audiences.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Tom Tyler: The Cowboy Cop (1926)

One of two Tom Tyler silent films made for FBO which had Jean Arthur as his leading lady was “The Cowboy Cop” (1926). As his eighth starring role, Tom appears in a rather unusual plot for a western: a cowboy who finds himself in a big city out west and gets involved with an exciting and adventurous lifestyle. His love interest happens to be an heiress, he engages in a high-speed pursuit on horseback, and a motorcycle chase after crooks. Directed by Robert De Lacey and written by Frank Richardson Pierce and F. A. E. Pine, the plot as it appears below is adapted from several trade publications sources: Moving Picture World, August 7, 1926; Motion Picture News, August 28, 1926; and Exhibitor's Herald, August 7, 1926.

Jerry McGill (Tom Tyler) arrives in the big city of Los Angeles from a ranch in Arizona but meets up with a robber by the name of Dago Jack (Pat Harmon) who pretends to get him a room at a hotel but ends up robbing him instead (think Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in the 1970 Neil Simon comedy, “The Out of Towners”). Dejected, Jerry walks around the city until he sees a hungry newsboy (Frankie Darro) who doesn't have enough money to eat, and as a gesture of kindness, Jerry parts with his last few cents from his pocket and gives it to the boy to purchase a meal. Frankie is forever grateful and in turn, the two become fast friends.

Jerry manages to get a job with the Los Angeles mounted police, and with his horseback riding skills, gets hired in no time. The only problem is, he sees little action on horseback due to being appointed to a rather wealthy district, where there is practically no crime. Before he knows it, Jerry is introduced to a wealthy heiress, Virginia Selby (Jean Arthur) in a rather unusual manner: she is on a runaway horse in which he must go after her and rescue her. Soon Jerry and Virginia start spending time and getting to know each other. Virginia's privileged background is hardly a barrier to her interest in him, in fact, she starts inviting him over to her house to meet her father and have dinner.

A visiting count from an eastern European country by the name of Mirski is a guest at a social event at Virginia's house when he decides to send two hitmen to break into the safe and steal the valuable jewels. Even though Jerry is dressed in his finest dinner suit, he still engages in a fight with the crooks, chasing them first by car, then by motorcycle , finally capturing them. After Jerry finds he has been in the city long enough, he decides to return home to his ranch in Arizona. To his surprise, Jerry is persuaded by Virginia to stay with her on the family ranch in California and marry her.

Tom's onscreen pal Frankie is included in practically every scene, the latter dancing the Charleston, much to the delight of the viewers. He also accompanies Tom in all the fights, and is equally amazed at having gone from being a lowly newspaper boy to high society literally overnight. It may be that getting to see how the other half lived which prompted Tom and Frankie to eventually compromise and stay with Virginia on her California ranch.

Film stills from “The Cowboy Cop” (Motion Picture News, August 28, 1926) show Tom in a city police uniform walking his beat in the park, with little Frankie Darro as his partner, complete in a miniature police uniform. As in most big cities, Tom's police character rides horseback, along with Frankie on his pony. It is worth noting that the police uniform that Tom Tyler wore had to be custom made in order to properly fit his muscular build. Of course, Frankie's dog Sitting Bull, also appears in “The Cowboy Cop”.  A picture of Tom from Exhibitors Herald, August 7, 1926 shows Tom in his police uniform and holding hands with Jean Arthur, erroneously listed as Dorothy Dunbar, who appeared in “The Masquerade Bandit”, “Lightning Lariats”, and “Red Hot Hoofs” with Tom.

Cinema owners who previewed “The Cowboy Cop” also critiqued the film, often saying this will appeal most to Tom Tyler and Frankie Darro fans, even though the story line is rather unusual for a standard western for its time period (Exhibitor's Herald, April 30, 1927). However it should be remembered that FBO purposefully gave Tom Tyler scripts that employed highly creative concepts, not just to deviate from the silent film western, but to imagine an actor like Tom Tyler in unlimited places and time periods (the same was also done with “The Sonora Kid” and King Arthur). Perhaps most importantly, “The Cowboy Cop” is one of the handful of Tom Tyler FBO silent films which survived and is archived at EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. Hopefully “The Cowboy Cop”, given its unique plot and stars of Tom Tyler and Jean Arthur, can be restored and digitized for public viewing.
From Motion Picture News, August 28, 1926