Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Equal opportunity heroes: Minorities in Tom Tyler silent films and early talkies

An exhibit card, "The Arizona Streak", 1926
For the individual interested in Tom Tyler’s silent film and early talkie career, that person might be surprised to discover that racial minorities had minor but very significant roles in the plot. It is not until the early to mid-1930’s that minorities – African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews become more prominent in their roles, despite overcoming periodic stereotypes on film. Information about the presence of racial minorities, specifically, African-Americans, in Tom Tyler’s silent films is a bit scant with the exception of two movies not available on DVD, “The Arizona Streak” (1926), and “Lightning Lariats” (1927), for which physical evidence is available in the form of lobby cards, a Spanish film booklet, and Hollywood trade publications. Additionally, these early African-American actors were not credited by name in the cast, to make their identification even more difficult. It may sound curious to the average reader that African-Americans appeared in casts of otherwise Caucasian-majority silent films, particularly in B-westerns. Discounting movies like “Birth of a Nation” (1915) which portrayed African-Americans in a negative light, there is a probable answer for this: Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr., owner of FBO, the studio which signed on Tom Tyler back in 1925, was a strong believer in social justice, a family trait which remained through future generations of Kennedys up to the present.

"Lightning Lariats", Biblioteca Films
It remains unknown how many FBO silent films included African-Americans in the casts, for the majority of these films are lost, and Hollywood trade publications frequently did not mention minorities who did appear in these silent films. The good news is this: even though these uncredited black actors were cast in stereotyped roles (cooks, hired help) of the 1920’s and 1930’s on film, they were also portrayed as having hero potential, often having a positive role model in Tom Tyler’s silent films and talkies. In addition to the three known silent films where African-Americans appear alongside Tom Tyler, there are two talkies which include a well-known actor and comedian by the name Fred Toones, plus another movie which combines the forces of a Jewish merchant and Chinese gentlemen to combat a vicious crime lord in a small western town.

The Arizona Streak (1926)

An ESCO (Exhibit Supply Company, Chicago, IL) exhibit card depicting a scene from “The Arizona Streak” has Tom Tyler seated on a stool at the right, while a man at the left is play punching an African-American man. Behind these two men is a stone mantle with a row of bottles. Along with Tom, who is grinning broadly, the three men appear to be having fun. It is uncertain the role the man in the middle plays in this silent film – the African-American –  although that can be ascertained should the print of this silent film at the Cinematek in Brussels ever get restored.

Lightning Lariats (1927)

In “Lightning Lariats” (1927), young Alexis (Frankie Darro) becomes friends with another small black boy named John (erroneously credited as played by Leroy Scott, who was born in 1875, and was 52 years old at the time he made “Lightning Lariats”), the son of Mariana, Tom's hired help. John wishes the very best of luck for Alexis, as the two boys played at dice at Tom Potter’s (Tom Tyler) ranch house, somewhat oblivious to the plot being contrived against them, by Luboff and Polsky, the two officers of Roxenburg, who followed Alexis to America. John explains to Alexis the game of dice and how to throw them, in order to come up with the winning numbers of seven or eleven. (El Valiente de la Pradera, Biblioteca Films) A complete print of “Lightning Lariats” is at Gosfilmofond in Moscow, Russia.

The Texas Tornado (1928)

"The Texas Tornado" 1928
The one advantage of “The Texas Tornado” over the above named silent films is its availability on DVD. In this silent film from FBO, the singular African-American actor in the cast is a cook for the Briscoe family named Rufus. Rufus attempts to physically discourage Latimer (Jack Anthony) from getting hold of the lease which needs to be renewed, but ends up taking a hit, temporarily defeated until Tom King (Tom Tyler) arrives in the nick of time, galloping up to the ranch house. Leaping off his horse, Tom stops to listen to Rufus before entering the Briscoe homestead. After Tom reassures the cook, he breaks open the front door and beats up Latimer, absconding with the ranch lease before leaping onto his horse and race to the bank to renew it. Not appearing during the majority of the film except the start and end, Rufus makes his way on horseback to the spot where Tom just rescued Buddy (Frankie Darro) from a broken gondolier, and along with Ellen Briscoe (Nora Lane), catch Latimer  in the act, who then confesses to the sheriff he was behind framing Tom for the shooting of Jim Briscoe (Frank Whitson). Rufus remained ready to play a role in freeing Tom from his arrest status, if only for his being the first person on the Briscoe ranch to communicate with Tom about what was taking place at the time Latimer was inside the house, giving Jim trouble about the lease. But once the sheriff slaps the handcuffs on Latimer and hauls him away, Buddy manages to give Latimer a swift kick in his rear, upon which Buddy and Rufus shake hands and laugh.

Single Handed Saunders (1932)

"Single Handed Saunders"
Single Handed Saunders” marks the first Tom Tyler movie where an African-American actor is credited. Fred 'Snowflake' Toones is simply referred to as Snowflake by Matt Saunders (Tom Tyler) in this Trem Carr movie. Matt is a blacksmith by trade, with Snowflake as his helper, close friends and confidantes in a small western town where the homesteaders are given preference by Judge Parker (Gordon de Main) over the cattle owners. Because of this, there is an obvious rift between the cattle owners and homesteaders, which is only exacerbated when Matt’s brother Philip (Robert Seiter) returns home from college and now a practicing attorney. Philip eventually goes into cahoots with the judge to make sure the homesteaders continue to receive credit, at the cost of the cattle owners.

The first casualty is Parker himself when he attempts to remove burrs from Snowflake’s dog, Sparerib. When the cattlemen invade the center of town, not only does Parker get shot, but so does the poor dog. Called several times by Snowflake, Sparerib is gently lifted in his arms and covered with a piece of fabric at the blacksmith’s. Upon seeing Snowflake, Matt is puzzled, not used to seeing his helper cry. Snowflake tells Matt he wants justice for this crime, but Matt reassures him that it will come, but it must arrive through honest means. As the two men continue to work together, keeping their eyes and ears open about the murder of Judge Parker, Snowflake finds himself at the right place and time when he hears Philip, who has now taken his father’s place as judge, making a deal with Senator Graham (John Elliott) in extending further credit to the homesteaders. This deal happens to be in the form of signed legal documents, and the main key to seeking justice for Judge Parker’s death. Clever enough to catch on, Snowflake later confides this information to Matt as they are busy at their job, prompting Matt to enter the office at the rear of the general store and look for this document. Once Matt finds the piece of paper, Philip enters the office, the two men engage in a massive brawl where Philip is thrown across the room at a group of men, and justice begins, delivered by Matt himself. As minor a role Snowflake’s is, it is the most important part of the story, for had he not eyewitnessed Philip signing that document, Matt would have no knowledge of it – and not be able to talk Philip in escaping the deal he made with Graham.

Roamin’ Wild (1936)

"Roamin Wild"
Probably the most unique feature of “Roamin’ Wild” is that it has two minority groups teaming with the main hero, Tom Barton (Tom Tyler), in order to fight a much larger threat in Placerville. Tom is sent on assignment as an inspector to find out what happened to his brother Jim (Wally West) who was last seen near the area but mysteriously disappeared. Ambling along on his horse while playing the harmonica, Tom sees the road sign for Placerville and heads onward, when he suddenly observes a group of bandits who raid a traveling merchant. Abe Wineman (Max Davidson). With his goods strewn all over the trail, Tom approaches and demands to know what happened. Once Abe explains who he is, Tom demands payback from the bandits, ordering them to hand their guns over to Abe, who keeps them in exchange for the damage done to his business. Since Tom and Abe are headed in the same direction, they travel together to Placerville. Once they arrive, Tom offers Abe a job as a deputy to help find his lost brother, and close in on the operations of Ned Clark (Al Ferguson), the local crime lord. The biggest series of crimes has been against the Madison Stagecoach Company, robbing the goods carried on them. At one point the owner of the company, Jim Madison (Earl Dwire), is shot while defending one of his stagecoaches. When his daughter Mary (Carol Wyndham) inherits the company, she teams up with Tom to put an end to these robberies. Happy to gain even more local support, Tom deters the same group of bandits he ran into before at Wineman’s merchant wagon one more time: from robbing a group of Chinese men from the nearby Chinese Diggins settlement.
"Roamin Wild"
Acting out of gratitude towards Tom for preventing them from being robbed, these men invite Tom to their home for a meal. Once they discover they were followed back by Clark’s gang, they pull out their guns, effectively scaring them away with their sharp aim. At that moment Tom plans on escaping in order to return to Placerville, but his new Chinese friends show him a secret tunnel accessible through a trapdoor in the middle of the floor. Tom takes advantage of the tunnel, and goes back to Abe and Mary, devising a plan to trap Clark and his men – which he does successfully. With Clark and his gang out of commission and headed to jail, Tom thanks Abe, his Chinese friends, and Mary, who of course wants him to stay in Placerville with her. On a side note, actor Max Davidson was born in Berlin, Germany, on May 23, 1875 and got his start in American silent film comedy since 1915. Unfortunately, none of the Chinese actors are credited in “Roamin’ Wild”.

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