Tuesday, August 26, 2014

America's First Western Film Star

Hi!  Winnie Griggs here.  I came across an interesting bit of trivia a while back that intrigued me enough to send me on a research rabbit trail.
Maxwell Henry Aronson was born on March 21, 1880 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  Max eventually changed his name to Gilbert M. Anderson, but you would probably know him better by the name of the character he played in over 300 films – Broncho Billy.
Anderson drifted into acting, working first as a photographer’s model and then newspaper vendor before moving into work as a vaudeville performer.  In 1903 Anderson landed a role in The Great Train Robbery by claiming he could ride a horse like a Texas Ranger.  When it turned out he could hardly climb onto a saddle, he was demoted to ‘extra’ and ended up playing several minor parts in the film.  The resulting 10 minute movie found an enthusiastic reception from the general public, and Anderson was hooked.  He decided to make his career in the fledgling moving picture business.

Anderson formed a partnership with old friend George Spoor and together they created the Essanay Company (the name is a play on the first letter of each of their last names “S and A”).  This company was destined to become one of the early film industry’s predominant studios. 
At first Essanay made comedies, but Anderson couldn’t forget the success of The Great Train Robbery and soon he focused on Westerns.  But where Anderson really differentiated himself, is that he was one of the first to realize that the public needed a ‘star’ to latch on to, a central character they could really focus on.  But at that time (1909) the big names of the stage were reluctant to risk their careers on the new medium of film.  So Anderson decided to take on that star role himself, creating the character of Broncho Billy from ideas he collected for the most part from popular dime novels.  Anderson wrote and directed most of the movies himself and within five years he had filmed over 300 one or two reel movies featuring his new character.  Most of these films were distributed simultaneously in the U.S. and Great Britain.  And while Anderson was not especially dashing, audiences liked Broncho Billy for his bravery and virtue.  

As an interesting side note, Essanay studios also filmed many Charlie Chaplin shorts, including The Little Tramp.
In 1915, Anderson’s final film in the Broncho Billy series, Broncho Billy’s Sentence, was released.  He tried his hand at writing for a while and then later he attempted a film comeback.  But by then more dashing actors such as William S. Hart and Tom Mix had taken over the interests and hearts of movie goers.  So Anderson turned to making comedies for a while before finally retiring from film.

Some of the milestones in his later years:
  • 1958 – Received an honorary Oscar as a “motion picture pioneer, for his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.”
  • 1965  - he made a cameo appearance at age 85  in a modern Hollywood Western called The Bounty Killer, his first talking picture.
  • 1998 – posthumously honored with his image on a U.S. postage stamp.
  • 2002 – posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy Hall Of Fame
  • Anderson also has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
  • Gilbert Anderson died in his sleep in 1971 at the age of 90 at a sanitarium in South Pasadena, Ca.  He was cremated and his ashes were placed in a vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.

So there you have it, the fascinating life and times of Broncho Billy.  
What about you?  Are you a fan of the western movie genre?  Have you seen any Broncho Billy movies or even heard of him before?  And what is your favorite all time Western movie?


  1. Hi Winnie! I really enjoyed reading your post about The life and times of Bronchodilator Billy. I love hearing about western history and even today a good John Wayne movie is hard to beat in my book. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is one of my favorites!

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Melanie. And you're so right- John Wayne westerns are among some of the best!

  2. I'm not a big fan, but I love Gary Cooper, and High Noon is one of my favorite films. Come to think of it, I also liked The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance!

    1. Rebecca, I LOVE The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - both the movie and the song.

  3. Not into western movies but really like western fiction. I was interested to read about Bronco Billy, as I knew almost nothing about him before. sharon, CA wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Hi Sharon thanks for stopping by and glad I could teach you something :)

  4. Yes, I had heard of Bronco Billy, only because my mom's folks are from the Pine Bluff area and her brother, Grady Lee, loved everything about the western culture. He was a movie buff and read everything about the West he could get his hands on. He never missed an opportunity to take us by the "blue house" on west second street to show us Billy's house. I've never seen any Bronco Billy movies. I wonder if they've been put on Netflicks, etc.