This is an edited, expanded version of an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.
Frederick Clifton Thomson (26 February 1890–25 December 1928) was born in Pasadena, California, the third of of Williell (a Presbyterian minister) and Clara’s four sons. He attended Princeton Theological Seminary from 1910–13, and won the Amateur Athletic Union’s All-Around Championship in 1910, 1911, and 1913.
In September 1913, Fred was ordained by L.A.’s Presbytery. Shortly afterwards, he married his college sweetheart, Gail Jepson. Fred also served as Nevada’s state commissioner for the Boy Scouts.
Sadly, Gail died of TB in 1916. This tragedy caused Fred to leave the ministry and join the military. Fred served as a chaplain in the 143rd Field Artillery Regiment, composed of the California Army National Guard. Their nickname was the Mary Pickford Regiment.
While Fred was in the service, he broke his leg playing football. His regiment’s informal namesake, Mary Pickford, and her venerable screenwriter and director friend Frances Marion visited him in hospital. They were two of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
Fred had previously met them while serving as a technical advisor for Mary’s war-themed film Johanna Enlists. In hospital, Fred and Marion promised to marry after the war.
The 143rd were sent to France in August 1918, but never saw action. Just as promised, Fred and Marion married on 2 November 1919, after his term of service ended. Mary was their matron of honour.
Frances and Fred had two children, Richard (who was adopted) and Frederick, Jr.
Fred originally wanted to become a director, but wound up in front of the camera during the making of Frances’s film Just Around the Corner (1921) when an actor failed to show up. His acting earned him much attention, and Fred quickly became hugely popular.
Fred started in Western after Western, both features and serials. He was more popular than fellow cowboy actor Tom Mix, and earned a huge amount of money every week. Fred performed his own stunts, like many other early actors.
In 1926 and 1927, he was the next-biggest box office draw in the U.S.
The head of Fred’s studio, Film Booking Offices of America, Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s dad), hoped to make more money off Fred by loaning him to Paramount for four films. Paramount had to return $75,000 in financing, plus $100,000 more, and pay Fred $15,000 a week. This would wipe his salary off FBO’s books.
Paramount, however, had a lot more money than FBO, with more luxurious, prestigious theatres. Many charged premium ticket prices, and were largely in big cities. Ticket prices were jacked up to cover the costs of the shady deal and Fred’s salary.
Fred’s fans in small towns and rural areas, which were FBO’s bread and butter, had to wait months to see his latest films. Many of these theatres never got the Paramount pictures, which compelled some fans to travel to big cities for Paramount theatres.
Additionally, many film critics felt Fred’s B-movies were incongruous with Paramount’s expensive, prestigious theatres. Kennedy’s deal wasn’t the cash cow of his dreams.
Fred’s white Palomino horse Silver King, seventeen hands high, was a great Western actor too. He did everything he was asked to do in their films—falls, chases, jumps, mouth work. Silver King also knew how to wink, nod, push people with his head, lift bars, untie knots, and perform other tricks.
Silver King’s acting career continued after Fred’s untimely death.
In December 1928, just as Fred was about to begin making the transition to sound, he stepped on a nail while working in his stables and contracted tetanus. His doctors originally misdiagnosed him.
There was little hope in this pre-antibiotics era, and Fred passed away on Christmas. (And some people claim tetanus isn’t dangerous and we shouldn’t be inoculated against it. ) Fred was only 38.
Of Fred’s few known surviving films, only one, The Love Light (with Mary Pickford), is widely available.