Fred Thomson

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.

Art Acord

This is a greatly expanded and edited revamp of an entry in my old “Too Young, Too Soon” series at my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07. My blogging voice has evolved quite a bit since then!

This year, my A to Z theme is one I’ve had in mind for quite some time, stars of the silent era. My focus is on lesser-known people (by contemporary standards), not the really big names most people are familiar with.

Arthemus Ward Acord (17 April 1890-4 January 1931), widely considered the first real cowboy star, was born in Glenwood, Utah to Mormon parents, Valentine Louis and Mary Amelia (née Petersen). Art was drawn to the Western lifestyle from a young age, working as a ranch hand and cowboy.

Art also worked for the Miller Brothers’ travelling 101 Ranch Wild West Show, where he met many other people who went on to become Western actors. He was one of the few people to ride famous bucking horse Steamboat (who inspired Wyoming’s license plate) for the full eight seconds.

In 1909, Art began working with the Bison Company. He entered the movies as a stunt performer in 1910, quickly rising to an uncredited extra. Within a few years, he was playing lead roles. Sadly, all but twenty of Art’s 100+ films are believed to be lost.

In 1912, Art won the World Steer Wrestling Championship at Oregon’s Pendleton Round-up. Four years later, he regained his championship. In so doing, he defeated his friend and fellow Western actor Hoot Gibson.

Art served in the Army for 18 months in WWI, earning a Croix de Guerre for his bravery. When he returned to the movies, he continued to be very popular and prolific.

Art’s career went into decline due to a drinking problem, and he only appeared in one talkie, as an extra. Art also had problems with failed marriages, divorcing thrice. He went back to performing in road shows, but he lost his job, and got into a number of bar fights. Sadly, in 1928, an explosion in his home seriously burnt him and threatened the loss of his eyesight.

After being arrested for bootlegging, he headed to Mexico to try to resurrect his career. Art only appeared on the stage a couple of times, and wound up working in the Gasper Mines. At age forty, he died in a hospital in Chihuahua. Art told his doctor he’d taken poison with the intent to kill himself.

The owner of the Gasper Mines bore out Art’s story, saying he’d taken enough cyanide to kill 2,500 men. The autopsy and official account, however, claimed Art was stabbed in a bar fight and had an enlarged liver due to chronic alcoholism.  Many of his friends spun yet a different story, claiming Art was murdered by a Mexican politician when he found out Art was having an affair with his wife.

Art’s body was sent back to California and buried with full military honors in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Happy 115th birthday to The Great Train Robbery!

Side note: The Roaring Twenties (1939) is one of my two favoritest Cagney films I’ve seen to date, the other being the indescribably awesome White Heat (1949)

Legendary, pioneering director Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, released 1 December 1903, is perhaps his best-known film. Though there were no credits during this era, we know the stars included Broncho Billy Anderson (the first film Western star), who plays three roles; Justus D. Barnes (the outlaw who famously shoots at the screen); Alfred C. Abadie (the sheriff); and B-movie Western actor Tom London (the conductor).

Bandits hold up a railway telegraph worker, forcing him to stop a train and order the engineer to fill the coal car at a water tank. The bandits then knock out the operator and tie him up.

The bandits board the train when it stops. Two of them enter a passenger car, kill a messenger, and dynamite open a box of valuables. The other two bandits kill a fireman and make the engineer stop the train and disconnect the locomotive.

The passengers are then forced off and searched for valuables. One brave soul tries to escape, but is killed.

The bandits make off with their booty, and come to a valley where their horses are waiting.

Back in the telegraph office, the operator comes to, and quickly passes out again. Then his young daughter arrives, prays over him, cuts his restraints, and throws water over him.

At a dancehall, locals mirthfully make an Eastern greenhorn dance as they fire at his feet. The merriment is interrupted when the operator bursts in to relay news of the robbery.

The menfolk waste no time in banding together and riding to the rescue. They catch the bandits, overtake them, and recover the loot.

The closing shot (which some theatres chose to play at the beginning) is one of the most iconic of cinematic history, right up there with the spaceship in the eye of the Moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in Safety Last! (1923), and King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

The film was shot at the Edison studios in NYC; New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation; and along the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad, in November 1903. Some prints feature hand-coloured frames (e.g., the outlaw’s green shirt in the final shot; the orange and pink vault explosion; clothes in the dancehall).

The Great Train Robbery had its début by NYC’s Huber’s Museum and Theatre, which is now an NYU dorm. It was then shown by eleven other city theatres. The film was a huge, immediate success, one of the very first blockbusters and Westerns.

Indeed, it was one of the most popular films of that era, until The Birth of a Nation came along twelve years later and smashed all records.

The budget was about $150, equal to $4,153, or £3,238, in 2017 money.

Just one year later, a remake with the same name came out, from Siegmund Lubin’s Lubin Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia. Piracy and unauthorised remakes were a huge problem in this era, since copyright protection for films was legally murky. Only in 1912 were films legally classified as protected works.

The Great Train Robbery has inspired many other Westerns over the years, as well as scenes in other films and TV shows. Director Edwin S. Porter also parodied his own film in 1905’s The Little Train Robbery, which featured an all-children’s cast.

This is truly one of those films everyone should see at least once.