Saturday, May 06, 2006
Ever write something and you just don't know what to do with it? I started a book on the western star and character actor Tom Tyler in 2004 and then found out much to my dismay I had missed the boat.
(That's Tom there giving a bad guy his due from one of his 1930s B-westerns.)
I was beat to market by another book on the actor.
Now my book would be different, but I doubt I could find a publisher for mine since there's one out there already. That means some sort of self-publishing venture and I don't know if I have the time – especially since another project seems to be looming on the horizon that is much more a sure thing.
So I'm going put one of my chapters up here on the blog in several chunks just so it actually goes some place.
Note: "Bill Burns" is William Markowski who was given the name "Tom Tyler" when he started at FBO studios.
Needless to say, but I will: ©2004 Gordon Michael Dobbs.
Tom Tyler: The Cowboy Who Wanted to Act
Movie writer, director and producer Oliver Drake remembered how he learned of his friend Bill Burns’ good news.
In his autobiography, Drake wrote, “I hadn’t heard from Bill Burns for months and none of my friends had seen or heard from him…Then one Wednesday evening, I came home and there was a message for me that the landlady had taken over the one telephone in the building. It was from Bill Burns. He asked me to call him at a new number at eight o’clock that evening. After having dinner and cleaning up, I went to the hall phone and called him. Bill answered the phone himself and after exchanging greetings, he hit me with a bombshell. He said that her had had several screen tests during the summer and in September had signed for F.B.O. studios as a western star. He had made one picture for them, which they liked, and they picked up his option for three more years and had changed the name to Tom Tyler.” (Written Produced & Directed by Oliver Drake, 1990)
Bill Burns, formerly William Markowski, was now Tom Tyler, a name Drake reported was picked from a book.
For Markowski, this must have been a dream come true. After three years of trying to break into motion pictures with minimal success, he had the chance to star in a western produced by the company that made the highly popular Fred Thomson western films.
Markowski didn’t forget his friend Drake in the midst of his good fortune.
Drake wrote that ‘“I tried to blurt out my congratulations, but he stopped me with a chuckle. ‘This isn’t all I called you for,’ he said. ‘I talked to the top brass here at the studio about your ideas for western stories; and Edwin King, the vice president in charge of production, said he would like to meet you and discuss the idea of your submitting some stories for the studio.”
Over the next three years, Drake was able to submit a number of scripts to F.B.O.
Drake was impressed with his first visit to the F.B.O. lot.
“I walked through the door of this magic kingdom and looked around; it was truly a beautiful place. In front of the administration building on the lot side was nothing but lawn, trees and criss-crossing walks that went to various buildings and stages – one of the nicest studios in the business,” he wrote.
F.B.O. had been founded in 1920, by the British firm of Robertson-Cole, which distributed British automobiles in this country and imported and exported films. Its studio on Gower Street was built in 1922.
By 1925, the studio had changed hands and was bought for one million dollars by banker and business speculator Joseph P. Kennedy, who had decided that there money to be made in the picture business.
Kennedy had purchased a group of movie theaters and having a studio that would provide product for them as well as others was a dominant economic model of the film industry until the Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 1949.
F.B.O. is a difficult studio to assess today as the bulk of its films have been destroyed. The rule of thumb among archivists is that 75 percent of the silent films made in this country are lost. In some cases, older films were simply stored and ignored by studios – a dangerous practice as the silver nitrate film on which they were printed became volatile with age and literally could explode and burst into flames.
In other cases the studios actually sold the prints and negatives to companies that would reclaim the silver from them.
At the heart of the issue was the perceived commercial potential of films. Once the sound revolution had taken place in the late 1920s, the box office value of silent films was greatly diminished. In a few cases, such as the sound re-issue of William S. Hart’s western epic Tumbleweeds (1925) in 1939, there was a nostalgic appeal to a select audience.
In an era in which theater owners had programs twice a week and special children’s shows and late night screenings as well, too many people, often including their producers considered films an ephemeral art form.
Kennedy transformed F.B.O. into RKO in 1929 through a series of business deals and perhaps the nails were driven into the coffin at that time for the company’s archives of silent films. The new RKO management dismissed the stable of western stars and wanted to distance itself with the bread and butter films of the past.
What kind of a studio was F.B.O? An article in the August 8, 1925 edition of Moving Picture World gave readers a glimpse. Like other studios, F.B.O. tried to offer exhibitors a varied line-up of product. The top of the line for the studio was its “Gold Bond” films – a reference to valuable negotiable securities and not the medicated bath powder.
The F.B.O. line-up for 1925-26 included 12 “Gold Bond” productions including Drusilla with a Million, Parisian Nights and If Marriage Fails? which, the article noted, all played at the Capitol and Colony theaters in New York City.
Today, the name of a theater means relatively little, but from the 1920s through the end of the 1940s, where a film played could add prestige to the production.
Big city theatre owners were looked upon as showmen, as well as businessmen, and if they selected a movie to showcase, other exhibitors took notice. The choice a theatre owner made was crucial, because in the era 50 years before the multi-plex,, they only had one screen. If an exhibitor made the wrong choice, they were stuck with a dog. Generally, the F.B.O. product was geared to smaller communities that might have less competition and have somewhat lower expectations.
Other films in that 1925 season included a newspaper drama The Last Edition, a railroad melodrama The Midnight Flyer, two films based on the popular romance novels of author Laura Jean Libbey.
At that time, the studio’s stars included western hero Fred Thomson, who eventually was lured to Paramount before his untimely death in 1929 and actress Evelyn Brent; comic action star Maurice “Lefty” Flynn and stuntman tuned star Richard Talmadge.
The studio released a serial that year, The Adventures of Mazie and had a series of short comedies starring Hank Mann and Chester Conklin. The studio was also the distributor of the animated cartoons produced by the Bray Studios.
Although with its schedule of westerns, it might be tempting to view F.B.O. as a silent equivalent to Republic Pictures – a modest studio that knew how to turn out profitable films aimed at small town audiences.
Why make low-budget westerns if there was little prestige? The late film historian William K. Everson provided an answer in his book A Pictorial History of the Western Film: “The market for double-bills was growing, Westerns were popular and they were still the cheapest kind of film to make. And since they didn’t have to worry about even semi-literate dialogue, clean photography…fast action was all that they had to worry about.”
Moving Picture World’s headline read “F.B.O. announces Tom Tyler as ‘surprise western star” in its August 8, 1925 edition.
The story, which carried no byline, read: “Tom Tyler, a young man who was born as William Burns in Port Henry, NY, just twenty-two years ago, is the new ‘surprise star’ who has signed by Film Booking Offices to take the lead in a series of western pictures. He strongly resembles George O’Brien, built on a larger and more powerful scale.
“Mr. Tyler, a team star of the Los Angeles Athletic Club and has been appearing on the screen for less than a year. He has, however, already been spotted by film experts, and was offered an attractive contract by Metro-Goldwyn –Mayer just after the day he had been gobbled up by F.B.O. He appeared in Elinor Glynn’s The Only Thing, and has supported Fred Thomson. He also played several roles with Joe Brown productions and was featured in The Midnight Express.
“Tyler hold the American and world’s record in weight-lifting in two events; the one ‘clean and jerk’ at 240 1/2 pounds and the two hand ‘snatch’ at 213 pounds, He is an expert horseman and spend much of his time on his father’s ranch in Wyoming. He has won renown at football and is a track and field star.
“F.B.O. seems to be specializing in world’s champions. While the personnel of the big Hollywood studios does not include any fistic title holders and there is no disposition on the part of the powers that be within the organization to annex any pugilists, almost every department of athletics is represented by F.B.O. stars who are champions in their lines. Fred Thomson, Maurice ‘Lefty’ Flynn, Dick Talmadge, Bob Custer and others all hold American or world’s record marks and now Tom Tyler has been added to this galaxy of ‘outdoor’ stars. With his attractive personality, modest disposition, a winning smile, and a great screen presence and with the line-up of rattling stories which has been so far been purchased for him, the new ‘surprise star’ should be a whale of a pleasant surprise for exhibitors and fans.
Let’s go Gallagher! is the tentative title of the first Tyler production. It is a fast moving western, replete with action."
The announcement was part fact and part Hollywood fiction. Tyler’s father did not have a Wyoming ranch and he was not an “expert horseman.” According to publicity materials released by Universal to hype Tyler’s 1932 serial Clancy of the Mounted, Tyler accepted the F.B.O. contract “when he couldn’t as much mount a horse.”
“That time he arose at daybreak everyday for a month and actually learned to be one of the best horsemen of the movies in time to save his job,” the press materials continued.
Tyler did become a fine horseman as evident in his films.
There is no mention anywhere that Tyler was a “renown” football and track star, either. Whether or not he was going to be offered a contract at MGM is not known. This writer has never read of any indication that MGM was interested in Tyler.
If MGM had been interested, Tyler must have been chagrined, to say the least, that he had signed up with little F.B.O. when he could have been part of the studio that boasted it had “more stars than there are in heaven.”
MGM would have a contact Western star in Col. Tim McCoy and later signed a “straight” actor, Johnny Mack Brown, under contract who would become a fixture on the B-western scene for 20 years.
Tyler’s accomplishments as a weight lifter were true, though. He did hold AAU records and Buster Crabbe told this writer in 1972 that he would see Tyler working out on weights at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, while Crabbe was in the pool. Unfortunately, the two action stars never met.
In 1926, an annual publication titled American Athlete called Tyler, “a perfect example of the all around athlete. He scales 197 pounds in trained condition and is surprisingly fast on his feet…Among his other accomplishments, he can perform an astonishing variety of acrobatic tricks and daring stunts on the horizontal bar.”
It is interesting to note the emphasis F.B.O. placed on athletic accomplishment. Many sportswriters have called the 1920s “The Golden Age of Sports” when Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Bobby Jones dominated their sports. Perhaps having signed literally one of the strongest men in the country appealed to the company.