Sunday, May 07, 2006
Here's part two folks of the chapter from the Tom Tyler project. The image is from one of two Dixie Cup promotional items thatI have on Tom. This one from when he was at Republic co-starring in the Three Mesquiteers series.
Tyler’s first film was Let’s Go Gallagher! and Moving Picture World’s review (Oct. 10, 1925) reported, “More than ordinary interest for the picture patron is attached to the F.B.O. production ‘Let’s Go Gallagher,’ because of the fact that it serves to introduce an entirely new ‘Western’ star in the person of Tom Tyler. He proves to be a well-built young fellow of pleasing personality, a regular he-man who is an athlete, a good scrapper and a fine rider. In fact he posesses all of the requirements of this type of role and can hold his own with the majority and outdistance many of his rivals in the field. We feel sure that the fans will like him.”
The review continued with “so much material has been worked into the story that there is something doing every minute with no let down. There is action from start to finish. This picture should please the Western fans who have demonstrated that they don’t care for familiarity of the situations provided there is plenty of action, good fights and hard riding and a likable star. Let’s Go Gallagher! fills this bill to a ‘T’.”
The trade paper has similar good things to report on Tyler’s second film, The Wyoming Wildcat.
“’ The Wyoming Wildcat’ should prove a satisfactory attraction where ‘westerns’ are liked for it contains a good proportion of all of the elements which have proven their popularity in pictures of this kind, plus the appeal of the ‘kiddie’ angle, which will make it especially alluring to the children.”
In a Nov. 26, 1925 trade ad, F.B.O. listed reports from exhibitors about the first Tyler picture. L. Deyo of the Miers Theatre in Schoharie, NY, wrote the film was “a wonderful western feature with a wonder star,” while R.A. Preuss of the Arvada Theatre, Arvada, Colorado wrote “a knockout…I hope F.B.O. will star him on another like this.”
The ad read “Out of oblivion and into national prominence in three months is an unheard of procedure. But none can deny that Tom Tyler with little Frankie Darrow (sic) and Napoleon the mutt has justified the tremendous advance ballyhoo accorded them.
The format for Tyler’s films were set with that first film of having Tyler’s character interact with a juvenile played by Frankie Darro. The phrases “Tom Tyler and his pals ” “Tom Tyler and his buddies,” referring to Darro on his Shetland pony and Beans the dog, became common on the advertising and promotional material.
Having re-occurring co-stars, especially a child, gave the Tyler films a difference among the hundreds of low-budget westerns that were being made at the time and subsequent reviews noted Darro’s appeal and contribution to the series.
Darro went on to a long career in film. As a teen and young adult, he both starred in major studio films such as Wild Boys of the Road to low-budget films and serials to walk-ons in many films as a jockey. He later made one series of films at Monogram in the late 1930s and early 1940s in which he was often paired with the black comedian Mantan Moreland and another which centered around college life.
Acrobatic and athletic, Darro had an urban energy in his sound era performances, and seemed to be cut from the same cloth as James Cagney. If he had been able to land a contract position at a major studio, Darro could have easily played the kind of roles that Mickey Rooney had played at MGM.
Darro came from a show business family whom he apparently supported as a child and had a difficult life thanks to a tangle of relationship problems and alcoholism. One career problem was his short stature, which limited the roles for which he was considered.
On screen Darro and Tyler had true chemistry and seem to genuinely care for one another. It’s a puzzle that when Tyler was performing in independent Westerns in the 1930s and when Darro was also a freelancer that no enterprising producer thought to team them back up.
F.B.O. ran a trade ad on Feb, 13, 1926 in Moving Picture World that featured a letter from an exhibitor.
H.R. Rehfield of the Royal Theatre in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, wrote the F.B.O. offices “Knowing you to be very interested in how all F.B.O. pictures go over at my house, believe it will interest you to know that Tom Tyler and his gang again broke my Saturday records. You will recall that I did the best Saturday business to date when I played Let’s Go Gallagher! and the kids (or grow-ups too for that matter) did not forget what a wonderful picture he made so they all came back again to see The Wyoming Wildcat and believe me they all ate it up as it is sure fire and contains plenty of comedy, hard-riding and several good scraps to say nothing of the big climax where Tom and his horse plunge into the river from a high cliff to rescue the heroine. Little Frankie Darrow sure pleases the kids as he is a very finished little performer and as I previously stated I hope F.B.O. keeps him in the cast.”
Interesting to note that Darro’s name is spelled by F.B.O. with a “w,” although in other materials his name is “Darro.”
The Bible of show business, Variety, did not get around to reviewing a Tyler film until Dec. 1, 1926 when it ran a review of Out of the West.
“This ‘western’ has all the earmarks of a picturized version of a Frank Merriwell. It looks like the old Merriwell stuff with the home run hero at the bat. This may not sound like a ‘western,’ but it is a western crowd that plays; all cowhands with Tom Tyler, the big hero.
“Not much to it, but some rough riding by Tyler and he’s a roughrider all over the lot. There are several good laughs, one not intended, but spontaneous just the same. This unexpected laughter came when little Frankie Darro discovers the hero is a captive in a cave on the day of the big game he is to pitch. Little Frankie conceived the idea of attracting the guard outside. As the guard steps into the open, he is socked on the bean from above by a rock or boulder flung downward by Frankie. Tyler is a hard worker. He takes his screen assignment pretty seriously, but he is not afraid to mess up is physiognomy in the rough stuff. Frankie Darro is a child of the movies; he knows his onions right now and he’s only a whisper, so to speak.”
The plot revolved around neighboring ranches with rival baseball teams.
It should be noted that Variety, along with many other critics, viewed westerns, especially those made by studios such as F.B.O. as lesser entertainment. Perhaps it was the repetition of plots or story points or that many westerns emphasized action over characterization that turned off critics.
The screenwriters at F.B.O. seemed to take the challenge seriously of coming up with plots that were set in the West, but didn’t necessarily involve crooked bankers, earnest widowers, renegade Native Americans and water rights. Although Tyler’s F.B.O. film are full of typical elements such as misunderstandings that lead to the hero having to prove himself innocent of something, one wouldn’t expect a film such as Terror from 1928.
The American Film Institute’s catalog of silent films includes the following synopsis: “Buddy Roberts, who lives alone with is sister, Lucille, in a deserted house on top of a mountain begins to receive threatening letters and to see apparitions. With no family to turn to, he writes to cowboy star Tom Tyler and asks for assistance. Tom is about to leave for a vacation and gladly comes to help out his desperate young fan. Tom defeats the outlaw gang threatening Buddy and Lucille, restores a large sum of money (hidden by the late uncle) to the children and promises to bring them to Hollywood with them.”
Other Tyler westerns had plots that tried to avoid some of the western cliches:
• The Tyrant of Red Gulch has Tyler as Tom Masters, a cowboy who helps the prisoners of a mad Russian who controls a mining settlement.
• Phantom of the Range was set in contemporary times and had Tyler as an actor stuck in a western town and having to get a job as a cowboy, The plot included real estates swindles and a charge of Bigamy!
• The Masquerade Bandit (1926) had a story in which Tyler’s character inherits a ranch and a hidden treasure from a friend, who is secretly a railroad bandit. The gang wants their booty and the sheriff thinks Tyler is the bandit.
• Red Hot Hoofs (1926) has Tyler breaking his promise not to fight when a boxer comes to the ranch and he needs the prize money to help his girlfriend’s brother.
• The Cowboy Cop (1926) had Tyler playing a cowpuncher whom is new to contemporary Los Angeles and becomes a mounted police officer. The film’s climax, though, involved a chase scene with cars and motorcycles.
• Lightening Lariats (1927) had Tyler’s character protecting an exiled boy king from a Balkans nation.
• Tom and his Pals (1927) featured a movie company coming to shoot a film at a real ranch with a lot of jokes at the visitors’ expense.
• Gun Law (1929) had the heroine of the film refuse Tyler’s proposal of marriage and he wins her when he is able to put a valuable marble quarry (!) in her name.
So what was a Tom Tyler F.B.O. western really like? Thanks to Sinister Cinema (www.sinistercinema.com) there is now one Tyler F.B.O. available for viewing, Texas Tornado (1928). Taken from an original print from Europe, the Sinister version has missing footage, but is extant enough to get a sense of the direction and production value of these films.
First the title, like many Western titles, has little to no connection with the plot, other than the film is set in Texas.
The second thing one notices is that with a running time of about an hour, F.B.O. wastes little time in telling the story. In an “adult” Western, there would be back-story and motivation to set up the plot. Here’s the viewers are thrown right into the story with little preparation. This story-telling shorthand is undoubtedly what irritated so many reviewers about the program western.
Texas Tornado opens with the Briscoe family being held captive by the evil Latimer. It seems that of Latimer stalls them long enough they can’t make it to the bank in time to renew the lease on their ranch. Oil has been discovered on Latimer’s neighboring ranch and he wants the chance to drill on this ranch.
When it looks the bleakest, in rides Tom King (Tom Tyler) to visit the ranch. Perhaps he was there to help renew the lease since apparently he helped set it up. However he is able to rescue the Briscoe family – which includes a child (Frankie Darro) who is King’s nephew – over-power Latimer and set off for the bank.
With Latimer close behind, King takes off for the bank. He doesn’t know that Latimer has positioned men along the trail to town to stop everyone and they ambush King.
King fights them off and is aided by his daughter and young Buddy.
King makes it to the bank on time and renews the lease and secretly arranges with the bank to underwrite the loans made to Briscoe for the exploration of oil on the ranch.
Latimer later attacks Briscoe, which places him in a coma, and implies King who breaks out of jail. He learns that Buddy has been kidnapped and tracks the boy down. Escaping from Latimer and his men, King is shot by the heroine, who thinks that King has kidnapped Buddy.
She and Buddy try to escape from Latimer and Buddy climbs into box suspended over a canyon to reach the other side. The box opens accidentally and Buddy is hanging over the canyon.
Luckily King has just been grazed by the bullet and manages to rescue Buddy, and punch out Latimer once more. Latimer recovers quickly enough to draw down on King, but then the sheriff, who has been tracking King since his jail break shows up and reluctantly has to bring him back to jail.
Rufus, the ranch’s cook, shows up at that moment to tell the sheriff that Briscoe has regained consciousness and has revealed that Latimer was his attacker. The sheriff has his man, the daugher has a new boyfriend, and Buddy gets to meet his long-lost uncle, who is, of course, King.
The plot has so many unanswered questions that one almost doesn’t want to consider them. What is the relationship between King and Briscoe that motivates King to do everything he does? Why is Buddy in care of the Briscoes? Why does King happen along to the Briscoe ranch at this time?
With this kind of film, it’s best not to consider those questions, but rather it’s best to marvel at its construction. This film’s great pace obscures these concerns. Instead we get some great riding footage with close-up from camera trucks, and several wonderfully staged fight scenes.
Some writers have noted in assessing Tyler’s career that he didn’t seem to be able to throw an effective looking punch on camera during his low-budget series in the 1930s. While the fights in the Poverty Row Reliable Pictures series were often less than satisfying, one could see that in this F.B.O. Tyler was a very effective stuntman.
Besides the action sequences, Tyler’s performance was under-stated at a time when the demands of silent film making often had actors over-playing their pantomime. Tyler and Darro are very appealing together and Darro shines in his role.
All in all, Texas Tornado has many of the elements one wants from a low-budget Western. One wishes that more of Tyler’s F.B.O. films would surface.
In another trade ad featuring remarks from an exhibitor, Born to Battle (1926) was featured and notes the action content of this F.B.O. production.
“Tom Tyler – I never did see a title fit like this one did. If he doesn’t battle I have failed to ever see a battle and to carry out the title the kid has a battle that absolutely sets the kids wild…Out of the 800 that is made every year I do not believe I could have selected anything that would have filled the bill as good as this one did. I used Born to battle for the kids’ Christmas morning [show], but I had oodles of adults ask me after the show if I wouldn’t run it in the afternoon instead of [Harold Lloyd’s] The Freshman which I was using….C.E. Longacre, Dixie Theatre, Dickson Tenn.”
Several things should be noted here. A well-made medium budget western such as this one can be more entertaining to the right audience than one of the classics of silent comedy. Budget didn’t mean much to this audience. What they wanted to get from a western, Born to Battle obviously delivered.
This was before the boom in the B-movies in the 1930s and ‘40s. Although today the phrase “B-movie” is used to describe either low-budget films or inferior movies, really what the term meant was a film that was rented out to theaters at a flat rate rather than a percentage of the box office. A B-film was affordable programming, especially for smaller theaters and could be used to be half of a double feature.
A well-made B-film could easily match his more expensive cousin in entertaining an audience.
The second point is that Tyler’s films, again like those of his sagebrush colleagues, were considered entertainment for kids and for less discriminating adults. Already there was a distinction between “adult” westerns and “non-adult” westerns. Adult westerns, like The Iron Horse, The Covered Wagon or Tumbleweeds usually featured better known stars in stories that emphasized adult situations usually told on a epic scale. And adult western was bound to have more scenes involving character and plot than action.
Tyler’s star was on the rise, though Moving Picture World, June 11, 1927 reported “…With Tom Tyler rapidly taking the place recently vacated by Fred Thomson, F.B.O.’s program of western pictures is taking a place second to none in the industry.
“Tyler has made rapid strides during his two years with F.B.O. and with his horse ‘Flash’ and dog ‘beans’ has become one of the leading favorites on the screen.”
Even Variety was occasionally expressing a positive opinion on a Tyler western. “A pleasing mixture of those western ingredients which patrons of the adventure stands enjoys and expect. Contains speed, constant action, unpretentious love theme, and a rippling of comedy through out. Consequently it can’t fail to click in the paces where they crave lots of pepper in their film fares, even at the expense of reasonability,” wrote the reviewer on Cyclone of the Range on May 4, 1927.
The Variety review of Splitting the Breeze indicates what kind of play the F.B.O. westerns received in some theaters. It was viewed on a double bill for a single day at the Arena Theater in New York City.
“Plenty of riding and gun-play in a fast-moving western that will appease the customers of the one, two, and three-day grinds.” In other words, theaters that changed their bills after one, two, or three days.
The review continued, “And Splitting the Breeze is a box office picture for houses using this type of cowboy drama.”
Variety, though, could damn with faint praise as it did with its review of The Flying “U” Ranch on Nov. 2, 1927.
“Average horsey aroma for the cowboy addicts…Tyler’s pictures seem to be selling well in their certain market, so there is no use suggesting that his director deviate from aged cowboy stories. The customers seem not to notice they’ve seen each picture anywhere from several times to several hundred. Photographed clearly and directed simply. Very simply.”
And then Variety could blast a film with both barrels: “One of the Woolworth plots of the plains. Story padded in way so unusual as to be obvious to grind audiences; the only one who will sit through The Avenging Rider.
“Director apparently had bunch of female extras on pay roll. Used them with ridiculous comparison to cut-in and drag along customary ranch murder case. Dames in dusty country and bearded men flitted around barn in classic veils or high cut bathing outfits.
“Tom Tyler forces rough expression and grabs the close-up which make it monotonous. Thing is generally nonsensical and abnormally hacked.” (Nov. 14, 1928)
Toward the end of the 1920s, some people in the film industry seemed to think that westerns were falling out of favor with audiences and critics alike and the Variety review of Trail of the Horse Thieves reflects this change in taste.
“This western takes the usual tack where the hero s believed in the wrong by ingenious friends. It is just one of those which are gradually dying in the grinds.
“Tom Tyler overacts to a painful degree and Little Frankie [Darro] seems to be aping him. Cave effects and quicksand substitute as the applause point the flat lands and the noose. Change is somewhat of a relief.”(Feb. 20, 1929)
Yet exhibitors who sent their reports into the Feb. 2, 1929 edition of the trade paper Exhibitors Herald-World generally had good things to say.
“Terror Mountain: Tom Tyler – not a straight western, but a pleasing picture – J.L. Seiter, Selma Theater, Selma, Cal.”
“Terror Mountain: Tom Tyler – December 20… Wow! Whadda you know about that! Our leading moneymaker for 1927 and 1928 not making expenses – not only that, but losing money for us. Well, it was a disagreeable rainy night so much so in fact that even the manager stayed at home by the radio rather than face the elements. Our operator said it was an average Tyler picture. – H.B. Grice, Aiken Mills theater, Bath S.C.”
“Tyrant of Red Gulch” Tom Tyler…An out of the ordinary Western that should have general appeal. A supposed idiot furnishes good comedy throughout the picture. Yes, Frankie Darro is in this picture, too… H.B. Grice, Aiken Mills theater, Bath S.C.”
“The Phantom of the Range: Tom Tyler …One of Tom’s best Westerns…J.P. Johnson, S. of N. theater, Ambrose, N.D.”
Even, though, Tyler’s career would appear to be solid, several events out of his control changed his professional life.
© 2004 Gordon Michael Dobbs
Standard disclaimer applies.