Tag Archives: george spoor

The First Cowboy Star

He wasn’t from the West and he couldn’t ride a horse, but this didn’t stop Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson from becoming cinema’s first western cowboy hero.

Anderson, born Max Aronson, entered the world on this date in 1880. He was born to a Jewish family in Arkansas and had he been a more successful cotton broker, would most likely have remained there. Instead, he migrated to New York where he became a contract player for Vitagraph Studios.

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter cast Anderson in his landmark 11-minute western, The Great Train Robbery. He was originally meant to play one of the robbers, having lied his way into a tryout by claiming that he was “born in the saddle.” But after falling off his horse he was given other duties, playing three non-riding roles in the film. One of these parts was as a passenger who gets shot in the back, making Anderson one of the very first cinematic murder victims.

The phenomenal success of The Great Train Robbery spurred Anderson to learn to ride and to create his own western films. (The film would launch other cinematic careers as well: the Warner brothers started their empire by exhibiting the The Great Train Robbery throughout mining camps in Ohio and Pennsylvania.)

He partnered with moneyman George Spoor to create Essanay Studios, which was named from the “S and A” initials of Spoor and Anderson. Essanay set up shop in Chicago, but Anderson took a production team to California to shoot westerns based around a character named Broncho Billy that he had read about in a magazine. Anderson would star in over 375 Broncho Billy films between 1908 and 1915, making him the first cowboy western star.

In 1912, Anderson set up his own branch of Essanay in the East Bay town of Niles, California (today a district of Fremont). Essanay cranked out hundreds of westerns and Snakeville comedies there over the next few years.

Anderson was able to pull off a coup in 1914 when he hired Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone Studios to make films for Essanay in Chicago and Niles. The arrangement only lasted a year, and was an unpleasant one for all the parties concerned, especially Spoor, who bristled at Chaplin’s eye-bulging salary of $1250 per week.

In spite of this, Chaplin was able to make his first true classic in Niles called The Tramp, wherein his already established little tramp character was seen as more sympathetic and less frenetic than from his earlier Keystone films.

When Chaplin left Essanay for greener pastures, he took the fortunes of the studio with him. Soon afterwards, the Niles studio was boarded up, and Anderson sold his remaining interest in the company as well as his Broncho Billy character to Spoor.

Anderson produced films for the next 40 years and was awarded a special Academy Award in 1957 honoring his work as a motion picture pioneer.

Broncho Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero who began his career without knowing how to ride a horse, died in 1971.

(In case you’re wondering, Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy (1980) wasn’t based on Anderson, although Burt Reynolds’s character in Nickelodeon (1976) does share some similarities with Broncho Billy.)

 


From Niles to Newhallywood

The ending of "The Tramp" in 1915.

At the conclusion of the Charlie Chaplin film, The Tramp (1915), Chaplin’s “little tramp” character, heartbroken after losing the girl, shuffles off alone down a winding dirt road.

The situation was much different twenty-one years later in the final scene from Modern Times when Chaplin retired the iconic character.

Charlie Chaplin was an English music hall performer in his early twenties when discovered by Mack Sennett and brought to Hollywood to star in the “flickers.” During his first year in the business in 1914, Chaplin made 35 films at Sennett’s Keystone Studios near Glendale, and rose from complete obscurity to become the most recognized man in the world.

Chaplin was only earning $175 per week at Keystone and got lured away to Essanay Studios the following year with the offer of a 700% raise (to $1250 per week) plus a $10,000 signing bonus.

Essanay Studios was named after the initials “S & A” of its two main partners, George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It was based in Chicago but Broncho Billy, who was one of early cinema’s first cowboy stars, later came west to set up a second facility in the town of Niles, California to shoot Westerns.

After signing with Essanay, Chaplin first filmed in Chicago before coming to Niles. He wasn’t impressed with the town when he got there. The East Bay village was far too rural for the young man who had only ever lived in the big cities of London and Los Angeles.

Chaplin would only stay in Niles long enough to make a handful of films, but one of them, The Tramp, is today considered to be his first masterpiece.

In the film, Charlie stars in the role of his “little tramp” character, which he had created for Keystone. Sennett’s frenetic filming schedule had prevented him from developing the character fully, relying mostly on slapstick to get a laugh. At Essanay, Chaplin was able to add pathos to the character, making him more sympathetic.

At the end of The Tramp, Chaplin has been rejected by his lady (played by Edna Purviance) and walks off through the Niles Canyon alone. Dejected at first, he then shrugs his shoulders, picks up his pace, and hustles off in search of his next adventure.

When Chaplin decided to retire the character at the end of Modern Times in 1936, he came to the Santa Clarita Valley, which was known to early filmmakers as Newhallywood. In Modern Times, Chaplin paid homage to the final scene of The Tramp with a twist. He again walks off, but this time the road is straight and paved, and most importantly … he’s got his girl at his side. The Little Tramp’s days of facing the world alone have ended.

Chaplin and his works will be honored at the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest on February 4 and 5 in Newhall, California, with films, lectures, book signings, and the dedication of a monument honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times.

Some citizens of Niles will be on-hand to represent their town that day, including musician Michael McNevin.

The Little Tramp and his girl at the conclusion of "Modern Times" (1936).

To learn more about ChaplinFest, click here.

To learn more about Niles, click here.