The Hollywood Cowboys
There are two interesting stories about two old Hollywood cowboys who enjoyed a good measure of success but had unexpected endings. This covered the era of both the silents and what were referred to as the talkies.
The two names in this story are Buck Jones and Tom Mix. Interestingly enough, both of these future cowboy celebrities had quite a lot in common. For one thing, both had served in the army and both at one time worked with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Western Show which was based in Oklahoma. The 101 was a type of takeoff from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West. The 101 Ranch ranch site in Oklahoma is today a National Historic Landmark.
Buck Jones was loved by kids all over America because of his thrilling adventures. Jones was born in Indiana in 1891. His birth name was Charles Frederick Gebhard. The talents Buck had as a natural cowboy no doubt were learned in Oklahoma after his father moved there and purchased a 3,000 acre ranch. Actually, Buck Jones was thinking of making the U.S. Army a career. He served along the Mexican border in 1907 and then was sent out to the Philippines. A lot changed in the Philippines for Jones. It was there where a gunshot from a group of insurgents caught him in the thigh.
After much back and forth with the army, Buck found himself as a mechanic with the 1st Aviation Squadron. This literally was the very first military air squadron. It was during this stint of duty that Buck Jones learned to fly airplanes. At the same time he learned how to be pretty good with a rifle. Eventually Buck Jones would join the 101 Wild West as a trick rider and roper. This wasn’t all new since he actually worked for the 101 a bit as a youth. All in all, Buck Jones worked with the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Golmer Brothers Wild West Show. Not too bad of a resume for an aspiring Hollywood cowboy.
The adventure loving Buck Jones also put in some time as a test driver for Indianapolis style racing cars. Needing to earn more money, Buck heard from friends that there was money to be made in Hollywood. Moving to Los Angeles and hanging around the movie studios did indeed turn into employment. Buck Jones found a good amount of work as a stuntman in many film scenes where a good deal physical action was required. Jones also worked as a double for the box office star William S. Hart. It’s interesting how many cowboy actors actually got their start working as doubles and stuntmen. Jone’s wife Odelle was also doing some studio work in L.A. as a movie double but being pregnant she had to give it up because of the strain.
Tom Mix was born in Pennsylvania in 1880. As a young man he learned just about everything you needed to know about horses and riding. Attending a Wild West performance was about all it took to set him on a career path as a cowboy. In the meanwhile Mix served some time in the army but never had a desire to make it a career like Buck Jones once did. Tom Mix’s army stint is a bit controversial in as much as it wasn’t quite what the studio brass in their publicity releases made it out to be. What is true is that Mix did serve in the Spanish American War.
His publicity bio had him charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba and leaving the army as a hero. In reality, Mix saw no combat and deserted from the army in 1902 to marry the first of his five wives.That certainly wouldn’t have been Hollywood image building fodder.
Like Jones, Tom Mix worked for the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show beginning in 1905. Mix was so good at riding and roping and in anything physical, he was known to do all of his own stunts while in Hollywood. He actually did do all of his stunts until the studio persuaded him to use a double in a few of the rougher scenes so as to protect their investment if something went wrong. Tom Mix left Hollywood for the first time at about the time the talkies hit the screens in 1929. Mix joined John Ringling’s circus for a reportedly $20,000 per week. He was the circus’ star attraction for two years. At that 1929 salary he would,need to be the star. By 1931 however, Mix was lured back to Hollywood with all types of promises from the studios. From 1931 to 1935, Tom Mix turned out seven westerns and all were box office hits. In 1935 and at the age of 55, Tom Mix went back to the less taxing circus business. He started his own circus but it flopped after a few years.
Two Careers Intersect
It was around the time of 1919-1920 that Buck Jones officially took his stage name. For obvious reasons it worked better on the Hollywood screen than Charles Frederick Gebhard. Easier to spell and didn’t take up as much space on the list of credits. Jones actually starred in his first movie in 1920 titled “The last Straw“. Curiously enough, it wasn’t a western.
At about this same time an opportunity of sorts occurred. William Fox of the Fox Studios was going around in circles with his western star, Tom Mix, over Mix’s salary. Reportedly, Mix was at the time trying to get a contract for $10,000 per week. An absolutely incredible amount of money in the 1920’s. While all of this was going on, Fox was looking at Buck Jones as a replacement for Tom Mix. Fox figured that he could get Jones for perhaps $150 per week. Even though it was doubtful that Jones would have contracted in at $150 per week after whatever Mix was currently earning, Fox apparently was able to use the threat of Buck Jones to get Mix’s number down.
It apparently worked. This was the incident that would cause a rift between these two Hollywood cowboy stars that would last a lifetime. After that episode there were never any good feelings between the two on the movie lot.
As it turned out, both Hollywood cowboy stars earned huge amounts of money. By the year 1929, Buck Jones was a very wealthy man. Buck Jones, being eleven years younger than Tom Mix was able to put out films a few years longer into the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Both Buck Jones and Tom Mix had an extraordinary number of film credits to their name. Buck Jones had 106 film credits and Tom Mix had a total of 307.
Tom Mix had spent a lot of time in Arizona where he maintained a ranch. The old action star also had a habit, and liking, for living a bit on the edge. On October 12, 1940, Tom Mix found himself reportedly speeding down a road near Florence Arizona in his custom made Cord roadster. Apparently due to the speed, he wasn’t able to negotiate a curve and was killed in the subsequent crash. Today, as a memorial to one of Hollywood’s most successful old cowboys, there is a marker at the spot in Arizona where the crash occurred. Tom Mix was 60 years old when he was killed.
The end for Buck Jones also came rather sudden and unexpected. Buck Jones was dining with a group of friends in Boston Massachusetts on November 28, 1942. The problem was, Jones was dining at the old Cocoanut Grove night club when the famous venue rapidly went up in flames and resulted in the deaths of 492 people. Hundreds more were injured. The Cocoanut Grove disaster was the second worst building fire in America behind Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 that killed more than 600 people. The Cocoanut Grove tragedy would usher in another new round of fire codes. The story is that Jones did initially flee the fire safely but went back inside to find a lost friend. As it turned out, the friend wasn’t lost and did escape the fire but Buck Jones was badly burned when he reentered the club. He passed away two days later on November 30th at the age of fifty one.
Two excellent books for further research are Wild West Show!, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale and Fire in the Grove by author John C. Esposito.
One of the very best places in the U.S. to learn about the cowboy is in Oklahoma City, OK. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage center is one of the best places to learn about real cowboys, the celebrity cowboy and life in the frontier west. One of the most interesting sites where many a western film was shot is just outside Tucson Arizona. Old Tucson Studios was and is still used for both motion picture and television productions. The Old Tucson Studios is located about 16 miles west of downtown Tucson and is a big tourist attraction for the area.
(Photos are from the public domain)