G.M. Anderson and the Rise of the Western Star
‘Max Aronson’ might not be a name that you immediately recognize, but chances are very good that you would recognize his professional name. And chances are even greater that you would recognize the onscreen persona he created in the early days of the Western.
G.M. Anderson, best known by his onscreen persona of Broncho Billy, holds a special place in film history. Not only did he have multiple roles in one of the most iconic silent films of all time, “The Great Train Robbery,” he also co-founded Essanay Studios, discovered a number of iconic silent film stars and created a character archetype that spawned an entire genre of film. Anderson’s persona and image became so entwined with that of cowboy Broncho Billy, that audiences truly believed he’d been a rough rider all of his life. In actuality, he was a stage actor who’d grown up in St. Louis.
Much like his contemporaries, Anderson got his start on the stage. He spent time acting in companies in St. Louis and New York before joining the Edison company. By the time he joined forces with George K. Spoor to found Essanay in 1907, he and Spoor were both old pros at this still very young medium, and were able to bring their previous film experiences to the mix and help inform their filmmaking decisions. Many of the films being made by their competitors were short subjects that were either short on plot or short on interest. The plots weren’t very interesting or engaging, and those films that had potentially engaging plots were usually not very interesting to look at. The abilities of the camera were being explored, but many productions were still very much enclosed (studio) productions. Even westerns were, for the most part, being filmed on enclosed sets on the East coast. But as the inclement weather began to push filmmakers westward, Anderson saw the opportunities it held and was one of the first to explore scenic filmmaking in the West.
Gunslinging Broncho Billy
In a 1909 issue of Moving Picture World, G.M. Anderson gave readers a glimpse into the world of filming westerns for Essanay. Since the company had yet to set up a branch in Niles, California, Anderson and a group of players would travel west to Colorado, California, Montana and even Mexico to film. Although the company made nature-based scenic pictures, like “Wonder of Nature,” Anderson also used these excursions westward to give a realistic, documentary-like feel to even his earliest Westerns. “We have some good stories to put on out there, stories written by authors whose Western stories are standard and of the best. Capable talent has been employed to interpret the stories and a score or more of real live cowboys are going to assist.” He began to explore the genre further, experimenting with different scenarios and characters. The character of Broncho Billy wouldn’t become a theater mainstay until 1911, but once Anderson began to focus on the character of Billy, audiences took notice in a big way.
The tradepapers and fan magazines dubbed him “The idol of small boys and girls, and big men and women;” it was this universal appeal that made him the first Western star and one of the first and most popular photoplayers. He had to learn how to handle a horse, and although he was not a true cowboy, Anderson’s rugged good looks and tough but kind on-screen persona perfectly fit into the genre and the audience’s image of what a true cowboy would be. With Broncho Billy’s entrance, the “ridiculous stage cowboys” were gone and the “typical puncher of the plains” had taken their place.
Even after Anderson sold his stock in Essanay in 1916, he remained very much tied to the Western genre. He made a handful of Westerns following his Essanay departure, but they failed to be as popular as his previous efforts. Newer cowboy stars had begun to rise in popularity — including William S. Hart, Tom Mix, John Ford and Harry Carey — and they began to take the form Anderson pioneered and expand it in ways he that couldn’t. Although he retired from the film industry in the early ‘20s, his contributions to the film industry were not forgotten. In 1958, he received an honorary Academy Award in recognition for his contributions to film, and in 2002, he was Inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. When he passed in 1971, his obituary referred to him as Broncho Billy Anderson, the first major film star.
You can help save one of the first and last remaining silent film studios in the world. Act now and donate to the restoration and reuse of the historic Essanay Studios. Click here to visit the Essanay Indiegogo Campaign page.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub
THANK YOU again Janelle for sharing some of Essanay’s historic past with Classic Movie Hub. You can follow Janelle on Twitter at @Essanay .