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Hollywood's trail head

Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company David Kiehn Farwell Books: 448 pp., $32.50

September 14, 2003|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is the author of several books, including "Woody Allen: A Life in Film," and reviews movies for Time. His latest volume is "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin."

For close to a decade in the early years of the 20th century, a man calling himself G.M. Anderson was one of the luckiest guys in America. From 1907 to 1916, he produced something like 400 movies for a company of which he was the co-owner. Well over 100 of these little films -- most just one reel in length -- starred Anderson himself as Broncho Billy, which made him one of the first movie stars and certainly the very first western star. In this period his salary sometimes reached as much as $120,000 annually. In today's dollars, that means he occasionally made as much as a million dollars annually.

Not bad for a man who was born Max Aaronson in Little Rock, Ark., gave up clerking in St. Louis for the lower reaches of show biz and found himself one day perched uneasily atop a horse in the American screen's first narrative film, "The Great Train Robbery," in 1903. The success of that film -- it was also the first blockbuster -- imbued Anderson, as he started calling himself around that time, with one of the two large visions that marked his now almost forgotten life. It was that the movies could be, must be, a storytelling medium. He immediately began making such films, and in 1907 he and a distributor named George K. Spoor formed the Essanay Film Manufacturing Co., which, with two studios running -- one at its Chicago headquarters, the other at Anderson's West Coast lot in Niles, Calif., about an hour outside San Francisco -- was capable of turning out a one-reel picture every working day of the week.

Then, one day in the winter of 1916, it all suddenly stopped. Anderson hastily sold out his interest to Spoor, the Niles studio immediately ceased production and Broncho Billy was no more. Anderson tried to make a few more pictures, but essentially he ran through his small fortune in a few years, though he himself lived on until 1970, when he died, destitute, in the motion picture home at the age of 90. His story is not quite an American tragedy. But it is not quite an American irrelevance either. It still has something to teach us about the need for sharpness and adaptability at moments (not unlike our own) when technological and social change interact to destabilize the entertainment environment.

That, unfortunately, is the kind of analytical intelligence that David Kiehn doesn't quite muster in his account of Broncho Billy's life and times. He's too much the film geek, preoccupied with filmographies of movies we'll never see, biographies of the scarcely noted, long forgotten players who drifted through Anderson's orbit in his glory years. The most he manages in the way of controlling ideas is a generalized nostalgia -- greatly enhanced by a generous selection of stiff but somehow touching photographs -- for a long lost way of doing business.

It's not an entirely useless notion. It's just not the only or most important one this story suggests. But still, looking back on Essanay from our moment, it's comfortable to see Broncho Billy's brief career as near to idyllic. Anderson was a footloose sort of man who wandered about the Western United States for a few years, looking for a perfect locale in which to make his pictures. He seems to have settled on Niles because of its isolation -- it offered few distractions from work -- and because of its easy access to sylvan Niles Canyon, which the posses could ride up and down endlessly without the background becoming repetitive and tiresome to the audience.

The rest was easy: You could filch a story from one of the pulp magazines (Billy's scenario department consisted of a lone woman, whom he paid $25 a week) and shoot it in a day or two for a cost of perhaps $5,000. If you didn't have a pinto pony, you could paint a few splotches on a white horse and start cranking. It was all terribly innocent, and it left Anderson, who seems to have been a fairly grim worker, plenty of time for his avocations -- his Niles baseball team, the boxers he managed and the theater he owned in San Francisco.

He did, however, pay a price for his isolation from the movie mainstream. In particular, and with one notable exception, he didn't notice the growing power of the star system, the huge salaries and acclaim people like Mary Pickford began to accumulate starting around 1912. That's at least partially understandable. Maybe Anderson was not much of a looker -- he was heavyset, with a big nose and a broad jaw, though the late Edward Wagenknecht notes in his lovely memoir about early filmgoing ("Movies in the Age of Innocence") his "amazing, white-gleaming eyes" -- and no more than a stolid actor. But he projected a simple moral clarity that people liked, trusted and returned to. He might have gone on competing with the next great Western star, William S. Hart, whose manner was equally plain (and whose career was equally short-lived), except for one other factor.

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