restricted access Chapter 1 G. M. Anderson: “Broncho Billy” among the Early “Picture Personalities”
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22 ★★★★★★★★★★ ✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩ 1 G. M. Anderson “Broncho Billy” among the Early “Picture Personalities” RICHARD ABEL Among the “picture personalities” who increasingly assumed a crucial role in promoting motion pictures between 1910 and 1912, G. M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson certainly was one of the more remarkable. In the fall of 1911, for instance, in the industrial heartland of northeastern Ohio, the Canton News-Democrat ballyhooed Anderson as “the best known motion picture actor living . . . his face [as] familiar to the people of this country as that of President Taft’s” (“This Man’s Photo Seen Every Day by 300,000,” 5 November 1911, 15). By the following spring, Essanay G. M. Anderson, Essanay Photoplayer, circa 1913. was boasting that Anderson was now famous worldwide for the character he often played, “Broncho Billy” (Essanay ad, Moving Picture World, 30 March 1912, 1123). In Great Britain, several months later, Bioscope made an even more extravagant claim for what it called this “magnetic man”: he “can be ‘felt’ photographically on a screen, just as Irving was ‘felt’ in actual life” on the English stage (“The Pick of the Programmes,” 1 August 1912, 367). Anderson arguably demands attention as a pioneering cowboy movie star, whose popularity as “Broncho Billy” offers some insight into why westerns became such an “American subject” in the early 1910s. His regular weekly appearances onscreen also suggest why audiences were so attracted to other early “personalities” as well—for example, Florence Lawrence, Florence Turner, Marion Leonard, Alice Joyce, Mary Pickford, Maurice Costello—and how that attraction registered not only in the trade press but also in local newspapers. Moreover, the unusual fame that his cowboy character quickly enjoyed abroad can be taken as an early sign of the U.S. film industry’s heady opportunistic aims to expand its reach beyond the borders of the USA. ✩★ ✩★ ✩★ ✩★ ✩ The “Broncho Billy” Brand I love to watch the cowboys And see the horses run, I wish I had a hundred votes For Gilbert Anderson! (Buster Trishy, a Texas boy,“Popular Player Contest,” Motion Picture Story Magazine, April 1912, 137) So who was G. M. Anderson prior to his starring role as “Broncho Billy”? Born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Arkansas, on 21 March 1880, and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the man who would become “Broncho Billy” was an unsuccessful New York stage actor and sometime model for magazine illustrators before he Anglicized his name to George M. Anderson in 1903, was hired by the Edison Manufacturing Company, and played several minor roles in The Great Train Robbery (1903). After learning as much as he could about the new motion picture business, Anderson convinced the Vitagraph Company to let him write and direct more than a dozen comedies and dramas between the summer of 1905 and the spring of 1906. Refused a partnership at Vitagraph, he went to work for Selig Polyscope in Chicago and, in the winter and spring of 1907, joined H. H. Buckwalter in Denver to make several profitable westerns, among them The Girl from Montana and The Bandit King (both 1907). Refused a share of Selig’s G. M. ANDERSON 23 business as well, in the summer of 1907 he teamed up with another Chicago exhibitor/distributor, George K. Spoor, to found a new film production company, Essanay (S & A), and changed his name one last time to Gilbert M. Anderson. During the next several years, as Essanay became a member of the MPPC, Anderson wrote, directed, and sometimes acted in one film on average per week and, leading a peripatetic production unit (its headquarters shifted from Southern California to Colorado to Texas and back to Southern California), gradually began to specialize in “school of action” western films such as The Road Agents or The Indian Trailer (both 1909) and Under Western Skies or Broncho Billy’s Redemption (both 1910). The last title would be the first in a series of increasingly numerous Broncho Billy one-reelers, in all of which Anderson starred: three in 1911, nineteen in 1912, and thirty-four in 1913. Anyone seeking more detailed information about G. M. Anderson’s pioneering career, his construction in 1912 of a permanent studio in Niles, California , and the fortunes of Essanay have several excellent sources from which to choose (Kiehn; Smith). The task here, however, is to locate traces of Anderson’s early stardom, sketch a portrait of the actor as a movie cowboy , especially as “Broncho Billy,” and account for that figure’s phenomenal appeal in the early 1910s...


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