Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company

by David Kiehn
ISBN: 0972922652

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A Review of: Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company
by James Roots

The first-ever American feature film was a Western called The Great Train Robbery (1903). Although Westerns have been effectively dead at the box-office for 30 years now, they dominated the American cinema from the start, and established the archetypes of the filmed story structure that persist today. Even the Matrix films are Westerns in CGI garb.
Three men dominated the Western from its beginnings to nearly the end of the silent era: Gilbert M. Anderson, Tom Mix, and William S. Hart. The first of these is the worthy subject of a new book.
G.M. Anderson (born Max Aronson in 1880) was an unsuccessful stage actor who played three anonymous roles in The Great Train Robbery and knew immediately that films were the future, and that he had found his life's calling. In 1907, he found a financial patron in George K. Spoor, a Chicago businessman who agreed to partner him in the founding of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.
Leaving Spoor in Chicago to build Essanay's studio-bound output, Anderson headed west and more or less took over the tiny town of Niles (now part of Fremont, CA). From here, he set about churning out one-reel Westerns at a staggering pace-43 in just seven months in 1911, for example.
Anderson himself had the lead role in at least 300 films, and had a hand in almost everything produced in Niles as either the producer, director, writer, actor, or even set-builder. About half of his films featured him in the character of the first Western hero, "Broncho Billy".
It would be hard to find a less likely physical specimen for movie idolatry. His bulging grey eyes, wobbly jowls, weak chin, receding forehead, slobbery mouth, deranged grin, and pot belly made Anderson look like nothing so much as a distant uncle of Rodney Dangerfield. To his credit, he didn't really try to act; his performances had the untrained naturalness of a middle-aged businessman whooping it up at a cowboy fantasy camp.
Anderson also had an eye for talent. The first actor he signed was Ben Turpin. He gave a hand up to Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, and Snub Pollard, as well as directors Allan Dwan and Lloyd Ingraham and cameraman Rollie Totheroh. And he overrode the cautious, penny-pinching Spoor to sign away Charlie Chaplin from Keystone Films. Chaplin retained a rare warm spot in his heart for Anderson, because it was Anderson who gave him the artistic freedom to develop the character of the Little Tramp.
The killing pace at which Anderson ground out films inevitably led to formula and public surfeit. By 1917, Essanay was done, and so was Anderson. He moved on to other interests, including theatre ventures and a partial ownership of the Boston Red Sox. Yep, Anderson was one of the theatrical types whose need for ready cash caused the Sox to trade away Babe Ruth.
David Kiehn's Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company is truly exhaustive. As the historian for the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, he had unparalleled access to the records, and he leaves out nothing. A 245-page biography of Anderson/Essanay is followed by 50 pages of mini-bios of hundreds of Essanay personnel, a double-column 90-page filmography, almost 400 footnotes, 35 references, and a 20-page index, not to mention 270 photographs of stunning quality.
Indeed, if anything, Broncho Billy is too complete. Kiehn continually interrupts the story to note the comings and goings of seemingly every person who was ever involved in Niles, including carpenters, lighting technicians, and Anderson's boxer hangers-on. Civic booster to a fault, Kiehn feels obliged to identify not only every person in every photo but also every local Niles business that might be visible in the background (and even some that are outside the frame).
But these are complaints about excess; Kiehn has achieved something truly outstanding with Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company. It is very nearly the perfect film-geek's book.
The success of Anderson's films inspired many imitators, and Tom Mix quickly rose to the forefront. Mix shrewdly identified children as the strongest long-term market, and styled his films to please them. (Not coincidentally, Mix enjoyed the longest career of the three cowboys.) That meant lots of gratuitous action and thrilling stunts. The problem with building a career on stunts, of course, is that you inevitably become less and less realistic as you try continually to top yourself.
Dozens of Broncho Billy Anderson's one-reelers are still extant, although only a dozen or so circulate among fans while the rest sit in archives. Like his films, this book is essential to an appreciation of the history of the American cinema, regardless of its weaknesses. Get the book, seek out the films, and enjoy.

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