The Sunday Intertitle: The Man in Black

Thanks to a not-quite-chance remark by one-man blogstorm Glenn Kenny on FaceBook, I found myself reflecting on my deplorable lack of direct experience in the matter of Tom Mix. I mainly knew the western star from his image on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, and from a possibly untrue story put about by sci-fi novelist Philip Jose Farmer that Mix died when he crashed his car and a metal suitcase containing a million dollars was flung forward from the back seat of his roadster, breaking his neck.

(The director of today’s epic, Lynn Reynolds, also died young, shooting himself at a party after quarreling with his wife. PISTOLS DON’T ARGUE.

Clearly, it was time to lose my Mix virginity, and the film to do it with was RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE. Based on a Zane Grey novel, and surprisingly hard-edged, this is a tale of long-deferred vengeance comparable to THE SEARCHERS and RANCHO NOTORIOUS in its toughness and single-minded patience. All the stereotypes you could wish are present and correct, but their 1920s versions are so old as to be new, they all come with little variations that amuse and crinkle the eyes. Domestic life is introduced as a rapid-fire whirl of headache and fuss, about as far from the docile domesticity celebrated in John Ford as you can get.

Villains are oily, educated, and sort of soft, as typified by Warner Oland, the inscrutable Swede daringly cast in a non-Chinese role. A baggy, shifty, pouch of a face, barely sufficient to contain the guts of his head.

Heroes are tough, beautiful, direct, simple. Tom Mix, as hard and sharp as a man chiseled from diamond. While everybody else rides dusty and threadbare, Mix is pretty rock ‘n’ roll in his shiny black duds and hair-oil. Face like an overweight knife. Lose the single glove though, it makes you look psycho.

With a big budget, Lynn Reynolds could employ fifty head of cattle for each intertitle.

Underplaying in the best western tradition, Mix manages to seem pretty cool despite the borderline ridiculous costume and proto-clichéd attitude. He’s definitely got something! The movie rattles along, surprisingly fast-cut and complicated: I haven’t seen a cowboy flick this overstuffed with characters and incidents since SILVERADO. In one dazzling sequence, he survives unscathed when shot off his horse (how?), but can’t raise his head above sagebrush level as he’s surrounded by desperadoes. Lassooing his saddle, he swiftly improvises a sled made from branches, and has his horse tow him from the scene, raising a dust trail that chokes and befuddles his pursuers. I am frankly astounded I haven’t seen that trick in another movie.

Intriguingly, the distrust of civilisation that animates, say, STAGECOACH, is already present, with the representatives of law being corrupt and vicious (Mix heroically shoots a judge in his courtroom!) and the happy ending located in a lost valley (probably dinosaur-infested) away from the rest of humankind. Rousseau would have liked westerns.


18 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Man in Black”

  1. With that leather glove, Tom Mix could pass as a Teddy Boy in Losey’s ”These are the Damned”(Black Leather Black Leather/Smash smash smash).

    As for Rouseau and Westerns…well the western genre is one long mythification of the very corruption of civilization that he was arguing against resulting of course from the genocide of the people who were there before.

  2. This movie gets pretty explicit about the idea of returning to Eden, with the couple at the end sealed of from humanity in a primordial and untouched landscape. Which, in a dilute version, is what we’re anticipating for the Duke and Claire Trevor at the end of Stagecoach. Civilization is fallen and the West is the last time and place where we can imagine outrunning its spread.

  3. Do you know:

    “Oh vile world, more rank each day,
    And ruled by lunatics.
    The heroes all have gone away.
    Where are you now, Tom Mix?”

    A mouse sings it in the laudably baffling book I had as a kid, “Wallace Tripp’s Wurst Seller”. It is my only encounter of the man.

  4. Have never read that one, sounds lovely! Quite in keeping with the ideas expressed in Riders of the Purple Sage.

  5. The single black glove I remember Kirk Douglas using in that Burt Kennedy film I saw long ago, The War Wagon. Of course, in the ’60s, you wear a single black glove and you’re…kinky at the very least. I can’t imagine that in Mix, but his outfit sure is over the top.

  6. Peter Cook had some kind of routine about Tom Mix being, “like so many Hollywood stars, addicted to yogurt.”

  7. Christopher Says:

    I played Tom Mix in a play written by Edwin “Bud Shrake down in Austin Tx,called Pancho Villa’s Wedding Day..another about Ambrose Bierce’s disappearence down in Mexico…Mix is down there making a movie..

  8. Christopher Says:

    Ed Harris did a pretty good remake of “Purple Sage” a few years back..and put the original Zane Grey villains,the Mormons, back into the picture

  9. Fiona W Says: – Here’s the Cook and Moore sketch.

  10. You don’t get enough villainous mormons in the movies. Not nearly enough.

  11. Harry Dean Stanton’s made a good one in Big LOve. There are some other baddies also

  12. Harry Dean Stanton’s made a good one in Big Love.

  13. Pete and Dud. Great.

  14. In an interview several years after their divorce Tuesday Weld called Dudley Moore “a real asshole.”

    She elected silence when he passed.

  15. By that time, disease had so diminished Moore that it would be hard to feel anything but pity. He does seem to have behaved pretty awfully at times.

  16. Vanwall Says:

    Tom Mix Wash was a regular roadsign on a particular journey our family regularly made in AZ when I was a kid. My Dad told us how Mix had crashed fatally there, and his money was blowing all over the shoulders of the road; and rumour had it, you could still find some out there. I always wanted us to stop so I could run out and look for loose bills, plucking them from the spines of barrell cactus where they waited for me.

    Mix always seemed vaguely menacing to me, like there was a bad side to ‘im. I think his gloves, often skin tight and rolled, and stances, influenced the look of Palance’s Wilson from “Shane” a little. Mix’s films were so much about magical Western white man’s survival, I don’t think the aforementioned Bierce’s definition of “aborigine” in the Devil’s Dictionary ever entered their heads back then.

  17. Beautiful!

    Actually, in the ending of this one, by moving into the home of some long-vanished cliff-dwellers, Mix kind of BECOMES aboriginal. It reminds me of the ending of The Martian Chronicles.

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