Broncho Billy

by / Friday, 20 January 2012 / Published in People

The First Western Movie Star

He’ll forever be remembered as Broncho Billy, but his real name was Max Aronson. “Broncho Billy” was the name of the character that he played on screen. But to movie audiences across America, he will always be remembered as Broncho Billy, the original cowboy screen hero.

Birth and Early Days

Max Aronson, the future Broncho Billy, was born west of the Mississippi in Little Rock, Arkansas on March 21, 1880. His parents moved to St. Louis, Missouri when he was a child. When Aronson was born, movies hadn’t even been invented. The stage was where the world of acting existed and performing on stage is what he wanted to do. So he enrolled in an acting school in St. Louis and then moved to New York.

Aronson’s ambition was bigger than his talent. Consequently, he didn’t find much acting work. In fact, he was fired from his first stage role! To make ends meet, he became a model and posed for illustrators. For one of his assignments, he posed for a cover of The Saturday Evening Post magazine dressed as a cowboy. Little did he know that his future fame and fortune would be tied to being a cowboy.

The Great Train Robbery Movie

The future Broncho Billy’s break into films came after he got a job with the Edison Film Company. After making one film with the company, Edwin S. Porter, the director of “The Great Train Robbery”, asked Aronson if he could ride a horse. Eager to get a major role, Aronson said that he could. But, in reality, he couldn’t. The truth came out on the first day of shooting.

The future Broncho Billy had never been on a horse. He didn’t even know how to get on a horse, much less ride one. Consequently, when it came time for Aronson to mount the horse and ride it, he got up on the wrong side and the horse promptly threw him off! Aronson lost his major role.

But, fortunately for the future Broncho Billy, Porter still let him perform in “The Great Train Robbery.” The future western movie star was in three scenes:

1. He was the passenger who is shot in the back as he tries to escape the robbery.
2. He was the dancer whose feet are being shot at while dancing.
3. He is one of the brakemen on the train.

“The Great Train Robbery” turned out to be a huge box office success. Because Broncho Billy performed in this movie, it opened more doors for him in the movie industry. (Click here to read our article about The Great Train Robbery movie.)

The Essanay Film Company

Even with the success of “The Great Train Robbery” it would still be some time before the Broncho Billy would achieve fame on screen. He developed an interest in producing and directing movies and began doing this for various film companies. He went through many ups and downs. His breakthrough finally came five years later when he formed a partnership with George Spoor.

He and George Spoor formed a company together to make films. They named it the Essanay Film Company which was a combination of “S” for Spoor and “A” for Anderson. (For some unknown reason, Gilbert Aronson changed his name. He changed it from Aronson to Anderson thereafter became known as Gilbert M. Anderson.)

With the Essanay partnership, Broncho Billy began making short films to sell to nickelodeon theatres across the country. He wrote, produced and directed many of the films himself. Broncho Billy and his partner were creating and selling at least one movie per week for a significant profit. For every $500 they invested in making a film, they would make $50,000. Needless to say, the filmmaking partnership was turning out to be lucrative for them both.

The Birth of the Broncho Billy Name

One day, when Broncho Billy decided to make a Western-themed film out West, he couldn’t find an actor in the willing to do the role, so he decided to play it himself. This turned out to be a decision that would change his life. The title of the film was “Broncho Billy’s Redemption.” The movie was a hit with audiences and Anderson as Broncho Billy was born!

Unlike many other Western-style movies that were made back then, Broncho Billy was made on location in the West. This gave audiences an opportunity to see real Western landscapes, not studio backdrops. Moreover, the Broncho Billy films were authentic because he used real cowboys in the films. These features, combined with ever-changing storylines helped make the Broncho Billy films audience favorites.

Origins of the Broncho Billy Name

No one really knows where the Broncho Billy name came from. There’s speculation that Anderson or someone who worked for Essanay made the name up. In a magazine interview, Broncho Billy said that he got the name from a Peter B. Kyne article in that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. But research shows that Kyne never used the name “Broncho Billy” in the title of any of his articles.

One thing is for sure. The name stuck. Moviegoers loved the films. And Broncho Billy was a star!

Broncho Billy Film Series

The Broncho Billy series of films lasted between 10-24 minutes and since they were made before the advent of movie sound, they were all silent films. Also, they didn’t necessarily follow a logical sequence from one week to another. For example, the film one week might show Broncho Billy getting killed like in “Broncho Billy’s Conscience” while the next week Broncho Billy is back helping to rob a store in “Broncho Billy Reforms.” The fact that the movies didn’t follow a logical sequence didn’t seem to bother movie audiences because for over seven years Broncho Billy ruled the movie screen.

When longer feature films became more popular, the popularity of Broncho Billy’s short features started to decline. Anderson wanted to make longer Broncho Billy films, but his partner, George Spoor, did not want to do them. Eventually, Anderson and Spoor went their separate ways and thus ended their film partnership and the Broncho Billy film series.

Last Film – The Bounty Killer

Broncho Billy Anderson did not appear in any more films after he ended his partnership with George Spoor. He became an investor in other film projects, none of which became as popular as the Broncho Billy series. Broncho Billy was coaxed, however, in 1965 to come out of retirement and make one more screen appearance. At the age of eighty-five, he made a cameo appearance in the movie “The Bounty Killer.”

“The Bounty Killer” is famous because it gathers together a lot of old western stars such as Dan Duryea, Richard Arlen, Rod Cameron, Buster Crabbe and, of course, Broncho Billy Anderson. It was the last screen appearance for Broncho Billy. Ironically, this is the only film in which his voice is heard because all of the Broncho Billy films were silent westerns. There is a barroom scene in the film where Broncho Billy speaks two sentences.

In January, 1971 Broncho Billy Anderson passed away in California. But his impression on the Western film industry continues on. He will forever be remembered as the “First Western Movie Star.”

Where to Buy

Broncho Billy & The Essanay Film Company Book

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This is an excellent book about the life of Broncho Billy and the history of the Essanay Film Company. (Broncho Billy was a co-founder and co-owner of the company.) Many early silent westerns were made by the Essanay Film Company which also makes it an interesting book about silent westerns.

Rare Films of G.M.Anderson (Broncho Billy)

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This DVD contains a small selection of Broncho Billy films totaling 150 minutes. Included are:
Broncho Billy’s Sentence – 1915
The Making of Broncho Billy – 1913
Humanity/Naked Hands – 1916
Broncho Billy and the Baby – 1915
His Wife’s Secret – 1915
Shootin’ Mad – 1918

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