Tom Mix, the first true cowboy star, was at the height of his popularity when No Man’s Gold was released in August 1926. Unlike his major western film predecessors—the genially lunkish “Broncho Billy” Anderson (who seldom rode a horse) or the unsmiling former stage actor William S. Hart (age fifty by the time of his first feature)—Mix went for action, horsemanship, and breathtaking stunts, with little real violence alongside a good measure of comedy. Dramatic structure was never a big concern. As Jeanine Basinger neatly puts it, he’s the Jackie Chan of westerns.
By the mid-1920s, publicists had woven tales about Mix’s heroics as a Rough Rider in Cuba under Teddy Roosevelt (in truth he’d enlisted in 1898 but sat out the Spanish-American War stateside) and as an outlaw-chasing U.S. marshal (he had briefly been a night-shift deputy sheriff in Oklahoma). But Mix was a genuinely daring horseman, a lead rider with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and other Wild West shows before taking on every sort of moviemaking odd job for the Selig Polyscope Company across Missouri, Colorado, and Arizona. In 1910 he started playing bit parts in Selig films and by 1914 was given his own California production unit. He directed most, and wrote many, of his 170 or so short films for Selig, which are unpretentious, breezy pleasures. They’re cowboy films made by cowboys. In 1917 he moved up to the Fox studio, where throughout the 1920s he starred in short features running an hour or so that took more interest in narrative without losing their energy and high spirits. His 1924–1926 contract with Fox paid him $2 million—and he earned it, turning out, in those three years, twenty-four lively feature-length westerns.
No Man’s Gold has remained essentially unseen for more than ninety years. The way that the film survived is revealing about Mix’s popularity worldwide. The Fox Film Corporation has the sad distinction of the worst survival record among Hollywood studios of its silent features: fewer than seventeen percent, even including incomplete copies. Mix made seventy-six features for Fox between 1919 and 1928, of which only thirteen survived complete in the United States (along with fragments from three others). But thanks to Mix’s fans around the world, prints were distributed everywhere and at least another seventeen Mix features for Fox have turned up in the most unlikely places. In 1966, the single known print of No Man’s Gold was unearthed, literally, at a rural chicken farm in what was then Czechoslovakia. A traveling exhibitor had apparently buried it alongside other Tom Mix films, which over the decades became protected, if that’s the word, under a couple feet of chicken guano. Nine other Mix features turn out also to have survived nowhere else than at this Czech farm, from where they were rescued for preservation by Prague’s Národní filmovy archiv (National Film Archive). Such were the wandering indignities of film treasures like No Man’s Gold, and hence the Czech intertitles on the generously loaned print seen here at the festival.
As with almost all Tom Mix films, No Man’s Gold is set not in the Old West of the frontier and main-street showdowns but in the contemporary West of rodeos and the occasional automobile. Mix himself outlined the basic plot of almost all his features: “I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle, and bridle. It isn’t my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it’s all ironed out, I never get any money reward. I may be made foreman of the ranch and I get the girl, but there is never a fervid love scene.” No Man’s Gold is a light entry in the gold-greed subgenre of contemporary westerns, a predecessor to darker masterworks like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; “A Treasure Hunt in the Hills of Peril,” as No Man’s Gold’s promotional tagline reads.
The film is based very loosely on the 1920 novel Dead Man’s Gold by J. Allan Dunn (remembered here for his 1913 guidebook Care-Free San Francisco; our city is said to be an “equally excellent workshop and perfect playroom”). Little is retained from the novel but “lust for gold” and the opening plot hook: A dying miner splits the secret of the location of his gold-mine bonanza among three men in an attempt to keep them all honest. “I know what gold does to men,” as he puts it in the novel.
Added for the film is the miner’s young son who (not to give too much away) will be orphaned within the first two minutes. (Mix films keep their stories moving.) “The small boys on vacation will eat it up,” as the Chicago Tribune suggested about the film’s ideal audience in its condescendingly positive review (“well acted, photographed and directed, and is the kind of a Tom Mix film that Tom Mix fans like”). Playing the orphaned son “Jimmy” is Mickey Moore (1914–2013), who is nearly unrivaled for the longest career in Hollywood (exceeded only by that other Mickey—Mickey Rooney). Moore had started as a two-year-old on Mary Pickford’s lap in The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and became one of the great second-unit action directors working through the year 2000 on films known for their action, including the first three Indiana Jones movies.
While No Man’s Gold lacks any “fervid love scene,” it’s structured by the orphan’s psychic fantasy of choosing replacement parents, and at the rodeo he introduces “Tom” to “Jane Rogers,” played by Eva Novak. In life she would have needed little introduction, having costarred with Mix in nine previous features. (Her older sister Jane Novak had also starred with Mix but was more often the love interest in William S. Hart’s westerns.) No passive girlfriend, Eva Novak’s “Jane” proves admirably suited for the action film. She wins the rodeo horserace, notwithstanding the outlaws’ lame schemes, and will gallop with warning to Tom and Jimmy in the climax. But Mix’s true love throughout all his Fox films is Tony—“The Wonder Horse”—who, in No Man’s Gold, gallantly steps in when Jane’s horse is hobbled by the outlaws. Tony took starring roles in two surviving features, Oh, You Tony! (1924) and Just Tony (1922), where the horse has less generous notions about sharing the screen: “A woman! More trouble!” as an intertitle of his thoughts reads. Tony’s hoofprints are alongside Tom’s boot-prints in the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Nobody loved canyon locations better or used them more inventively than Tom Mix in his features, including here in No Man’s Gold. The film doesn’t travel as far as The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926), with its spectacular use of Colorado’s Royal Gorge, or Sky High (1922), with its amusingly ludicrous Mexican border story about outlaws smuggling Chinese into the United States via the Grand Canyon until Tom, “Deputy Inspector of Immigration,” rides in. No Man’s Gold appears to stay in California: outside Palm Springs and elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.
True, the outlaws in No Man’s Gold appear more than typically dimwitted, even for westerns, right from the get-go. (If you’re going to steal a gold mine, it may not be the best plan to shoot the only man who knows its location.) Notwithstanding implausibilities, the film builds to a great action finale. Variety particularly admired “the never ending series of thrills” in the canyon scenes, concluding when Mix rides down, six-guns blazing, in a cable-suspended mining ore bucket to demolish the outlaws’ cabin: “The picture has a wealth of stunts which grow naturally out of the story instead of being dragged in, working up to a smashing climax.” For Moving Picture World it was “a crackerjack picture … with a well-constructed story filled with snap, punch, stunts, comedy, and human interest.” Film Daily labeled it “a rip-snortin’, rarin’, tearin’ western … Here is a westerner that has not followed the cut and dried formula.”
Next time you’re driving west, past Phoenix on the way to Tucson, turn off dull Interstate 10, take the two-lane Highway 79, and pull out at the bronze and granite “Tom Mix Memorial.” This is near where Mix died—in 1940 at age sixty—in a single-car auto accident. Tom always liked riding fast.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius