Monday, November 23, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Sky High'

 Sky High

Dir: Lynn Reynolds

Scr: Lynn Reynolds

Phot: Benny Kline

Ed: unknown

Premiere: January 15, 1922

60 min.

It’s damn near impossible nowadays to understand how big a star Tom Mix was. He made hundreds of Westerns during his career and was dubbed “The King of the Cowboys.” On film, he could beat up a bad hombre, wrassle a critter, recover the gold, win the heart of a lady, and engage in wild stunts, all with a winning grin. He rode Tony the Wonder Horse. He was cowboy as superhero.

Mix wasn’t an actor who took on the Western genre. Mix was a product of the West, a real cowboy who wandered in front of a movie camera and became a star. He really could ride and rope and shoot.

Mix grew up wanting to join the circus. He rattled around the country for a few years, working at everything from cowboying and rodeo competition to Wild West shows to bartending to serving as a lawman. Eventually he went with an outfit that supplied horses and extras to Hollywood moviemakers. In 1909, Mix began a film career that lasted until 1935.

He knew that they key to success was, for him, action and plenty of it. Before Mix, the premier film cowboy was the melancholy loner plated by the hulking, poker-faced William S. Hart. His moody works elevated Westerns to tragic status, often melodramas about bad men who turn good.

But Mix was a good guy from the start, an upstanding hero who could always be counted upon to save the day. He was cheerful and had a sense of humor. He wore gaudy, overstylized garments. His adventures were family-friendly, something kids and adults could both enjoy. His appeal was universal.

So he spun out film after film, charging through the ins and outs of the action film, Western-style. His approach recast the conventions of the movie Western. Feats of derring-do and last-minute rescues were carried over into the Mix films, just as the dime novels, stage acts, and Wild West shows had outlined before film.

Sky High features Mix as Grant Newberry, Deputy Inspector of Immigration. The movie opens with a scene of him thwarting illegal immigrants – in this case, Chinese men whom he treats none too respectfully, in keeping with the casual racism of the era. Then there’s bright young thing Estelle, whose guardian is the secret head of the smuggling ring. Did I mention the Chinese are being smuggled in through the Grand Canyon? Well, they are.

This turns the location into a grandiose movie backdrop. The novelty of shooting the Canyon is exploited to its fullest, with action sequences taking place within and above it (Mix dropping from an airplane into the Colorado River is an elegantly faked bit). The hero does almost all his own stunts.

The cowboy films of the era usually leaned on the tropes of the melodrama – hero, villain, damsel in distress. This formula served the Western well, and thrives in Mix’s work. In the nearly 300 films he made, Tom wears the white hat, gets the bad guy, wins the girl. In simpler times, that was more than enough.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Kodachrome Two-Color Test Shots Number III.




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