ANDERSON, Broncho Billy

(1880–1971)
   Between 1908 and 1915, Anderson, the first cowboy star of the movies, created over 375 silent shorts, including “Broncho Billy,” and developed standard production procedures often used in later years for making low-budget, quickly produced films. Anderson’s standard production formula called for one Western a week on a budget of around $800 (occasionally grossing as much as $50,000), working from a skeleton script with little time for costume changes, actors’makeup, or, naturally, rehearsal. The emphasis was on speed. Anderson could make a 19-scene film on location in one day, shooting one scene after another without significant pause.
   Although he had the cowboy look—he posed for a Saturday Evening Post cover as a cowboy before his film career—Broncho Billy was not a natural cowboy actor. Anderson convinced Edwin S. Porter to give him a role in The Great Train Robbery (1903) on the basis of his horsemanship, but he could not even ride a horse. During the first take, Broncho Billy attempted to mount the horse on the wrong side and fell off. Wisely, Porter used him in walking roles instead. In all, Anderson played three characters: the brakeman, a passenger who is shot in the back, and one of the robbers. Most of his early movie jobs, however, were off camera, working first for Vitagraph and then Selig Polyscope. In 1907 he took a crew to Colorado for a series of Westerns that received lukewarm response. But Broncho Billy’s break came in 1908 when he helped establish the Essanay Companywith a studio in Niles, California. Anderson set out to film Westerns in California, but he could not find anyone to act lead in his films—partly because actors were scarce in California and partly because film acting still had a poor reputation. As a last resort, Anderson took the lead role in the first short he filmed—Broncho Billy and the Baby (1915). By acting in the lead role as well as directing and producing, Anderson kept a low overhead in production, often taking only two cameramen and a regular cast of three to four actors on location to sites in Colorado, California, Las Vegas, and Catalina Island. Typical Broncho Billy films were praised in their time for realism created by location filming. Inevitably, the films used sentimental themes with sharp distinctions between right and wrong, bad guys and good guys. Because the films were shot with such rapidity, there was little continuity in Brocho Billy’s character. In some films he played villains while in others he played heroes of sterling virtue out to right the wrongs afflicting the oppressed.
   Broncho Billy’s outift was simple; realistic without looking like a costume. “He wore a simple and modestly colored shirt, often a waistcoat [apart from Hart and, occasionally, Mix, few other Western stars did this] and leather cuffs, adorned with a single star, around the lower arms” (Everson 1978, 183). Working cowboys wore these cuffs to avoid rope burns, but cinema cowboys rarely put them on. Anderson also trademarked garish sheepskin chaps, a feature seldom seen in later Western costumes.
   The Broncho Billy films, distributed mainly in nickelodeons, made Anderson one of the first recognizable movie stars. Appearances in New York occasioned small riots. By 1912 he was earning $125,000 a year, a substantial increase from the 50c an hour he earned working with Edwin S. Porter. While George M. Anderson became famous as Broncho Billy, he saw himself as a producer as much as an actor. In this producer role, Anderson signed comedian Charlie Chaplin to an Essanay contract in 1915 and is often considered responsible for Chaplin’s rapid rise to fame. Anderson subsequently appeared in Chaplin comedies, as well as numerous other comedies, and Chaplin appeared in a Broncho Billy Western.
   After silent films began showing in large theaters as features instead of in nickelodeons as one- or two-reel shorts, Anderson’s career began to decline, partly by choice. His last Westerns, made after an absence of several years while making comedies, are some of the only surviving Broncho Billy films and are not generally considered his best.
   Anderson went into a long retirement in 1923, disappearing from the movie industry entirely. In the 1940s an effort was made to find the old cowboy actor, and he was rediscovered after a nationwide search. Thereafter he reconnected with Hollywood, even appearing in a television special with John Ford to reminisce about the old days. In 1957 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences honored Anderson “for his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.” Broncho Billy Anderson’s last Western was The Bounty Killer (1965).
   See also COSTUMES; CLASSIC WESTERN' FORMULAS.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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