A tribute today to early screen star, producer and studio chief Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (Maxwell Henry Aronson, 1880-1971). Raised in Arkansas and St. Louis, Anderson moved to New York City in 1898 to try his luck in vaudeville.
Five years later he was prominently cast in Edwin S. Porter’s seminal film The Great Train Robbery. Bit by the bug, he began writing, directing, producing and starring in his own westerns, becoming America’s first western star.
In 1907 he partnered with George Spoor to found Essanay Studios (“S” for Spoor; “A” for Anderson), which released not only Broncho Billy westerns, but some of America’s earliest comedies, many of them well pre-dating Mack Sennett’s Keystone.
Ben Turpin was already making comedies for Essanay within months of its founding.
Augustus Carney started at the studio at 1910, first in the Hank and Lank series, then becoming America’s first full blown native comedy phenomenon Alkali Ike in the “Snakeville” series of comedy westerns. Circa 1912, Anderson opened Essanay’s Niles California facility, while Spoor oversaw operations back in Chicago.
In 1915, Essanay scored its hugest coup when they hired Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone. Today it is what the studio is best known for. Other early comedy stars for Essanay included Gloria Swanson (who made her debut in a Chaplin comedy) and her husband Wallace Beery, who starred as “Sweedie” in a series of drag comedies as a Swedish maid!
Chaplin’s departure at the end of his one year contract was a blow to Essanay. They formed a partnership with Vitagraph, Lubin, and Selig known as V-L-S-E, organized by George Kleine, founder of Kalem, to pool distribution costs, but only Vitagraph’s brand long survived this arrangement.
In 1916, Anderson cashed in his share of Esssanay and tried producing plays on Broadway for 3 years. When that didn’t pan out, he returned to film producing with a series of Stan Laurel comedies. (One of these, A Lucky Dog was the picture on which Laurel first met and acted with Oliver Hardy, although the pair wouldn’t form a team or even work together again until seven years later). Anderson’s Laurel series was no bonanza either, so, at age 40 he retired. This retirement was to last another 50 years.
For everything you’d ever want to know about Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, you’ve got to get David Kiehn’s eponymous 2003 book. Kiehn’s a key staff member at the Niles Essanay Film Museum, and probably knows more about his subject than any person living. His book Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company is a delicious blend of film history, local history and biography, and not just chock full of information, but entertainingly written (a rarity). In my case, it’ll also be a reference book, for obvious reasons. It’s overflowing with stuff you can’t get anywhere else, and paints a vivid portrait of its time and place, which personally I often just as important as facts. For fans of silent film, especially westerns and comedies, I can’t recommend it enough. Get it here.
I also highly recommend the DVD Broncho Billy Anderson: Film Pioneer, featuring 16 rare Broncho Billy westerns from 1911 through 1915, as well as a 1957 interview with the man. Obtain that ‘un here.
For more on the history of silent and slapstick films don’t miss my own Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube. released by Bear Manor Media,