The Holts: First Family of Westerns

Were the Holts the First Family of westerns? A defensible claim could be made, though they certainly made their mark in other genres, as well. Venerable old Jack Holt (Charles John Holt, 1888-1951) went back to the Francis Ford days and was still plying his trade midway through the 20th century. His son Tim Holt (Charles John Holt III, 1919-1973) is today probably the best remembered for his key roles in several well-known major Hollywood classics. Daughter Jennifer Holt (Elizabeth Marshall Holt, 1920-1997) may well have been the most successful B movie western ingenue of the 1940s. Were they all extant, a Holt family film festival could potentially include well over 300 films.

Much like Randolph Scott, Jack Holt was somebody is somebody who ought to have played The Virginian, but never did. He grew up in Winchester, Virginia, where his father was an Episcopal priest. He attended the Virginia Military Institute for one semester before being expelled for a disciplinary infraction. He then rambled around Alaska for several years, prospecting, surveying, trapping, and driving a stagecoach. He had made his way south to Hollywood by 1914, where he made his debut as a stunt man and bit player in the western Salomy Jane. Holt’s machismo and chiseled good looks allowed him to rapidly rise to supporting player and eventually leading man status. His granite profile was said to have been one of Chester Gould’s models for Dick Tracy, and Al Capp’s for Fearless Fosdick. He is also said to have been Margaret Mitchell’s first choice for Rhett Butler, though he would have been 51 by the time Gone with the Wind was made. Westerns, adventure films and serials were his meat and drink. Early films in which he had supporting parts included Patria (1917) with Irene Castle, and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1918 remake of The Squaw Man. By the ’20s he was a star in his own right, in such things as the 1923 remake of The Cheat, opposite Pola Negri, and the 1925 adaptation of Zane Grey’s The Thundering Herd. During the transition to talkies he starred in three early Frank Capra action films for Columbia: Submarine (1928), Flight (1929) and Dirigible (1931). He was in the horror film Black Moon (1934) opposite Fay Wray, The Littlest Rebel (1935) with Shirley Temple, San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable (who had largely eclipsed Holt in his own niche by this point), Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), and John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945). Most of his nearly 200 films were westerns, including Across the Wide Missouri (1951), his last.

Jack’s son, Tim Holt has always been an interesting figure to me, because it’s almost like had two separate parallel film careers, one in big budget main features, the other in B movies. He had gotten his toe wet as a child in some of his dad’s westerns, such as The Vanishing Pioneer (1928). As a young man, he was often typecast as surly, bratty young whippersnappers looking to get taken down a peg or two (at least that’s how I think of some of his better known roles). His “A” pictures included Stella Dallas (1937), Stagecoach (1939), 5th Avenue Girl (1939), Swiss Family Robinson (1940), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Hitler’s Children (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). At the same time, he was hired by RKO to replace George O’Brien in his own series of western B movies, which ran from 1940 through 1952.  He was appealing in these routine programmers and comfortable in a milieu he had genuinely loved since childhood. By the later ones he had matured, filled out, and had some bark on him. He was no longer the scrawny kid, but a taciturn hero, more like his dad. He was only 33 when the series was finally cancelled, but by then he had been so typecast that other roles were not forthcoming, nor did he apparently much want them. After this he moved to Oklahoma, made live personal appearances, produced rodeos and western jamborees, and managed theatres and radio stations. He returned to acting on but a handful of occasions: the low budget horror and sci-fi films The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) and The Yesterday Machine (1965), a 1969 episode of The Virginian, and Herschel Gordon Lewis’s moonshining yarn This Stuff’ll Kill Ya (1971).

If anything, Jennifer Holt was even more closely identified with westerns than her father or her brother, or at least she strayed outside the genre with less frequency (a bit part in Abbott and Costello’s 1942 Pardon My Sarong was one of the few occasions). Her entire film career (nearly 50 films) took place during the 1940s, starting with Stick to Your Guns (1941) and ending with The Tioga Kid (1948). She appeared opposite such popular western stars as Hopalong Cassidy, Tex Ritter, Johnny Mack Brown, and Lash La Rue. After this she co-hosted two TV shows with Johnny Coons, The Adventures of Uncle Mistletoe (1948) and Panhandle Pete and Jennifer (1950-51).