Rex Bell (George Francis Beldam, 1903-1962) was one of the last silent movie cowboys and the husband of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but almost certainly his most significant life’s work occurred far from Tinsletown.
Bell was born in Chicago but moved with his family to California during childhood, where he graduated from Hollywood High. His skill with horses and his rugged good looks got him hired as a western star at Fox in the last days of silents. Depending on how you loook at it. It was bad timing for him. He starred in a handful of these pictures: Wild West Romance, The Cowboy Kid, Girl-Shy Cowboy, and Taking a Chance (all 1928) and Joy Street (1929), and then sound arrived. He was immediately reduced to small supporting parts in pictures like Lightnin’ (1930) with Will Rogers, while continuing to get larger parts in B movies like the serial Battling with Buffalo Bill (1931).
In 1931, he married one of the silent screen’s biggest stars: Clara Bow. The pair founded the Walking Box Ranch in Nevada the following year. Bow retired in 1933 (more on her stormy life here); Bell worked steadily starring in B movie westerns through the end of 1936. Stormy Trails was the last picture of his original Hollywood period. The couple opened a cafe together in 1937, although it didn’t last long. Bell took two additional roles in 1942: a supporting part in Dawn on the Great Divide (Buck Jones’ last film), and Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die, in which he played Virgil Earp to Richard Dix’s Wyatt.
In 1944, a major shift. Bell ran for Congress on the Republican ticket. Failing that, he became leader of the Nevada State Republican Party. Meanwhile, he hosted a local TV show called Cowboys and Injuns, and made brief appearances in the 1952 westerns Lone Star and Sky Full of Moon. In 1954, Bell was elected Lieutenent Governor of Nevada, a major political figure in the state. He was still occupying the position on July 4, 1962 when he suffered a fatal heart attack en route to a campaign event in Las Vegas. He was running for the Governorship at the time. His last screen appearance was a cameo in The Misfits (1961).
In 1964, his son Rex Bell Jr (1934-2011) appeared in the western films Stage to Thunder Rock and Young Fury. He, too, later went into politics.
For more on silent and classic film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.