Fred Thomson: Ridin’ the Wind

One would think “Fred Thomson” (1890-1928) is not a terrific name for a movie star, and yet he was one — a major one — for eight years, and via one of the most unlikely of paths possible. Thomson was an army chaplain during World War One, in the 143rd Field Artillery, which was nicknamed the Mary Pickford Regiment. Pickford came to visit troops in the hospital one day accompanied by her frequent collaborator, screenwriter, Frances Marion. Thomson was laid up at the time with a broken leg. The pair met, hit it off, and were married in 1919. When Marion directed Pickford in The Love Light (1921), she also cast Thomson, and he was on his way.

It’s not as strange as it may sound. Thomson had attended Princeton Theological Seminary. He was obviously an interesting guy to talk to, or the young writer would have passed him by with a perfunctory greeting. He was personable and outgoing (as ministers ought to be) and also athletic. He’d broken his leg not on the battlefield but the football field. Hence, almost all of his films were either action films or westerns — especially the latter. In his day he was billed as “The World’s Greatest Western Star” and was considered a peer of Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson.

Neither Thomson nor his films are remembered much today for two sad reasons. One is his early death in 1928 form tetanus (he’d stepped on a nail in a horse barn. Shoulda kissed that horse shoe, man!). And the other reason is that his entire body of work was silent and, out of the 30 films he appeared in, only three survived. Of those, only one, Thundering Hoofs (1924) was a western, the genre he was best known for. His last screen part was the title role in Kit Carson (1928) with Nora Lane. Thomson’s pallbearers included Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd.

For more on silent film history please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,