Friday, May 29, 2009

Long Lost Cowboy Star Fred Thomson (And The Horse He Rode In On)

An Army chaplain by training, Fred Thomson had the face of a movie star and when he married the best friend of the most popular actress in America, his days as a minister were numbered.

A top amateur athlete who three times won national titles in track and field, Thomson was serving as a chaplain for the U.S. Army's 143rd Field Artillery Regiment during the First World War when he met "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, and her best friend, screenwriter and war correspondent, Frances Marion. Marion was too good a writer to fob off the love-at-first-sight trope on her audience, but she tumbled for it in real life and she and Thomson were engaged ten days later.

The two waited until war's end to marry and then were joined on their honeymoon by Pickford and her new husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Thomson and Marion had envisioned a quiet trip around Europe but instead found themselves swarmed under by crowds of fans eager to see Pickford and Fairbanks. Marion later commented that she felt like the lady-in-waiting to a queen.

To make amends, Pickford allowed Marion to direct her next movie, The Love Light, and despite his lack of acting experience, cast Thomson as the leading man. Although the production was fraught with problems and marked the end of Marion's and Pickford's professional relationship (they remained personal friends), Thomson proved to have a natural screen presence and was quickly cast in additional movies.

Because of Thomson's athletic ability and his expertise with horses, he was cast primarily in Westerns. His co-star in many of his films was his horse, Silver King, which Thomson trained personally. By 1926, Thomson was the second biggest box office draw in Hollywood, behind only fellow Western star, Tom Mix.

Silver King, a white Palomino seventeen hands high, was probably more popular than either one of them. "He did all of the work," said Al Rogell, director of seven of Thomson's Westerns, "everything in the early pictures—the mouth work, the jumps, the chases, the falls, quick stops—and could untie knots, lift bars, etc. He could wink one eye, nod his head yes or no, push a person with his head. Fred trained him to do certain things and expected him to perform them."

In December 1928, Thomson stepped on a nail while working in his stables and contracted tetanus. He died on Christmas day, survived by his wife and two sons.

Only two of Thomson's thirty movies survive to the present day, the first one with Mary Pickford and a 1924 Western, Thundering Hoofs. After Thomson's death, his horse Silver King continued to work in movies, and according to the Internet Movie Database, made its final appearance in 1938's The Lone Ranger, the first movie serial featuring the masked lawman and his famous horse, "Silver."


Unknown said...

It's a PR hype to say some actor trained his own horse. Actually, Silver King was trained by William "Buster" Trow. There are many pics of him doing so including one I've posted on the William "Buster" Trow facebook page for my grandfather to share with the family.

Mythical Monkey said...

I did not know that. I followed you over to your google+ page and watched the video "The Ropin' Fool" -- great stuff! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I love stuff like this.