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Jewish cowboy

by: Dan Pine - Last updated: 2003-11-28

Broncho Billy

Broncho Billy

Before John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Clint Eastwood, there was Broncho Billy, the father of the cowboy movie and the world’s first cowboy hero.

Dating back nearly 100 years to the early days of cinema, Broncho Billy was a rough ’n’ tough cowpoke, tall in the saddle, quick on the draw — and Jewish.

Gilbert Maxwell Anderson, the stage name of the man who portrayed Broncho Billy in more than 400 films, practically invented the western. He was more than just a movie star. Like many film auteurs then, Anderson was the total package, writing, producing, directing and even editing most of his films.

As co-founder of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Co., he also played a key role in the budding career of Charlie Chaplin.

And it all took place in the town of Niles, near present-day Fremont in California. That’s where Anderson and partner George K. Spoor built Essanay studios, where they made more than 300 films between 1907 and 1918.

Though little of the Essanay complex remains, there are still those that remember Niles’ — and Anderson’s — enduring contributions to film history.

Camera technician and silent film buff David Kiehn is one of them. He recently published “Broncho Billy and the Essenay Film Company,” an exhaustively researched account of the famous Jewish film pioneer and the company he created.

“Niles still has that old-time feel,” says Kiehn of the East Bay community. “It was an old train town between the coast range and Alameda Creek. I’m still fascinated by the place.”

Fascinated enough to put together a definitive history of the region’s place in film history. Anderson’s Essanay studio launched several silent-film stars in addition to Chaplin, including Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance and Gloria Swanson. But Anderson’s Broncho Billy character was the franchise for a while.

Anderson is an American success story. Born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1880, this grandson of a rabbi was caught up in the restless ambition of a nation on the move. Aronson left his family and his Jewishness behind, changing his name and working in vaudeville for a time before discovering the “flickers,” as movies were called in those days.

He played several uncredited roles — as a bandit, a wounded passenger and a tenderfoot dancer — in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903), a 12-minute movie often credited for putting the American movie business on its feet (it was released the same week the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk).

Within a few years, he’d met Spoor. Together they formed Essanay, settling in Niles, where they began cranking out one-reelers. His character Broncho Billy was the movies’ first anti-hero, says Kiehn: “He was a good bad man, an outlaw and bank robber, but redeemable. No excuses are needed; these were wonderful films.”

Chaplin developed his Little Tramp character in Niles, in fact filming the original film, “The Little Tramp,” while under contract with Essanay. He and Anderson were good friends, and remained so for some years after Chaplin went on to immortality and Anderson slid into obscurity.

Anderson made a fortune with his highly profitable pictures. But he was a complex man, says Kiehn, who often came off bossy and impatient. The company dissolved in 1918, and much of the Essanay film stock was destroyed when the talkies came about.

The last Broncho Billy film was made in 1919. Later, Anderson tried his hand at Broadway and other show biz ventures — including a cameo role in 1965’s “The Bounty Hunter” while in his 70s — but he never equaled his earlier success. He was given an honorary Oscar in 1958, and died in obscurity in 1971 at the age of 88. Yet Anderson is credited with developing many of the camera techniques still in use today.

Anderson never discussed his Jewishness publicly. Contrary to Jewish tradition, he was cremated after death, further demonstrating his lifelong break with his roots.

Kiehn and others have formed the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, but they don’t have their museum just yet. A few more years of fund-raising, and they hope to house a facility in one of the few remaining Essanay structures left in Niles.

It’s well worth the effort, especially considering the silent movie era recedes further and further into a gauzy past. Says Kiehn, “It was an important part of movie history.”

“Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company” is out now in hardback (448 pages, Farwell Books, $32.50).


Dan Pine lives and kvetches in Albany. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com

First published in J. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California.
J. can be found on the web at: www.jweekly.com
Copyright 2003 - San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc.