(From Old Corral image collection)
Hoot Gibson, circa early 1920s.
(From Old Corral image collection)
|Special thanks to guest commentators Boyd Magers and Bill Russell for authoring this biography on Hoot Gibson.|
From rodeo champion to stuntman to movie cowboy star for nearly 20 years, Hoot Gibson was one of the most popular western stars on the silent screen, ranking second only to Tom Mix. With his easy
combination of light, breezy, boyish charm comedy and riding abilities, 5' 9" Hoot filled a gap between the austere William S. Hart or Harry Carey and the flamboyant Tom Mix. Hoot appealed to both children and adults --- especially women. By the mid '20s, he was one of Universal's top paid stars, earning $14,500 per week. And he spent it, rivaling even Mix in self indulgence ... fast cars, motorcycles and airplanes. In Nostalgia Westerns #56 Barrie Hanfling notes, "Hoot's star faded faster than the others of 'The Big 5' but to be true to Gibson, we should look at that elder generation who remember him so vividly and who place him high on the cowboy list, even in top position for some."
What made Gibson so popular over the years? He was not what one might call handsome, being a little on the homely side, nor did he cut a dashing figure on horseback, although he could ride like a demon. Neither was he a polished scrapper of the Bob Steele school of fisticuffs, but could mix it up with the best of them. He mostly never wore a gun in the standard cowboy hero way, instead shoved it in his belt or boot. So what made this cowboy hero one of the greats? You could call it character, a certain boyish charm, or simply a naturalness that appealed to the western fan. He had a contagious smile, and while most heroes had a sidekick who provided the comedy routine, Hoot was his own best sidekick.
Born Edmund Richard Gibson in Tekamah, Nebraska, August 6, 1892, Hoot grew up 'horse crazy', becoming quite adept at riding. He actually got his first pony when he was two and a half. At about age 7, Hoot's mother brought the family to California. Hoot recalls, "First job I got was on the Postal Telegraph. I was then 15. I rode that for about three months and liked it fairly well. I got a job at the Owl Drug Co., delivering drugs and packages to the different homes throughout southern California or that part of Los Angeles. That is where I got the name of Hoot. It came from Owl and later the boys started calling me Hoot Owl, then it got down to Hoot and Hoot has stuck with me ever since."
Hoot came to the motion picture industry around 1910 after having ridden bucking broncos for the Dick Stanley Congress of Rough Riders and working as a horse wrangler. His first film experience was with the Selig Polyscope Co. doing stunts and doubling for Selig stars. One of his first known titles came later that year in D. W. Griffith's western short, TWO BROTHERS, starring Henry Walthall. That same year, Gibson and pal Art Acord got riding and stunting jobs in a Tom Mix Selig one-reeler, PRIDE OF THE RANGE. Acord and Gibson remained friends for many years. Their careers paralleled each other until Acord's tragic death in '31. In 1912, Hoot went to Pendleton, Oregon, for the famous Western Roundup and won the all-around championship. He also won the World Championship Fancy Roper at the Calgary Stampede that year. For the next year or so, Gibson and Acord rode in rodeo events in the summer, returning to Hollywood in the winter to double and perform stunts for stars.
Following an Australian trip, Hoot's next big movie work came in 1913 when he got the job doubling and stunting in the long running Helen Holmes Kalem serial, THE HAZARDS OF HELEN. Hoot remembers, "I got the job of doubling Helen Holmes and doing the stunts from horses to trains. I went on with her through 1914 and part of '15. At that time, I moved over to Universal, which had been built, in the mean-time, in the valley." Carl Laemmle constructed Universal on 230 acres in the San Fernando Valley, 10 miles out of L.A. at the time. He paid $165,000 for the acreage. "I went out with Harry Carey, who was the big western star in those days at Universal. I got a job there as a stuntman and also riding in the pictures. Finally, Harry Carey gave me a part in 1916 (KNIGHTS OF THE RANGE)." This was followed by a much better part in John Ford's first feature film, STRAIGHT SHOOTING ('17), which starred Carey. Along came World War I and Gibson enlisted in the tank corps. Returning from the army in 1919, he rejoined Universal and landed lead roles in a number of two-reelers such as GUN PACKER ('19), SMILIN' KID ('20) AND MAN WITH THE PUNCH ('20).
In 1921 he got his big break when he was cast as 'Sandy Brouke' (note the similarity between it and his character name, Stony Brooke, in 1935's POWDERSMOKE RANGE) in the John Ford directed film, ACTION. Francis Ford and J. Farrell MacDonald rounded out the trio for the film taken from the Peter B. Kyne story, Three Godfathers. After that, Hoot never made another two-reeler. ACTION propelled Gibson to fame and fortune and he remained at Universal for the next 10 years. Although Gibson concentrated principally on westerns during the Universal years in such classics as the exciting RIDIN' KID FROM POWDER RIVER ('24), the humorous CHIP OF THE FLYING U ('26) and the more serious and dramatic FLAMING FRONTIER ('26), he would occasionally step out of his western roles for a non-western feature.
Toward the end of his silent run, he introduced race cars and airplanes in some of his pictures. Such titles as FLYIN' COWBOY ('28) and WINGED HORSEMAN ('29) reflect the change in the mode of transportation. Fast cars and airplanes were more than a pastime with the Universal star, who was making over $14,000 a week and could afford them.
With the arrival of sound, Hoot weathered the transition and remained at Universal. For the '29-'30 season, Hoot made eight early talkies at Universal, including COURTIN' WILDCATS, LONG, LONG TRAIL, ROARING RANCH, TRIGGER TRICKS (these last three noteworthy due to his much publicized romance --- and later marriage --- with leading lady Sally Eilers), TRAILING TROUBLE (which offered a small role to old pal Art Acord --- his only talkie), MOUNTED STRANGER (a remake of Hoot's own RIDIN' KID FROM POWDER RIVER --- interesting in that Gibson makes an early entry into the musical western when he, Fred Burns and Francis Ford do a little raucous harmonizing around a campfire), CONCENTRATIN' KID (with former silent star Neal Hart as a sheriff) and SPURS, considered the best of his Universal talkies and most action packed (not surprising since it was directed by B. Reeves Eason) with a great role by former silent star Pete Morrison as Hoot's main adversary.
As good as the Gibsons at Universal were, diminishing profits during the Depression era soon forced the Laemmles (Carl and Jr.) to take stock of the situation and discontinue production of westerns. Reportedly a blow to Gibson, who had been with the studio since the late teens, he had to look elsewhere and there was nothing coming his way from any major studios.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above - J. Frank Glendon is in the center and an unidentified player on the left. The performer on the right is young Hoot Gibson, several years prior to his starring days as a western movie hero. This is a chapter 13 card from the 15 episode serial THE WOMAN IN THE WEB (Vitagraph, 1918) which had Glendon and Hedda Nova in the lead roles.
(From Old Corral image collection)
The above lobby card from THE RAWHIDE KID (Universal, 1928) is one of the strangest western lobby cards in my collection. Above from left to right are: Tom Lingham, Frank Hagney, Hoot Gibson, Georgia Hale and William H. Strauss. I asked Hans Wollstein for info on this 1928 Universal silent, and he writes: "This is a curious western in which Hoot, as the very Irish Dennis O'Hara, comes to the aid of a Jewish haberdasher, Simon Silverberg (William H. Strauss), and his daughter Jessica (Georgia Hale). Town boss Frank Hagney attempts to drive the Silverburgs out of town but Gibson beats him in the Big Race, winning not only a heap of money but also the hand of Jessica. I'm sure this western was inspired by 'Abie's Irish Rose' and its many successors both on Broadway and in Hollywood."
(Courtesy of Boyd Magers)
Above is Hoot in a scene from CONCENTRATIN' KID (Universal, 1930), and the steed in the background is Hoot's "Goldie" which can be identified by a large white spot above/between the eyes. This was one of eight sound films Hoot made at Universal. At that time, Gibson and Ken Maynard were Universal's resident cowboy movie leads. At the conclusion of their 1929-1930 series, Universal opted not to renew either of their contracts ... and the studio quit doing B western series until they had a change of heart and signed Tom Mix in 1932.