|The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.|
George Thornton Edwards
1894 - 1988
(Image courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
|Special thanks to Peggy Kelly for the profile on Thornton Edwards. Peggy is a freelance journalist/author now writing a book on the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster, including the life of Thornton Edwards.|
Although the life of Thornton Edwards would make a riveting film, chances are the real life "Hero of the St. Francis Dam Disaster" and B-movie actor would never have been considered for the starring role.
Born in 1894 to genteel Maine privilege, Thornton graduated from an exclusive private school in 1915 and the following year was - inexplicably - in Hollywood and his first film released the next year. Thornton's western career started early, his dark not quite but verging on handsome good looks more than suitable for his early roles in the 1917 silent westerns THE LEARNIN' OF JIM BENTON and in 1918 THE GUN WOMAN, the latter starring the "Hello suckers!" flapper Texas Guinan.
Soon the dark indeterminate ethnicity of Thornton's features led to many varied roles.
Although initially receiving if not top at least top-tier credit in a variety of films, by 1921 Thornton - married to a woman who claimed a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty pedigree - was appearing in comedy shorts.
By 1922 Thornton was a motorcycle cop in the San Fernando Valley and he joined the Santa Paula Police Department a few years later, then left to become a State Motorcycle Officer, the precursor to the California Highway Patrol.
By the time the sun came up March 13, 1928, Thornton was the Hero of the "St. Francis Dam Disaster" a role even he could never have imagined when the churning waters of the great dam east of Santa Paula were released by its collapse in the dead of night. As many as 1,000 people were killed as the flood - by the time it reached Santa Paula, a semi-solid mass of bodies and debris - made its deadly 56-mile way to the Pacific Ocean. Thornton made sure his wife Ethel and their young son were safe before he tore off on his Indian motorcycle to warn as many Santa Paulans as he could that death and destruction was headin' to town. At one point the waters swamped his motorbike and Thornton had to make a quick repair before again riding off into the night. Although there were many heroes of the St. Francis Dam Disaster there was something about Thornton - perhaps his square jaw, dazzling smile and the quiet dignity and pride conveyed when in uniform - that caught the imagination of the public. His cap firmly set upon abundant dark hair and the mustache that emphasized perfect teeth was the ideal match for the shiny badge, Sam Browne belt, laced boots and jodhpurs that finished the picture of the man who steeplechased a disaster - and won. Thornton became the first person in the state to receive a Medal of Meritorious Service for his heroic efforts and by the end of the year he was Santa Paula's Police Chief. It's a role he probably could have played forever but the marquee of life had something else in store for Thornton, who was fired a decade later.
He jumped back into films and the allure of acting in westerns was soon satisfied - after all, Thornton's own history already included that Indian motorcycle. Thornton got some pretty good billing in B-movies and even small, often uncredited work in A films. But his forte soon became playing B western buffoons or banditos, the latter either firmly on the bad man side of the law or a good man forced into badness due to cinematic circumstances beyond his control. In at least one film, the 1940 Hopalong Cassidy classic, THREE MEN FROM TEXAS Thornton was offered the chance to right that wrong. From the dignified "Captain Rodriguez" in Gene Autry's 1941 DOWN MEXICO WAY to ultimate evil bad man "Tronco" in the 1941 SILVER STALLION, Thornton's career seemed to be on its way, with dozens of film appearances in less than a decade. Thornton, an excellent horseman still willing to tackle stunt work mastered early in his career, was reunited with "Hoppy" in several films and also appeared with Whip Wilson. But as the century crawled towards its mid-mark, his career - more than 60 films and more credits surfacing all the time - was pretty much over.
Thornton died in 1988 at age 93 in Tulare County, California.
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above is a great closeup of ace stuntman Dave Sharpe restraining Thornton Edwards (as "Tronco") in a lobby card from the 1946 re-release of SILVER STALLION (Monogram, 1941).
On a busy corner in Santa Paula - and visible from my home - is "The Warning", a bronze statue of two motorcycle officers meant to honor the heroes, survivors and dead of the St. Francis Dam Disaster. From certain angles the statue "shot" is framed by railroad crossing arms, one of the two bronze characters seeming to look back at me through the distance. Always modest about his role in the disaster, Thornton probably would have objected when it was proposed that the symbolic statue be of him alone. He needn't have bothered: several dubious public accusations abruptly changed the work to two anonymous motorcycle officers ... although the one astride the Indian undoubtedly is Thornton and another officer, Stanley Baker, rides the Harley, neither hero garners credit for their role. It was Thornton's last chance at finally getting that top billing.
You may want to go to the In Search Of ... page on the Old Corral and then to the California Death Records database and Social Security Death Index (SSDI). There, you will find records for Thornton and his wife Ethel:
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has information on Thornton Edwards: http://us.imdb.com/name/nm0250099/
You can learn more about historic Santa Paula, which is located in the Heritage Valley area of Ventura County and about 45 miles north of Los Angeles: http://www.discoversantapaula.com
The website includes a photo of "The Warning" bronze statue: http://www.discoversantapaula.com/images/cycle_monument.jpg
Peggy Kelly has a continuing series on the St. Francis Dam disaster at the Santa Paula Times newspaper website:
April, 2009 article titled "St. Francis Dam: Murky events surrounded circumstances of disaster": http://www.santapaulatimes.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/18394/St._Francis_Dam:_Murky_events_surrounded_circumstances_of_disaster.html
June, 2009 article titled "Cause of St. Francis Dam collapse more concrete than initially verified": http://www.santapaulatimes.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/18775/Cause_of_St._Francis_Dam_collapse_more_concrete_than_initially_verified.html
October, 2009 article titled "L.A. as Subject: 'Invigorated debate' over missing St. Francis Dam records": http://www.santapaulatimes.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/19436/L.A._as_Subject:__91Invigorated_debate_92_over_missing_St._Francis_Dam_records.html
March 12, 2010 article titled "St. Francis Dam Disaster: Today is 82nd anniversary of avoidable tragedy": http://www.santapaulatimes.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/20417/St._Francis_Dam_Disaster:_Today_is_82nd_anniversary_of_avoidable_tragedy.html
March 19, 2010 article titled "St. Francis Dam Disaster: Old photo, new study clash with landslide theory": http://www.santapaulatimes.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/20479/St._Francis_Dam_Disaster:_Old_photo,_new_study_clash_with_landslide_theory.html