The Daily’s newest correspondent is Elena Passarello, who will be writing about famous animals from history. This week’s beast is the silent-film star Tony the Wonder Horse.
Tom Mix and Tony at their best! Rip snortin’ action!—break neck horsemanship! A thrill for everybody!
—Destry Rides Again promo poster, 1932.
When they were about to do a difficult scene, Tom would pat Tony on his nose and say, “Now, look, Tony, here’s the way we’re going to do this.” And then that was the way they did it.
—Olive Mix, 1957.
Tom once told a newspaperman that I liked to show off. Well, I’ll tell you something. He likes to show off too. Do you think he would do all those difficult and dangerous tricks if he thought nobody would see them?
—“Tony’s Story Told By Tony Himself,” 1923.
Name: Tony the Wonder Horse
Years Active: October 1918 (Fame and Fortune) through November 1932 (Rustler’s Roundup)
Distinguishing Marks: Two white “sox” on back legs, diamond-shaped blaze fading into a narrow stripe that runs from forehead to nostrils
Skills: Galloping into fire, chasing trains, jumping through trick-glass windows, untying the hero’s hands, nudging the hero into the arms of his sweetheart for a grand-finale kiss
Habitat: Mixville Studios, on location at the Grand Canyon, a custom-made Packard motor trailer with rubber seats and a built-in water trough
One could argue that American cinema began with the image of a horse at full gallop, when Eadweard Muybridge laid twenty-four trip wires attached to twenty-four cameras along a track in Palo Alto and a dark mare called Sallie Gardner ran over all of them. Those two-dozen captured images, when strung together, set into motion the gorgeous pump and reach of Sallie’s shiny black body and the split-second of her stride when all four legs left the ground.
So, though Tony might have been film’s original Wonder Horse—the first in a long line of celluloid steeds like Champion, Silver, and Trigger—he was forty years too late to cut any kind of original figure in film. Tony wasn’t even the first horse ridden onscreen by his costar Tom Mix—“the King of the Cowboys,” famous for his dark features, gigantic white Stetson, and a rodeo fearlessness derived from both an unshakable trust in horses and an industry untroubled by safety rules.
Mix had a series of rides in the 1910s, first in single-reel shorts then in hour-long “oaters”—hastily made silent Westerns of the teens and twenties. When his first longtime horse, Old Blue, died in 1918, on the set of Treat ’em Rough, Mix auditioned a few replacements and finally cast Tony, a compact sorrel that Mix’s trainer had noticed pulling a chicken wagon down Glendale Avenue.
Tom Mix had an ideal mug for silent film—his thick black eyebrows and large features registered well on the cameras, and he looked aces in his gaudy cowboy duds. Likewise, Tony stood out thanks to his signature white blaze and perky ears, which were often pricked forward. Tony was small enough that when Mix stood next to him, the two could gaze straight into each other’s eyes like Valentino and a velvety starlet.
Mix trained Tony as a showman, ready to dance, buck, rear, swim, roll down cliffs, and take off galloping at the smallest signal. He found Tony hilariously adept at interior scene work; the horse could pace around an indoor set like a butler in a drawing room comedy. Directors learned they could give Tony close-ups, reaction shots, and punch lines; in an oft-repeated gag, Tony filched Mix’s ten-gallon hat with his teeth. Mix would leap onto Tony’s back from great heights and burning buildings, and Tony leapt, too—on and off moving trains, down rocky crags, and into hotel swimming pools. Mix’s films took early stabs at the grandiose sweep of Westerns, and Tony looked gorgeous galloping over an acre in a wide shot.
The Fox Films press machine fed countless stories to movie rags about the special romance between horse and cowboy. They spun rumors that Mix refused to let anyone else sit on Tony’s back and gleefully reported a disastrous shooting day in which an ill-timed dynamite blast sent the pair flying, leaving them concussed and bleeding. Tony, the papers said, would not give in to his pain until he made sure Mix was still alive—once he saw his partner breathing, Tony blacked out.
The two often teamed up for interviews; Mix had trained Tony to answer yes or no when he squeezed Tony’s sides with his knee. They met president Coolidge, dined in style at the hotel Astor (though Mix only let Tony eat celery), and sailed to Europe, where so many admirers reached out to pet Tony that Mix feared his fur would rub off. In 1927, after his title roles in Just Tony, Tony Goes Wild, and Oh! You Tony, Tony became the eighth film star to partake in the new Hollywood tradition of dipping his feet in wet cement outside Sid Grauman’s movie house—the same year as Gloria Swanson and two years before Joan Crawford.
Sadly, we have more press about the Tony pictures than we have actual movies, thanks to the volatility of nitrate film. A 1937 warehouse fire incinerated the entire careers of some silent stars, and about ninety percent of Mix’s three-hundred-plus pictures went up in those flames. Among the lost films is 1923’s Three Jumps Ahead, which featured the pair’s famed twenty-foot canyon leap. A lobby card photo of the jump, taken from a distance, shows a tiny horse-and-rider ninety feet above the rocks of a canyon.
The reviews of the jump were breathless: “The crashing climax—Tony’s very remarkable jump across a yawning abyss with Tom Mix on his back—is startling in its realism. There’s no fake to this scene. No possible way it could be faked. And besides, faking scenes is beneath the dignity of Tom and Tony.”
The jump is totally fake, of course; the figures were obviously shrunk to make the distance of the leap look more daring. And though Tom Mix swore to the press it was the two of them who performed the trick (and that they did it five times), a couple movie stuntmen have since laid claim to it. Besides, Tony had become too much of an insurance risk to be taxed with dangerous action; it’s bad business for a wonder horse to go around doing things that might kill him. So Tony had body doubles for the more physical work of his late career, and was used more often in tighter shots and comic lazzis. By the thirties, doubles covered even those scenes, many of them with painted-on blazes and white sox.
Tony retired in 1932. Mix replaced him with an ebony gelding that he first passed off as Tony but later renamed Tony Jr. Then came Tony II, a Palomino that Mix rode in the circus after the talkies talked him out of a job. But the original Tony lived for a decade after his own retirement. He even outlived Mix, who died not on horseback but behind the wheel of a 1937 Cord Phaeton on a road outside of Tucson, when he came upon an unexpectedly out bridge and couldn’t make the jump.
Near the site of that crash, on what is now Highway 79, stands a monument to the King of the Cowboys. At the top of a stone base is an iron-cast silhouette of a riderless Tony. The statue has been stolen again and again, each time quietly replaced. The iron figure stands in black, feet firmly planted on a swatch of grass. His tail droops between his legs and his back seems burdened by the weight of an empty saddle. Though his ears are still pricked forward, his head hangs low, as if to say that Tony, upon hearing of the fate of Tom Mix, wept.
Elena Passarello is a Whiting Award winner and the author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses, which will be released by Sarabande Books in February. She is one of the Daily’s correspondents.