Broncho Billy Anderson: Arkansas's First Movie Star

Jan 2, 2014

KUAR is partnering with the Old State House Museum to screen a series of Arkansas-related movies each month on Second Friday Art Night. KUAR General Manager Ben Fry, who also teaches courses in film history and criticism at UALR, will introduce each movie and lead a discussion after the screening. "Second Friday Cinema" is presented in cooperation with the Old State House's exhibit "Lights! Camera! Arkansas!" The screenings will take place the second Friday of each month at the Old State House Museum.

Second Friday Cinema presents "Arkansas's First Movie Star: Broncho Billy Anderson" on Friday, Jan. 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Old State House Museum, 300 W. Markham. Reception starts at 5 p.m. Free and open to the public.

Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson was born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Ark., in 1880. His family moved to St. Louis when he was a boy, but Max returned to Arkansas as a young man to work with his brother-in-law as a cotton buyer in Pine Bluff. Max, however, had caught the acting bug and soon moved to New York City, where he changed his name to Gilbert M. Anderson.

Like most young actors in that day, Anderson sought to hone his craft on the stage. Instead, he found work with the Edison motion picture company working for director Edwin S. Porter. One of his first pictures was a one-minute film called "What Happened in the Tunnel" about a young man flirting with a pretty girl on a train who gets a surprise when the train goes through a tunnel.

The same year he made a movie that would change his life and change motion picture history. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) is often credited as the movie that changed the way filmmakers would put together their movies. Anderson played three different parts in this movie - a bandit, a tenderfoot, and a man who tries to escape the robbers but is shot. After finishing the movie and seeing how audiences reacted to it, Anderson decided the movie business was for him.

Anderson as the tenderfoot in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903).

Anderson did not only want to act in movies, he wanted to write and direct them as well. Based on what he learned from Porter, Anderson had ideas about what would make a good movie and how the audience would respond. After a couple of false starts, he convinced businessman George Spoor to partner with him and formed the Essanay (S and A) motion picture studio. Essanay would make hundreds of one-reel westerns and comedies between 1907 and 1918, many of them written by, directed by and starring Anderson. 

Early on, Anderson developed a persona for himself in his western films that he called Broncho Billy. The character of Broncho Billy was often an outlaw who turns good or sometimes just a cowboy defending the weak. Titles of the films often told the whole story: Broncho Billy and the Escaped Convict, Broncho Billy's Indian Romance, Broncho Billy and the Baby. The character of Broncho Billy became so closely associated with Anderson that for the rest of his life he would be called Broncho Billy Anderson. He  became Hollywood's first western star, ahead of Tom Mix, William S. Hart and Harry Carey. Anderson received an Honorary Academy Award in 1958 for his "contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment."

The Old State House Museum will screen three of Broncho Billy Anderson's short films at Second Friday Cinema on Jan. 10. The Great Train Robbery (1903), Broncho Billy's Fatal Joke (1914) and The Son-of-a-Gun (1919). Not only will these films celebrate Arkansas's first movie star, but viewers will also see how the art of narrative developed in the earliest years of motion picture history. The screening will include information about Broncho Billy's career and an audience discussion.