Tom Mix Cowboy Double Bill

by Glenn Erickson Jul 22, 2023

Sky High + The Big Diamond Robbery.  The top cowboy star of the silent era and his wonder horse Tony were once the idol of a million kids — and now they’re back again in remastered editions. SKY HIGH is mostly filmed around, over and deep inside the Grand Canyon — in 1922. THE BIG DIAMOND ROBBERY pits Tom against urban criminals before resolving as an action film on a ranch. Mix does his own stunts, many of which are serious bits of daredeviltry. Tom is always a gentleman with the demure heroine, and he wears a BIG white hat. Each restored picture is given a handsome musical accompaniment, by disc producer Ben Model.

Tom Mix Cowboy Double Bill
Sky High and The Big Diamond Robbery
Undercrank Productions
1922 & 1929 / B&W / 1:37 Silent Ap. / 50 + 67 min. / Street Date July 25, 2023
Available from Deep Discount / 21.98
Tom Mix.


We can’t watch this Tom Mix Cowboy Double Bill without thinking of the late Robert S. Birchard, a college friend and co-editor who was also a genuine film expert, especially when it came to silent movies. Barely out of his ‘teens, Bob supplied research for Kevin Brownlow. He once took me to meet a silent western director, who at 85 had a front room filled with scripts (and a saddle) and assured us that he’d be working on a new project soon. Bob also came into the UCLA Theater Arts Reading Room to identify photos of silent western movie studios, with names like ‘Flying A.’ Some of the studios were little more than barns.

I haven’t seen vintage silent westerns looking this good since Birchard screened us his print of an exciting Tom Mix western filmed on a canyon railroad line in Colorado.  *  Tom Mix was the most successful and most famous movie cowboy of the silent era, and this double bill shows his appeal. They’re entertaining, well filmed, mostly well-acted and packed with impressive stunt riding and physical feats. We’re told that Mix did his own stunts. If he used a double, the guy must have been a perfect match. He’s a graceful white-hat straight arrow who punches out bad guys and wins the girl by always being a gentleman.

The non-actor credits on these films are slight — the 1929 show lists only a director and a cameraman. The company ‘Film Booking Offices of America’ was dissolved in 1929, when RCA combined it with the Radio-Keith-Orpheum theater circuit to create RKO Pictures.

Undercrank Productions has been putting restored silent pictures on DVD for ten years now, all with new piano and organ soundtracks by the company’s prinicipal, Ben Model. Undercrank has an appropriate ad phrase : ‘From Film Cans to Film Fans.’  They aren’t afraid to release films known only to Brownlow-level academics — the Undercrank stable includes films by Marion Davies and Douglas Fairbanks, but also Douglas Maclean, Alice Howell and ‘Musty Suffer.’



Sky High
1922 / 50 min.
Starring: Tom Mix, Eva Novak, J. Farrell MacDonald, Sid Jordan, William Buckley, Aldele Warner, Tony the Horse, Harry Tenbrook.
Cinematography: Benny Kline (Benjamin H. Kline)
Second Unit / Assistant director: George Webster
Production Company: Fox Film Corporation
New Music: Ben Model
Written and Directed by
Lynn Reynolds

Taking top position in the double bill is Sky High, a show that must have been a sensation in 1922. Most of it is actually filmed in the Grand Canyon, where Tom Mix scales dangerous-looking cliffs in his role as a special undercover agent. His leading lady is right up there with him on the narrow ledges. They might have lowered her to this ‘set’ on ropes.

The 101 year-old western was restored by Undercrank Productions, which includes a nicely-worded disclaimer addressing the film’s racist content. Our hero’s mission is border security, and an inter-title isn’t delicate on the subject:

“Two hundred chop suey eating Chinamen will try to cross the border near Calexico without bothering to ask Uncle Sam.”

The major villains are all Anglos, and it is inferred that one henchman known as ‘Chili Beans’ is too stupid to do anything but take orders.

Dapper immigration agent Grant Newbury (Mix) routinely arrests ‘Chinamen’ being smuggled in from Mexico; his boss has him infiltrate a gang that plans to bring hundreds of illegals through, along with ‘illicit jewels and lace’ (?). Grant is with the smugglers at their secret camp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (?). Little does Grant know that the brains behind the scheme, Jim Frazer (J. Farrell MacDonald) has a a ward, college co-ed Estelle Halloway (Eva Novak). Frazer arranges for Estelle to meet at the Canyon Lodge during the crime (?), but she ends up almost drowned down in the gorge. Grant rescues Ms. Halloway, steals a Chinese robe for her to wear and battles the bad guys to defend her.

The Sky High scenario shows Tom Mix riding, climbing and running from the bottom to the top of the Canyon several times in just a day or so. As we’re now accustomed to ‘nothing being real’ in movies, seeing Mix do everything himself makes quite an impression. Although much of the action is undercranked — the camera slowed down by a couple of frames to accelerate the action — everything looks real. When Tom leaps from rock to rock over what looks like a long canyon drop, audiences must have applauded. The horse stunts are just as wild. He rides Wonder Horse Tony down a slope that looks to be at least 65°. The horse then trips in the sand and falls on top of him.

A special inter-title tells us that Sky High was the first time a movie photographed The Grand Canyon from the air. The scenes are tame now, and at least one flying angle is a special effect superimposition. Also interesting is the fact that both movies take place in the present day. Tom’s cowboy characters ride horses but also interact with cars. Grant uses some kind of hidden electric listening device to get the lowdown on Jim Frazer’s immigrant smuggling scheme.

Leading lady Eva Novak had been a Mack Sennett bathing beauty; she made eight movies with Tom Mix in three years. Director Lynn Reynolds, cameraman Benjamin Kline and their crew must have climbed Canyon rocks for weeks, lugging a camera with them. Reynolds became a strange footnote in the business — the word is that he died in 1927 from shooting himself at a welcome-back wrap party thrown by his wife, Kathleen O’Connor. Tom Mix died in a car crash in 1940, but most everyone else would live to the 1970s and ’80s. Benjamin Kline would later shoo Edgar Ulmer’s Detour and numerous Sam Katzman films before working for years in TV.

El Tovar Hotel is still at the Grand Canyon; it’s mentioned in the dialogue but not shown. It was part of the Harvey chain made legendary in the musical The Harvey Girls. The ‘villain’ J. Farrell MacDonald ended up playing lovable old guys in many classics, including My Darling Clementine and It’s a Wonderful Life.



The Big Diamond Robbery
1929 / 67 min.
Starring: Tom Mix, Tony the Wonder Horse, Kathryn McGuire, Frank Beal, Martha Maddox, Ernest Hilliard, Barney Furey, Russell Simpson.
Cinematography: Norman Devol
Production Company: Film Booking Offices of America
Costume Design: Walter Plunket
New Music: Ben Model
Scenario by John Twist story by Frank Howard Clark, Eugene Forde titles by Randolph Bartlett
Presented by William LeBaron
Directed by
Eugene Forde

The Big Diamond Robbery is said to be Tom Mix’s final silent picture. A more conventional comedy thriller, it was reportedly very profitable. This time Tony the Wonder Horse receives preferential billing. Mix kept riding Tony all the way to the end, in movies and in public appearances.

Again, it’s Tom Mix’s show all the way. His leading lady Kathryn McGuire had five years before starred with Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator. She wears a helmet-like short hairdo — platinum blonde? — that looks like high style for 1929.

Millionaire George Brooks (Frank Beal) buys the priceless Regent Diamond for his flighty daughter Ellen (Kathryn Brooks), even though she keeps getting arrested for speeding. Ellen’s dapper boyfriend Rodney (Ernest Hilliard) is with Ellen when she’s stopped again. To avoid a jail term Ellen must spend a month away from home, at the Brooks ranch far in the country.

Rodney is actually the leader of a gang of crooks, who burgle the Brooks mansion and make off with the jewel. But Brooks’ ranch foreman Tom Markham (Mix) happens to be in town, witnesses the theft and pulls off a spectacular over-the-rooftops dash to retrieve it from Rodney’s machine-gunning henchmen. Tom makes it back to the train taking Ellen and her Aunt Effie (Martha Maddox) to the ranch.

Tom was told by his boss to ‘make things exciting’ for Ellen, and complies by getting his cowpokes to fake an Indian attack and a robbery by a masked bandit (himself). Ellen discovers that she loves ranch life, but Rodney and his gang catch up, to retrieve the diamond by whatever means necessary.

The episodic The Big Diamond Robbery is what Bob Birchard often defined as silent entertainment without pretense: ‘Simple stories for simple people.’ Screenwriting magic places Ellen and Tom on the same path, in such a way that he can repeatedly play Sir Galahad in an oversized cowboy hat. Casual ethnic slurs toward ‘Injuns’ are part of the comedy recipe. Tom’s Native Americans interrupt a game of craps to help to stage his ‘savage attack’ gag. Several Indians are ‘shot dead’ during the attack, something that Ellen and Aunt Effie take for granted.

Handling the broadest comedy in fine fashion is Barney Furey, as a taxi driver overjoyed that his meter keeps climbing, up to — wow — $40.00.  Barney comes along to the ranch and ends up both a trusted sidekick and goofy crime-buster.

The locations aren’t spectacular, but there is a car chase through downtown Los Angeles in the same year that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred. We wondered why Union Station wasn’t shown, until Wikipedia told us it was built in 1939.



Undercrank Productions’ Blu-ray of Tom Mix: Sky High / The Big Diamond Robbery contains handsome HD encodings of both features. The quality is uniform throughout; The Big Diamond Robbery is listed in smaller print but is not an afterthought — it is also restored and looks just as good.

The shows were scanned in 2K from a mix of elements. The Library of Congress provided material and restoration for both titles, although a better French source element was used for most of The Big Diamond Robbery. The restoration credit is shared by Lobster Films. Each film has a few shots replaced from slightly more contrasty sources, but both appear to be clean, sharp, complete and uncut.

Each show comes with a full music track composed and recorded by Ben Model, in the style of the day. Sky High’s track is an attractive, authentic piano piece, and The Big Diamond Robbery is performed on a theater organ. Mr. Model is the resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre. He performs at theaters, museums, schools and other venues around the US and internationally.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tom Mix Cowboy Double Bill
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
July 19, 2023

*  I believe that the Tom Mix film Birchard showed us, in a perfect 16mm copy, was The Great K & A Train Robbery, from 1926.CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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