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Smoke Signals Monthly eMagazine

Roaming Range Reporter

Continued from July 2012, Smoke Signals


Photo oa Gary E BrownReel Cowboys of Western Cinema

A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback

By Gary Eugene Brown

Over hundred matinee idols have ridden across the silver screen. Many had been hired men on horseback in a prior life. However, there were a few thespians, city born and bred, who rode as though they were one with the horse. One of the best is featured in this months' continuing series.


Charles John Holt was born on March 31, 1888 in New York City, the son of an Episcopal Minister. The family moved to Winchester, Virginia where Jack was raised. He considered becoming a lawyer; however after being kicked out of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) for painting school colors on a statute of George Washington, he drifted west. Jack prospected for gold in Alaska, was a railroad engineer, worked on a ranch in Oregon and became a surveyor, which brought him to California. A movie based on Bret Harte's story (Salomy Jane) was being filmed in 1914. Jack learned the production was being held up because they couldn't find a stunt double willing to jump a horse across a 25 - 30 foot hole on a narrow bridge. Jack, according to his mother, years later, said her son was "horse-mad all his life" and he knew no fear, so he agreed to do the stunt and lived to tell the tale. This is where his film career began, as a stunt man.

Collage of Jack Holt photos and postersIn 1916, Jack Holt's first important film as a leading man was a 20 chapter serial - Liberty - the first western "cliff hanger." From that moment on, he was often billed as the male lead (A Desert Wooing - 1918)); however he'd occasionally serve in a supporting role, such as the villain Cash Hawkins in CB DeMille's remake of The Squaw Man (1918). Then in 1921, Jack Holt played the lead in DeMille's The Call of the North; starred in North of the Rio Grande (1922) and was the star in several melodramas and non-western, action movies. Then in 1924, he was the main character in author Emerson Hough's North of 36, a major western epic for Paramount. It was followed by the first of many movies based on the prolific Zane Grey's western novels - The Wanderer of the Wasteland. Jack later starred in Grey's stories such as Wild Horse Mesa (1925); Born to the West (1925); The Light of Western Stars (1925); Forlorn River (1926); Man of the Forest (1926); The Thundering Herd (1925); The Mysterious Rider (1927); The Vanishing Pioneer (1928); The Avalanche (1928); The Water Hole (1928); Sunset Pass (1929) and The Border Legion (1930). Jack Holt was Paramount's leading male actor in the 20s and was paid accordingly. Unlike the B western remakes of the Zane Grey novels in the 30s and 40s, these were A westerns. The studio spared no expense in surrounding Holt with a fine supporting cast, extensive budgets, fine directors and cameramen and panoramic, scenic locations. Sadly, most of these are lost films or are in private collections.

In the 30s, Jack Holt, still a major star was assigned to lower budget, B action films and melodramas for his new studio - Columbia. Being considered a "man's man," Jack drew the common folk to the box office to escape the drudgeries of the depression. Some of the most noteworthy of that decade were: Dirigible (1931) directed by Frank Capra; Black Moon; a costarring role in Shirley Temple's The Littlest Rebel" (1935); End of the Trail (1936), his last starring role in a western; and a major costarring role in the film San Francisco (1936) with Gable and Tracy. Jack made an average of 5 films per year throughout the 30s for Columbia. In 1941, after a dispute with the infamous studio chief Harry Cohn over his being assigned the lead in a lesser quality, 15 Chapter serial - Holt of the Secret Service, Jack and Columbia parted ways. It was his last starring role.

Jack Holt continued to play supporting roles throughout the 40s. During WWII, Jack wanted to help in the war effort. General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, intervened on Jack's behalf and in 1943; he joined the Army at age 54. Jack achieved the rank of Major in the Quarter Masters Corp. In 1945, John Ford selected him to play a pivotal role (4th billing) in They Were Expendable, starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne and Donna Reed. Jack Holt continued to play supporting roles, primarily in westerns such as My Pal, Trigger with Roy Rogers and The Strawberry Roan with Gene Autry, among others. Jack's last role was in William Wellman's Across the Wide Missouri (1951) starring Clark Gable.

On the personal side, Jack married Margaret Woods in 1917. In 1919, Margaret gave birth to John Charles Holt, Jr., called Tim. The next year, a daughter was born - Elizabeth Marshall Holt, later known as Jennifer. Both children went on to become film actors. Tim Holt was featured in great films such as Stella Dallas, Swiss Family Robinson, Back Street, Stagecoach, The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine, and Treasure of Sierra Madre, in addition to starring in many B westerns for RKO. Jennifer Holt went on to play the female lead in numerous B westerns in the 40s.

In addition to a home in Beverly Hills, the Holts had a ranch outside Fresno. The cowboy way of life was very important to the Holts. Jack was an excellent horseman, heralded by the Polo community as being among the best, which included outstanding riders such as Will Rogers. Also, Jack Holt was the inspiration for cartoonist Chester Gould's detective Dick Tracy, due to his granite, square jaw. Al Capp later did a parody of Gould's Tracy with his Fearless Fosdick character.

Jack Holt wasn't your typical cowboy actor; not just because he projected a sophisticated gentleman image, which he was indeed. It was because Jack was the first silver screen cowboy to sport a mustache. Only Errol Flynn, later on, would dare do such a thing. After all, vaudeville melodramas usually portrayed villains as mustached, unprincipled cads. However, Jack was shown affection by the Hollywood elite by kindly referring to him as "Sir Charles." He also was pronounced "King of the Rodeo" at the 1924 Fresno Rodeo. His 5 year old son Tim rode along side in the Grand Entry.

Jack Holt and Margaret lived apart the last few years of his life, however they never divorced. Jack was a friend to all in Hollywood and always had a good thing to say about his coworkers, liked to pal around with the film crew and befriended the "little people." While visiting the set of CB DeMille's Joan the Woman (1916), he even saved the leading lady (famous opera soloist) Geraldine Farrar, whose horse ran away with her. Jack was also one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack Holt had been one of the highest paid actors in the Golden Era; however, he died alone, with few worldly possessions, in a room in Santa Monica's Miramar Hotel (1951).

It's unfortunate that today's film critics and historians haven't given Jack the credit he truly deserves. The late, western film historian, Buck Rainey described him as follows: "The significance of Jack Holt is that he had a unique personality; he was a man who, for the most part, reacted in a role just as he personally would under the same real-life circumstances. He was the embodiment of the well-bred gentleman who could be rough and tough as the occasion demanded. This type of man was the beau ideal of that period of time." "Jack had in plenitude the gift of realism - uncompromising, courageous fidelity to character and atmosphere. Jack was usually a no-nonsense cowboy...his jutting jaw and piercing eyes usually were sufficient to turn the villains pale with fear." However, Jack Holt lies in a nondescript grave in the LA National Cemetery (Sawtelle Veterans Cemetery). People occasionally pass by, not knowing and thereby not paying attention to the final resting place of the Patriarch of a Royal Hollywood family. Perhaps he prefers it that way. A small marker reads:

Charles John Holt
New York
Major QMC
World War II
May 31, 1888     Jan 18, 1951


is the retired Police Chief of Monterey, CA; Ashland, OR and San Clemente. However, his avocation is collecting western art and memorabilia including many Tom Mix items. Tom Mix was his father's hero, so he is Gary's as well. Gary wrote an article on Tom Mix for The National Film & Collectors Magazine - Hollywood Studio Magazine, as well as a recent article on Tom Mix's final day for American Cowboy magazine. He has also written articles on the Western Photoplays of the Golden Era and lectured on the Western Heroes of the Silver Screen. He can be reached at or found, most mornings, at his son Jordan's Mavericks Coffee House in Visalia, CA....the site of "possibly the best coffee in the world" with walls of vintage cowboy movie posters and a collection of 66 original, autographed photos of yesterday's cowboy heroes.


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