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Smoke Signals Monthly eMagazine

Roaming Range Reporter

Continued from September 2012, Smoke Signals

 

Photo oa Gary E BrownReel Cowboys of Western Cinema

A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback

 
By Gary Eugene Brown

This episode is about a cowboy film star, once a household name, whose virtually been forgotten.  He was pure cowboy born and bred, and a pioneer in America's other summer sport - Rodeo.  Described by peers as being absolutely fearless, could ride anything with hair and would fight anyone, anywhere, anytime just for the love of it.  Sadly, he was also a tragic figure, one whose life could be the subject of a folk ballad by troubadour Tom Russell. Diana Serra Carey in her book The Hollywood Posse described him as "the cowboys' cowboy." He was the infamous:

 

Photo of Art Acord

ART ACORD

Prattsville, Utah (Glenwood) was the birthplace of Artemus Ward Acord on April 17, 1890. The Mormon family relocated to Oklahoma (Stillwater) due to his mother's failing health. However, she passed away when Art was only 3 and the family returned to Utah (Emery County). Art was a working cowboy for his father during the summer and a coal miner in the winter. He joined Dick Stanley's Congress of Rough Riders (1909) where he met future cowboy film star Hoot Gibson, who'd become his lifelong friend. Rodeo led to his obtaining film work in 1909. Grange B. McKinney's fine biography Art Acord and the Movies, noted Francis Boggs of Selig Studios provided Art a letter of recommendation. It read in part: "To Whom It May Concern......... Art Acord has worked for this firm during the past season. He has given the best of satisfaction in every respect. He is a great rider; in fact, there is none better in the country, many experts considering him the champion of the world. He is absolutely fearless, and can be relied on to tackle any stunt that a man in his line (of work) would be expected to do."

Art began with the New York Motion Picture Company, which had a film unit, under the direction of Thomas Ince, on the West Coast. Inceville was located in a canyon on the Bison Ranch (Santa Monica). Art would alternate between studios serving as a stuntman and unbilled actor. Between films, Art worked as a cowboy for a spell in Elko County. Harry Webb, fellow cowpuncher, recalled; "Yep, from what I heard about Art in Nevada, he was a tough son of a bitch from Bitter Creek. The farther up the creek the tougher they got and he was right from the headwaters." In 1912, Art won the title of "Pacific Coast Rodeo Champ" in Klamath Falls, OR. At the Pendleton Roundup, Art received the title of "World Champion Steer Bulldogger" and Hoot Gibson won "All Around Champion". In 1913, Art married Edythe Sterling, a rodeo star in her own right.

Photo of Art AcordThe Saturday Evening Post featured a series based on the exploits of a cowboy cinema star - "Buck Parvin and the Movies", written by Charles Van Loan. The Santa Barbara based Flying A studios (American Film Manufacturing Company), selected Art (1915), for the role of Buck Parvin. The eight 3 reel Parvin westerns, which were favorably received, established Art as a cowboy movie star. One review noted; "Art Acord does some wonderful riding in a thoroughly realistic way and the entire story is typically western" Art suffered a major injury when his horse lost its footing and rolled over him, hospitalizing him for a lengthy period. This misfortune plus increased competition from other studios, resulted in the Flying A closing in 1916. Art's marriage was also coming apart and rumors of war were looming.

Fox Studios signed Art to a contract (1917) to make westerns, however at about the same time they also signed a guy named Tom Mix. Instead, Art was assigned dramatic roles, then became a member of the Theda Bara company. The "vamp" Bara, played exotic roles like Cleopatra (1917), with Art in a supporting role. Tex McLeod, a rodeo pal, spoke about Bara's chauffeur calling Art a "Montgomery Ward cowboy." Art pulled him out of Bara's car and "beat three hells out of him." Ms. Bara was overjoyed as she disliked her driver. Rumor has it the popular actress and cowboy actor were a duo for a while....an early tabloid story.

Art met Edna Mae Nores in 1917. Art was truly smitten; however he was summoned to serve in the Army beginning February 1918. With his knowledge of horses, Art was assigned to the 114th Field Artillery Regiment, as horses pulled the heavy weaponry. He was in Europe a short period up to Armistice Day. As such, claims Art was a highly decorated soldier weren't true. Upon his return, his former marriage resolved, Art married Edna Mae in South Pasadena on July 12, 1919.  

Universal signed Art to make cowboy pictures (1919). The first production was an eighteen chapter serial The Moon Riders. While filming an episode, Art's horse slipped, reared up and was going to fall into a ravine.  Art could have bailed off; however his costar Mildred Moore was mounted with him. Art jerked on the reins to balance the horse momentarily, in order to lower Mildred to the ground and then his horse fell taking Art with him. The production was halted two months while Art recuperated from severe injuries. After the serial, which was well received: "unusually good....... the best western serial we have ever seen", Universal didn't renew his contract. Art eventually signed with a Poverty Row studio to make inferior westerns.  

Universal realized with the success of The Moon Riders, they should resign Art, which they did (1921). The studio selected Ford Beebe's script The White Horseman (1921) for Art's next major chapter play. The reviews were positive: "Acord is a good type of western hero. He looks the part, rides and fights with plenty of pep and ability, and gives a generally satisfactory performance." However, his female costar in some Universals' westerns, Joey McCreery, remarked: "As an actor, Acord is a first class horseman." Art's next "cliff hanger" was Winners of the West (1921). The historical based film was well received: "Art Acord is certainly one of the very best and most daring horsemen in pictures and his work in this production is excellent. As a whole Winners of the West is one of the best chapter productions of the year."
 
Art Acord indeed had a penchant for fighting. An article (Los Angeles Record) entitled "My Hobby" by Art Acord, read: "Well, a good fight pleases me as much as anything. In fact, it is my hobby. I don't mean I want to pick a fight with everyone, far from it, but a good hard, fair, clean fight is one of the best hobbies I know of and one that I've been indulging in for a long time." His fights with Tom Mix were legendary......Art won most if not all of them. He even once fought a kangaroo which is featured in the "Out West" segment of Kevin Brownlow's great BBC series Hollywood. Brownlow also interviewed legendary Yakima Canutt regarding Art Acord. Yak said Art had a mean streak when he was drinking, however you couldn't help but like the guy. He recalled they fought three times in one day, until both were pretty beat up. Yak went back to his apartment to nurse his wounds. The next day, he received a phone call from him. Art asked him he had anything to drink. Yak told him don't you dare come over. Minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Yak opened it slowly. There was Art, his face swollen with one eye completely shut...Yak appeared about the same. Yak invited Art in for a snort!

Art's next serial was In the Days of Buffalo Bill (1922). After the film was completed, Art left for the rodeo circuit. However, in Bakersfield, Art collided with a gravel truck. He sustained a fractured skull and a broken leg. This halted his film career for a while. His fourth serial The Oregon Trail was filmed in Big Bear, over a three month period. Art's leading lady was Louise Lorraine. The petite, shapely starlet was too tempting for Art to ignore. Later, Art and Lorraine went to Latin America for an extended period to promote the serial while Edna remained at home. Due to Art's questionable conduct Universal wouldn't renew his contract.

In 1924, Art made four cheap western films for Goldstone. However, due to the success of The Oregon Trail, Universal decided once again they would resign Art. They cast him in five reel photoplays (Blue Streak Westerns). Art was featured with his horse Raven and Rex the "Wonder Dog." Productions were a vast improvement over the films he formerly made. The first was Circus Cyclone, directed by Al Rogell. Call of Courage and both Rustlers' Ranch were directed by Cliff Smith, a former cowboy actor. Positive feedback for the latter resulted in Universal signing Art for eight more Blue Streak Westerns. Variety, in a review of The Ridin' Rascal, said "Acord is a first rate cowboy hero for these melodramas." Supposedly, Cliff Smith told Art he would soon outdistance Tom Mix in popularity. In turn, Art issued a statement to the press (1926): "Before long, I will overtrump Tom Mix - you can bet your life on it." Art was one of the most popular cowboy stars of the 20s; however he wouldn't come close to eclipsing the legendary Tom Mix.

Photo of Art Acord and Fay WrayArt Rogell, who also directed The Man From the West (1926), in a 1977 interview, reflected on Art Acord: "He was one of America's greatest cowboys. He wasn't a great actor, but he could do anything with horses. He was amiable, nice, easy going guy.......He was (also) a rough, tough guy. When he rode horses or did a stunt it was beautiful. I mean Art was that kind of a cowboy." The film Lazy Lightning, costarring Fay Wray, was directed by 24 year old, William Wyler. During the filming, Art once again proved to be a real life hero: Child actor Bobby Gordon was confined to a wheelchair for a scene. He was pushed forward where he would go over a cliff and land in a safety net just out of view of the camera. However, the wheelchair hit a rock and careened in another direction where a net was not located. Art grabbed his lariat and looped it over the child just before the wheelchair went over the cliff. Wyler recalled that Art "was not a great actor, but he had a kind of serenity. ...but he looked good on a horse. That was the first qualification, not how much or how well you acted." Hard Fists (1927) co-starred Louise Lorraine, soon after becoming the third Mrs. Acord. The nuptials followed a nasty, contested divorce from Edna.

Art's last film for Universal was Spurs and Saddles, again costarring Fay Wray. Ms. Wray in her biography commented on Art: "It was said he was part Indian but he had blue eyes, except the part that was streaked red from alcohol. He was a handsome, sad appearing fellow. He wore his cowboy clothes with style. But because of his sadness and silence and the alcohol, it wasn't comfortable to do scenes with him." Universal, after a banner year in 1926, felt there was an oversupply of B oaters. Also, they were concerned that with the advent of "talking pictures" it would be almost impossible to make westerns. Meanwhile, Art was self-destructing with alcohol, marijuana and narcotics. Likewise, his marriage was deteriorating as he went back to his lothario ways. Louise divorced him in 1928 and Art was relegated again to Poverty Row and substandard westerns. Art made eight such films for Robert J Horner and later J. Charles Davis. They were often a compilation of other films spliced together. The film crew and the costars often were the same people. Of all his body of work, only three of these cheapies are known to exist The White Outlaw, Fighters of the Saddle and The Arizona Kid (aka as Pursued)..... a sad commentary!  

Art filed for bankruptcy in 1929. Later he was convicted for possession of alcohol (Prohibition Era) and fined $150. He borrowed money to pay the fine and left for Nogales to make public appearances throughout Mexico where he was still quite popular. Later, his pal Hoot Gibson gave him a part in one of his "talkie" westerns entitled Trailing Trouble (1930). Art once a handsome leading man was showing the effects of alcohol. Art eventually ended up in Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico in the fall of 1930. Having exhausted his funds, Art worked at a silver mine for room and board. He remained there until the end of November when he returned to Ciudad. He continued to drink heavily and wrote NSF checks. This, plus being drunk and disorderly, did not endear him with the police.  

Art had supper with Mr. and Mrs. William Gaspar, manager of the mining company he'd been working for, on the evening of January 3, 1931. Mr. Gaspar said Art showed them a bottle of potassium cyanide. The Gaspar's pleaded with him not to consider suicide. They left after a period of time thinking he had come to his senses. Approximately an hour later, they decided to check in on him and say good night. They found Art lying on the floor. A glass with what appeared to be poison residue was on the dresser, next to a Bible.  

Mexican officials reported Art Acord died in the early morning hours of January 4, 1931 due to a "congestion of the brain through alcoholism." However, as legends go, some believe he did consumed poison, while others think demon rum did him in. Another rumor was Art was having an affair with the wife of powerful man in Ciudad and that he was murdered in retaliation and the crime scene manipulated to appear as though he took his own life.

Telegrams reporting his death were sent throughout the country. Richard Nores, brother of Edna Mae, was quite fond of Art. He was able to secure political intervention to halt Mexican authorities from burying Art in a pauper's grave. Nores raised money to pay off Art's debts in Mexico and bring the body back to California. With assistance from the Hollywood Post (American Legion) and the VFW, Nores had Art's body flown to El Paso. The corpse then traveled by Sothern Pacific RR, accompanied my members of the El Paso American Legion and VFW. The flag draped coffin was met in LA by a military honor guard. Richard Nores went to the mortuary to examine the body. Nores had received correspondence from Art saying he was owed a large sum of money from a silver mine and as such, Nores thought Art may have been murdered. However, the local mortician opined Art died from cyanide poisoning.

Art was taken to the Forest Lawn Cemetery. His body was escorted by military personnel to the gravesite. An Army Chaplain shared: " ......Art's life was more than the sum total of its individual episodes. That a man's character emerges over and above his individual acts and circumstances was eminently true in Art's case. Whatever is foolish, or even ignoble, in a man's life fades to insignificance when the same man possesses the gifts of compassion, insight and love. Let this be the last word on Art. "A volley of three shots was fired and the bugler sounded taps.

The late Buck Rainey in his excellent book The Strong Silent Types remarked: "Art Acord died at the age of 40 - a broken, pathetic man stripped of his glory and his manhood. Sadly, incredibly, the world soon forgot the man who along with Bronco Billy, Mix, Morison, Hart and Carey established the Western as a favorite film type. Only a handful of faithful Western fans today remembers the magnificent physique and the hauntingly and sad features of Art Acord, the rodeo and wild west star who helped to make Universal Pictures what it is today." How soon we forget.

For further information, refer to: George B. McKinney's Art Acord and the Movies; Wyatt Classics, 2000; Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 99-071084

________________________________________________________________________

GARY E BROWN
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 montereycowboy@hotmail.com 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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