..he realized that his movies were a pulpit from which he could reach a vast audience of boys whose letters fell upon him like blessings: “I’ll never use guns when I grow up, Fred, because you never use guns to kill anybody.” “You and Silver King capture the bad guys by tricks.” “I’m kind to animals, Fred, on account of you’re kind to animals.”
Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Art Acord, Buck Jones, William S. Hart, Big Boy Williams, Jack Hoxie, Ward Bond…of the great Western stars, the name Fred Thomson has faded into history, but during his six-year career his popularity was rivaled only by Mix and Hart.
Frederick Clifton Thomson was born January 1890 in Pasadena, California, one of four boys and the son of Clara and James Harrison Thomson. Extremely athletic, Fred was a star fullback at Occidental Academy High School, and at sixteen entered Occidental College where he continued to play football. Working hard to live up to the extremely high standards set for him by his mother, he was a member of the high school band, the yearbook staff, and in his senior year was elected president of the student council.
After graduation Thomson followed in his father’s footsteps, entering Princeton Theological Seminary to become a Presbyterian minister. He continued to play football, and before starting at Princeton won the AAU National Championship, defending his title while there. Passing up the opportunity to enter the Olympics, Thomson instead began preaching. During July and August of 1912, his last year at the seminary, he served as pastor at Peck Memorial Chapel in Washington, D.C. Despite his devotion to his calling, Fred continued to train and competed at AAU National meets, beating records set by Jim Thorpe in the Olympics.
After graduation, he returned to Los Angeles and became the pastor at Hope Chapel. Under his byline, the Los Angeles Evening Herald featured a fourteen-week series of articles extolling the virtues of clean living.
On August 1, 1913 Fred and college sweetheart Gail DuBois Jepson, a teacher, became engaged and two months later were married. Thomson was assigned to the Presbyterian Church of Goldfield, Nevada, a remote mining town on the edge of Death Valley halfway between Carson City and Las Vegas. [Where he also served as Commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America in Nevada.] Three years later, Gail died of tuberculosis, and soon after the United States entered WWI Fred decided to enlist. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to Battery F of the 143rd Field Artillery as chaplain, where he organized sports events, lent a sympathetic ear to the enlisted men, and arbitrated spats between the officers and the enlisted men.
During a football game Fred broke his leg, and it was in the hospital that he met and fell in love with scenarist Frances Marion, a best friend of Mary Pickford. While arranging for the appearance of the 143rd for the film Johanna Enlists, Pickford had noticed the handsome young man and was determined that her friend would meet him. Romance blossomed, but with activity in Europe Thomson was sent overseas with his battalion.
Upon his return, he and Frances were married in New York on November 2, 1919, with Mary and Mrs. Pickford as witnesses. The couple returned to California, where Fred deliberated his next career. When a bit actor failed to show up for his part in Just Around the Corner, a movie Frances was directing starring Margaret Seddon, Sigrid Holmquist, and Edward Phillips, Thomson stepped in, nearly stealing the movie. His handsome, wholesome good looks translated well to the screen, and his work with the Boy Scouts had shown him how influential Westerns were with young boys. In deciding to become a Western star, he decided to represent the values of the “real” West, deemphasizing gunplay and delivering his values in a palatable format.
In the meantime, Fred and Frances took a belated honeymoon and sailed to Europe in May of 1920, and upon their return rented a farm in Chappaqua, NY, where he began the task of looking for a horse. He found Silver King, a dapple grey hunter, seventeen hands high and “an ornery cuss,” but not long after Silver King was performing so well that Frances “would not have been surprised to see him eat daintily with a knife and fork.”
To hone his acting skills, Fred took a small part in The Love Light, a Pickford film that was directed by Frances and filmed in New York. In 1920 the couple returned to California and moved into 744 Windsor Boulevard, next door to Harold Lloyd, stabling Silver King at Hoot Gibson’s.
While he continued to work with and train Silver King, Fred continued to take small parts, acting in pictures such as Mickey Neilan’s Penrod and Dustin Farnum’s Oathbound. While looking for a backer for his Westerns, Fred was approached by Universal to star in a 15-episode serial, The Eagle’s Talons co-starring Ann Little. Despite receiving good notices for his work, his next appearance was another small part in Lois Weber’s A Chapter in Her Life.
Westerns had always been a film staple, but as the Twenties roared on, were segregated from the balance of a studio’s output. But in 1923 The Covered Wagon breathed new life into the genre, increasing the popularity of master showman Tom Mix and others.
The timing was right, and on August 20, 1923, Fred was signed by producer Harry Joe Brown and silent partner Lew Cody for $300 a week and 5% of the profits. They in turn signed with small Monogram Pictures (not the Monogram of the Thirties) to produce six feature-length films. They were to deliver one picture every five weeks at a budget of $10,000 per film. If the films were successful, Fred would receive a raise to $500 per week and 10% of the profits.
Thomson’s films reflected his facility for light comedy, prowess at athletics, and good sense of timing. The mix proved irresistible to audiences, tired of the scandals Hollywood was currently producing. Thomson began to build a reputation with the release of The Sheriff of Tombstone, North of Nevada, and The Mask of Lopez until Brown ran out of money. Joseph P. Kennedy and his FBO Pictures agreed to step in and provide financing for eight new pictures. Fred Thomson films continued to grow in popularity, with his well-thoughtout and executed stunts and emphasis on non-violence.
After completing only two films The Two Gun Man and Thundering Hoofs (with Yakima Canutt doubling for Fred), Fred’s contract was renegotiated to $10,000 per week, making him the highest-paid western star in Hollywood. Even Silver King had a contract and a $100,000 life insurance policy. Under his new contract, he received his own production unit, producing The Wild Bull´s Lair, Hands Across the Border, and Don Mike.
In 1927 Fred was released from his FBO contract but kept under personal contract by Kennedy, who signed a production and distribution deal with Paramount. Fred received $100,000 per film, and under the Paramount banner released Jesse James, The Pioneer Scout, The Sunset Legion. In 1927 he was named the number two box office draw for the second year in a row.
In 1928 Fred was stunned by the news that FBO had signed Tom Mix, his biggest rival. He tried to sign directly with Paramount, but was barred from doing so until his personal contract with Kennedy was up. But Kennedy was unwilling to release him, particularly with Mix as part of the FBO “family,” leaving Thomson unable to make films. He made his last film for FBO and Kennedy, Kit Carson, with his status in limbo.
A few days before Christmas Thomson began limping, waking up in intense pain with a 104 degree fever. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was first diagnosed with kidney stones, but he didn’t make the recovery the doctors had hoped for. On December 25, 1928, Fred Thomson died.
1) Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (New York, NY: A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner, 1997).
2) Frances Marion, Off With Their Heads! A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood.
3) Kalton C. Lahue, Winners of the West: Sagebrush Heroes of the Silent Screen.
4) Unless otherwise noted, all images and quotes are from Edgar M. Wyatt, More Than a Cowboy (Raleigh, North Carolina: Wyatt Classics, 1988).