Monday, September 15, 2008

Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson

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I just rewatched "The Great Train Robbery" with an attention toward the actors, and had a great time. What struck me the most was how the bandits who rob the train and the cowboys who pursue them are all basically faceless. The film has almost no characterization, save for a few moments with the telegraph operator and a little girl, and a few little moments here and there. I was thrilled to discover that Gilbert "Brocho Billy" Anderson played both of the parts that caught my eye!

Anderson (real name Max Aronson), was a performer on the vaudeville circuit when he met Edwin S. Porter, who was directing short films for the Edison company. They collaborated on scenarios and production, and in 1903, Anderson played several roles in the landmark "Great Train Robbery." (See the link at the bottom of this entry)

Although he is credited as one of the bandits, it's impossible to tell them all apart. Anderson first makes a recognizable appearance about 4:55 min into the film. As the train passengers are being held up by the bandits, he breaks out of the crowd and makes a run for it, only to be shot down in cold blood (and in the back) by one of the gang. This killing, while it might appear comical to modern eyes, is actually extremely well-acted for its day. The fall is startling and expressive, without being melodramatic, and it contains a visceral punch. Also watch Anderson in the crowd beforehand; he nervously rocks back and forth, telegraphing his need to run without being over the top. No doubt audiences were horrified by the brutality of this act in 1903, the violence of which certainly helped the film's notoriety.

The real treat of the film comes at 7:50 -- Anderson as a city slicker (or greenhorn) enters a bar during a raucous country hoedown. Clad in a suitcoat and bowler hat, he is immediately singled out by the cowboys and forced onto the dancefloor for their amusement. As a cowboy fires bullets at his feet, he taps away at a little jig that is wonderfully expressive and hilarious, before suddenly bolting for the door. It's a funny moment - meant to show that these cowboys are no-nonsense guys, but it's also quite charming and human. In a film of trains, cowboys, and explosions, it stands out as a defining moment for cinema; the time when character began to mean something.

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In later life Anderson would not only become hugely successful with his career acting and directing in the Broncho Billy shorts, he and Gilbert Spoor formed Essanay studios, which launched the careers of such legends as Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix, and Allan Dwan. Not bad for a guy who came to the public's eye doing a fancy little jig.

Suggested Viewing:
-Any of the Broncho Billy shorts
-The Great Train Robbery (youtube link below - watch it with the sound off as the accompanying music is completely unrelated to the action of the film)

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