Fred Thomson - Silent Star of December 1998
by Kally Mavromatis
..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. He worked to live up to the extremely high
standards set for him by his mother, was a member of the high school
band, the yearbook staff, and elected president of the student council
in his senior year.
After graduation Thomson followed in his father's footsteps,
entering Princeton Theological Seminary to became 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
On August 1, 1913 Fred and Occidental 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. Three years later, Gail died of tuberculosis, and
soon after the United States entered WWI and 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
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, de-emphasizing 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
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,
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-thought-out 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,
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
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. Stunned, he made
his last film for FBO and Kennedy,
Kit Carson with his
status in limbo.
A few days before Christmas he began limping, waking up in intense pain
and a 104 degree fever. He was rushed to 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.
Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early
Hollywood, by Cari Beauchamp;
Off With Their Heads! A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood, by
Winners of the West: Sagebrush Heroes of the Silent Screen,
by Kalton C. Lahue.
Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1998
by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis