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Tom Tyler: Cowboy, Mummy, Superhero - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2006

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While Western fans will no doubt remember Tom Tyler as a popular B-movie cowboy from the 1930's and 40's who later also had a part in John Wayne's breakthrough film Stagecoach [John Wayne in the 1930's - click here] and was later a member of the Three Mesquiteers, horror and science fiction fans will probably also have fond memories of him for being the first serial-superhero in The Adventures of Captain Marvel, as well as The Phantom and Kharis the Mummy.

But despite him being so fondly remembered nowadays, Tom Tyler made a fortune from his many starring and supporting roles - probably due to a lack of business sense paired with a series of increasingly greedy employers - and he actually died a poor man at his sister's home in Hamtramck, Michigan, where he spent the last years of his life and which was also the town of his childhood (probably) .

 

But let's not get ahead of ourselves:

Tom Tyler was born Vincent Markowski n 1903 in Port Henry, New York. It is said that around 1913, his family moved to Hamtramck, Michigan and that Tyler ran away from home at age 16, to soon be mesmerized by the motion pictures that came from Hollywood ... but maybe all that is just legend, thought up by some writer at some publicity department. What is certain though is that he eventually arrived in Hollywood (probably the early 1920's) and soon enough took up work as an extra, bit player and prop man, appearing in several fairly popular films, including Ben Hur (1924, directed by Fred Niblo), where he played a chariot driver, and Leatherstocking (1924, George B.Seitz), in which he can be seen as an Indian.

 

Eventually, Tom Tyler wound up at FBO (the later RKO), then run by JFK's father Joe Kennedy sr, and FBO were looking for a new cowboy hero at $ 75 a week to make movies alongside their current (much more expensive) cowboy star Fred Thomson - and being tall, good-looking, muscular (on the side, Tom Tyler also did some weightlifting) and athletic, Tyler seemed to be ideal for the job.

(It is rumoured that it was also the publicity department of FBO that decided on Vincent Markowski's name-change to Tom Tyler.)

 

In all, Tom made 29 B-Westerns for FBO, from Let's go Gallagher (Robert De Lacey, James Gruen) in 1925 to The Pride of the Pawnee (Robert De Lacey) in 1929, and many of them were directed by Robert de Lacey, and almost all of them featured a (very) young Frankie Darro as co-star [Frankie Darro bio - click here]. With the FBO-Westerns, Tom Tyler's popularity as a cowboy hero steadily rose, and soon enough he was a bona fide (if underpaid) star. Eventually he was even able to quit FBO for a better paid job at Syndicate.

 


For Syndicate, Tyler continued to make 8 silent Westerns in the next two or so years, but around 1930, even B-Westerns had to switch to sound to stay in the business (remember, the first commercial sound film, The Jazz Singer [Alan Crosland], was released in 1927, but it took film studios some years and a lot of overcoming to make the transition to sound a final one). Sound film cost many silent stars their careers, be it because of what was termed as mike fright, too squeaky voices, or just because their voices would not fit their images. Tyler however was versatile enough as an actor and had a pleasent enough voice to switch to sound easily, and his first sound film was actually a serial, Phantom of the West (1931, D.Ross Lederman), done for Mascot, the serial production house of the early 1930's which actually also released the first ever sound serial, King of the Kongo (1929, Richard Thorpe) [Mascot history - click here].

Phantom of the West was a cheap but enjoyable serial in the typical Mascot-vein, inasmuch as it featured typical Western elements as well as pulp mainstays like the masked villain, secret passageways and a group of mysterious riders, all mixed together in a less-than-convincing and over-convoluted story, but garnered with plenty of action that makes one forget the serial's shortcomings.

 

From Mascot, it was back to Syndicate - which has since made the transition to sound - for Tyler, where he made 3 more pictures, West of Cheyenne (1931, Harry S.Webb), Rider of the Plains and God's Country and the Man (both 1931, John P.McCarthy). Of this trio, God's Country and the Man is without a doubt the most interesting, an inventive Western that plays in parts more like an old dark house murder mystery than a typical genre film and that's probably one of the unsung classics of the B-Western.

 

After above three films, Tom Tyler's association with Syndicate was over for good, but at first it looked as if he needn't worry, since he next moved to Universal, where he donned a mustache and a goatee to play the title role in the serial Battling with Buffalo Bill (1931, Ray Taylor), a role originally intended for Tim McCoy.

 

From here on it was on to little Monogram to star in eight Westerns for their 1931/32 season (back in the days, B- or series-Westerns were usually produced by season,  and one such season usually consisted of 8 films). Though the fims seemed somewhat underbudgeted (allegedly about $ 8.000 per picture) and Tyler did not get the salary he probably deserved, they were quite popular with the fans, and some of them, like Man from Death Valley (1931, Lloyd Nosler) and Honor of the Mounted (1932, Harry L.Fraser) are actually quite ok Westerns - without being classics of course.

 

Next it was back to Universal and to serial work for Tyler ... and interestingly enough of the three serials he made for Universal in 1932/33, none is a Western:

The Jungle Mystery (1932, Ray Taylor), a serial loosely based on Talbot Mundy's book The Ivory Trail, brings Tyler to Africa and face to face with a (sort of) missing link (which by the way was not in the book).

Clancy of the Mounted (1933, Ray Taylor) might be described at least as a sort-of Western, since it has Tyler playing a Mountie up in Canada.

Phantom of the Air (1933, Ray Taylor) finally was an aerial thriller, a genre that has nowadays by and large died out but was extremely popular back in the days.

(Unfortunately, of these three serials, both The Jungle Mystery and Clancy of the Mounted are nowadays considered lost.)

 

Around the same time as he made the Universal-serials, he also made a quartet of Westerns for Freuler/Monarch, The Forty Niners (1932, John P.McCarthy), When a Man Rides Alone, Deadwood Pass and War of the Range (all 1933, J.P.McGowan) - and charming as these films might be to the B-Western fan, they were all done decidedly on the cheap side.

 

The films that Tom Tyler did next for Reliable did not fare much better budget-wise, and slowly it became apparent that Tyler's best days as a silver screen cowboy were over ... which of course made him perfect for little production houses like Reliable who wanted the likes of Tyler, who could be put into cheaply made Westerns for bargain salaries, for their still existing (if decreasing) Marquee value. In all, Tyler made 18 films for Reliable between 1934 and 1936, and the budgets of these movies only rarely exceeded 8.000 Dollars. Plus, Reliable was such a small studio that all of Tyler's films were directed by either of its two presidents, Bernard B.Ray (7 films, some as Franklin Shamray) and Harry S.Webb (11 films, some as Henri Samuels) - this being the same Harry S.Webb who directed Tyler in 1931's West of Cheyenne for Syndicate.

 

In between his Reliable-films, Tyler also turned in a couple of bad guy-performances for RKO, in Powdersmoke Range (1935, Wallace Fox) and The Last Outlaw (1936, Christy Cabanne), both of which had veteran cowboy actors Harry Carey and Hoot Gibson in the leads. Powdersmoke Range is actually an early adaptation of William Colt MacDonald's Three Mesquiteers featuring an all-star cast, with Carey playing Tucson Smith, Gibson playing Stony Brook and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams playing Lullaby Joslin. Interestingly enough, 'Big Boy' Williams actually played Tucson Smith in an earlier Three Mesquiteers-adaptation, Law of the 45's (1935, John P.McCarthy), while Tyler would years later wind up playing Stony Brooke in Republic's Three Mesquiteers-series [Republic history - click here] opposite Bob Steele - who also has a supporting role in Powdersmoke Range - playing Tucson Smith [Bob Steele bio - click here]. But I'm getting way ahead of myself ...

 

After his association with Reliable came to an end, Tom moved over to Sam Katzman's Victory, which was a further step down on the career ladder, as Katzman, always the penny pincher, budgeted his Westerns even lower than Harry S.Webb and Bernard B.Ray did, a whole quarter of the budget lower - which means Tyler's Westerns for Victory were produced at a mere 6.000 Dollars a film.

Some of the 8 films Tyler did for Victory still managed to be ok actually, like the prize-fighting and horse-racing Western Rip Roarin' Buckaroo (1936, Robert F.Hill, who did the first five films of the bunch), others though were atrocious like Lost Ranch (1937), which was directed by Sam Katzman himself and tried to turn Tom Tyler into a singing cowboy - which was then the talk of the town on the heels of Gene Autry's phenomenal success -, even if Tyler's singing was very probably done by someone else ...

(A bit of trivia on the side: In Lost Ranch, Tyler starred opposite Jeanne Martel whom he had met on the set of Santa Fe Bound [1936, Harry S.Webb], his last picture for Reliable and who had since become Tyler's wife - though their love didn't last ...)

 

By the late 1930's, the market for independently produced B-pictures had dried up but good. The main reason was that Republic - a production company that only came into being in 1935 [Republic history - click here] - took over the market and produced films that looked far slicker compared to those produced by the indies. Republic had bigger budgets, bigger stars, their own studios and a better distribution system than the competition, which soon made it impossible for the small studios to survive - exactly the small studios that used to employ Tom Tyler with great regularity ... 

 

By 1937, Tyler had to realize his rise to stardom that had begun a mere dozen years ago has come to an (ertwhile) end, and he found himself forced to tour Wallace Brothers Circus, as his name was still big enough to draw a reasonable crowd for a live show. 

Once circus work was over, he returned to Hollywood as a supporting actor, playing in many big pictures of the time (e.g. Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind [1939]), but not always receiving a screen credit for it (also e.g. Gone with the Wind). Supporting roles of that time included Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, John Ford), Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford), the Edward G.Robinson vehicle Brother Orchid (1940, Lloyd Bacon), the Abbott and Costello comedy Buck Privates (1941, Arthur Lubin) and the Hopalong Cassidy Western Riders of the Timberlane (1941, Lesley Selander). Tom Tyler even went so far as to let himself be covered in bandages and play the titular character in The Mummy's Hand (1940, Christy Cabanne), Universal's first entry into the Kharis the Mummy-series (a role that would in later episodes be played by Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here]).

 


Tyler's most memorable role from that time though was that of Luke Plummer, the person John Wayne [John Wayne in the 1930's - click here] travels through Apache country for to kill in Stagecoach (1939, John Ford). Tyler's scenes are only limited and his screentime consists of no more than a few minutes at the end of the movie, but he makes the best of it, giving what is no more than a small supporting character a whole range of emotions (including insecurity and fear) instead of just turning in a tough guy performance.

 


As you might know, Stagecoach did not do the same for Tyler's career it did for John Wayne's career, but that said, Tyler's persistence to stay in the movie business eventually paid off in 1941, when he was hired by Republic [Republic history - click here] to play the title role in their superhero-serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, John English, William Witney [William Witney bio - click here]), which actually was the first superhero-serial ever and to this day is on top of many serial-fans favourite lists. In all, The Adventures of Captain Marvel, based on the popular comic book then published by Fawcett Comics, was an incredibly enjoyable serial that, despite its somewhat silly story about a boy (Frank Coghlan jr) who turns into superhero Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) every time he says Shazam, keeps things going at a steady pace and more than delivers in action and excitement what it lacked in story. And Tyler, though by then in his late thirties, still looked fit enough to fill his role admirably.

 


The success of The Adventures of Captain Marvel gave Tyler's career an unexpected boost and put him back into the saddle one more time (in more ways than one): The success of the serial came at a time when Republic had a vacancy to fill in their Three Mesquiteers-series as Bob Livingston had just left the series (a second time) and now Tom Tyler was called in to play Stony Brooke - a role that was also played by John Wayne for a while - opposite Bob Steele as Tucson Smith [Bob Steele bio - click here] and Rufe Davis and later Jimmie Dodd as Lullaby Joslin. But while Stony Brooke was the main character while John Wayne or Bob Livingston (and in one istant - The Trigger Trio [1937, William Witney] - Ralph Byrd) played the role, the focus now shifted to Bob Steele's Tucson Smith, as Steele was the bigger star of the two at the time.

(Interestingly enough, Tyler did supporting work on an earlier Three Mesquiteers-entry, The Night Riders [1939, George Sherman], with John Wayne as Stony Brooke as well as above-mentioned Powdersmoke Range).

 

Tom Tyler stayed with the Three Mesquiteers-series for 13 pictures, from Outlaws of Cherokee Trail (Lester Orlebeck) in 1941 to Riders of the Rio Grande (Howard Bretherton) in 43, then the series, with a total of 51 entries, was put out to pasture, and with it, Tyler's contract with Republic - which couldn't complain about a shortage of cowboy heroes in their stables - was cancelled.

 


Tyler quickly got a starring role at Columbia, playing the titular character in their serial The Phantom (1943, B.Reeves Eason), another superhero serial, this time set in the African jungle and based on comics by Lee Falk, but unfortunately, The Phantom did not do for Tyler's career what The Adventures of Captain Marvel did just two years earlier, and in fact it proved to be his last starring role - plus Tyler around that time started to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, which did not exactly help his career.

 


Basically, Tyler's career as a filmstar was over in 1943, however he continued to play supporting roles until his death, even though his illness began to show, and as earlier, his name wouldn't always appear in the credits.

Among his more memorable supporting work were a trio of films starring John Wayne - the World War II adventure They were Expendable (1945, John Ford) and the classic Westerns Red River (1948, Howard Hawks) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford) -, two films in which he played Jesse James' younger brother Frank - Badman's Territory (1946, Tim Whelan) and I Shot Jesse James (1949, Samuel Fuller) -, a version of the Three Musketeers starring Gene Kelly - The Three Musketeers (1948, George Sidney) - and a supporting role as one of the Dalton brothers in a Fuzzy and Lash film - The Dalton's Women (1950, Thomas Carr). And then there was of course Republic's Roy Rogers-all-star-Western Trail of Robin Hood (1950, William Witney [William Witney bio - click here]) [Roy Rogers bio - click here] in which he appeared alongside quite a number of (forgotten) Western stars of yesteryear, including Jack Holt, Kermit Maynard, Allan 'Rocky' Lane, Monte Hale, Tom Keene, Rex Allen and Ray 'Crash' Corrigan [Ray 'Crash' Corrigan bio - click here].

 

With the 1950's, TV found mass appeal, and many B-movie actors moved to the new medium - as did Tom Tyler, but by that time, his starring days were over and his fan appeal diminished, so he had to be contempt with playing supporting roles in quite a number of then-popular series, including The Lone Ranger starring Clayton Moore, Dick Tracy starring Ralph Byrd, The Roy Rogers Show, The Gene Autry Show, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok starring Guy Madison, Sky King starring Kirby Grant, and Cowboy G-Men. Plus he had a role in Ed Wood's infamous (bot not actually bad) proposed TV-pilot Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of Tucson Kid (1953) starring Tom Keene [Ed Wood bio - click here].

 

However, none of these engagements payed too well, and since he wasn't the biggest earner in his days as a cowboy star in the first place, he was rather short of money in his last years, a situation not at all helped by his chronic illness that did not help him in getting decent acting jobs. As a matter of fact, in his last days he had to live at his sister's place in Hamtramck, Michigan, by and large forgotten by the moviegoing public.

In 1954 he died from a heart attack at his sister's home, and his death went by and large unnoticed. But even if he died a poor man, he left a rich legacy to old film afficionados that consisted of many at least interesting Westerns, a few well-made serials (including the very first superhero serial) and even a turn as a mummy ... and there are not that many actors who can claim all of these accomplishments for themselves ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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