Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 15 December 2008
Source Grapevine Video DVD
The visceral joys of the silent B-Western are on full display in Just Tony. Saloon brawls, wild stallions, ten-gallon hats, breathtaking desert ranges, gunfights, fistfights, races, chases—and even a love story to boot. For a 66-minute feature, there’s an incredible number of sub-plots working in conjunction with one another to make the movie all the more thrilling and tense. Each successive scene brings with it yet another complication. Such plotting would seem haphazard were it not for the film’s economical titling and directing, not to mention breezy pacing. Its skillful navigation of Western conventions – which star Tom Mix helped to establish throughout his prolific career of over 300 films between 1910 and 1935 – is admirable. “[Mix’s] Westerns might not have been either ‘poetic’ or ‘adult,’ but they were well written,” explain historians George N. Fenin and William K. Everson, “with three-dimensional characters, sensible motivation, and often highly imaginative plots.”1 Always unpretentious, Just Tony shines in its ability to rework tried-and-true formulas into simple yet effective narratives brimming with charm.
We are introduced to Mix in his characteristic 10-gallon hat and neckerchief billowing in the wind, alone on the range with his rifle and horse. Even to those unfamiliar with his iconic image, his beaming smile and immaculate clothes mark him as the star of the show. His eyes fall upon a wild stallion and, smitten as only a cowboy can be, he dreams of taming it. However, soon the smile fades to a grimace, cuing a flashback: Mix is in a saloon with a banjo on his knee entertaining customers when suddenly someone shoots him in the leg. The mysterious assailant flees quickly, and Mix vows revenge. As the flashback ends, Mix is still haunted by unrequited vengeance, and he promises to come back to the stallion once he has taken care of the gunman. These two seemingly unrelated events are the force behind Just Tony’s drama: hate towards a man, and love towards a horse. Fate, of course, intervenes, merging the two plots into a jumbled web of conflicting desires.
When Mix stumbles upon a cruel man whipping a horse, he jumps to the animal’s defense, chasing the man off with his own whip. To Mix’s surprise, the horse is none other than Tony, who has recently been purchased by a fetching young woman (who, unbeknownst to Mix, is the daughter of the gunman). This begins a most unusual love triangle, in which Tony alternates in being the vessel for, and object of, Mix’s affection. Because the daughter owns him, and Mix wants him, Tony is by necessity the focus of their conversations, yet Mix’s interest in the horse goes much deeper than just that. After Mix saves Tony, a title-card remarks, “The first caress Tony has even known.” And even when the daughter has invited Mix to her room to discuss hiring him, his eyes are focused outside the window at Tony. Horse, much more than woman, is the object of Mix’s gaze.
If Mix seems somewhat sexless – or, at least, not overtly interested in sex – it has to do with his conception of a cowboy’s purity, according to Fenin and Everson. “[Mix’s] idealized Western hero, possessed of all the virtues and none of the vices, helped usher in the code of clean-living, non-drinking, and somewhat colorless sagebrush heroes…”2 While the end of the film finds Mix admitting his love for the daughter, it in no way compares to the title-card in which he professes his feelings for Tony: Mix is determined “to make him love me – as I know he’s going to – someday.” Mix speaks of the horse the way melodramatic heroes do of stubborn women who won’t reciprocate their affections: lovingly, longingly, and with no small amount of romanticization.
Mix’s affection for Tony, however, is built upon the audience’s assumed familiarity with the previous films the two have made together. Just Tony is intended as a tribute to his co-star, whose name-status on posters is not only a testament to Tony’s contribution to the movies, but also his strong relationship with the audience. As much as they wanted to see Mix’s trademark stunts (many of which he performed himself, causing himself innumerable injuries), they also wanted to see Tony. In deference, Mix steps out of the spotlight, keeping his action scenes to a minimum, and giving center stage to Tony, whose performance is actually quite subtle and polished. In one standout sequence, Tony unlatches a gate with his mouth, leads the corral of horses to a fence, disassembles it piece by piece (again with his mouth), and then gestures with his head for the escape to begin. Though this scene might not be high on action or excitement, that the central gestures at the gate and the fence are handled in single shots is undeniably impressive.
Running parallel to Mix’s search for the gunman is Tony’s own quest for vengeance. After being captured and whipped, Tony chews through the ropes and viciously attacks his holder, biting and throwing him to the ground before escaping. Dissatisfied with just freedom, Tony unleashes his pent-up anger towards humans by freeing other horses and rounding up his own army for retribution. It is this plotline that separates Just Tony from the majority of animal-centered narratives like Milo and Otis or Babe. While such movies do allow their animal characters a certain psychological depth, they rarely deviate from the cute and cuddly “stuffed animal” aesthetic. Not so with Just Tony. Tony is not merely the object of our adoration or awe; instead, he is a powerful force bent on destroying society, for without horses, the cowboy’s way of life would fall apart. While never made a villain, Tony’s emotions are never softened in order to gain our sympathy; in fact, the film is downright reverent towards his rage, and even sides with him. We relate to Tony as we do King Kong: both were wild creatures forcefully taken from their natural habitat and put on display (Kong in a theater, Tony in a rodeo), and we root for their escape and revenge. However, unlike the misunderstood Kong, who could not directly communicate with the audience, Tony’s emotions and thought processes are written out on title-cards, allowing the audience unique insight and access into his character. Furthermore, unlike Kong, Tony also reforms under the gentle hand of Tom Mix, abandoning his vindictive ways and becoming a force for good.
Many of Tony’s scenes rely less on action than inference to convey their meaning. Essentially, Just Tony exhibits the same editing principles made famous by Russian theorist Lev Kuleshov when he contrasted the same shot of an actor with various others (such as a casket or a bowl of soup) to convey entirely different emotions. In Just Tony, images and titles are juxtaposed in the same manner, such that any whole sequence is greater than the sum of its parts. A typical scene is edited as follows (here, all of the escaped horses except for Tony have just been re-captured): a shot of Tony alone in the desert; a title-card reading, “but the loss of Tony’s herd serves only to increase his hatred”; a close-up of Tony’s head, resolutely still; a shot of Tony’s pursuers on horseback with guns; a title-card reading, “and as they rode away—cunningly he follows”; a shot of Tony walking towards the camera; a shot of the pursuers heading away from the camera; and finally two shots of Tony racing across the desert landscape. Never once are Tony or the cowboys shown together, and their individual scenes are comprised of little more than a single, basic action. Yet, when brought together with the titles, they tell a story, and their actions suddenly carry specific meanings. It may be rudimentary, but for all its simplicity it is both pragmatic and effective, and keeps the story moving along succinctly.
Writing of Just Tony, poet Carl Sandburg best summed up the bond between Mix and Tony: “Again there is that peculiar sincerity that goes with the Tom Mix pictures. It is no stage of love of horses and understanding of the whims and ways of horses that runs through this picture.”3 “No stage” is right: Mix’s love for his Tony is endearingly earnest, and far more believable than his feelings for the daughter, which remain ambiguous and unexplored. However, Just Tony is none the weaker for its unfulfilling love story, nor its revenge plot which fizzles out into forgiveness before the mystery of the banjo shooting can be resolved. All of which goes to show just how strong the bond between a man and his horse can be—tough enough to overcome an uneven script that neglects to resolve to one of its central plots. So everlasting was their bond that adorning Mix’s grave is a statue of Tony, alone without his rider, and loyal to the end.