Western Wednesdays – Tom Mix: Sky High / The Big Diamond Robbery [Blu-ray/DVD]

If you were to mention the name Tom Mix to most people in the 21st century, they would no doubt look upon you in a serious state of confusion, however Mix was one of the most popular and enduring screen personalities of the silent era and helped define the western as we know it today. Mix, who performed most of his own stunts atop his loyal steed Tony, established many of the tropes and cliches that we have become familiar with when we think of the classic westerns including the trope of the hero wearing the white hat and the villains usually wearing black.

Unlike his predecessor William S. Hart, Tom Mix was flashy, wearing attention grabbing cowboy outfits and placed a special emphasis on action in his pictures. Mix also incorporated some documentary style film-making techniques which he learned from his years with the Selig Polyscope company. Like Hart before him, Mix was friends with Wyatt Earp, the famous lawman of the old west and Earp often visited Mix on the set. Mix worked for a variety of studios during his impressive career, wherein he made over 291 films, including the aforementioned Selig Polyscope company, Fox Film Corporation, Joseph Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) and ended his career with Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures.

On October 12, 1940, Mix was driving towards Phoenix, Arizona when he came upon construction barriers at a bridge washed away by a flash flood. Mix was unable to stop his vehicle in time and his car swerved until it landed in a gully. A suitcase containing valuables hurled itself towards the back of Mix’s neck and instantly killed him. Mix was only 60 years old.

Sadly, many of Mix’s films are lost today as the majority of them burned in the infamous 1937 Fox vault fire. Fortunately for film buffs everywhere, Ben Model, film historian and silent film accompanist, has worked with the Library of Congress and Lobster Films to restore two of Mix’s extant films and has released them in a new Blu-Ray package through his distribution label Undercrank Productions. The label is noted for revitalizing interest in long forgotten silent film stars and it is the hope that this new release will do for Tom Mix what it did for Edward Everett Horton and Marion Davies before him.


“Sky High” (1922, Fox Film Corporation)

Grant Newbury [Tom Mix], deputy inspector of immigration is charged with the task of preventing the smuggling of Chinese across the border between Mexico and the United States. Newbury goes undercover as a bouncer in Jim Frazer’s [J. Farrell MacDonald] saloon in Calexico, California, with hopes of capturing Frazer and the smuggling outfit. Frazer stages a brawl to test his new bouncer and Newbury is declared victor. Frazer nad his henchman Bates [Sid Jordan] claim that Newbury murdered the other party but Newbury is wise to their game but goes along with the ruse.

Meanwhile, Frazer receives word that his ward Estelle Halloway [Eva Novak], recent graduate, will be coming for a visit, however he elects to meet her at the Grand Canyon instead. Newbury is sent down to the heart of the canyon where the smuggling of Chinese, jewelry and laces is taking place and gathers information necessary to his investigation. Estelle arrives at the rim of the Canyon and is sexually harassed by her companion Victor Castle [William Buckley], leaves his care and tours the Canyon herself. Newbury flees the camp, but rescues Estelle who fell off the side of the cliff.

Bates finds out that Newbury is a government man and tells Frazer. Bates discovers Newbury and Estelle at the top of one of the cliffs and captures Newbury. Estelle finds Newbury and helps him to escape. Newbury rides off to get help, however Estelle is captured by Bates. Newbury arrives in the town of Williams and hitches a ride on the forest patrol’s airplane.
After plummeting out of the plane and jumping from cliff to cliff, Newbury finally catches up with Estelle and Bates. Newbury engages in battle with Bates and captures him. Meanwhile, the law captures the fleeing Chinese.

Frazer bids farewell to his ward, telling her he will be venturing on a “long business trip.” In reality, he is Newbury’s prisoner and will be spending quite a long time in jail. Frazer asks Newbury to look after Estelle and he accepts the offer.

“Sky High” is a charming, if slightly dated, western. It contains some sensational action and impressive stuntwork atop the Grand Canyon. The Canyon itself is marvelously photographed by cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline. Its vistas looking positively exquisite, especially in this beautiful new restoration. Tom Mix is a brilliant and charismatic screen presence as well as an underrated stuntman. The sequences of him scaling the mighty Canyon were quite impressive, one can definitely see how he obtained his many injuries with the making of these pictures. Mix certainly earns his paycheck. Sadly, the film is marred by some grotesque racial overtones involving Chinese people including, at one point, Mix’s boss calling them “chopsuey eating Chinamen.” These vulgar terms are, of course, unacceptable now as well as then, however to erase them would mean they never existed. These prejudices must be looked upon as a product of their time and a reminder of how enlightened we are now. Interestingly, the man who engages in the brawl with Mix in the bar is none other than George Kesterson making an uncredited appearance. Kesterson would later be hired by low budget director Victor Adamson (aka Denver Dixon) and given the name “Art Mix,” a name meant to compete with Tom Mix, a move that would infuriate both Fox Film and Tom Mix, himself.

“The Big Diamond Robbery” (1929, Film Box Offices of America)

Wealthy industrialist George Brooks [Frank Beal] awards his troubled daughter Ellen [Kathryn McGuire] the famous Regent diamond, much to the chagrin of his sister Effie [Martha Mattox].

Tom Markham [Tom Mix] arrives in town and is driven to the Brooks’ estate. While on his way he discovers Ellen riding her horse down the road and mistakenly believes she is in danger. He pulls her off the racing animal, angering Brooks in the process. Markham apologizes and takes off in his taxi being driven by the bumbling Barney McGill [Barney Furey]. Brooks and her boyfriend Rodney Stevens [Ernest Hilliard] return their horses to their stables and Ellen speeds off in her car. The police pursue her and Ellen, worried about serving a sentence after her fourth time speeding, speeds off until stopped by Tom and Barney resting by the side of the road as their taxi ran out of fuel. She is apprehended by police.

Ellen is sentenced to jail, however she is paroled to her father on the condition that he send her away. It is decided that she will spend her days on Brooks’ ranch, with Effie and Tom in tow. Tom promises Mr. Brooks that he will provide enough thrills and excitement to satisfy Ellen’s urges That night, a band of thugs break in to Ellen’s bedroom and steal her diamond, with Tom giving chase. Tom catches up with the criminals, led by Rodney and engages in a tussle with the thief who stole the diamond. The gang of thieves bursts in and they berate Tom in to telling them where the diamond is, unbeknownst to them, he hid it underneath a table, attached via chewing gum. They question him through the night, but he doesn’t confess. Meanwhile, Ellen and Effie are patiently awaiting Tom’s arrival at the train station so they may proceed to the ranch.

Quick thinking Tom vanquishes the thugs, takes the diamond and escapes, leading the thugs on a rooftop chase. Tom slides down a rope and he proceeds to drive Barney’s cab leading the crooks on another chase through the streets, dodging cars left and right. Tom arrives at the train station just in time to leap on to the moving caravan, finally paying Barney his fare. They stopover at Sierra Junction at Red Butte and the family takes the stage to the ranch while Tom heads in to town. Tom pays off some nearby Native Americans to pursue the stage and Barney uses a gun loaded with blanks to stop them. Tom then changes clothes and becomes the bandit Black Bart and proceeds to haunt the coach shooting the driver in the process. Tom sees the diamond thieves speeding up in their vehicle and takes off.

The family arrive at the ranch in Rodney’s car as Tom rides up on his horse. The gangsters invade the ranch as Tom and Ellen head out on a moonlit ride. Rodney gets the idea to dress one of his men up in Tom’s Black Bart costume and decides to frame Tom, they also send a fake wire to Ellen telling her that her father is ill and to return home. Tom discovers the ruse and heads off in pursuit of the party. Rodney’s henchman stops them and attempts to rob Ellen of her diamond when Tom gets the drop on the gang. Tom races against time to catch up with Rodney and Ellen and gets the drop on Rodney too.

In contrast to “Sky High,” “The Big Diamond Robbery” isn’t much of a western, in fact, the first half of the picture takes place in a modern city with then modern accouterments. The film is more or less a gangster yarn that only becomes a western halfway through the picture when Tom and Ellen arrive at the ranch. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Mix’s chase with the thugs across the rooftops. It is worth noting that this was Mix’s final silent film and it’s a shame he didn’t have a better picture to ride out the era on. The film is still mildly entertaining with Barney Furey providing some amusing comic support. I would definitely say that “The Big Diamond Robbery” is the lesser of the two films here.


“Sky High” is presented from a newly scanned and digitally restored 35MM safety duplicate negative at the Library of Congress. This dupe, dated from the 1970s, was printed from an unstable nitrate print and certain sections suffer poor contrast and contain considerable grain. The film is tinted as well, in accordance with a continuity script held by the LoC. Given these details, the picture looks phenomenal and Undercrank Productions has done exceptional work bringing this film, which was added to the National Film Registry in 1998, back to glorious life. As previously stated, the shots of Mix and crew atop the Grand Canyon are absolutely beautiful and one can certainly appreciate the lens work of Benjamin H. Kline in this new 2K restoration. On the audio front, the score is a lovely and lively piano composition performed and written by Ben Model.

“The Big Diamond Robbery,” which hasn’t been seen since its original 1929 release, is presented from two sources, a French 35MM nitrate print from Lobster Films as well as an American 35MM safety dupe negative from the Library of Congress. It is from the French release where the tinting scheme originates and the majority of the footage draws from the French due to its superior quality, only the intertitles and a few sequences originate from the English American source. Comparing “Sky High” and “The Big Diamond Robbery,” the latter feature contained the best image quality. It also contained the superior score, composed and performed by Ben Model on a customized Virtual Theatre Pipe Organ console and provided a beautiful and enriching experience. In conclusion, although “Sky High” is the superior film, “The Big Diamond Robbery” was overall the preferred viewing and listening experience.


In closing, this new Blu-Ray is a sensational release and one I am proud to add to my already voluminous collection of vintage westerns. I am a major proponent for the preservation and revitalization of the old time westerns and Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions has certainly created a quality product that fits the bill. I applaud Mr. Model for the effort that went in to this release and more distribution labels should follow by example. It is my hope that more silent westerns see the light of day on Blu-Ray and this release is definitely a step in the right direction. It should be noted that this was my first exposure to the western films of Tom Mix and this release has certainly made me a fan and I look forward to revisiting him many more times during my tenure with Cinema Crazed. This is the first release of its kind and a wonderful retrospective compiling both sides of Mr. Mix’s remarkable career. It is my wish that Mr. Model can secure the rights to release more like this, perhaps a retrospective on the careers of the once popular William S. Hart, the late Ken Maynard or the wonderful Hoot Gibson are not too far away and I hope, not too big an ask. Ben Model is to be commended for revitalizing interest in the late, great Tom Mix by providing newer generations the opportunity to jump in the saddle with him and Tony as well as providing older fans the opportunity to visit with him once more.