Broncho Billy – The American Shot

Broncho Billy and the School Mistress
R: Gilbert M. Anderson. P: Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. USA 1912

Gilbert Anderson is best remembered as the first western movie hero, ‘Bronco Billy’ (originally spelled Broncho Billy). He directed and starred in almost 400 Broncho Billy films over a seven year period, but Anderson was also a key figure in the development of American films as entertainment. Before beginning his illustrious career in the cinema, Anderson worked as a traveling salesman. An aspiring actor, he then made an unsuccessful attempt to become a stage actor in New York. Instead, he was hired to work as a model in Edwin S. Porter‘s one-reeler, Messenger Boy’s Mistake (1902) for Edison Studios. In 1903, he played multiple roles in the historical classic The Great Train Robbery. He then began playing a variety of roles until he joined Vitagraph several months later where he began directing as well as acting in one-reelers including the hit Raffles, The American Cracksman (1905).

He soon moved to the Selig Polyscope company until 1907 when he teamed up with George K. Spoor to form the famous Essanay company — created by combining the first letters of their last names. They began in Chicago, but eventually opened studios in California where they produced a series of short comedies featuring Ben Turpin. During the same year, Anderson played Broncho Billy for the first time in The Bandit Makes Good. The film was a great success and Anderson became a star. He also produced other successful series including the Snakeville Comedy and Alkali Ike series.

By the following year, Anderson began attempting to produce more costly, higher quality films. Among the illustrious stars that worked for Essanay was Charlie Chaplin who, during his one year with Essanay, was able to perfect his Little Tramp character, imbuing him with more pathos than he was able to do at his previous studio, Keystone. Chaplin left Essanay in 1916; soon after, Anderson sold his interest in the studio to Spoor and retired. In 1920, Anderson tried to become a Broadway producer, but he failed. He then attempted a comeback by directing a series of Stan Laurel shorts for Metro. By the end of the year, he entered permanent retirement as an actor though he did keep on directing and producing for a few years after. Like many early figures of cinema, Gilbert Anderson slowly faded into obscurity until 1957 when he recieved a special Oscar commemorating “his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.”
Sandra Brennan, Rovi