Friday, June 7, 2013

Tom and the Duke by Phil Truman

Tom Mix

Roaming one of my favorite haunts a few months back, The Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma, I came across a gallery of signed photographs from past Hollywood western movie luminaries – Jimmy Stewart, Walter Brennan, Will Geer, Roy and Dale, and a host of others. Like old Tom, most of them have gone on to the Big Roundup. I leaned in closer to look at one. “Best of luck to the Tom Mix Museum – John Wayne” it was inscribed.

“Dang, The Duke,” I said, clearly impressed.

Next to me, my associate Russ Maddock – historian and photographer extraordinaire – said to me, “You should ask Fawn [Lassiter, museum Manager and Curator] about John Wayne and Tom Mix.” Russ and I had both come there that day to sign our respective books for prospective readers.

Here’s what I found out.

Tom Mix and John Wayne didn’t much like each other. Tom, it’s said, was a bit jealous and feared Wayne would unseat him from his position in the Hollywood Cowboy limelight at a time when Mix’s role as a film star had begun to fade, and Wayne’s star was rising. Once when a reporter asked Tom what he thought of Wayne, he said, “The only Christian words I could use are ‘no-talent upstart.’”

As for The Duke – a nickname he picked up as a kid – it’s said his dislike for Tom went back to his (Wayne’s) football playing days at USC. Supposedly, Mix had told Wayne and several of his teammates that they should stop by Fox Studios and he’d get them jobs in the movies. When Wayne and some of the boys did show up a few weeks later, Mix told the guards he never made such an offer, and the bunch were summarily thrown off the lot. However, Tom did later get John a summer job in the studios’ prop department in exchange for USC football tickets.

The two men had diametrically opposed styles in their approach to the western genre of film acting. Mix was sort of a dandy, a showman avoiding realism for more melodramatic scenes and attractive visuals like fancy well-tailored outfits and trick-riding on his famous horse(s) Tony. Tom once said, “From the beginning I decided to make clean pictures. I decided to give boys and grown-ups good wholesome entertainment, free from suggestion or anything harmful to growing and fertile-minded youth. I try to convey to the boys and girls a message of helpfulness. In no picture have I ever smoked, taken a drink, played cards or gambled.”

John Wayne
Don't suppose Tom would've taken a part in Django Unchained, were he around today and such had been offered him. But, the film genre did evolve, thanks in large part to Wayne. We all knew The Duke as a tough, gritty, no-nonsense guy with maybe some smoldering anger issues. I believe it would be fair to say, in most of his movies he was a hard-smoking, hard-drinking kind of guy, and I can also recall a few card games. I always suspected that ever-present faded red shirt and leather vest he wore got kind of gamey, as he never seemed to change out of it. 

The world view John Wayne projected from the screen seemed to be pretty much black and white, and he was somewhat intolerant. He was short and direct with the spoken word, often confused with women; something that appealed to his audiences, especially us men. We weren’t always sure how the Duke’s relationships would play out, but we knew for certain we’d want to be on his side in the end.

My favorite John Wayne quote is, “Life is hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid.”

The irony of the whole comparison between these two men is that Tom Mix lived more of the western-style life in his younger years than did Wayne. Mix worked as a real cowboy on one of the biggest ranches in Indian Territory, the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch near present day Ponca City, Oklahoma. There he worked cattle and horses and performed with (an elderly) Bufflao Bill and Pawnee Bill in the Millers’ Wild West Shows. He was also a bartender and town marshal in the town of Dewey. John Wayne, on the other hand, grew up in Southern California where he worked in an ice cream store as a teen and played football at USC, losing his scholarship there due to an off-field injury while body-surfing.

But it’s like the fella said, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Phil Truman has authored three of what he calls, “Oklahoma-centric” novels. His first, GAME, an American Novel is a sports inspirational about small town schoolboy football. Legends of Tsalagee weaves a tale of mystery and adventure in a small town. A 2013 Peacemaker Award nominee and finalist for the 2013 Will Rogers Medallion for Western Fiction, Red Lands Outlaw, the Ballad of Henry Starr is Phil’s first foray into the western genre in this historical novel about the life and times of an Oklahoma outlaw. He has won numerous awards for his short fiction, and his western short story “Last Will for an Outlaw” appears in LaFrontera’s anthology, Dead or Alive, released June 2013.

Phil’s website is:


  1. Phil, I always love your posts, my fellow Okie! This is no exception. Your descriptions of these two men, to me, shows exactly why they weren't exactly friends. I grew up watching John Wayne movies, and made sure my kids did, too. His movies are the only ones my husband and I can sit down and watch without arguing "What will we watch tonigh?" John Wayne always wins out, even though we've both got most of them memorized. LOL When I worked at the National Cowboy Museum here in OKC, I met an elderly gentleman who had been an assistant to one of the bankers who had tried to advise JW on his financial situation when he was living, and boy, did this guy have some stories to tell. Very interesting. It seems that there were several people in Hollywood who weren't crazy about Tom Mix. Thanks again for a great post!

  2. If I had to choose between JW and TM, it would definitely be JW. Mix always seems fake in his acting. Enjoyed reading the history between these two men. Very interesting.

  3. As a fan of old time radio, I am curious as to why Tom Mix never played himself in the long running "Tom Mix and the Ralston Straight Shooters" radio program. The reason often given is that the money wasn't good enough. But, as noted in Phil's fine article, Tom's movie career was beginning to fade in 1933 when the radio show began. The Tom Mix radio program was very popular and continued after Tom's death in 1940.The radio show ran through 1951.
    Jim Meals

  4. Great article, Phil. Duke might not've done Django, but I've often speculated on how it owuld've been if he, Stewart, and Henry Fonda had actually filmed the screenplay written for them by Larry McMurtry that later became Lonesome Dove. I could see Wayne as a very good Woodrow Call.

  5. Especially with his anger issues and ocnfusion as to how to act around women!

  6. Troy - I never knew about McMurtry wanting the Duke, Fonda, & Stewart for Lonesome Dove. I could see Wayne as Woodrow, but which one was to be Gus? And which character the 3rd, Jake Spoon? Still, it would be hard to unhitch Duvall, Jones, & Urich from the mind now.

  7. In a word, fascinating. Truly enjoyed this comparison of the two who did much for the genre in their own ways. Doris

  8. Wow. I knew competition was fierce in Hollywood, but figured westerns had to be immune to that. I never saw more than one Tom Mix movie and never finished watching - have seen plenty of the Duke, though! He's a hero in my book. Thanks, Phil, for such a great post!

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