When the Essanay Studios restoration project was shut down, those of us who had poured our hearts and souls and sweat into the project were left rather disillusioned and lost. Suddenly, this project we’d believed in so deeply was no more. And yet, there was all of this history just waiting to be shared and appreciated. Out of this loss, Chicago-focused silent film projects were born, including this very site. We were mostly working on our own, when, seemingly out of nowhere, the connection of all connections was made.
We had connected with film historian Kevin Brownlow.
We told him about our previous work with Essanay, and our current work focusing on Chicago’s film history as a whole. It was then that he brought King of the Rodeo to our attention. A western comedy filmed at the end of the silent era, he mentioned that the film was notable for our purposes because so much of it actually takes place in Chicago. Mr. Brownlow believed he had the last known print, and thought we’d be interested in getting it transferred and restored. While we began to investigate the project, we found out that Universal had renewed the rights for the film. We were disappointed, and I wasn’t sure if the film would actually see the light of day...until I saw it appear on the Music Box Theatre’s August schedule. I was so thrilled, I emailed Mr. Brownlow to let him know. His response, “And to think I thought I had the last print! I hope it is of outstanding quality.”
The Montana Kid (Hoot Gibson) loves racing horses, much to his father’s frustration. His father pressures him to return to college, but he won’t have any of it. With his pals Slim (Slim Summerville) and Shorty (Jack Knapp) by his side, he hoofs it to Chicago to take part in the annual rodeo. Along the way, he catches the eye of rodeo promoter Mr. Harlan (Joseph W. Girard) and his daughter Dulcie (Kathryn Crawford) who seems to love and loathe him. When the big day comes, his parents and grandfather show up, unannounced, and he aims to prove to them and Dulcie that he is the king of the rodeo. While he proves himself on bucking broncos and bulls, he truly impresses them when he chases a thief (who has made off with his good shirt and the profits from the rodeo) through the streets of downtown Chicago. In the end, he wins the prize, wins the girl and wins the respect of his father.
In 1925, John Van “Tex” Austin formed the first Chicago Rodeo held at Soldier Field. Sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, it was part of a larger scheme to use Grant Park Stadium to attract tourists to the city. While rodeos took place elsewhere in the country, organizers hoped to make it the most important championship contest of the year. Nine days long, the rodeo featured independent contestants $32,000 in prizes and daily attendance averaging between 50,000 and 70,000 spectators, peaking at 145,000.
Despite its incredible start, the rodeo began to lose its luster. In 1928, the contest’s sponsorship changed hands, and the City Hall took over. Despite prizes worth $33,000, it received far less publicity than it had in previous years. That didn’t stop the celebrities from making their way east, though. Former Selig Polyscope star Tom Mix was in attendance, and Universal star Hoot Gibson came into Chicago just before the rodeo’s opening day on July 28, 1928, with a group of 60 people in tow. While Mix’s appearance was largely for entertainment value, Gibson came into town with something else in mind. He was going to make a movie.
Gibson and his company had chartered three private cars to carry their company and equipment from Los Angeles to Chicago. While Gibson planned to perform daring stunts for the spectators, and was treated as a guest of honor, the company’s focus was on getting great material for their new project. The cast and crew spent three weeks in Chicago, filming the principal scenes in and around Soldier Field, and downtown Chicago (notably on Michigan and Wabash Avenues) and thrilling spectators and pedestrians alike. The film was finished upon Gibson’s return to California, and released on January 6, 1929.
While it couldn’t compete with some of the other heavy-hitters of the late silent era, audiences still enjoyed it for what it was. Motion Picture Magazine said it was “Worth an evening if you bring the boy or girl friend along to hold hands with,” and Photoplay said it was “Hoot Gibson’s best contribution to art in a long time.” It was praised for its photography and direction, but it was largely eclipsed by Gibson’s later work and the coming of sound.
It was a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, yet the turnout for the Music Box screening of King of the Rodeo was impressive. No one was under the impression that we were about to see a film on the level of a D.W. Griffith masterpiece, yet we were all ready and eager to enjoy it. The story itself was a means to an end, but it was still fun and entertaining. The jokes still brought a laugh, the rodeo stunts still brought excitement, and the chase through downtown drew laughs and nods of recognition as we all attempted to point out each location. The 16mm print (though showing its age) was still in pretty good condition, and, as usual, organist Dennis Scott played beautifully.
I followed up with Mr. Brownlow to let him know about the outcome of the screening. His response, “I’m so glad you saw it and enjoyed it – and the material is safe in Chicago.”