Flashback
A look back at this day in film history
December 20
Tom Mix October 12, 1940
Tom Mix dies

John Wayne may have been the greatest Western star of them all, however Tom Mix – who died on this day in 1940 – was the man who paved the way for that success. Mix was the pioneering cowboy movie hero and one of the silver screen’s first big stars, a prolific actor who appeared in an astonishing 336 films between 1910 and 1935. When Mix rose to prominence as a silent movie star, and he qualified as a great screen cowboy not as a well-versed stage actor but as a real-life man of action: Mix had grown up in Pennsylvania riding horses and working on a farm, had enlisted (though never fought) in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, and then became a highly skilled rancher, winning 1909 national Riding and Rodeo Championship (which tested shooting skills and horsemanship). In 1910, he appeared in his first Western for the Selig Polyscope Company, and quickly became a star. During the 1910s and 1920s, Mix seemed to have a charmed existence: he became a beloved matinee idol, earned a reported $7,500 a week (an unthinkably large amount) while under contract at Fox, and married his on-screen regular love interest, Victoria Forde. (With Forde, his third wife, he had a daughter, Thomasina, born in 1922.) Bigger than fellow Western actors William S. Hart and Hoot Gibson, Mix was so famous that even his trusty steed, Tony the Horse, became a star. Mix was multi-talented – he was a skilled comedian, did his own stunts, and directed and wrote many of his films – however he could not survive the advent of sound. In the 1930s, he appeared in only a handful of films, instead putting his energies into making circus appearances, eventually founding the Tom Mix Circus. Though he had disappeared from screens already when he died in an auto accident in 1940, his star still shone brightly for years to come as a character on radio and in comic books. Eagle-eyed music fans will notice that Mix is one of the faces on the crowded cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.


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Harold and Maude Dec. 20, 1971
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Hal Ashby's iconic black comedy Harold and Maude opened in theaters on December 20, 1971.

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December 20, 1979
Bob Fosse's All That Jazz

For denizens of the New York theater scene, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All that Jazz provided them the guessing game of the season. What scandals was Fosse going to spill in his expose musical? The film, which tells the story of a Broadway choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), whose excesses in life and work bring him to the edge of a collapse, was clearly modeled on Fosse’s own life. Some actors (like Ann Reinking) play characters very similar to themselves; other figures (like ex-wife Gwen Verdon, producer Hal Prince, and others) are played by others; and other actors (like Jessica Lange) who were close to Fosse play oddly mythic figures. Fosse, who’d started choreographing for film in 1954, was soon pulled to New York to choreograph and eventually direct such musicals as Pippin, Chicago, and Sweet Charity. In 1969, he started making films as well, winning an Oscar in 1972 for Cabaret. A demanding taskmaster and infamous womanizer, the chain-smoking Fosse suffered a heart attack in 1975. It was during this period that Shirley Maclaine (according to her) suggested he create something about his brush with death. The resulting film is a breathtaking musical sleight of hand as Fosse’s alter ego Joe Gideon reveals his innermost fears and desires only to cover them in the next moment with all that jazz––surreal show stopping dance numbers and Felliniesque romps into his libido and unconscious. In 1987, life imitated art as Fosse died from a heart attack, just moments before his revival of Sweet Charity was to open at the National Theater.

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