The man with the white hat who helped define the Western, the legendary Tom Mix stars in two silent features for Undercrank Productions’ release of Sky High / The Big Diamond Robbery. Archived as part of the National Film Registry, both features look fantastic featuring the Silver Screen star in one of his best westerns as well as his final silent film appearance. Complete with new musical scores by Ben Model, this a terrific release for fans of Hollywood’s silent era. Recommended
There are many iconic Western stars that help define the genre’s long history. From Eastwood to Wayne to Stewart, many actors made a name for themselves playing gruff and tough heroes of the old west. Before sync sound and talkies became all the rage, Harry Carey and Tom Mix were the icons of their respective era. Each man dug into the Old West in their own unique way. Carey was perhaps a bit more scrappy and darker while Tom Mix got to ride as the larger-than-life hero complete with a massive white cowboy hat. Mix is also the one who gave John Wayne his start in the business as a prop guy after he washed out of college when injured playing football!
As Mix played to the purist hero with an incorruptible heart of gold archetype, his films were rip-roaring adventures. Given that so few silent films survive, it’s a treat to see the ones that remain. Now, a long time back I did get to see 1922’s Sky High and remember it quite fondly, but it's been many years since I last sat with it. In this film, Mix plays an agent working along the Mexican border charged with deterring gangs from illegal importing of Chinese workers. When he’s put on the trail of one such gang, he must go undercover to stop them but falling in love with the boss's girl Eva Novak wasn’t part of the plan. Mix was well-known for doing his own stunts and some of them are truly cringe-inducing for how terrifying they could be. Now this film’s big climactic aerial dangle over the Grand Canyon may not have been Mix himself, but it was no less thrilling and stands as one of the great cinematic stunts of all time.
With 1929’s The Big Diamond Robbery, Mix plays a modern version of his heroic cowboy in his last silent film appearance. He may have traded in the dusters and chaps for a suit, but the big white hat remains. Here he’s tasked with taming the wildchild daughter of a big tycoon. When her diamond necklace is stolen by a bad gang of banditos, they head out into the untamed West to retrieve it. A late-career entry, this is Mix’s final silent film before doing a series of middling talkies for Universal and ultimately retirement out of the business. This was my first time riding with The Big Diamond Robbery and it was a pretty good adventure, maybe not quite as thrilling as Sky High, but even in his later career Mix found creative ways to showcase his natural athleticism and stunt work. That car grab of Kathryn McGuire is quite the sight!
Silents may not be every cinema fan’s bread and butter, but I do like to pull them off the shelf every once in a while. I often marvel at the incredible scope of some productions with hundreds of horsemen or performing incredibly unsafe stunts at full speed on busy city streets or hell, even dangling over one of the most iconic national monuments! Admittedly I haven’t seen many of Mix’s films, he starred in nearly 300 films in his career, but the ones I’ve seen have all been big fun adventures. Of this set, I would say Sky High is the better of the two, but then I’m biased with my love for old-school Westerns. The Big Diamond Robbery is still a grand adventure on its own and worth the time.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Tom Mix: Sky High / The Big Diamond Robbery comes to Blu-ray thanks to Undercrank Productions. Pressed on a MOD BDR-25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard case. Testing on my Region Free player, it doesn’t appear to be locked. The disc loads to a basic main menu allowing you to choose which film you’d like to dig into.
Preserved by the Library of Congress and Lobster Films and restored in 2K by Undercrank Productions, the 35mm prints, I have to say I’m very impressed with the results here. For both films, there are the obvious age-related issues with some speckling and the occasional wear-and-tear lines in the print, but it does appear some effort was made to mitigate that damage to ensure a completely watchable film. For a few sequences, here and there in each film it does look as if smoothing of some sort has been employed to clean up the worst of the damage. This doesn’t appear to be an egregious overuse as much of the time the films look fantastic. At their best, details are clean and clear allowing you to fully appreciate facial features, costumes, the production design work, and many of the scenic locations. Each film also sees some measure of tinting for various scenes so they’re not completely black and white. Much like the details, the grayscale can fluctuate a bit, from almost being too deep and dark to being picture-perfect. To that end, I’m not going to harsh on these transfers too severely. Considering Sky High is 101 years old and The Big Diamond Robbery is 94, it’s a miracle we even have them to enjoy at all. Overall these are two very, very good transfers for classic silent cinema.
On the audio side, given they’re silent features, each track gets a Dolby Digital 2.0 score track. Each film’s score is composed by Ben Model and I have to tip my ten-gallon hat that he did a heck of a job. Sky High features a jangly old-timey feeling piano score while The Big Diamond Robbery features a full organ score. Both are lively, lovely, and accentuate the action on screen perfectly. If the scene in question is funny, the score plays up the comedic nature. If it’s one of Mix’s big thrilling stunt scenes, the pace picks up to keep the blood pumping.
I know silent films aren’t everyone’s cup of cinematic tea, but I have a soft spot for them. Ever since my parents showed me The Phantom of the Opera as a kid and the big reveal of Lon Chaney’s creepy face, I’ve been fascinated by them. Credit to my Dad for renting a few through the years and reading the title cards to me so I didn’t lose track of the action. In the years since I’ve made an effort to find some of these forgotten moldy oldies and give them a whirl. Not all of them are great but I’ve found some true favorites. Tom Mix’s Sky High is a great show. A thrilling and fun adventure it’s like a highlight reel of the star’s best cinematic attributes. I was new to The Big Diamond Robbery and that proved to be a fun adventure for the final silent performance for Mix. If you're game for true deep-cut classics check this one out. Recommended