Kate Buford has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Film Comment, and Bluegrass Unlimited, among other publications. She has been a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition and American Public Media’s Marketplace, and on Virginia’s NPR affiliate, WMRA. Her biography of Burt Lancaster was named one of the Best Books of 2000 by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. She lives in Lexington, Virginia, and Westchester, New York. Today, Buford stops by Word & Film to talk about a less-talked-about side of sports star Jim Thorpe — the starry side.
Jim Thorpe (1887 -1953) was the greatest multi-sport athlete this country – or any country – has ever known. Outstanding collegiate All-American and professional football running back. Major and high minor league baseball player who learned to bat as well as Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson. The only Olympian, almost a century ago at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, to win gold medals in the pentathlon AND decathlon.
Until his last official game (of football) in 1928 at age forty-one, Thorpe played at least two full and different sports seasons every year – arguably, the first Iron Man of American sports. A Sac and Fox and Potawatomi Indian from Oklahoma, Thorpe defined athletic excellence when organized sports were in their infancy. Today, when sports metaphors, language, and heroes permeate American culture, Thorpe still routinely tops lists of “greatest ever” athletes.
What most people don’t know is that when his sports prowess faded, Jim Thorpe took up an entirely different second career. From 1931 to 1950 he appeared in at least seventy Hollywood movies. The total number may be double that: records for many of the B-level “Poverty Row” studios are lost. Moreover, Thorpe was often hired as an uncredited extra, the lowest rung on the Tinseltown casting ladder.
By the early 1930s there were reportedly more former sports stars – survivors of the 1920s Golden Age of American sports – in the Los Angeles area than anywhere else in the U.S. Randolph Scott, John Mack Brown, Johnny Weissmuller, and Marion “John Wayne” Morrison joined Thorpe in this fraternity. Athletes could move, do stunts, bring the memory of their former glory to the screen. Their famous names alone could add luster to the publicity ballyhoo.
The introduction of sound into movies in the late ‘20s had also transformed the Hollywood western. Horses audibly galloped, rifles cracked, arrows thunked – and grossly stereotypical “celluloid Indians” whooped and grunted in the hugely popular twelve-part western serials churned out fast and cheap from studios such as RKO, Monogram, and Republic.
One of Thorpe’s first screen appearances was in Universal’s 1931 serial “Battling with Buffalo Bill.” He played a rather awkward-looking Indian warrior, Swift Arrow. The movie is full of silent-era stock footage and crude sound effects. But, even now, it’s not hard to see why Depression-era audiences thrilled to the cliff-hanging (literally) plots and daredevil escapes. Thus was the narrative of Manifest Destiny perpetuated and glamorized for a new generation. Thorpe would sum up his work in Hollywood westerns with terse humor: “I always lost.”
Other Indians also flooded into Hollywood, looking for work. Somebody cracked that they should form a new tribe: the (Cecil B.) DeMille Indians. Thorpe formed a casting company to pressure the studios to hire real American Indians to play Hollywood Indians instead of the usual practice of casting Italians, Mexicans, or anybody vaguely ethnic.
Ironically, in the unlikely environment of Hollywood Thorpe reconnected with his Indian roots for the first time since he’d left the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to join the New York Giants baseball team in 1913. As the most famous among them, he became a spokesperson for Indians and for Native causes. He organized pow-wows. His children were taught Indian dances. He traveled back to Oklahoma to lobby the Sac and Fox to resist interference from Washington. Like many American Indians then and now, he was working to reclaim a heritage that had so often been denigrated by white reformers.
Thorpe cannot be said to have a coherent body of film work. But some of his most memorable titles chart an oddly piquant sort of early (talkie) movie history: 1933: “King Kong”; 1935: “She” and “The Rustlers of Red Dog”; 1937: “Racket Busters”; 1940: “Northwest Passage”; 1949: “White Heat.” In 1950, “Wagon Master,” the favorite western of its director, John Ford, was, appropriately, Thorpe’s last movie.
In 1951 Warner Brothers released the bio-pic, “Jim Thorpe – All American,” starring Burt Lancaster. Two years later, the real Thorpe died in a Southern California trailer park, his old football helmet on the back seat of his car.