#541) Sky High (1922)
Directed & Written by Lynn Reynolds
Class of 1998
The Plot: Grant Newbury (Tom Mix) is an Inspector of Immigration in Calexico, CA. After a successful bust, Newbury infiltrates a gang sneaking a group of Chinese immigrants across the Mexican border (more about that later). On his way to turn the gang in, Newbury saves the lovely Estelle Halloway (Eva Novak) from drowning, and he sticks around to take care of her. It turns out that Estelle is the ward of Jim Frazer (J. Farrell MacDonald), the boss of the gang Grant is trying to sabotage. This all comes to a head in a climactic fight across the Grand Canyon, filmed on location, with some incredible aerial footage as Grant takes to the skies.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief overview, and calls Tom Mix by his given moniker “King of the Cowboys”, adding that Mix’s easygoing style contrasted with William S. Hart’s screen persona, and “set a standard for cowboy stars that lasted decades”.
But Does It Really?: “Sky High” has two things going for it in terms of NFR recognition: It represents Tom Mix, and it features impressive footage of the Grand Canyon. That’s about it. As a movie, “Sky High” isn’t that memorable, but there are worse ways to spend an hour. A slight pass for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: The son of a stable master, Tom Mix learned to ride horses at a young age. After a stint with the Army during the Spanish-American War (stories of him being one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders are false), Mix became a rancher in the Oklahoma Territory. A skilled horseman and a good shot, Mix joined the ranch’s touring Wild West show, which led to the start of his film career in 1909. By the 1920s, Mix was one of the biggest stars (Western or otherwise) in Hollywood. Also making their sole NFR appearance in “Sky High” are frequent Mix leading lady Eva Novak, and writer/director Lynn Reynolds.
Wow, That’s Dated: The Chinese immigrants in this movie are referred to solely as “Chinamen”. We’re a long way from “Chan Is Missing“.
Title Track: “Sky High” was originally titled “The Go Getter” during pre-production, and at some point during filming was renamed the similar sounding “Go Get Her”. I presume “Sky High” made the cut to associate the film with its aerial scenes.
Seriously, Oscars?: The Oscars were still a few years away, but apparently camera operator Blaine Walker received a gold medal from Fox Film for his “enterprise and daring in obtaining the first motion pictures of the Grand Canyon taken from an airplane”. I’m sure this was all a big publicity stunt from Fox, but hey someone got a medal out of it!
- This is typically the part where I mention that this Fox film is now technically a Disney property, but “Sky High” is in the public domain. Your loss, Mouse House!
- This movie goes all in on the Grand Canyon gimmick. Immediately following the opening credits, we get an intertitle proudly stating the film’s on-location production, followed by some facts about the Grand Canyon. It’s standard Grand Canyon trivia, though I will point out that “It is one of nature’s most sublime spectacles” is not a fact, but rather an overall agreed upon sentiment.
- As soon as I learned that Mix’s character worked border patrol, I knew we were in trouble. Thankfully the film doesn’t lean too much on our shitty immigration policies, though neither side comes out of this looking good.
- You read the synopsis correctly, the illegal aliens being trafficked over the border are Chinese. Who does this movie think we share a border with?
- Despite his status as King of the Cowboys, I don’t have a lot to say about Tom Mix in this movie. His performance is fine, but not particularly noteworthy or a confirmation of his star power. Honestly, my takeaway from Tom Mix is that he’s wearing a huge cowboy hat. I mean, I get it; it’s a big hat, it’s funny.
- Oddly enough, I can’t find anything to confirm that Grant’s horse in this movie is Tom Mix’s famous companion Tony the Wonder Horse. I feel cheated.
- That bar fight is sped up like crazy. I was waiting for the Keystone Kops to break it up.
- Whoa, they have cars in this western? And biplanes!? My mind is blown.
- I do not want to know how someone in your posse earned the nickname “Chili Beans”.
- During my viewing, I was thinking about where exactly Tom Mix fits in the pantheon of classic movie cowboys. In terms of NFR induction, Mix joined the roster after John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and William S. Hart, but before Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. I guess Mix is the last of the great non-singing cowboys.
- Did they really make these actors climb the Grand Canyon? No wonder they unionized.
- Frazier henchman Bates to Estelle upon her capture: “Better start enjoyin’ the scenery – ’cause you’re goin’ to see some that’s different”. In the annals of film history this has got to be the least threatening threat of all time.
- And then we get to the film’s meat and potatoes: Grant flying over the Grand Canyon in a biplane. It’s an impressive sight in a fun action sequence, and I’m sure it went over like gangbusters in 1922. Despite a reputation for doing his own stunts, Mix had stunt pilots Bud Creeth and Dick Grace do the actual flying. During one take, Creeth almost fell out of the plane, but was saved by Grace (as in Dick Grace, but possibly also “of God”).
- In true leading lady fashion of the time, Estelle is a passive, sidelined character for most of the movie. She doesn’t get much to do, but at least Grant trusts her with his gun while he’s out fighting the main baddies.
- “Sky High” may be the only western on this list that spares both Mexicans and Native Americans from the typical sweeping racism associated with the genre.
- Tom Mix made 291 films over the course of 25 years! Sadly, due to a number of setbacks (including the famous 1937 Fox Fire), only about 30 of Mix’s films are known to still exist.
- Although Mix’s film career started to decline in the 1930s (he transitioned to talkies successfully, but grew weary on the injuries he was incurring), Mix found continued success on radio. Sadly, Mix died in a car accident in 1940 at the age of 60.
- Tom Mix is still the King of the Cowboys to a lot of film buffs, and gets occasionally referenced in period pieces like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Peaky Blinders”. Plus he was played by a young Bruce Willis in Blake Edwards’ light historical fiction “Sunset”.
- In reference to this film’s apparent lack of significance, there are countless other movies also named “Sky High”, including that one about a superhero high school. I guess “Sky High” is a Disney property after all.