When the hero was a horse

In the 1920s and 1930s animal actors were often big stars featured in lengthy movie fan magazine articles. They “sent” photographs of themselves (signed, of course, by their owners or their press secretaries) to their fans who wrote in to request them. Rex, King of the Wild Horses, was the first equine movie star. Long before Champion or Trigger, Rex ruled the silver screen. It is interesting to realize that he was the only known star horse in Hollywood history that was too dangerous to ride. In fact, Rex was known to trainers and directors as the star most likely to pin his ears back, emit a chilling scream and charge toward the crew with murderous intent!

Black Cyclone, No Man’s Law, Wild Beauty, King of the Wild Horses, Robinson Crusoe on Clipper Island, and The Vanishing Legion were just some of the films that kept his name in the marquee lights.

Rex, the King of the Wild Horses, was a star for more than 10 years. Rex’s story is all the more amazing when one considers that animals were considered props in the movie industry during the 1920s and 1930s. Some were killed just to make a sensational scene for a picture. Rex’s story is all the more amazing when one considers the attitudes toward animals that predominated when he was working in pictures. Rex was not a wild mustang; he was a registered Morgan whose real name was Casey Jones. Born in 1915, he was stabled at a reform school in Golden, Colo., for use in animal husbandry. The boys at the school did not know what to do with a livewire like him. He was placed in solitary confinement for many years. This may have given him the aggressiveness he had toward human beings.

Rex the king of the wild horses, robinson crusoe on clipper islandMala shared billing with Rex/Brownie and a St. Bernard dog named Buck in the serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936).

Lee Doyle of Flagstaff, Ariz., bought him for $150, with the goal of cashing in on Hollywood’s lucrative animal hero film genre exemplified by Rin-Tin-Tin and Strongheart. Doyle knew Hollywood’s top horse trainer Fat Jones, and approached him and producer Hal Roach with an idea. Why not use the animal’s wildness to its own advantage? Audiences loved wild horses. A double could be “Rex” in scenes where he had to be touched by the actors. A new trainer at Fat Jones’ stable was asked to do the not enviable job of training this animal.

Jack Lindell was not afraid of him. He was able to get the horse to be aggressive without causing injury to himself or the horse, and without using an excessive amount of control with devices. “Chick” Morrison assisted him during the training process. Rex’s first film was the Hal Roach drama Black Cyclone (1924). Rex could be trailered to various outdoor locations and turned loose. The cameras would start rolling and Rex wandered about within a selected range of the cameras. Sometimes he was hobbled, and on other occasions he would be surrounded by men and ropes out of range of the cameras. Horse trainer Les Hilton, who went on to train some of the most famous horses in the business, including Mister Ed, recalled working as a protégé of Lindell’s and remembered Rex. He only knew two horses who never “quit” (lost interest and trotted away from the trainer in the middle of a take) and they were Rex and Mister Ed. Rex had what it took to be a star.

Brownie was Rex’s most frequent stand-in. This well-mannered black Morgan stallion can be distinguished from the solid black Rex when one carefully looks for the tiny star on his forehead, usually covered up by his abundant mane. Brownie was skilled at picking up saddles with his teeth, untying the ropes from heroes and heroines, and carrying them on his back. Rex was very good at shots requiring a horse who could express emotions through tossing his head, pawing the ground, striking out with his hooves, half-rearing and charging. He did fine with mares but disliked almost everyone else.

Fred Jackman, director and special effects technician for First National’s dinosaur epic The Lost World, knew that a real fight with a mountain lion could result in Rex’ death so he animated a stop-motion model horse and mountain lion to accomplish a scene with the two in Black Cyclone. When Rex was called upon to do a fight scene in the film with a fellow stallion, his hooves and the hooves of the other horse would be fitted with protective rubber slipper-like covers. A non-adhesive tape would be placed on the teeth of the combatants. The fight would be filmed using a common technique called under cranking, at about 16 or 20 frames per second, so when played at normal speed, the fight seems somewhat more vicious. Rex’s most frequent adversary was a paint stallion named Marquis. They went after one another with relish and their first fight was so action packed that it was used in several more films.

Rex’s and Brownie’s co-stars included Victor Jory, Harry Carey, Boris Karloff, Yakima Canutt, Guinn (Big Boy) Williams, June Marlowe, Oliver Hardy, Hugh Allan, William Janney, Frankie Darro, Barbara Kent and Edna Murphy.

One of Rex’s most dramatic surviving films is Hal Roach’s No Man’s Law. Rex plays a wild horse who shares his Mojave stronghold with his mare; a prospector named Jack Belcher (James Finlayson); his burros; and stepdaughter Toby (Barbara Kent). Two criminals on the run from the law happen through this part of the wasteland. They are played by Oliver Hardy and Theodore von Eltz. When the men tried to get a look at Toby taking a bath, Rex chased them into a lake. Later in the movie, after Toby has been taken captive, Rex arrives in time to prevent the proverbial “fate worse than death” and kicks the cabin to pieces. The enraged stallion stomps Nye to death.

After starring in many Universal Jewel productions, Rex went to work for Mascot and Republic, then retired in the mid-1930s to live on Doyle’s ranch in Arizona. Many of the films Lindell, Rex and Brownie worked in are available now on DVD and videocassette from mail order companies. EBay can provide many collectibles.

In 1928, Whitman Publishing Company’s Rex, King of Wild Horses was a successful children’s hardcover book. The Saafield Publishing Company published a series of small hardcover books similar in size to the Whitman “Big Little Book” series. Law of the Wild by Ford Beebe was a Saafield title based on the 1934 motion picture starring Rex and Rin-Tin-Tin, Jr. The other was Stampede. Both books are reasonably priced $15-$30. Check them out!

Rex Filmography

• Black Cyclone – Hal Roach Studios, 1924, available from Sinister Cinema

• The King of the Wild Horses – Hal Roach Studios, 1924, available from Life Is a Movie

• Lightning Romance – Harry J. Brown Productions, 1924

• The Devil Horse – Hal Roach Studios, 1926, available from Sinister Cinema and Life Is a Movie

• No Man’s Law – Hal Roach Studios, 1927, available from Sinister Cinema and Life Is a Movie

• Wild Beauty –  Universal, 1927, available from Grapevine Video

• Guardians of the Wild – Universal, 1928, available from Life Is a Movie

• Plunging Hoofs – Universal, 1929

• Wild Blood – Universal, 1929

• Harvest of Hate – Universal, 1929

• Hoofbeats of Vengeance – Universal, 1929

• The Vanishing Legion – 1931, available from Life Is a Movie

• The Law of the Wild – Mascot, 1934, available from Life Is a Movie

• The Adventures of Rex and Rinty – Mascot, 1935, available from Life Is a Movie

• Stormy – Universal, 1935

• Robinson Crusoe in Clipper Island – Republic, 1936, available from Life Is a Movie

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