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History Minute: Gilbert Anderson

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Kenneth Bridges | History Columnist

Modern moviegoers often go to the movies looking for newer and more dazzling feature for their movies, looking for clever computer-generated graphics, stirring soundtracks, stereo surround sound, and high-definition digital pictures. At the turn of the century, movies offered none of those, only grainy, flickering images without any sound at all. Arkansas native Gilbert M. Anderson became a pioneer in making movies popular with the American public. He had hundreds of film credits in his career, but his first film credit was from one of the first movies ever made, The Great Train Robbery in 1903.
He was born Gilbert Maxwell Aronson in Little Rock in 1880. His father had been a traveling salesman while his mother was from an immigrant Russian family. Around 1900, Aronson moved to New York and became involved with a theatrical group where he changed his name to Anderson, distancing himself from his Jewish heritage.
How Anderson became involved with the movies is not entirely certain. Nevertheless, The Great Train Robbery became an iconic film. It was a western made in a time when the age of the Wild West was still alive and well and just hinting at its end. And it was in a time when some western territories had yet to become states.
Thomas Edison had invented the motion picture camera, which he called the kinetoscope, in 1893 and produced dozens of movies at his Edison Labs in New Jersey to popularize the movies as a new form of entertainment and to sell his film equipment. By 1894, he had copyrighted the first film in the U. S. While many short films had been filmed by 1903, The Great Train Robbery was among the first to include multiple plot lines and multiple scenes. Though primitive by modern standards, it was a major breakthrough in how films were made as well as its impact on the American imagination.
The 11-minute short film was written and directed by Edwin S. Porter and shot entirely in New Jersey in one day on a budget of less than $200. Anderson played three roles in the film, including both a bandit robbing the train and one of the passengers shot by the bandits. The Great Train Robbery became a hit across the country and made the western an integral part of the American movie experience. The original film negatives today are preserved by the Library of Congress.
Anderson later created the character “Broncho Billy” as a rugged western figure determined to defend his vision of right and wrong. Nearly 150 of the short films were produced starting in 1910. The character began to define the image of all western heroes. Anderson not only starred in all of them, but was responsible for writing and directing most of them.
He directed at least 468 shot films between 1905 and 1922, all silent. He served as a producer for 245 films and as a writer for 235. He formed a successful movie studio in Chicago, but grew tired of the movie business by the 1920s. The last Broncho Billy film appeared in 1918. Save for an uncredited appearance in Life With Henry (1940), he retired from the movie business entirely and stayed out of the limelight.
He received several honors in his later years. In 1958, he was given a special Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in honor of his early work in film. In 1960, he earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He largely stayed out of the public eye in his later years. His last film appearance was a walk-on appearance in The Bounty Killers in 1965. He died in California in 1971.