Summers and Robbins: Little South Pittsburg and its big silent movie stars

Publicty shot of Jobyna Ralston-Arlen.
Publicty shot of Jobyna Ralston-Arlen.
photo Tom Mix preforms at a horse show in 1925.

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Nov. 21, 2004, was a wet and dreary day in South Pittsburg; only 46 people came out to witness the unveiling of a Tennessee Historical Commission plaque honoring silent movie star Jobyna Ralston-Arlen.

The beautiful and talented Jobyna, the eldest child of Joe and Sarah Ralston, was born in 1899 at 324 S. Cedar Ave. in South Pittsburg. Her mother named her after stage actress Jobyna Howland and wanted her to be an actress. Jobyna started acting at age 9, playing Cinderella in the newly opened Wilson Theatre/Opera House in downtown South Pittsburg. After being briefly married to childhood sweetheart John Campbell, she moved to New York City to attend the Ned Wayburn dancing academy, a popular springboard for aspiring actresses. She danced and sang in various Broadway productions. Jobyna co-starred in "Humor Risk" in 1921, which marked the film debut of the Marx Brothers, and made a Broadway appearance in "Two Little Girls in Blue" by George M. Cohan.

Deciding that comedy was her forte, she went to Hollywood in 1922, starting as an extra with producer Hal Roach (of future Laurel and Hardy fame), appearing in a rare dramatic role in "The Call of Home." Her star rose, and she was picked to be Harold Lloyd's leading lady in "Why Worry." She subsequently appeared in five more of his films: "Hot Water," "Girl Shy," "The Freshman," "For Heaven's Sake" and "The Kid Brother."

In 1927 Jobyna was featured in the first Academy Award winning film, "Wings," whose cast included Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, and her future husband, Richard Arlen. She appeared in nearly 100 silent films and two "talkies" during her film career.

Her last movie in 1930 was "Rough Waters." Her co-star was Rin Tin Tin, the famous German Shepherd. She succumbed to pneumonia in 1967 at age 67 and was survived by her son, actor Richard Arlen Jr.

Another superstar of the silent screen era lived briefly in South Pittsburg. Tom Mix was born in Mix Run, Pa., in 1880 and grew up in DuBois, Pa., where his father, a stable master for a wealthy lumber merchant, taught him to ride and love horses.

Mix worked in 1907 as supervisor of labor at the Dixie Portland Cement plant in Copenhagen (Richard City), Tenn., and then as city marshal. The next year he got his break in a role as a horse wrangler for a movie company in Oklahoma and moved to California, where he was featured in "The Cowboy Millionaire." Mix is credited with starring in 291 movies, all but nine being silent. He was recognized as "King of the Cowboys" and helped define the Western movie genre for future cowboy actors. Heroes and villains were sharply defined, and a clean-cut cowboy always saved the day.

Mix had huge financial success during his movie career but was an extravagant spender. He loved fast cars and lived on an elaborate estate. His five wives included actress Olive Stokes, who bore a daughter, Ruth, and actress Victoria Forde, who bore a daughter, Thomasina. Performing his own stunts - and frequently being injured - he was popular with the viewing audience. Millions of American children grew up watching his films on Saturday afternoon.

Almost as popular as Mix was his beautiful and intelligent "Tony the Wonder Horse." At the close of his movie career a radio series, "Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters," went on the air in 1933 and remained a popular weekly show into the 1950s, well after his death.

Many tales of Mix's life were created by the publicists in the motion picture industry. The rumor that he had been a Rough Rider with Theodore Roosevelt appears to have arisen from Mix riding with a group of Rough Riders in an annual parade in Los Angeles. It is probably true his voice was never heard on the radio due to a gunshot wound to his throat and a broken nose.

Mix's colorful life ended in 1940, when his 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton ran off the road on the way to Phoenix. His funeral was attended by thousands of adoring fans and leading personalities. He was honored posthumously with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

No other small town the size of South Pittsburg (2010 population: 2,992) has likely enjoyed its connection to two of America's most popular silent movie stars.

Jerry Summers is an attorney with Summers, Rodgers and Rufolo. Frank (Mickey) Robbins is an investment adviser with Patten and Patten. For more visit

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