Warner Baxter made history as the bandit, Cisco Kid

Time Before Now, March 1889  Benjamin Harrison was inaugurated as the 23rd president, the third in the nation’s history to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College.  Austrian Arch Duke Rudolph and his 17-year-old mistress, Marie Alexandrine Freiin von Vetsera, were found dead at the Duke’s Alpine  hunting lodge,  Mayerling.  Believed to be a lover’s suicide pact at the time, their deaths continued to raise questions well into the 20th century.  In 2015, however, the Austrian National Library discovered farewell letters from Marie to her mother.  And the first coin-operated pay phone was installed in Connecticut’s Hartford Bank.  Invented by William Gray, it’s location is now a historic landmark. (Replica, left.)

March 29, 1889

On this day Warner Leroy Baxter was born in Columbus, Ohio, destined for stardom as Hollywood’s Cisco Kid. 

The Cisco persona had fascinated film makers for nearly two decades before Baxter’s portrayal in the the ground-breaking 1928, “In Old Arizona.”   It was the first Western talkie and the first Western shot on location that included  sound. 

Originating in a 1907 short story by O. Henry (author William Sidney Porter) (left) entitled “The Cabrillo‘s Way,” it first became the basis for at least two one-reel silent movie but continued to fascinate film makers for nearly two more decades.

A number of critics contended “In Old Arizona” was just a silent movie with limited dialog and irrelevant music.  But Baxter’s performance was sufficient to win him a Best Actor Oscar in Hollywood’s second ever Academy Award ceremony in 1929.  The picture received four more nominations; Best Picture, Best “Writing,” Best Director and Best Cinematography.

His Oscar win didn’t give the 39-year-old leading man sole possession of the Cisco mantle.  Those earlier short films starred a couple of Dunns; Herbert Stanley Dunn in 1913 and William Robert Dunn in 1914. (Right)  It was, however, Baxter’s lucky break, successfully transitioning him from silents to talkies, the death knell for so many of Hollywood’s early stars.

Herbert Stanley Dunn as the murderous bandit in 1913

Baxter’s life hadn’t always been filled with lucky breaks but it was the kind of rags to riches story the movie-makers loved. His father, Erwin Baxter, died at just 21, five months after Warner was born. The family had just moved from Ohio to San Francisco at the time of his father’s death.  Misfortune struck again in 1906 when the teen-ager and his widowed mother were made homeless by the 1906 earthquake and spent a number of weeks in a Golden Gate Park refugee camp.  

Golden Gate Park refugee camp in 1906

Literally getting bitten by the show business bug young, Baxter admitted, “I discovered a boy a block away who would eat worms and swallow flies for a penny. For one-third of the profits, I exhibited him in a tent.”  

Apparently finding a career as an impresario a bit too risky, he started out sensibly enough as an insurance salesman, sales manager and traveling “drummer.”  By age 19 he’d found his way to vaudeville and in 1914 the  25-year-old dashingly handsome Baxter began working as an extra in a stock company.  His role in the 1921 movie, “Sheltered Daughter” propelled him into instant stardom.

Baxter and Justine Johnstone in “Sheltered Daughters”

His role as Cisco had undergone serious revisions from O. Henry’s ruthless killer.  Instead he was recast as a happy-go-lucky bandit romancing the flirtatious Tonia (right) played by Dorothy Burgess and evading the law. 

It resulted in three sequels starring Baxter, the 1930 “The Arizona Kid” the 1931 “The Cisco Kid,”  and in 1939 “Return of the Cisco Kid”  with Cesar Romaro playing his sidekick.  Romaro eventually inherited the role from Baxter in 1939, starring in The Cisco Kid and the Lady.

By 1936, Baxter was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, reportedly earning $243,000 a year, nearly $6 million, today.  Often playing Latin scoundrels and leading man roles  financial success didn’t ease his insecurities.  He was close friends with fellow actor, Ronald Coleman (left) but developed an intense professional rivalry with him.  

By 1943 he had slipped to“B” movies status and suffered what was termed at the time a “nervous breakdown.”  Plagued with depression much of his life, he candidly admitted his movie career had faltered three different time and credited the Cisco films for salvaging him each time. Failure and a success three different times in Hollywood and credited the character of the Cisco Kid for salvaging his career each time.  

Not without other talents.  He was, in fact a successful inventor,  credited with an early night vision site adopted by the FBI and a device that allowed

His final movie, the 1950 “State Penitentiary,” was released less than a year before his death  He died from pneumonia May 7, 1951 at age 62, survived by his second wife of 33 years, actress Winifred Bryson. (Above Bryson and Baxter) Both he and Bryson are buried at Forrest Lawn

While Baxter was the first to play the Cisco Kid, he was far from the last.  There were four in all; Cuban American Cesar Romaro, Duncan Renaldo, an unlikely Romanian American who starred in the television series and Gilbert Roland, (left) the only one of the four actually of Mexican heritage. 

The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, three hours north of Los Angeles, has been a mecca for western film makers and film fans for decades.  More than 400 movies  have been shot around Lone Pine and  the museum features collections of original movie costume, props, posters and memorabilia. 

The nearby Alabama Hills, offers a self-guided  tour of “Movie Road,” to action shooting locations for dozens of movies, television shows and commercials.  Open again 10 to 4, Thursday through Monday, closed New Years Day, Easter, July Fourth, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission, $5 adult donation, children under 12 and active military, free.  The museum is pet friendly but leashes are required.  For more information go to wrangler@lonepinefilmhistorymuseum.org or call 760-876-9909.

Covid restrictions are currently in place and masks are required.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.