In 1903, Edwin S. Porter made the 9-minute film called the Great Train Robbery in the wilds of New Jersey. It was the first with a story. Earlier motion pictures had lasted about a minute, and cost just $150 to produce. It was an immediate sensation as audiences could now see what they had heretofore only read in newspapers and pulp westerns. During a close up at the end of the film a bandit firing his pistol directly into the camera caused people in the audience to scream, dive under their seats or faint. The film touched the core of western myth with crime, pursuit and showdown. And it brought the myth to life.
Max Aronson, a chunky, former vaudeville actor had a big part in Porter’s film but he was not a good rider and fell off his horse during a scene. However, he noticed the missing ingredient, movies needed a hero but film producers feared that stars would demand a big paycheck. Aronson decided to produce his own. He changed his name to Bronco Billy Anderson and became the first cowboy hero. In 1907 he starred in the first western made in the West, The Girl from Montana. He became the first to receive screen credit, created an audience for a single actor, and thereby instigated both the star system and “B” movies.
He proved to be immensely popular and over the next eight years made over 300 westerns featuring Bronco Billy. He was the first cowboy superstar but fame is fleeting and he would be replaced by the former Shakespearean actor William S. Hart, followed by Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and Buck Jones.