The Lamb (1915)
Douglas Fairbanks plays the soon-to-be-familiar role of a spoiled rich kid who has to prove himself a man in this early feature, written by D.W. Griffith and released by Triangle Film Corporation. Griffith’s new protégé, W. Christy Cabanne, directed, and we see some of the same problems as in “Martyrs of the Alamo,” in spite of the charming star.
Fairbanks plays “the Lamb,” a rich kid whose father recently passed on. He is in love with Mary (Seena Owen)allowing the Intertitles to riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and he proposes to her at a fashionable society party held by his domineering mother. She accepts, and all seems well until Bill Cactus (Alfred Paget), a “Goat from Arizona,” arrives and turns Mary’s head with his firm handshake. Things only get worse when they all visit the seaside together and spot a drowning woman crying for help. The Goat leaps into action, discarding his jacket and swimming out to save her while the Lamb looks passively on. Now Mary has made up her mind: she needs a real man, and she heads out West with the Goat for an extended stay at his ranch. The Lamb, heart-broken, starts taking boxing lessons and Jiu Jitsu, to his mother’s obvious displeasure. Just as she’s getting ready to put a stop to all this, the Lamb gets a letter from the Goat, asking him to join them in Arizona, and he rushes out to the car to catch the train.
The train lets him off for a tourist jaunt, similar to what we saw with Mabel Normand in “The Tourists,” and, of course, he misses his train, getting bilked by a couple of Indians for a blanket and some beads, and then gets shanghaied by a couple of white guys with a car who promise to help him catch up with the train, but club him and dump him in the desert. When he wakes up, he’s chased by rattlesnakes, cougars, and horned toads. Then, an airplane from the Goat’s ranch crashes down nearby and he thinks he’s saved, but the pilot and the Lamb are both taken prisoner by a desperate band of Indian rebels (the intertitles call them “half-caste” and “Yaqui” interchangeably. Most of them are white men in darkface). The rebels have recently captured a machine gun from the Mexican army and are feeling their oats, hoping to extort more money from the Lamb. Meanwhile, the rich folks from the ranch come looking for their pilot, but Mary gets separated and is also captured and threatened with rape. The Lamb manages to break his bonds during a counter-attack by the Mexicans and we see a bit of Fairbanksian swashbuckling before he gets to Mary, who refuses to be rescued by a coward (!). He drags her outside and commandeers the machine gun, cutting down huge numbers of rebels, but he runs out of bullets. Fortunately, the ranch-set have gone to a nearby US barracks and the Cavalry ride in to the rescue. Mary is convinced that her Lamb is a hero and all ends well, for everyone but the rebels.
The problem with this movie, as with so much of the Western material from this period is its extreme racism. The rebels are dehumanized and made to look both evil and ridiculous, while the white woman is once again held up as the pure flower of innocence, while the US Cavalry is shown as the heroic forces of order and decency. I blame Griffith’s influence, although this movie is better than “Birth of a Nation” or “The Martyrs of the Alamo,” which Cabanne would direct just two months later. I was impressed by the frequent use of close-ups and the complex cutting within scenes, as well as the classic inter-cutting between scenes to raise tension, now a long-established Griffith technique. There’s also some simple camera pans and tilts, to keep actors centered, and a generally more “cinematic,” less “stagey” approach to the cinematography than in “Martyrs,” although we have the same cameraman, William Fildew, behind the lens. Maybe they gave him more time for this one.
Fairbanks is enjoyable, despite his character’s flaws and the flaws in the movie overall. I haven’t seen an earlier performance by him, but he already seems to be comfortable doing the kind of comedy-action picture he would become famous for. If this really was a debut role (I can’t find an earlier one on imdb, but that’s not definitive), it’s interesting because it seems to me that the audience would be hungry to see some heroics by the time he finally does break them out in the final scene. That kind of risk would be more logical for an established star, where the audience thinks, “well, it’s him, he’ll pay off sooner or later.” In a couple of years, we’ll see him pull off a similar, but funnier, character and situation in “Wild and Woolly.”
One last thing to mention about this movie is the martial arts sequence, including an instructor with Asian features. I’ve seen various movies (mostly from the 60’s) touted as the “first” movie to include martial arts. Sorry, folks, Douglas Fairbanks beat you all to the punch, or rather the flip.
Director: Christy Cabanne
Camera: William Fildew
Run Time: 56 Min
I have not been able to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you can, let me know in the comments.