Broncho Billy’s Sentence (1915)
This short movie is supposed to reflect a more “mature” stage in Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s career. At only a single reel, it doesn’t really manage the complexity Anderson probably hoped for, but it does give him a chance to display a range of emotional states and motivations, making it well ahead of “Broncho Billy and the Greaser,” for example.
The story begins with Billy on the run, apparently having stolen a cash box from a stagecoach, whose drivers are raising a posse to search for him. He picks out a few large bills from the cash box and leaves the rest, making his way through the forest until he finds the home of Virginia True Boardman and her father, Ernest Van Pelt, while the posse rides like mad through the countryside. We see the posse interrogate the local preacher and his wife, who haven’t seen Billy but offer them sandwiches. Billy busts in on Virginia and Ernest, holding them at bay with his gun when pappy makes a move for a club, and demanding bread. The posse now knocks at their door, sandwiches in hand, and Billy makes it clear what will happen to father if Virginia isn’t quiet. She tells the posse “he went thataway” and they rush off. Billy thanks her with a kiss that she doesn’t want, then runs out into the night. She follows with a rifle and manages to wing him in the head. The gunshot seems to attract no one’s attention, but Billy finds a place to hide his spoils and jumps into the preacher’s church.
In this second act, as it were, Billy is cared for by the preacher and his wife, who have no idea who he is, but see that he has been hurt. Such kindness obviously affects the desperado, and he listens attentively when the preacher’s wife reads the Bible to him. Still in hiding, he listens in on the preacher’s sermon and appears to realize that the words are spoken to him as much as any man there. He writes a note to his benefactors and goes to retrieve his booty and turn himself in to face his punishment. He does stop just long enough to take a dog-eared copy of the Bible from the old couple’s house. Now he goes to the sheriff, who is obviously surprised to see him, and nearly shoots first when Billy tries to surrender his gun. Billy just gives a kind of knowing smile, hands over the gun and the money, and is escorted to the cell, where he proceeds to start reading his Bible, from page 1. The final act begins with Billy in prison. All the the prisoners are marched into a small chapel, and Billy leads the service, still holding his Bible after many years. His service is intercut with the arrival of an important letter at the Warden’s office – obviously Billy’s release, although this is not confirmed until he has finished preaching and been escorted by a trustee to the office. Billy gives an emotional display when the Warden hands him the news, then we watch the men marched out of the chapel. Finally, Billy, now dressed in street clothes returns and asks to take his Bible with him to the new life he will make for himself. He shakes hands with the Warden and leaves.
Ultimately, there isn’t enough to this brief morality tale to justify regarding it as substantially more “realistic” or “mature” than other Broncho Billy movies I’ve seen, although it does go in a new direction, compared to those. It resembles “His Regeneration” in that it is about a bad man going straight, but instead of doing it for a lovely girl, he does it out of a newfound religious conviction that is actually somewhat more convincing. Billy seems to convey at first that he believes the world is a tough place where you can’t trust anyone, and he’ll take what he can get along the way. After he is shot, he realizes this philosophy leaves him no recourse when he needs help, and the surprise in his face when he receives it is obvious. He then shows the effort he is making to understand why anyone would help a wretch like him, and the new faith he finds through the Bible. Trying to do this with dialogue would simply fall flat – but in silence each viewer can find his or her own voice speaking of goodness and charity in whatever words are most convincing to them. We see Billy grow from bewilderment to realization, and then finally resolve as he decides to turn himself in. The final act simply shows him as a reformed man, although his breakdown when the Warden announces his release gives him a final emotional outlet. Because he is so clearly at the center of the story, none of the other actors manages to be anything more than background in the short time they are on screen, although at first Virginia shows a feistiness that seems to portend Hollywood-style romance. In a longer version of this, we might have seen her feelings about Billy grow and develop, as she watched him transform himself through faith. The movie is shot in a very typical, rigid, often cramped style, although the tight editing makes it a bit more visually interesting.
Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Virginia True Boardman, Ernest van Pelt, Carl Stockdale
Run Time: 12 Min
You can watch it for free: here.