The Spoilers (1914)
This is another movie I saw at the Cinecon Film Festival in Hollywood. They did us the special favor of showing both this and the 1930 version with Gary Cooper. I took notes to keep them straight, but Coop’s voice was still in my head whenever I read William Farnum’s subtitles.
The story of “The Spoilers” is the now-hackneyed Western theme of the man-who-lays-down-his-guns-for-the-love-of-a-woman story, which maybe was fresher in 1914. The major twist is that instead of being set in the Southwest in the nineteenth century, it’s in Alaska during the 1898 Gold Rush, which makes it much more topical for an audience who had read about it in the papers just a few years earlier. This version starts with our hero, Roy Glenister (Farnum) breaking up with his girl Cherry Malotte (played by Kathlyn Williams), the classic prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold – actually she deals cards for a living, but close enough. We then see the “plot to spoil Alaska” being planned in Washington, D.C. by Alex McNamara (Thomas Santschi) as various folks sign documents and shake hands beneath portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. In connection with the plot, Judge Stillman sends his niece Helen Chester (Bessie Eyton) to Nome with important documents. She meets up with Glenister while trying to escape from the S.S. Ohio, which has been condemned for smallpox. Glenister and his buddy Dextry (Frank Clark) beat up the pursuing sailors so she can climb aboard the Santa Maria. They hide her out in their cabin while they sleep outside, and it’s clear that Helen and Glenister are sweet on each other, but she disapproves of his wild, rough-house ways.
In Nome, we meet up with Glenister’s other partner, a flamboyant character-type known as Slap Jack, and the other card dealer, one “Broncho Kid” (also known as Drury), who loves Cherry, who is still holding a torch for Glenister. Oh, and there’s also a lawyer called Struve who Helen delivers the documents to, and who has what seems an unhealthy interest in Helen. Got that? Glenister shyly hints that he might sorta “like” Helen or something, and she makes it clear that she disapproves of his uncivilized lifestyle. She sees a man shot down in the street, and ties that in with what she sees as wrong with Glenister, who decides he will give up fighting in order to prove her wrong. Now, Struve begins his plot against the decency of Alaska by putting the Midas Mine (owned by Glenister, Dextry, and Slap Jack) into receivership. Glenister disappoints his partners by keeping to his pledge not to use violence to fight back, but he approaches a lawyer named Bill Wheaton (played by Willaim’s brother Marshall Farnum, who was never in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”). In order to pay Wheaton’s fee and put him on a boat for San Francisco to get a court order, Glenister and his comrades rob the sluices of their own mine, but are caught in the act by Helen, who grudgingly covers for them when McNamara turns up. Wheaton makes the boat and gets the court order, but Helen’s uncle refuses to recognize its authenticity, and then he is set up by McNamara and Struve.
Things get darker as Glenister is cheated out of his remaining money by the Bronco Kid and Cherry, but of course she’s willing to offer help at a price he can’t pay. Helen is able to get part of the story from Struve, who invites her up to a place called “The Sign of the Shed,” apparently a rustic house of ill-repute, in order to hear the rest. She agrees, and this adds fuel to Cherry’s accusations against her. Meanwhile, McNamara has found a way to frame Glenister and his friends, so they decide to strike back by dynamiting the Midas Mine! Somehow in all of this it comes out that Helen is the Bronco Kid’s long-lost sister and there’s a huge downpour. But Helen manages to escape Struve’s clutches with the Bronco Kid’s help and gets the information she needs to put McNamara and her uncle away for good. After arguing with Cherry and finally convincing her that she has Glenister’s best interests at heart, Helen rushes off to find authorities to back her up, and meanwhile Glenister and McNamara have a knock-down, drag-out fistfight that pretty much totals Struve’s office. Wheaton finally shows up with the local army regulars and uses Helen’s evidence to get the bad guys arrested, while the Bronco Kid kills Struve, but doesn’t appear to be charged with anything. Helen and Glenister sort things out and get together and Cherry finally gives in and settles with the Bronco Kid. As the sun sets over the Pacific, all is well in the wild boomtown of Nome.
Now, the biggest disappointment about this movie was the scenery, or lack thereof. I’m not sure what the point is of setting a movie in Alaska when you can’t afford to show Alaska, or a reasonable facsimile thereof (the 1930 version was mostly shot in Oregon, which works for summer in Nome, more or less). I wasn’t able to confirm where this version was shot, but I’d guess it was around Edendale, California, where Selig Polyscope was headquartered. It doesn’t look much like Alaska, but the cameraman tries to hide that by keeping the shots so tight on the actors that it could have all been shot inside a studio for all it would matter. There are some good wide shots of the Midas Mine set (especially when it blows up), a good interior of the dance hall, a dockside, and a few muddy streets made up to resemble Nome, but that’s about it. The climactic fight scene was apparently a legend in Hollywood for years to come. Now, you’ve seen longer, more brutal, and drawn-out fight scenes, I guarantee it, but this was the one that set the standard for a long time, and many people saw it as the one to top (maybe even including Roddy Piper and Keith David in “They Live”). It is well-choreographed and pretty crazy, reputedly because it got out of hand and “became real” at some point between the two actors.
In comparison to the 1930 version, this one has more characters and plot twists (no Bronco Kid or Struve in 1930, for example), but somehow it manages to leave out a lot of the atmosphere of the gold rush and the complexity of Glenister’s position. The Intertitles don’t really convey the arguments that Helen makes for a more civilized approach and Glenister just seems to be willful in refusing to go along with his friends. I have a feeling that much of this is explained by the popularity of the novel and play it was based on: audiences were assumed to have some familiarity with the characters and their motivations, and the screenplay often skips that to get to a scene with some action. This also probably answers my question of “why Alaska?” Shifting the setting to the California Gold Rush, for example, would have let down the fans who wanted to see their fantasy brought to life. This is an impressive, ambitious feature-length Western for 1914 (apparently the 98-minute print we have today is incomplete), and is worth seeing for its historical importance, but may not be one of the most entertaining movies that has survived the century.
Director: Colin Campbell
Starring: William Farnum, Kathlyn Williams, Thomas Santschi, Bessie Eyton, Marshall Farnum, Frank Clark
Run Time: 98 Min (surviving copy, supposedly a 110 Min print was released in 1916)