Broncho Billy and the Sheriff’s Kid (1913)
This short from Essanay is a typical “Broncho Billy” entry in which Gilbert M. Anderson plays an outlaw with a heart of gold. The company was cranking out dozens of these movies per month from its base near Chicago at this time.
The movie begins with a grim shot of Broncho Billy getting locked into a cell. He wears leather wrist cuffs, a bullet belt, and a holster (despite being in jail), so we know right away that he’s a cowboy, even without a horse or a pistol. He picks at a bowl of unappetizing food and calls the jailer over to remove it, then makes a grab at the jailer through the bars and manages to secure his gun. He forces the man to unlock the cell and makes his escape. The next scene shows the jailer riding up to the sheriff’s house, where he is asleep (presumably it’s night time, though it isn’t dark at all) in the same bedroom with the crib of his small daughter. The sheriff (Harry Todd) reluctantly crawls out of bed and gets dressed to join the search. Now we see the mother (Evelyn Selbie) and child, in their night clothes, fixing food in the kitchen for him to take on the trail. The sheriff tucks the bundle under his shirt and gives each of them a kiss before going out. He rides off and we see Billy stealing food from an outdoor cabinet hung on the side of a house (the same house? It’s hard to say).
An intertitle reads “Later” and we see children dispersing from the front of a schoolhouse. Each is kissed goodbye by the teacher, a woman in a dark dress. The last one out is the sheriff’s daughter. After leaving the school, she walks home through a wild area, straying just a little off the path, and suddenly tumbling down the side of a cliff! Billy, eating nearby, hears the commotion and draws his gun. He finds the child, crumpled on the rocks, and identifies her by her writing slate, which is labeled “MAY – the sheriff’s kid.” Billy starts to leave, but, struck by his conscience, turns back and picks the child up, carrying her offscreen. He takes her back to the mother, now in day clothes with her hair up (it scarcely looks like the same actress). He places the child gently in her bed and the mother weeps over her. Billy tries to comfort the woman and she says something, which makes him look resolved and then leave. The next shot is a door with the shingle of “Dr. Brush” hanging over it. Billy walks up and pounds on the door. When the doctor comes out, he tells him he’s needed, then sneaks off while the doctor gets his bag.
Meanwhile the searchers have taken a break to eat some lunch. Suddenly, they look up with interest at something offscreen, stow their sandwiches, and get up to proceed cautiously, guns drawn. They hunker down behind a bush and see Billy coming through the brush in another shot which may or may not be anywhere near them. The sheriff fires his rifle and Billy drops his gun, pantomiming that he has been hit in the hand. We cut to a scene of the doctor giving the mother some medicine, and she shakes his hand, relieved that the child will be OK. Now Billy staggers up to a door, his wrist crudely bandaged with a bandana, and knocks, staggering in pain when the mother answers. An intertitle says “I only ask help for help,” which seems an odd way of saying he wants her to return the favor for saving her child. She seems reluctant at first but eventually pulls him into the house. Billy stops and smiles when he sees the child’s improved condition. She takes him into a back room and removes the dressing, examining the wound. Now the sheriff and his companion break off the search, so the sheriff goes back to his house, surprising the mother. He is concerned when he sees the injured child, and he speaks briefly with her, looking surprised when she points toward the door. Billy tries to get some water, knocking a bowl on the floor, which causes the sheriff to realize there’s someone in the house, The mother tries to prevent him going to look, holding his gun hand as he draws his revolver and gesturing to show that she is pleading for the outlaw. Billy hears from the other room, but, having no gun and no way out, can only expect the worst. The mother suddenly kicks the door open, handing Billy the sheriff’s rifle while still holding his revolver-hand low. Billy now has the upper hand and holds the sheriff at bay while he goes over to give the little girl a kiss. The movie ends without any more resolution than that.
This whole story takes 15 minutes and only two intertitles to tell. The situation is familiar enough that audiences could guess at what the characters were saying to one another, and their motivations, without any more information than that. We know Billy is a good man, even if he has done something wrong or illegal, and we know that he will save the child even at the risk of his own freedom. We also pretty much know that he isn’t going to shoot the sheriff in front of his wife and daughter, but it is a little unclear what the narrative expects to happen next. Maybe that’s why the movie ends so abruptly. One of the most interesting pieces of the film for me is the sheriff’s shooting Billy in the hand. In later Hollywood and television, it would become a cliché that good guys shot pistols out of the hands of bad guys without really hurting them = a practical impossibility, but a convention that arose because of concerns that Westerns were “too violent.” Here, Anderson graphically shows the consequences of being shot in the hand, even using stage blood on the wound and bandages, something Westerns would scrupulously avoid until Sam Peckinpah started using squibs in the 1960s. Anderson’s movies are generally (and for the most part rightly, in my opinion) remembered as simplistic moral tales, compared to the brooding ambiguity of William S. Hart, but the rules of the Western hadn’t been fully defined in 1913, and Anderson did sometimes take an interesting chance in molding them.
Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson
Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Harry Todd, Eugenia Clinchard, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church
Run Time: 15 Min, 20 secs
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