Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Douglas Fairbanks Sr

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

This comedy feature from Douglas Fairbanks lampoons superstition and psychiatry in equal measure, also dealing (as did “Flirting with Fate”) with the dark topic of suicide in a comedic fashion. As always, Doug gets through the shaky premise with athletics, optimism, and “pep.”

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Doug plays “Daniel Boone Brown,” a poor sap who has been chosen by Dr. Metz (Herbert Grimwood), an unscrupulous scientist, as the subject of an experiment to see whether a human being can be killed by his mind alone. For months he has been encouraging all doubts and fears in him, and now he announces his experiment to an academic conference, urging his listeners to keep it a secret. We now see poor Doug, who is being served an onion, a lobster, Welsh rarebit, and a slice of mince pie at midnight to give him indigestion and bad dreams by his servant, who is in on the scheme. As he eats each of these ill-advised foods, we see a depiction of his stomach, with the foods dancing about inside. Of course, he has a terrible night and wakes up late for work. In his dreams he is pursued by a ghostly man with huge forearms, he passes through a room full of women in his nightclothes, and he runs around the walls of a room, as Fred Astaire would do in “Royal Wedding” many years later.

When the Clouds Roll By

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Reaching for the Moon (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks dips a toe into swashbuckling and costume drama in this early farce, but the overall message doesn’t really seem to agree with his real-life attitudes. What kind of fun does he have in store for us here?

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The movie begins with a metaphorical image of Doug, on top of a tall ladder, reaching for an illuminated crescent moon, clearly out of reach. Assuming that there are no tricks here, his precarious balance on the top step may be one of the most dangerous stunts of the movie. We learn from intertitles that his character has the outlandish name of Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown, but I’ll probably keep calling him “Doug” because that’s how I always think of him, whatever role he plays. He believes in a system of wish-fulfillment based on visualization, and he aspires to rub shoulders with nobility and have the ears of Kings. In reality, however, he is a minor clerk at a firm that makes buttons. Apparently his mother was a refugee from the kingdom of Vulgaria, and he suspects that he may be part of the royal lineage. He goes to see his girl (Eileen Percy), and enthuses at her about how his visualizations will make their dreams come true, though she advises him to start small and work his way up to the bigger dreams. It is fairly clear that her dream is simply to be with Doug, and that she understands the book he recommends to her better than he does.

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Doug focuses his efforts on a meeting with the Prince of Contraria, who is conveniently in town at the time. He manages to insinuate himself into a table at a posh restaurant close to the Prince, but is unable to afford any of the high-priced items on the menu. His constant staring and attempts to get himself noticed make the Prince’s companions suspect he may be a spy. Meanwhile, they ignore the real spies at a further table. He continues to daydream and see if he can find a way to meet the Prince, but without success. Soon, his distraction leads to his losing his job, since he doesn’t put enough time into his regular duties any more. He goes home and throws himself on his bed in despair.

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Shortly after, one of the dignitaries from Contraria shows up at his door, pursued by the spies. He knocks and Doug wakes up to let him in. The man demands to know his name and appears astounded when he hears it and that his mother was Vulgarian. The man compares a photo in his pocket to the picture of Doug’s mother and states that he is the only living heir to the throne of Vulgaria. He promises to take Doug to his kingdom, despite the efforts of assassins employed by Black Boris (Frank Campeau) to stop him. Doug momentarily thinks about his girl, but decides he can catch up with her later, after he has been installed. The assassins see him and follow the car to the dock, where Doug and his entourage board a vessel to Vulgaria. Doug looks forward to the good life, rich food, and sea air, but it turns out he has to stay in hiding from the assassins and can only eat tinned food to avoid being poisoned. He can’t even talk, because the assassins have bugged his stateroom, and to remove the bug would alert them that they have been detected.

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In Vulgaria, things only get worse, as his parade is interrupted by several assassination attempts. It is here that Doug is finally able to put his physical skills to use, as he leaps from horses and canal boats, climbs sheer walls and runs along rooftops while dodging bullets. He also fights some assassins hand to hand, putting in a good show for himself. Finally, he drops from a ceiling trapdoor into the midst of his cabinet, who are relieved to find him alive. He learns that he is betrothed to the Princess Valentina, and aging dowager from Contraria. But he agrees to remain for the good of his people, and eventually Black Boris challenges him to a duel. In this movie, Doug seems to be untrained in swordsmanship, and despite a few good moves, he is quickly forced to back down. Soon, he is sent flying down a steep precipice. It becomes steeper and steeper until Alexis falls out of his bed at home, discovering that the whole sequence has been a dream.

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Doug rushes over to his girl, only to see her with another man. It turns out that the man is a realtor, who is selling her a small suburban home in New Jersey, which she hopes to share with Doug – her dream come true. He gets his job back by promising to apply himself diligently to the job and not aspire for unrealistic things. We see Doug and the girl happy at home with a small child.

Reaching for the Moon

The moral to this story appears to be that one should learn to be happy with one’s lot in life, which is about the most un-Fairbanksian idea I can think of. If he felt that way, he should have stayed in Denver, stayed with his first wife and not married Mary Pickford, and never become one of the world’s first movie star personalities. Since that’s not what he did (indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine), this movie comes off like him telling his fans, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But maybe the bigger disappointment is the use of the “it was all a dream” ending, which was already a cliché in literature and theater long before the movies used it as a cop out. The relatively short run time of features at this time may have precluded a truly clever resolution to the situation, but it seems like Doug could have learned what was really important in his life (the love of the girl, in this instance), without having to negate the most interesting part of the story. On a level of wish-fulfillment, it’s also dissatisfying not to see Doug beat the villain, when we know that he was perfectly capable of putting on a good show as a fencer.

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Whatever we may say about the narrative, however, this movie is pretty well in line with the better-quality work Fairbanks was putting out in 1917. Although Wikipedia calls it an “adventure film,” it is really a light comedy whose adventure-spoofing sequences give Doug ample opportunity to show off his athleticism. The camerawork and editing are of very high quality for the time, but nothing really exciting of innovative is attempted. Fairbanks didn’t really re-invent himself as an action star until the 1920s, but certainly movies like this and “A Modern Musketeer” gave him a chance to sample what that would be like and get in some early practice. The movie is set in New York and “Vulgaria,” though imdb claims it was shot in Venice, California. The exteriors are convincing, although it is certainly true that we don’t see any recognizable New York locations. The scene at the canal really does mimic the other Venice pretty convincingly, and I wonder if this is the only sequence that was actually shot in Venice, with the more urban landscapes taken from deeper in Los Angeles.

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For fans of Fairbanks, this movie is a fine example of his early work, but the ending is bound to be a downer.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming, Sam Landers

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Frank Campeau, Eugene Ormonde, Bull Montana, Charles Stevens, Erich von Strohheim

Run Time: 1 Hr, 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Nut (1921)

Happy Silent Movie Day, and welcome to my review. In the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks began a transition as a star to become known mostly for what he is remembered for today – swashbuckling, derring-do, and heroism. But in the teens, he had been a promulgator of physical and situational comedy grounded in athleticism and pep (in fact, he was one of the only film comedians of the time who worked exclusively in feature-length format). One hundred years ago, he still had some funny ideas to work out, and this movie is an example of his earlier style, carried over into the 1920s, and with all the film technique he had learned after six years in the business.

Nut-1921

The movie begins with a series of intertitles that set the scene for us. Doug’s character is Charlie Jackson, an aspiring inventor. Like so many of Doug’s characters, he is in love, and bends all of his energies and attention to The Girl, a neighbor in his Greenwich Village apartment house named Estrell (Marguerite De La Motte). The first scenes of the film focus on the Rube-Goldberg-like inventions Doug has developed as “labor saving” devices. His bed rolls him over to a pool and dumps him in, where spinning brushes apply soap to his body, then the floor raises him up to automatic towel-ers, and a moving sidewalk cruises him past several closets where mechanical arms help him choose clothing and dress himself. It all looks terribly inefficient and inconvenient, but it does show a man always looking for a new way to do things. Once this morning ritual is complete, he crosses the courtyard and climbs to the balcony of his beloved, who treats him politely but distantly, indicating that she is not sold on him as yet. We learn from intertitles that she is an educational reformer who believes that if lower class children spend one hour a day in the homes of the rich, they will grow up to be productive and escape poverty. We see her taking care of a brood of such kids in her own fancy apartment.

Nut

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Best Editing 1917

The newest part of the “new art” of film was the power it gave to tell a story through editing. From the ability to compress long expanses of time to the power to heighten tension through simultaneous action in different places, to the power to redirect an audience’s attention through an insert shot, to the use of cuts within a scene to signal changes in perspective or internal experiences of a character, it was a whole new toolbox in narrative construction. Directors, writers, and editors were already exploring the possibilities of that toolbox by 1917, having come a long way from the days when edits were used mainly for “trick films” by making things appear and disappear.

The films nominated for best editing this year show a sophistication that was almost unheard-of five years earlier, but which an increasingly film-literate audience now took largely for granted. Louis Feuillade has been steadily improving his editing skills since the early days of “Fantômas,” and with “The Tragic Mill” he is able to heighten suspense effectively without dragging it out through the use of cross-cutting. The pacing of the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle “A Modern Musketeer” confirms that star’s famous penchant for “pep” as well as the editing talents of director Allen Dwan. Mary Pickford is the star of two of our nominees this year. In the first, “Little Princess,” director Marshall Neilan uses two distinct editing styles: one slow and stagey, for the main story, and one faster and clipped, for the “Ali Baba” story-within-a-story. Meanwhile, in “Poor Little Rich Girl,” despite his complaints about the scene, Maurice Tourneur turns in a remarkably edited mud fight, that necessitated several set-ups and re-takes. Rumor has it that Mary may have contributed to the editing process as well – Tourneur was mostly known for lighting more than editing.

The nominees for best editing of 1917 are:

  1. The Tragic Mill
  2. A Modern Musketeer
  3. Little Princess
  4. Poor Little Rich Girl

And the winner is…“A Modern Musketeer!”

The energy level of this movie exceeded anything I’d seen from Fairbanks – at his worst a pretty peppy guy – and a lot of this is a credit to the editing. He leaps from one scene to the next, always seeming ready to perform physical stunts or athletics at a moment’s notice. A stagier production couldn’t have pulled this off. We see Doug as D’Artagnan, fighting the good fight with swords, Doug roughing up a whole speakeasy of toughs, the cyclone in which Doug’s character was born, and Doug scaling a church tower – all before the real plot has even gotten going! It could be difficult at best to follow all that action, but the editing handles it deftly and the audience is carried along with each thrill. As a result, “A Modern Musketeer” feels like a thoroughly modern movie, even 100 years later, and that is a testament to its success.

Best Stunts 1917

Silent movies remain famous for their outrageous physicality and for the chances their stars took in production. The truth is that stunt people were used even from the very early days (no one really did “all of their own stunts”), but certain actors, like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, were remarkable athletes in their own rights and did do some pretty amazing stuff onscreen. In the real world of the Academy Awards, we don’t have an award honoring the best stunts seen in movies, but one of the benefits of the Century Awards is that I can rectify that and honor the work of these long-dead daredevils.

The aforementioned Fairbanks had established his style of athletic, all-American comedy by this point, and we have two examples of his work from 1917 on the roster of nominations. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he’s at pains to prove that chivalry isn’t dead to the girl of his dreams. Probably his best stunt here comes at the beginning, when he scales a church steeple bare-handed, but most people remember his handstand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon better (that was probably totally safe, but it looks death-defying!). In “Wild and Woolly,” he’s a Western-obsessed Easterner who tries to fight off the baddies single-handed when the townsfolk replace his bullets with blanks. In that one, we see him hanging to the rafters while kicking his way through the ceiling to get to some live rounds! Stunts involving trains always impress me as a former train-hopper, and we get some pretty risky-looking scenes in “Teddy at the Throttle” with Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon. Charlie Chaplin is in fine form as usual in “The Adventurer,” and he does some interesting stunts both in the water (where he rescues Edna Purviance and more reluctantly Eric Campbell as well), and in a two-story mansion in a manic chase sequence. And newcomer to the screen Buster Keaton showed off some of the prowess that would make him the king of comic stunts in the years to come in “The Rough House,” along with veteran Roscoe Arbuckle. “Fatty” sets fire to his bedroom, he and Buster both slip around a wet floor, and Buster gets hung up on a fence wearing an oversize policeman’s uniform.

The nominees for Best Stunts in 1917 are…

  1. A Modern Musketeer
  2. Wild and Woolly
  3. Teddy at the Throttle
  4. The Adventurer
  5. The Rough House

And the winner is…”A Modern Musketeer!”

I’ll be honest, I was tempted to go with Keaton this year, and “The Rough House” genuinely was one of the funniest movies I watched (see it if you haven’t), but Fairbanks did outdo himself this time around. I have no doubt that Buster will be returning to this category in future years. “A Modern Musketeer” however, really gives Doug a chance to show off everything he can do, from climbing sheer surfaces to swordplay to leaping over people to smashing up rooms in brawls. Some other actors show some pretty good moves in the “cyclone” scene depicting his character’s birth as well. The only problem the movie has is maintaining all of this frenetic action and still managing to get across a plot! It does slow down a bit in the second reel, but only to end with a suspenseful abduction-and-rescue.

Best Production Design 1917

In this world of virtual environments, the silent era often seems like a much more “solid” filmic world. In the early days, of course, directors working in spare studio spaces often asked audiences to “imagine” that a blank space was actually a jail cell, that a wooden box was a walk-in freezer, or that an obviously painted mirror had been smashed, but by 1917, these tricks were things of the past. Sets were built that sometimes dwarfed the actors, and put them into a space that they could believe as much as the audiences did. This category gives us a chance to honor some of the work that went into those productions.

I didn’t see any overwhelming set design in 1917 such as we saw in “Intolerance” the previous year, but some pretty impressive examples came up nonetheless. An underground base for a superhero was imagined in the “Judex” serial as displayed in “The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge.” Charlie Chaplin had an entire urban street environment constructed for “Easy Street,” incorporating gas lamps, second story windows, and trapdoors for hiding anarchist plots. Chaplin again did impressive work on “The Immigrant,” devising a ship set that swayed back and forth to emphasize the harshness (and comic potential) of sea travel. For the Douglas Fairbanks movie “Wild and Woolly,” an entire Western-style town is transformed from its “modern” form to an “Old West” parody of itself. And in Evgeni Bauer’s final film, “The Dying Swan,” he once again introduces his audience to a cinematic space with three complete dimensions, giving us opera stages, a mad artist’s studios, and the realm of the idle rich to play in.

The nominees for best production design of 1917 are:

  1. Easy Street
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Immigrant
  4. Wild and Woolly
  5. The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

And the winner is…“Easy Street!”

I felt that Chaplin’s dedication to creating an entire street for the purposes of a comedy short surpassed anything else I saw in production design this year. It probably facilitated his (and his cast’s) ability to experiment and improvise that they weren’t restricted in terms of angles or movement by the boundaries of a standard set of flats, or the limitations of location-shooting, where unforgiving reality has to be contended with. The street is instantly recognizable, and yet also anonymous: it could be in any large city of that period, in the US, UK, or elsewhere. It places the viewer into a fantasy world of urban blight and dark comedy. I felt it had to be honored as a great achievement.

Down to Earth (1917)

In this movie, also known as “The Optimist,” Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his belief in an active, outdoorsy lifestyle as the cure to society’s woes. He co-wrote the story, along with Anita Loos, who had worked with Fairbanks on “His Picture in the Papers” and “Wild and Woolly.”

The movie begins with Doug, who plays a character named Bill Gaynor (but might as well be called Doug Fairbanks), in college. He’s captain of the football team and in love with Ethyl Forsythe (Eileen Percy). He proposes to her, but she feels they lack common interests – he’s into sports, she’s into society affairs. Besides, she’s found another fellow, Charlie Riddle (Charles K. Gerrard). So, Doug goes off on a world tour to “forget” her. We see him mountain climbing, leading an African safari and riding the range. This healthy lifestyle is contrasted with the decadent parties that Ethyl and Charlie attend. One of them involves a fountain of champagne with dancing girls rising from the middle of the table that reminded me of “Metropolis.” Anyway, the pace of constant partying wears Ethyl down and one day, she collapses with a hangover. She is whisked off to a sanitarium and her engagement to Charlie is postponed, and someone thinks to send Doug a letter out at the ranch.

Doug comes racing back to see her, of course, and isn’t impressed by what he finds at the sanitarium. A bunch of wealthy hypochondriacs are coddled and enabled in their fantasies of illness. The windows are kept shut and there is no fresh air or exercise for anyone. After a brief visit with Ethyl, he goes to give the chief doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a piece of his mind. The doctor explains that efforts to really cure the wealthy are in vain, but a man gets rich allowing them to believe they are sick. Since he’s only in it for the money, he is amenable when Doug offers to “buy” his patients from him. He takes the honest doctor who works their into his confidence, and they devise a plan to kidnap them and bring them to a more healthful environment.

The plan is simple (sort of). They inform everyone that there is a smallpox scare and the sanitarium will be quarantined. But, Doug offers to sneak them out of the quarantine aboard his yacht, bound for New York. Instead of New York, he takes them to a small deserted island and forces them to “rough it” for two months. Actually, it isn’t really a deserted island, it’s an area near a place called “Palm Grove,” evidently in California (the film was really shot at Yosemite), but Doug dresses up one of the sailors from the yacht as a “Wild Man from Waukeegan” and stations him to guard the pass that would allow the socialites to discover the ruse. Anyway, Doug enforces a strict regime of exercise, which the castaways have to endure to eat, since he’s the only one with the wherewithal to catch fish and collect edible mushrooms and berries. The exercise regime is designed to reverse bad behaviors – an alcoholic has to drink two quarts of water before breakfast, a gloomy gus has to laugh like a hyena, and Charlie has to act as janitor. Charlie retains his selfish ways even after arriving – he tries to steal Doug’s and the doctor’s food on the first day, and ultimately he finds out that Palm Grove is nearby and makes an escape.

Charlie hooks up with a friend at Palm Grove who has a good idea. The reason he’s losing Ethyl to Doug is because Doug has used “Cave Man” tactics, so he should be a “Cave Man” too. The two of them will kidnap Ethyl and that will make her come around. The plan fails, of course, when Doug isn’t napping when the rest of the camp is, and he beats Charlie and his friend with one hand tied behind his back (literally). He swims out to the rowboat where Ethyl was drifting away and confesses to the ruse. She admits that she figured it out a while ago, and the two are happily united.

Overall, this is a pretty standard Fairbanks film, and it definitely speaks to his personal feelings about modern America – the health of the country is threatened by a kind of selfish decadence that ignores what made it strong in the first place. I would imagine that this message resonated well with audiences across the country at the time. It’s worth noting that the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe also saw a rise of various health movements that emphasized more “natural” living as well, so this was in the air. I think the story could have been improved by adding an element of real danger, as Loos and Fairbanks did in “Wild and Woolly.” Some kind of real threat – an actual wild man, a local tribe, a gang of smugglers that used this location – could have increased the tension in the third act, which otherwise seems a bit lame. Seeing Doug beat his foe one-handed is impressive, but it also emphasizes the inequity of the situation – he’s never really challenged or put at risk, everything comes to him much too easily. This might be what Americans, getting ready to see real fighting in the First World War, wanted for entertainment at the time, but it doesn’t result in as satisfying a movie as this might have been. I did get some laughs, though, especially from the hypochondriacs and their reactions to the situation, and Fairbanks is as charming as ever.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Charles K. Gerrard, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Herbert Standing

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Modern Musketeer (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks extends his brand of good-natured athletic all-American comedy into the realm of swashbuckling with this feature from 100 years ago. No doubt Fairbanks saw the potential in a story setting him as an adventurer in the Grand Canyon as soon as he read the source, a piece called “D’Artagnan of Kansas” by Eugene P. Lyle.

The movie begins with an extended flashback to the “Three Musketeers” which is almost a short movie in itself. Doug plays D’Artgnan, and he makes a point of mocking his own mustache and long locks in what seems to be a kind of wink at the audience. He rides into a tavern where he sees a woman inconvenienced by a nobleman of some sort, then starts a fight that leads to fencing and stunts, including leaping up to the rafters and continuing the fight from there. This is the first time I’ve seen Fairbanks with a sword in his hand (he’s had plenty of fights with guns and fists, up to this point), and it’s easy to see that he was a natural to Hollywood-style swordplay. His sword flashes and leaps, parries and thrusts, and never seems to draw any blood as he disarms and dispatches his foes. I can’t imagine that any fan of later action movies would be disappointed in this sequence or find it slow-moving. And, again, it includes Doug’s now-patented physical comedy touches, as when he grabs the beard of a sleeping drunk to steady himself during the battle.

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Joining the Swashathon

I’m a bit late with this announcement, but there’s still plenty of time before the event!

Movies Silently will be hosting the “Swashathon,” a blogathon dedicated to swashbuckling movies, TV shows, etc, and I will be participating. I will be covering the 1917 Douglas Fairbanks classic “A Modern Musketeer.” The event takes place July 14-17.

For more information, and a complete list of entries to date, see this post at Movies Silently.

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks is back with a parody of the Western genre that takes full advantage of his good-natured American good looks and propensity for athleticism. By this point, the Fairbanks comedy “brand” was clearly established and he was milking it for all it was worth.

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Doug stars as Jeff Hillington, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate with an obsession for the Old West. We first meet Jeff having a breakfast of beans at a campfire in front of a tent, decked out in complete “Western”-style clothing, reading an Old West adventure novel. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this cozy scene takes place in his Manhattan apartment: He has set up the campfire and tent in his bedroom. He also does some target practice in his room, which prompts his father to send the butler up to remind him to get ready for the office. Doug is really rough on the old guy, roping him with a lasso, making him watch his trick shots from dangerously close to the line of fire, and finally jumping on his back and “busting” him like a bronco.

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Doug goes in to work for his father, but doesn’t get much done because he’s too busy fantasizing about the West. He goes to a Nickelodeon to watch the latest Western movie, and tells a passing woman that “his mate” will have to be just like the girl in the poster. Meanwhile, dad is meeting with a delegation from the town of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, where a prosperous mining facility needs a new spur line added to facilitate transportation of the ore. Hillington Senior likes the idea in theory, but decides to send Jeff to look at the situation at first-hand. He also hopes that a trip to the real West will cure him of his obsession. Jeff thinks this is the most exciting idea he’s heard, and insists on calling all the delegates “pard” and commiserating with them that they have to wear “store clothes” when they visit New York.

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This gives the city fathers of Bitter Creek an idea: They’ll impress this young fool by putting on a Wild West show just for him and pretending that nothing has changed since the 1870s. They cover up all their nicely-printed signs with handwritten boards (the “S” is always backwards) and turn the city assessor’s office into a Western Saloon. They get everyone to dress up like cowboys and plan out a dance, some rowdies for Jeff to confront, and a holdup for the climax. Meanwhile, the local Indian Agent (Sam De Grasse) has been skimming off the government assistance intended for a nearby reservation, and he learns that he will soon be exposed. So, along with his sidekick, he plans a real train robbery, using the Wild West show as a distraction, and plans for some of “his” Indians come into town to simulate an “uprising.”

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Jeff rides into town decked out like a true Urban Cowboy and immediately confronts a man harassing the one available single girl in town (Eileen Percy). The mining men realize that they need to get his guns away from him and put fake bullets in them, because he’s too eager to use them. They manage to do this while he’s washing his face in a basin in the hotel. Everything goes well, with Jeff consistently acting out the clichés of his fantasy, and the townsfolk laughing their heads off behind his back. They convince him that they need the spur in order to put Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit out of business. Jeff insists on walking the girl everywhere she goes for her own safety.

Alley-oop!

Alley-oop!

Then, the robbery takes place. Sam De Grasse shoots the conductor after he has indicated which strongbox has the real money in it, and takes it. The Indians pour into town and take over the bar, drinking excessively and demonstrating that their guns, at least, have real bullets. Much of the town’s leading citizens are held at bay, and in a nearby room is a collection of infants, brought in by the wives because they had to attend the dance. Jeff discovers that his bullets have been replaced when he tries to save the day, and the city fathers come clean. He leaps up to the ceiling, kicks a hole through so he can climb into his own room, and secures the boxes of ammunition he had packed for his vacation. Now armed, he and the townsmen are able to re-take the bar. Meanwhile, the Indian Agent’s henchman had kidnapped Eileen and taken her out to the range. Jeff jumps on a horse from behind and rushes off to save her. The townsmen also get on horses and herd the Indians like cattle. Jeff saves the girl, and sheepishly admits that all the trouble was his fault for being such a goof about the West. Then he rides off on the next train while Eileen sheds a tear.

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Then an Intertitle tells us that a Western must end with a wedding, so of course the two principles are married. But where should they live? Eileen wants to live n New York and Jeff in Arizona. The final shot is a sort of reversal of our introduction to Jeff: we see the finely-appointed foyer of a mansion, with liveried servants waiting to serve. Jeff and Eileen come down the stairs together and kiss, then they open the doors onto the rough desert terrain, and a group of rowdies on horseback greets them as Jeff mounts his horse to ride the range.

Ouch.

Ouch.

This movie captures a lot of the fun of Douglas Fairbanks in a simple package. It also reminds me of the kind of thing Harold Lloyd would later do: the good-natured nebbish who doesn’t quite live in reality, but makes good and gets the girl in the end. I think it’s actually a bit funnier when skinny Lloyd does this than buff Fairbanks, but Fairbanks did it first. This movie definitely has its funny moments. I particularly enjoy the early sequences in New York with the butler, but Jeff’s efforts to “fit in” to the Western town are also quite good. That said, I wouldn’t call it perfect. In terms of comedy, a lot of the humor is dependent upon funny Intertitles, which I find distracts from the visual action. Most silent movies tried to minimize the use of titles and show as much as possible visually, but, perhaps because they wanted to preserve the witty writing of Anita Loos, they overdid it a bit here. The other “not funny” part of this movie is the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. This is mostly a problem in about the last ten minutes of the movie, but it gets really bad when they take over the bar and drink heavily, threatening the white citizenry and their babies. According to Wikipedia, these scenes were frequently censored even at the time.

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

It’s interesting to note that this movie was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was still a major filmmaking center in 1917. This would have made the New York scenes easier. In fact, there’s one scene of Jeff riding his horse in Central Park South that couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. But, it must have made the Western town and countryside a bit of a challenge. We don’t get any sweeping panoramas of the desert, but those weren’t common at the time even in Hollywood films, partly because of the limitations of cameras and film stock. The town itself is quite good, and we do get some impressive long shots to establish it that work well.

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The real point of the movie is that it parodies the clichés of an established genre, especially the style of Western favored by Broncho Billy Anderson and other kid-friendly fare. Loos and Fairbanks obviously saw that these tropes were ripe for satire, and they went at it with both barrels. This movie is important historically for what it tells us about the development of that genre.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Sam De Grasse, Joseph Singleton, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

You can watch it (no music) for free: here. It can also be rented for download (with music) from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.