Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County (1913)
This typical short Western from Essanay shows Gilbert M. Anderson’s best-known character once again in trouble with the law, but acting from a code of decency nevertheless. It would be more or less impossible to reconcile its narrative with any coherency with other stories in the series, but that never seems to have been a concern for Anderson or his audiences.
The movie begins by showing a girl (Marguerite Clayton) ministering to her sick mother. She runs out of medicine, and goes out to another room to find her father (Lloyd Ingraham) snoozing in an easy chair. She gives him the empty medicine bottle and some money and sends him off to get more. Dad, it seems, however, is not the most reliable errand-boy, as we will see later, but we do see her admonish him as she gives him the money and there is a curious shot of him crossing a creek, sniffing the bottle and using the creek water to rinse it out. Now we switch scenes to a typical Western bar, and Broncho Billy sidles up to the bar and orders a drink. Dad comes into the bar and speaks with the bartender (Harry Todd) before slumping down in a chair at a table. The bartender brings him a menu written on a small tablet/chalk board, and takes a coin from him and erases something from it when he makes his selection. He then brings Dad a full bottle and lets him pour out a drink. After a while, Dad is pretty drunk, and he pulls out the medicine bottle and hands over the last of his coins, asking the bartender to fill it with rotgut. The bartender looks at the bottle and then goes to draw from what looks like the cheapest bottle in the house (actually it looks more like a large wine bottle). Dad passes out while he fills it.
Now Marguerite, wondering what’s taking so long, walks up and sees the bartender putting booze into the medicine bottle. She puts two and two together and goes to intervene. She wakes up her father and sniffs the bottle, then calls to the bartender, who refuses to take back the booze, insisting that the sale is complete. Broncho Billy sees what’s going on from across the room, and squares things with the bartender, giving him his gun in exchange for him returning both the empty bottle and the money to the girl. She is thankful, but now she struggles to get her dad to come with her, so Billy gives an assist. She goes to the drug store and gets the medicine while Billy sees to Dad, who is now awake and quite upset at the situation. They get back to her home and she gives Billy a prayerbook as a reward.
The Intertitles tell us it is now the next day, and Billy is on horseback in the woods. He sees the stage driving up and gets himself into position to rob it, but Marguerite sees him and shames him out of doing it. She speaks to him and he takes out the little prayer book she gave. Meanwhile, Dad robs the stage a few feet down the road. He takes the strongbox and bashes it open with a rock, taking the loot bags and riding to his home, unaware that Billy has seen him. We now see the sheriff rousing his deputies in pursuit, as the report of the robbery has come in. Billy goes to the house and warns Dad they are coming, offering to take the cash off his hands. Billy mounts up and there is a wild chase on the road, with the posse in close pursuit. Billy manages to reach the County line, and he leaves the bags at the marker with a note that he is leaving the territory for good. The posse is satisfied to recover the money, and does not pursue him past their jurisdiction. A final shot shows Billy at church, kneeling and putting his prayerbook to good use.
The first problem with this movie is that there are sources that list it as “Why Broncho Billy Left Bear Country,” which implies a different kind of a story. Even the DVD collection I have gives a different title on the beginning of the movie and the intertitles (both of which look reconstructed, to me). The fact that “Bear County” is written on the sign where Billy hangs the money seems to resolve that question, as well as the fact that we don’t see any bears, which would seem necessary to establish “bear country” in context. I had a hard time recognizing Dad as the robber in the second half of the film, and without that information, the story was confusing the first time through. The only thing that distinguishes him, given the quality of the print I was watching, was his checkered shirt. Poor Marguerite, with a dissipated father who resorts to such un-Christian acts! The color of the medicine and the booze were also very similar, which got me to wondering whether Ma might also be a secret tippler, and the medicine really snake oil all along. The most interesting thing cinematically about this movie is the editing. Most of the movie is stagey, with long, stationary shots in which the actors go about their business. The first moment in which this is disrupted is actually when Billy goes to help out Marguerite. Suddenly there are edits from him to the bar to the table where Dad and Marguerite are, giving the audience a sense of things happening at the same time. The bigger use of this is the horse chase at the end, where Anderson seems to be trying to emulate “The Great Train Robbery” by creating an action-suspense sequence to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s not quite so thrilling as that movie, but with the moment of suspense when the posse is bearing down on the house where Billy and Dad are exposed with the loot, there is a moment of genuine alarm.
Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson
Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lloyd Ingraham, Harry Todd, Fred Church, Victor Potel, True Boardman, David Kirkland
Run Time: 13 Min
You can watch it for free: here.