Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Robert Gordon

Blue Blazes Rawden (1918)

William S. Hart stars in this somewhat somber morality tale set in the Pacific Northwest. With less action than his usual Westerns, this movie asks more of him as an actor and director in terms of emotion and conviction.

The movie begins, with rather flowery intertitles that have a distinctly Jack London influence, by introducing “Blue Blazes” Rawden – a hellraising timber man far from civilization (played by Hart), surrounded by his admirers on pay day. He leads them to the town of Timber Cove with the full intention of blowing all their pay in a wild debauch. They quickly locate the Far North Hotel, a place with a saloon suited to separate them from their money, and once there, Blazes is soon in a dispute with the owner, “Ladyfingers” Hilgard (Robert McKim), over his girl Babette du Fresne (Maude George). Blazes and Hilgard try to settle things with cards, but as Blazes winnings pile up and Hilgard is about to lose his hotel, he challenges Blazes to a gunfight, even going so far as to have one of his cronies sabotage Blazes’ ammunition, but Blazes is too tough for him, and ends up shooting Hilgard with his own gun.

Rawden has won the respect of the town, the hotel, and the woman in one fell swoop, but there’s a catch. As he’s dying, Hilgard gives Rawden the letter he just received from his aging mother (Gertrude Clair) – she’s coming out to visit, along with Eric, his innocent younger brother (Robert Gordon), and they expect to find a decent, respectable man, not a ruffian card sharp. When they arrive, apparently Rawden’s heart grows three sizes that day, because he can’t bring himself to tell the truth about Hilgard or himself. He admits that Hilgard is dead, but insists they were fast friends and that Hilgard was a pillar of the community. He threatens everyone at the bar not to contradict him or they’ll get what Ladyfingers got, and so they all go along with him as he puts up a gravestone that calls Hilgard  a good man and generally carries off a huge deception, reforming himself along the way. Eventually, Babette becomes annoyed by the “new” Blazes and tells the younger brother that Blazes killed Hilgard, which so enrages him that he shoots Blazes – who refuses to defend himself because that would mean killing two sons of the woman who he so respects. After saving Eric from a lynch mob, Blue Blazes makes him promise never to tell Mrs. Hilgard what he knows and leaves town a reformed man, though it seems likely he’ll die in the wilderness of his wounds.

Most of this movie hinges on Hart convincing his audience that he is so remorseful after meeting the mother of his victim that he completely changes from the brutal hell raiser into a man of decency. What’s remarkable is that he pulls it off quite well. The two sides of this character seem perfectly suited to Hart – he was equally capable of being the devil-may-care brawler and the man with a simple code of honor who never wavers, once decided on his path. It’s strange to see them both evoked in a single story like this, but somehow it works. It helps that Clair is so good as the refined but sweet old lady who could never think ill of her son or his surroundings. When Babette tries to tell her about Hilgard, she invites her to tea and remarks how surprised she is that the other ladies (all of them evidently prostitutes) of the town have never paid her a call. As a director, Hart deserves credit also for building a believable environment of savage lumber jacks, taking advantage of the redwoods in northern California to show a primeval forest that separates men from their upbringing and civilized training. Given this theme in the early intertitles, I was surprised when something as simple as a mother’s love was enough to shatter this premise and change the title character from hellion to angel.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Maude George, Robert McKim, Gertrude Claire, Robert Gordon, Jack Hoxie

Run Time: 51 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Bud’s Recruit (1918)

This two-reel narrative was produced as a “positive” film for young people, by a philanthropist concerned about the state of youth in America. It uses the theme of patriotism and the war effort to deliver a message about the innate decency of American boys.

The opening title explains this as a “Judge Brown Story,” but the judge is nowhere to be seen in this movie, so I’ll talk about him a little after going through my synopsis. The movie proper begins by introducing us to “Bud” (Wallis Brennan), a young man who likes to dress up in uniforms and play army games. He blows on his bugle and various other boys from the neighborhood rush over to line up for drilling. A couple of smaller children come up to ask if they can join in, and Bud takes them to a tree where he has marked the minimum height for participation. One makes it, the other does not. Then, that smaller boy gets the idea of standing on a rock, and Bud lets him in, not fooled, but appreciating the boy’s spunk. He gives the little boy a drum to beat while everyone marches. It isn’t long before he loses interest in all the hard walking and sits down under a tree with a puppy. When Bud finds out, he sentences the child to death for desertion, so the boy runs away quickly while the rest of the recruits fire their wooden guns at his back. The boy runs to his mother, who takes on the regiment with a frying pan and routs them, meanwhile beating the stuffing out of a dummy of Kaiser Wilhelm II that they set up for target practice.

Meanwhile, we meet “Reggie” (Robert Gordon), who is Bud’s older brother and has no interest in things military. He sits around in the backyard smoking and drinking lemonade served to him by an African American butler. His girlfriend Edith (Ruth Hampton) is reading  the paper and learns that Reggie’s draft number is so low that there’s no chance he will be called up to serve, which is a relief to them both, as well as to Reggie and Bud’s mom, herself involved with pacifist meetings. Bud objects to the lack of patriotism and is sent to his room without dinner, but he says it’s fine because it’s a “meatless day” anyway. In his room, he puts up various recruiting posters and looks at them longingly. We learn that Edith’s sister also has a beau, who signed up for service because he wasn’t going to be drafted, setting up a new pressure on Reggie to demonstrate his manliness. Reggie goes to the bedroom he shares with Bud and takes down the recruitment poster from the wall, but Bud draws a line with chalk across the middle of the room – one side is for patriots, the other for cowards like Reggie.

The next day, Bud leads a counter-protest of his boys when Reggie and mom attend a peace meeting in the living room. They carry a sign that says “We Want Peace – After We Lick Em!” Edith, apparently finding this more amusing than the dull speeches inside, picks up an American flag and joins the march. Reggie is led back inside by his mother, making him seem all the more dominated and infantilized. That night, while Reggie sleeps, Bud reads a newspaper story about German air raids that kill women and children, and he resolves to take action. If Reggie won’t volunteer to fight, he can dress up as Reggie and sign up himself in his brother’s name! He puts on a false mustache and swipes a pair of Reggie’s glasses and some of his clothes, and heads down to a Recruiting Office. The soldier there looks like he would pretty much sign up any boy who said he wanted to join, whether he dressed up or not – he doesn’t even apply Bud’s “tree test” to see how tall he is.

The news comes out in the local paper’s “honor roll” of volunteer soldiers. Reggie is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list, but before he finds out a soldier shakes his hand on the street and Edith’s sister sneaks up and kisses him! Edith now seems quite proud of Reggie, but mom is still deeply concerned. Then Reggie goes up to his room and shows Bud the article. He spots his glasses in Bud’s pocket and puts two and two together. The two brothers get into a fight, with Bud coming out on top and ordering Reggie to leave town so that he (Bud) can go through with his plan and join the army. Reggie says “uncle” and agrees. In the next scene, he’s at a train station, but of course there are recruitment posters there and he starts having second thoughts. Bud dresses up to report for duty, but he is met at the base by Reggie, who can’t let his kid brother do his duty for him. Bud seems astonished at first, but he smiles and runs off to tell Edith and his family the news. Everyone runs down to the base to see Reggie in his new uniform, and the servant sums up the situation, saying he “always knowed that boy had red, white, and blue blood in his veins.”

Classic movie fans will generally be familiar with Father Edward J. Flanagan and “Boys Town,” but they may not have realized how many similar projects there were in the United States at the time. This movie was made by the “Boy City Film Co.,” a project of Judge Willis Brown who did indeed run a chain of so-called “boy cities” across the nation. The Boy City Film Company produced a series of films to promote clean entertainment, of which this was the first. Most of them evidently did feature the Judge himself as a dispenser of wisdom and resolver of disputes, but this first movie only features him in a still photo as a prop. These movies are mostly lost, and would probably be entirely forgotten, except that the Judge was able to find a rather promising young man named King Vidor to direct them. This is not his first film (in fact he had been directing since 1913), but it is by far the earliest one I’ve ever seen. Given the heavy-handed intentions and presumably limited budget, it is a very effective movie, especially in terms of its comedy. The boy actors are charming, and always seem to give the adults a run for their money. Vidor seems to have internalized Judge Willis’s belief that boys “do not need to be saved,” and are naturally inclined towards goodness and decency, even when adults around them behave questionably. The movie comes across as innocently naïve, where it could have easily been foolish or preachy, which I believe is a testament to Vidor’s subtlety and sensitivity, more than to strength of the script itself.

Director: King Vidor

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Wallis Brennan, Robert Gordon, Ruth Hampton, Mildred Davis

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).