Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Westerns

The Puncher’s New Love (1911)

This unusual film from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson avoids most of the usual Western tropes to tell a romantic story of love lost through selfishness. While a bit awkwardly shot and acted, it goes a long way to showing the diversity of roles Anderson did within the “Broncho Billy” umbrella.

As the movie begins, Anderson is leaning in the window to ask out his girl (Ann Little) to an upcoming barn dance. She is happy to accept and even gives him a little kiss goodbye. Right after he departs, a rival (John O’Brien) arrives with a handbill about the same dance. Ann rightly tells John she can’t go with him, because she just agreed to go with Billy, but he doesn’t seem to get the hint until she repeats herself. Eventually, he seems to console himself by saying at least he’ll see her at the dance with Billy. Meanwhile, Billy comes across a “city girl” (Gladys Field) out riding, and is immediately infatuated. He shows her the handbill and she shows an interest in going with Billy, who seems to completely forget about Ann. On the night of the dance, John sees Billy come in with the city girl and his jaw drops. She refuses to shake hands with a man Billy introduces her to, and looks disdainfully at the whole affair, but eventually agrees to dance with Billy. John eagerly rushes off to find Ann, who is standing forlornly in front of her gate. He tells her Billy’s there with another woman, and she looks crushed, but eventually agrees to go with John. Once there, Billy appears to be about to leave with his bored date, but receives a withering stare from Ann before he gets out the door, and sees that she is with John.

Some time later, Billy pays a call on the city girl, looking about in wide-eyed wonder at her fine house and the liveried butler. Gladys seems not to remember Billy when he is announced, but eventually deigns to coldly greet him. Then a man in a tuxedo comes in and she quickly rushes up and hugs him hello. Billy expresses his jealousy and is asked to leave, which he will not do until he’s said his piece and threatened violence. Now he returns shame-faced to see Ann in her home, but she is still angry at being cast aside without even being informed that their date was off. She tells Billy to go, and this time he does so with more decency, because this is someone he can respect. John comes in a bit later with a ring and we see that Ann has transferred her feelings to him. A final intertitle (possibly added due to the loss of some footage) tells us that the couple eventually discovers Billy dead.

We can’t see you, Ann!

There are no gunfights, horseback chases or bar room brawls in this film, yet it is fundamentally about the different values of the “pure” pioneering America versus the corrupt Europeanized culture of the city. Billy and all the other “punchers” wear riding garb at all times, even at the formal dance, although the city girl wears a black gown and the other country girls are in simple dresses. The overall plot is reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s much later movie “Sunrise,” but without the happy ending, or the attempted murder. It’s interesting that Billy is unable to redeem himself from his mistake – usually in a story like this, a man can make amends, but a “fallen woman” has to die. This movie surprised me by ending with the death of the fallen man. It’s very much a 1911 movie, with all shots taken at full-figure distance, and no camera movement or editing within scenes. The sets are often crowded, especially the dance hall set, and actors frequently pass in front of one another, obscuring  the main action. The dance begins with a little comedy about the fiddler, who is either drunk or exhausted (I couldn’t tell if he was laughing hysterically or yawning), and nearly everyone in the movie is crowded into that scene. One really unfortunate choice was to shoot the scene of John picking up Ann from behind the gate Ann is waiting at, so her face is obscured as she acts out her reaction to Billy’s betrayal. There were a lot of other angles they could have used for that scene, but it probably didn’t occur to anyone that it would be an issue.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Gladys Field, Ann Little, John O’Brien, Augustus, Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, Brinsley Shaw

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914)

This two-reel comedy from Keystone shows Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as he was still honing his craft, though he tries out some gags that would be put to better use in later movies. True to the Keystone spirit, it is fast-paced and incoherent.

 

The movie begins similarly to the later movie “Out West,” with Fatty riding the roof of a train, only to be abandoned in the middle of a Western desert with no apparent resources. In this case, Slim Summerville comes along to kick him off the train, and unfortunately that’s his only appearance. Fatty spots Minnie-He-Haw (played by Minnie Devereaux), a Native American woman of about Fatty’s own girth. He decides to pretend to be dying of thirst to get her help, and she calls over some braves from a nearby camp to drag him home. Of course, since she’s now “saved his life,” she expects him to show his appreciation by marrying her. She takes him into her teepee and there’s a bit of funny business about the challenge of kissing when both have such large bellies. Then Minnie goes out to announce her betrothal to the tribe, and Fatty spots Minta Durfee having trouble with her horse nearby. He sneaks over to help her out and when Minnie finds out, the “green-eyed monster” takes over and she drags him back to a feast in their honor. Fatty eats a little and then either becomes ill or fakes it and makes another attempt at a getaway.

Minta rides into town up to the saloon and tells her father (Josef Swickard) about her adventures. He defends her from a funny drunk played by Harry McCoy, who does some good stunts, getting tossed around a bit. She then goes over to the corner to prepare dinner on a convenient stove. Fatty now arrives and also heads to the saloon and pushes McCoy down before spotting Minta and eating most of her dinner. McCoy tries to start another fight and gets shoved again, but now Swickland sees what’s going on and gets out his gun. At the same time, Minnie, also armed, shows up in town looking for Fatty. Swickard tells Fatty to keep away from Minta and shoots at his feet to make him dance, which is so amusing all the local cowhands join in. When he runs outside, Minnie is shooting at him also, so he runs back inside to further gunfire. After this has gone on awhile he runs out of town, winding up back at the Indian camp, where the Indians tie him to a stake and start a fire to punish him for his betrayal of Minnie. Minnie has a change of heart and frees him, but again he uses the opportunity to escape, and now the whole tribe mounts horses to pursue him. He evades them by crossing a skinny rope bridge that won’t hold the horses, but now they fire arrows at him. Several hit him in the behind and he runs off into the distance as the image irises in to indicate the end.

As we might expect from Keystone, the movie is short on plot and big on excesses, and your capacity to enjoy it depends on your comfort with Native American stereotypes and jokes at the expense of fat people. At least Minnie-He-Haw is a person with her own motivations, which is more than some Western dramas were managing at the time. Devereaux definitely fits right in to the madcap atmosphere at Keystone, even if she isn’t wearing bizarre facial hair, and plays her role with gusto. Arbuckle is also committed, even if we don’t get many of his famous stunts, and his run across the rope bridge looks genuinely hazardous. It was fun spotting various Keystone regulars in their Western garb, given a break from always playing cops. I sort of wanted Fatty and Minnie to end up together, but I suppose a mixed-race marriage would have been controversial in a comedy at the time.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minnie Devereaux, Minta Durfee, Slim Summerville, Josef Swickard, Harry McCoy, Frank Hayes, Edward Dillon.

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Life of a Cowboy (1906)

For this Independence Day post, I’m reviewing a quintessentially American film – one which its director, Edwin S. Porter, believed was “the first filmed Western” (evidently “The Great Train Robbery” didn’t count). It makes use of familiar tropes of Western stage plays and Wild West shows to present its story.

It begins in a saloon, the “Big Horn” (named for a steer skull prominently hanging over the bar). An old Indian comes into the saloon, wobbling a bit, and is turned away by the white bartender. Now, an identifiable bad guy with a black hat comes in and orders a drink, taking it over to the Indian, but an Indian squaw runs up and knocks the glass away before he can take a drink. A generic white good guy in a white hat runs in and stops the bad guy from hurting her, then enforces his departure with his six-gun. He leaves, and some rather odd folks come in. One, identifiable by his Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker cap and portly girth, evidently represents an English tourist. There is also a skinnier man and a woman with him. Five cowboys on horseback soon enter and entertain themselves by shooting off guns and making the tourist “dance” ala “The Great Train Robbery.” They ride up to the bar and take some drinks, occasionally firing off a gun for good measure.

The next scene takes place on a dirt-covered street outside the hotel. A stagecoach drives up and disgorges the Englishman and his companions. The skinny Englishman is dragged out of the coach by some cowboys and playfully flogged with a saddle. The good guy from the first scene embraces the woman, pushing the bad guy aside when he shows an interest. Then we cut to a scene on a local ranch, where the local cowboys are showing off their lassoing skills to the newcomers. The portly Englishman gets too close, and is dragged around the yard before the main entertainment begins: a woman rides past the lasso artist and he ropes first her, and then her horse as they pass by. We now cut back to the dirt road and watch as the stage coach departs, and the bad guy jumps on a horse and follows, cutting to a side road at top speed.

The bad guy is soon seen to have rounded up some Indian allies, and they chase the stage, eventually overtaking it and wounding the driver. The woman is put on a horse by the bad guy and Englishmen are forced to walk. The stage driver is able to get to the good guy, who rounds up a posse to go after them. There is another chase and several Indians are shot as the good guy and his team liberate the prisoners. At last, evidently free from peril, the good guy and his girl sit by some trees, but the bad guy sneaks up on them, followed by a lone figure. Just as he is about to shoot the good guy in the back, the figure shoots him from behind and we see that it is the Indian girl from the first scene. The good guy thanks her and kisses his girl.

At 17 minutes, this is a fairly long movie for 1906, and it’s not easy to follow the action. I made use of a synopsis, provided to exhibitors by Edison, to make sense of it, and in the theater an exhibitor would most likely have narrated the action for the audience. That synopsis refers to the bad guy as “a Mexican greaser,” but since there is no racial coding that would be obvious to a modern audience, I avoided that term. I did go ahead and refer to the Native Americans in the movie as “Indians,” because their costumes will be recognized by anyone today. They represent several stereotypes, but at least there is some complexity among them: the old man is a drunk, the young squaw is a tragic hero, and most of the younger men are generic thugs. They do a lot of the better stunts, and my guess is that they worked on Wild West shows in real life, where falling off horses and shooting off guns for an audience paid well. The lassoing sequence also comes straight from the Wild West shows (including the comedy of the “rube” getting dragged around), while the reference to the “Big Horn” saloon is from the stage version of “The Squaw Man,” later to be filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, among others.

The movie, like many from this period, relies heavily and fast moving action and chases, along with bits of slapstick comic relief, to keep the audience engaged. It doesn’t come across as being as exciting or innovative as “The Great Train Robbery,” but Porter is correct in that it more clearly evokes the atmosphere of the Old West, as understood by film audiences then and now. Porter had gotten proficient at shooting a standard chase sequence at this time, and the use of camera pans allows us to follow the action, but the sequential editing limits the suspense of these scenes, and makes for a less exciting experience than later Westerns would provide.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter and/or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 17 Min, 21 secs

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet.  If you do, please comment.

The Ruse (1915)

This early short starring William S. Hart lacks the complexity of his later features, but still differs from the more generic Westerns of the era by presenting a decidedly unusual storyline for its star. Hart presents a moral tale in which the simple values of the frontier are contrasted with the corrupt climate of the urban Midwest.

The movie opens by introducing the villain (John Davidson), a crooked mine promoter and his innocent stenographer, May Dawson (Clara Williams), who Davidson seems unduly interested in. Then the scene shifts to the West, where Hart as “Bat” Peters rides into town and defends an old drunk against a bully at a bar, then goes to check his mail. He has a letter from the promoter, who is interested in buying his mine. He suggests bringing samples of the ore to Chicago with him. Bat does so, and he and May make eyes at one another when they meet, and she suggests he room at her mother’s boarding house. Meanwhile, the crook decides to swindle Bat out of his mine, and makes plans with a small gang of hoods to pull it off. However, May hears the details of their plan, so she is kidnapped and held in a small room while the plan is put into action. Bat signs over his mine in exchange for cash and a “bogus Westerner” is introduced to show him the town. He is coaxed into a crooked poker game, with the intention of cheating him out of the money he’s been paid for his property. However, Bat sees the others trading cards and holds them at gunpoint. In trying to get out, he stumbles into the room where May is held, and then a fight breaks out as he tries to rescue her. The police, summoned by gunshots and a fire Bat has started, arrive, and take the crooks into custody. Bat and May go back to her mother’s house and he invites her to join him in the clean air of “the only land I understand.” The end.

Pardon me ma’am, but is today the 23rd?

I was a bit surprised to see a story set in Chicago starring William S. Hart. He’s still an upright cowboy though, so I guess it’s OK. It’s sort of a reversal of movies like “Wild and Woolly” where Douglas Fairbanks plays an easterner who goes West to find himself. The director seems to have been concerned that we would lose track of what day it was, because there’s a large calendar on the wall at the office that shows the date clearly, and it changes as the story moves from one day to the next. This movie, like “The Arizona Wooing,” was produced by the New York Motion Picture Company’s “Broncho Films” but there’s no obvious attempt to play on Broncho Billy this time. Hart probably wouldn’t have stood for it, although it occurs to me that Billy’s Essanay Company was located in Chicago, the den of evil in this movie, so there may have been a sly comment at work there. There isn’t much going on with the filmmaking here, mostly pretty standard shots  and editing for the period, although there’s an insert shot during  the poker game of one player’s hand passing a card to another, followed  by a closeup of Hart glaring as this happens, so that at least there’s some use of technique. Bat seems to get off awful easy after shooting several men and starting a fire in the warehouse, but I suppose May’s testimony would have some influence on the police. Anyway, it’s not Hart’s best work, but it’s interesting to see where he came from.

Director: William H. Clifford , William S. Hart

Camera: Robert Doran

Starring: William S. Hart, Clara Williams, John Davidson, Gertrude Clair, Bob Kortman

Run Time: 21 Min

I have not found this movie available online for free. If you do, please comment.

An Arizona Wooing (1915)

This lightweight Western short was evidently intended for children and unsophisticated audiences (the bad guy even wears  black hat!), but it works well enough for the time it was made. It was directed by and stars Tom Mix, one of the biggest Western stars of the silent era.

The movie begins by establishing that Tom Warner (Mix) is rivals with “Mexican Joe” (Pat Chrisman) for the affections of Jean Dixon (Louella Maxam). Jean and Tom are on a date out on the range, and Warner goes to a creek to get Jean some water when Joe rides up. He’s kitted out in Mexican finery, and wears a gun (Tom does not). He immediately starts harassing Jean, insisting that she come with him and Tom runs back over and punches him, sending him packing. Next, it is established that Tom is a sheep farmer in cattle country by showing scenes of Tom nursing a baby sheep with a bottle. Jean’s father, Thomas Dixon (William Brunton), gets together with a bunch of other cattle ranchers to write Tom a note saying he needs to stop raising sheep, or else. He responds by asking Jean to meet him at the corral, which angers Mr. Dixon still more. He meets up with Jean, they exchange pleasantries and kiss, and as soon as she’s gone a group of about seven ranchers set upon Tom and tie him up. They ride out to a bluff and tie Tom to the ground, warning him that he’ll stay that way until he agrees to give up sheep farming. The next morning Mexican Joe rides up and slaps Tom in the face now that he’s helpless. Jean comes along and remonstrates with Joe, which results in him kidnapping her. Mr. Dixon now rides out to the bluff to give Tom some food (he’s not heartless) and Tom tells him what’s happened. Mr. Dixon frees Tom and rides off to round up a posse. Tom is able to get to his horse and gallops out to the parson’s, where the Mexican was just minutes away from marrying Jean. He runs as soon as he sees Tom, but Tom lassos him and drags him back to the posse, who take him away. Jean and Tom embrace while Mr. Dixon looks approvingly on, apparently now reconciled to having some sheep on the range.

Just looking at the names in the title credits, I knew who was going to win, even before I noticed that Warner was played by Mix. The movie has no surprises in terms of race, although for half a second I thought Mexican Joe might be decent and free Tom when he found him tied up. I should have known better. The sheep/cattle issue is simplified to a point of being ridiculous, although it seems to have been an excuse to include some cute images of baby sheep, maybe for the littler kids. This is the first Tom Mix movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, I believe, and he lives up to his reputation for providing very simple, super-clean Westerns with action and moral plots. I actually hadn’t known his career started this early, since one usually hears him mentioned in connection with the 1920s, but evidently he worked at Selig from at least 1910 to 1917.

Director: Tom Mix

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Tom Mix, Louella Maxam, Pat Chrisman, William Brunton, Sid Jordan

Run Time: 15 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you have, please comment.

The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912)

This typical Western short from director Francis Ford has an interesting twist and nice performances by the leads. It reminded me a lot of “The Making of Broncho Billy” until the end, where things take a different turn.

The movie begins by introducing Harry Burns (played by Harold Lockwood), who is a star pitcher on a college team. We see him playing pitching a ball in an over-the-shoulder shot, and then the reaction of the crowd as he wins the game. His college life ends, however, when a letter from his uncle arrives informing him that “financial reverses” make it impossible to continue funding his education. He has set him up in a job “in the west,” however, so he’s not destitute. His teammates, along with an old professor and a man in a clerical collar (I suppose the college deacon) all shake his hand and then go to celebrate the victory, leaving Harry to bemoan the loss of his promising baseball career.

He soon recovers, however, and shows up in the typical western town of the era, taking on a job as paymaster (I suppose for the railroad, although it’s not specified). His boss is a gruff-looking cowboy and he has a cute cowgirl daughter (Helen Case). She seem somewhat taken by the handsome new arrival and starts to show him the ropes of his job, but suddenly loses interest when he refuses to carry a gun. She now goes out to a group of toughs and tells them to teach him a lesson, and when Harry comes out they menace him with their guns, even making him “dance” a-la “The Great Train Robbery.” Despite being unarmed, he stands up for himself and proceeds to beat up the lead bully with his fists – the other man tries to fight, but he does have too much honor to reach for his gun and Harry beats him fair and square. Helen takes note of this and gives the bully a bit of ribbing after the fight.

DANCE!

The next day, Harry receives a package in the mail from his old college chums – it is the ball that he pitched in his last game, a memento of his old life. He and Helen are getting closer now, to the consternation of the bully character and the concern of her father. When she sees him setting off to collect the payroll money, she decides to play another “little joke” and takes the office gun that Harry refuses to carry, sneaking out with a smile on her face. However, even as she plans to teach Harry a lesson by pretending to be a bandit, a real bandit by the name of “Red Dan” is introduced. He sees the unarmed man at the post office, picking up the money and his package and decides to follow him.

Helen, now disguised with a heavy coat and a bandana, accosts Harry on the road and threatens him with the gun, but Harry’s not afraid of this rather short bandit and he grabs her gun hand and removes the mask, finding who it really is. Just at that moment, Red Dan rushes in and holds them up. He takes Helen’s gun and searches Harry, finding only the baseball, which he throws to the ground. Then he takes the money and walks away. Thinking fast, Harry grabs the baseball and pitches it into the bandit’s head! He goes down and Harry runs over and quickly overcomes him and binds him while Helen holds his gun. Once again, Harry has proved that his physical talents can overcome a gunman.

I’m sure he’ll get a fair trial.

Now Helen and Harry bring the bandit, and the money, back into town. The gang of toughs leads the bandit away (a prominent length of rope made me think of a lynching, but nothing is shown). Helen’s father congratulates Harry. The final scene shows Helen and Harry sitting on a bench, obviously falling in love. The Pony Express man rides up with a telegram, informing Harry that he has been selected to play on the Chicago White Sox, and can move back east. At this, Helen begins to cry and Harry writes out his reply: he is “engaged for life” and will not return to ball playing. Helen looks up with surprise and embraces him.

Now you see it…

…Now you don’t.

The big surprise in this movie, which sets it apart from “The Making of Broncho Billy” and dozens of similar Westerns, is that the hero does not pick up a gun by the end of the movie. He wins the day with his baseball skills instead. Of course, when G.M. Anderson tried to respond to a bullying situation with his fists, he wasn’t given the chance, so this partly depends on the sense of honor of one’s opponents, but it’s clear that the bandit here would have had no compunctions about shooting an unarmed man or a woman. One odd “continuity error,” that probably no one cared about at the time is that the insert shot introducing the baseball doesn’t match the long shot – in the shots before and after the insert, Harry is holding the bag of money, but the insert shot shows him fondling the ball with both hands and nothing else in them. I was also struck by Helen Case’s performance, in which she frequently acts out what she’s describing to the characters. This would have been frowned on in silent films just a few years later, and usually does look like “over-acting,” but somehow she makes it seem natural, like it’s part of how her character communicates normally. I quite enjoyed her playful approach to acting.

There’s a bit of a mystery about the production of this movie. On-screen credits claim it comes from “Broncho Movie Company” and there’s even an “S&A” at the end with an Indian head, giving the impression that this was released by Essanay, the company that made the Broncho Billy movies. I thought perhaps it was an early release from their studio in Niles, California. But, so far as I know Francis Ford never worked for Essanay, and the imdb (admittedly an imperfect source) lists the producer as Thomas Ince. If that’s the case, Ince may have been deliberately trying to horn in on Essanay’s success with the “Broncho” and “S&A” references. Today, that’d get you a lawsuit, but in the freewheeling early days of film, a lot of things went unchallenged!

Director: Francis Ford

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Harold Lockwood, Helen Case, Joe King

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online. However, you can see a clip from it here.

His Last Game (1909)

This short film from Independent Moving Pictures (the I.M.P.) has many elements that would appear in later films by D.W. Griffith, but with a somewhat surprising ending. It uses baseball to tell a story of honor and racial strife.

The movie opens by telling us that the last game of the year is impending, with the Choctaw team facing the team from Jimtown. Bill Going, an Indian, is the star pitcher for Choctaw. We see Bill standing in front of the town bar and a large sign announcing the game. His teammates, most of whom appear to be white, come up and invite him to go drinking but he refuses, perhaps wanting to stay clear for the game. Another man in Indian garb with elaborate war feathers comes up and stands in the background as the team leaves for their drinks. Now, two gamblers in traditional Western clothing come up and offer Bill a generous pile of coins in order to throw the game. Bill counts out the coins several times, only to finally refuse. The gamblers go off to the bar together, and we see them spiking a drink in an insert shot, then they come back and offer the drink to Bill, who agrees at first, but then insists on switching drinks with one of them. When that one fails to drink, Bill throws his drink at him. Now, the gambler, outraged, pulls his gun. Bill quickly disarms and shoots him. Now the sheriff suddenly comes out of the bar, to see Bill shoot down a white man. The other Indian watches as the sheriff arrests him on the spot.

The next scene is labeled “swift Western justice” by an intertitle. We see a group of grave-diggers in the background, and Bill and the sheriff in the foreground. The Indian tries to remonstrate with the sheriff to no avail, but then Bill’s team arrive and they ask the sheriff to let him live long enough to pitch for them. The sheriff agrees, but insists that the other Indian stand in his place. If Bill doesn’t come back in time, he will execute this man instead. Bill and the Indian agree to the terms. The sheriff sends a note to the judge asking for a stay of execution, if Bill keeps his word. The next sequence shows the ball game, all shot from behind the home plate. We see the Jimtown players gain several bases, but then Bill runs up and pitches a shutout. The Choctaws win. The team carries Bill back to the bar on their shoulders, then offers him a large drink to celebrate. Bill is about to drink when he remembers his promise. He throws down the bottle and runs back to the grave site. The grave diggers are now a firing squad, and are just about to shoot the Indian when Bill arrives. He takes the man’s place, but the Indian signals that he hears hoofbeats, putting his ear to the ground in cliché fashion. Intercutting shows us that the messenger is indeed running back, but the sheriff doesn’t see anything in time, so the execution proceeds. The messenger rides over the hill just as Bill is shot and his body falls into the grave. The sheriff reads the note that would have saved Bill’s life, just seconds too late, and the team arrives to mourn his loss.

I.M.P. was one of the companies that later went into making Universal Pictures, and this movie was produced by Carl Laemmle, senior, the head of that operation. I.M.P. was also famous for defying the Edison Trust and operating independently, and this movie would have been shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the site of their operations and much of the American film industry at the time. They made movies for the burgeoning Nickelodeon market, and indeed Laemmle and his partners had started out as Nickelodeon theater owners. This movie demonstrates that concepts of editing which are often attributed to a later period had already come into use, if in rather primitive form, at the time. The inter-cutting between the messenger and the execution scene is reminiscent of Griffith’s 1911 film, “The Lonedale Operator,” although here the hero is unable to save the day in time. I found myself reflecting that if Bill had been white, the story probably would not have ended the same way. The “noble savage” story almost always had a tragic ending, however, and here Bill is killed by “swift Western justice” that has no sympathy for his situation or ethical behavior. Bill’s relationship with alcohol is also interesting – he never actually drinks, but is repeatedly tempted by drink and appears eager to do so, each time realizing just in time that it would be a mistake. Also interesting was the decision to shoot the entire ball game from a single angle, one in which the players frequently obscure the action from the camera. Showing baseball to audiences was still a new thing at the time, and more sophisticated ways to demonstrate it were yet to be developed. Note that the scene of the two gamblers drinking shows the I.M.P. logo prominently – still a common practice at the time to discourage film piracy.

Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. You can see a brief segment here.

Ramona (1910)

This early short by D.W. Griffith was shot in California and adapts a highly popular novel which had come to be associated with the myth of Californian conquest. Although this is one of the longest movies released that year, Griffith was clearly feeling the constraints of the short format in trying to tell such a large story.

The movie begins with a Biograph title card, which includes the subtitle “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian.” The next card informs us about the source, the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the fact that the movie was shot “on location” in Camulos, California, “the actual scenes” where the novel is set. The first shot shows Ramona (played by a very young Mary Pickford) and her meeting with Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), one of the Indians who works at her stepmother’s estate. Ramona is sewing, and as the Indian workers file past, Alessandro notices her and is struck by her beauty. Ramona goes into the church to pray, and Alessandro follows her. An intertitle informs us that the next scene is “the meeting at the chapel,” in which we witness their “meet cute.” Ramona also seems fascinated, but demure, and her stepbrother Felipe (Francis J. Grandon) introduces them and then leads Alssandro away. The next scenes show their growing attraction, and we learn that Ramona has rejected an engagement with Felipe over Alessandro. But, when Ramona sees Alessandro playing guitar under a tree, she runs away in horror, running to the church to ask forgiveness. But, after praying, she returns to him and embraces him, only to be violently separated by her outraged stepmother (Kate Bruce).

A sane Alessandro.

A sudden shift in the plot takes place as the next intertitle informs us that “The Whites” devastate Alessandro’s village. We see this event at a great distance, with burning tents visible from a cliff. The main focus of action is on Alessandro in the foreground, who emotes his loss with gestures.  Now, Ramona’s stepmother tells her the truth: she is half-Indian herself. This makes her love for Alessandro a possibility, and she goes to him to tell him, after somehow “intuiting” the burning of the Indian village. Again, they embrace, and now Ramona chooses his life over her own, joining him in poverty and effective exile. At first, Ramona’s stepmother wants to send workers out to search for her, but Felipe calls it off, forcing the family to accept Ramona’s choice. We see a brief scene of domestic bliss for Ramona and Alessandro, and they have a baby, but soon the whites come back to inform them that they now own the land. Now, they are homeless with a tiny baby to care for. They wander out into the mountains, and soon the baby dies and Alessandro is driven mad. In this state, he runs into one of the whites, who shoots him down. Ramona is grieving over his body when Felipe arrives to take her home.

An insane Alessandro

The movie as shown is very hard to follow without some background information or familiarity with the novel. Felipe’s role is particularly obscure, but also the “intuition” that drives Ramona to Alessandro the second time and various other events are hard to deduce from the intertitles. Scenes like the eviction from their house seem to drag on, but there are big jumps in the plot as it proceeds. Still, the movie has some interest. I’ve always felt that Griffith worked better in a short format (in part because he refused to write scripts or storyboards in detail), and this movie shows some of his developing strengths as a director. There is good use of inter-cutting to set up simultaneous events, and suspense is effectively established, as when Ramona prepares to sneak out of her stepmother’s house and one wonders if she will make it. Pickford is quite early in her acting career, and while she doesn’t dominate the screen the way she will later, she manages some nice touches as Ramona, especially when she seems to be vacillating between guilt over her feelings for Alessandro and a desire to give in to them. Walthall, who would go on to become a very successful leading man, still seems a bit rough around the edges to me. There’s no denying his screen presence, but he seems to go in for gesticulating over facial expressions. A bit more subtlety on his part would go a long way toward making this more watchable.

Once again, we have one of those D.W. Griffith movies that “prove” he wasn’t racist, because the whites are bad guys and the Indians are held up as noble. The problem with this is the degree to which the myth of the “noble savage” is bound up in American colonialism and the fact that this movie makes no attempt to depict the reasons behind the white people’s actions and the degree to which they are motivated by American values into attacking and victimizing the indigenous people. Reviewers at the time noted that it failed to truly transmit the intended message of the novel, focusing only on the elements of tragic romance that transcend race and situation. Undeniably a movie of historical interest, it may not live up to its reputation as a classic.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, Dell Henderson, W. Chrystie Miller, Dorothy Bernard, Gertrude Clair, Anthony O’ Sullivan

Run Time: 16 Min

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

M’Liss (1918)

Mary Pickford is a feral, bratty tomboy in this comedy-western from Artcraft. While in most of the movies I reviewed in 1917 she played a little girl of ten or eleven (taking advantage of her stature to seem younger than her co-stars), here she is a girl on the cusp of woman-hood, but the movie handles this somewhat awkwardly.

The movie opens, as many silent features did, with a kind of visual credit sequence in which each actor and character is introduced with an intertitle and a brief vignette that shows them in character. Pickford is shown in a raggedy dress, firing a slingshot at a bear in the woods, and we are told that her name means “limb of Satan” to the local populace. We also meet her pappy, “Bummer” Smith (Theodore Roberts), a  bearded man who trades eggs for booze, the local judge (Tully Marshall) who also enjoys a drink, and the villain, “Mexican” Joe (Monty Blue). Shortly thereafter, the new schoolteacher (Thomas Meighan) rides into town on a stagecoach that is robbed by M’Liss at slingshot-point, largely due to the winking cooperation of the stagecoach driver, Yuba Bill (Charles Ogle). We now learn that “Bummer” Smith has a rich brother in San Francisco who has willed “Bummer” all his money, but the evil nurse (Winifred Greenwood) and her husband (Val Paul) have plans to get it for themselves. Got all that? Good.

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Out West (1918)

This two-reel comedy from Comique is another collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, and this time the two of them really work well together. As you might guess from the title, it’s a Western spoof, and the level of chaos easily rivals anything the Keystone Studios ever put out.

As the movie begins, Arbuckle is riding the rails, bumming a ride on a freight train. He’s chosen an unusual way to do this, however, he’s in a tanker car three-quarters full of water. Roscoe takes a moment to peek out the hatch, but when he does so, the train comes to a stop and a railroad worker comes across the top of the car, so he ducks back down. The worker now opens the hatch and connects it to the pipe from a water tower, filling the car the rest of the way while Arbuckle sputters and nearly drowns. Once the worker’s gone, he climbs out and looks for somewhere better to ride. He finds the caboose, where the workers are having a breakfast of coffee, ham, and bread. He waits until they’re distracted from reading the paper, then uses a hook to grab their breakfast and haul it up to where he’s sitting, on top of the car. The workers first accuse one another of stealing the food, but then discover Roscoe, since his bottom is still hanging over the windowsill. The chase is on! Arbuckle and the railroad men run across the roof of the moving train, and the silliness escalates until Arbuckle has disengaged several cars in order to escape. The train backs up to reconnect, but he’s able to slip away in the confusion.

We are now introduced to the town of Mad Dog Gulch, which is clearly a wretched hive of scum and villainy. As the owner of the saloon and local sheriff, Buster Keaton keeps order with his sixguns. Spotting a man cheating at cards, Keaton watches from the bar until the confrontation reaches a climax, then cuts it short by gunning the cheater down from behind. He picks up the dead man’s hand and tells his opponent, “you would have lost, anyway.” Then he kicks the corpse into a handy trapdoor to the basement, after briefly removing his hat in respect. We also meet “Wild Bill Hiccup” (Al St. John) who apparently lives in Mad Dog Gulch and is even a meaner hombre than the rest of the town. He plans to rob the saloon with a bunch of his buddies, all of them wearing masks so as not to be recognized by the sheriff.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle is wandering the desert, and winds up being chased by a group of cannibalistic Indians who have decided to eat him. He runs for the nearest sign of civilization, which, for better or worse, is Mad Dog Gulch and the Last Chance Saloon. He runs in just as the robbery is taking place, and just after the bartender has been shot (Keaton rapidly deploys a “bartender wanted” sign, even while the robbery is in progress), and knocks Al over with the saloon doors. He grabs the dropped guns and amazes everyone with trick shooting, managing to roust the robbers, shoot the Indians at an enormous distance, and shoot Buster’s hat off his head several times in a row. Once the smoke has cleared, Keaton dumps the body of the bartender through the trap door as well, and offers Arbuckle the job. He accepts, but Keaton won’t let him permanently remove the “bartender wanted” sign – he knows how long his bartenders usually last.

The next scene of the film is a pretty ugly racist bullying sequence in which a group of men with guns terrorize an African American man  and make him “dance” by shooting at his feet. Arbuckle joins in, and the man is even briefly dumped into the basement with the bodies before “Salvation Sue” (Alice Lake) comes in and puts everyone to shame for the goings-on. She now becomes Arbuckle’s love interest, as the two shyly introduce themselves. Al St John and his gang return, this time without masks, just looking to raise a little Hell instead of robbing the joint. He takes an interest in Sue, despite her lack of reciprocation, and Buster tries to throw him out, getting thrown clear across the room for his efforts. Arbuckle tries to put an end to the “mashing” by breaking a bottle over Al’s head, but he doesn’t seem to notice, so Arbuckle tries another. And another. Soon both Al and Alice are drenched in spirits from all the broken bottles, but Al is in no way slowing down, so Arbuckle tries his gun, also without effect. Finally, it dawns on Arbuckle to try tickling Al with a feather, and this proves to be the one thing Al can’t resist. He’s reduced to helpless laughter and Alice is able to get away. Buster joins in the tickle-fest and they kick Wild Bill Hiccup out, but Buster falls into his own trap door in the process.

Humiliated, Hiccup attempts to gain his revenge by kidnapping Sue and riding out of the town with her as his gang keep the bartender and the sheriff at bay. Arbuckle eventually breaks free and chases Hiccup back to his shack as Keaton holds off Hiccup’s men. After once again subduing Hiccup by tickling him, Arbuckle and Sue push his shack off a hill with him still inside, which is presumed to be enough to kill or at least subdue him. The end.

This movie is completely over the top, which is what it would take to effectively lampoon a Western at a time when so many of them were already silly to begin with. The structure of this film, at least from the time Arbuckle enters the bar, closely follows that of a William S. Hart movie. The stranger from out of town proves himself to be tougher than the tough guys, he gets hired (in a twist, he’s hired as the bartender by the sheriff, rather than the other way around), he meets the girl who makes him want to reform, and then the tough guys abuse her and he has to use his skills to rescue her. But, in this case, the story takes place amid a nonstop barrage of ridiculous gags. I only described maybe 25-30% of them in my rather lengthy synopsis above. The first part of the movie, aboard the train, includes some of the most death-defying stunts I’ve seen done on a train, and I kept thinking about the incredible risks Arbuckle and the other actors were taking. A train is hard to stop, once someone falls between two cars!

I can’t ignore the racist depictions of the Indians or the African American character, which does rather taint this movie for the modern viewer. It’s not a defense, but it is important to understand in the context of the “over the top” comedy that Arbuckle is here lampooning racist depictions that were presented seriously at the time, and he’s deliberately pushing them to an extreme. The idea that Indians would try to hunt down a “big fat paleface” for food was supposed to be ridiculous, and also a mockery of the generic “savage” presented in other films of the day. It can’t be seen as any kind of anti-racist critique, however, and watching it is a bit difficult, to say nothing of the use of the black man’s fear for his life to generate laughs. On the other hand, that man happens to be Ernie Morrison, Sr., a great comedian and the father of “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, a personal favorite of mine. This was the kind of work he had to take to show off his skills, and we should not underestimate the hard work and talent he put into his “dancing” and pratfalls.

With all of this in mind, however, there are other things at work which save the film if you can get past those parts. Buster and Roscoe are clearly collaborators in this movie: their roles are nearly equal. Arbuckle is definitely still the star, but Keaton is less of a minor character or inferior and more of a sidekick. He also does some great stunts, including hanging from a chandelier and various pratfalls, and it’s clear Arbuckle thought his work was part of the draw, although I don’t find his name on any contemporary posters, so I guess he wasn’t a star yet. I found watching the two of them work together very enjoyable in this movie.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Ernie Morrison Sr

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.