Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Westerns

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.

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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.

His Bitter Pill (1916)

This Western spoof from Keystone has some funny parts, but much of it is played surprisingly straight, or at least low-key, by the standards of the studio. It stars Mack Swain, who had been, and would again be, a “heavy” in Charlie Chaplin comedies, but had a number of starring roles himself.

Swain plays “Big-Hearted Jim,” the sheriff of a Western county. He lives with his mother (Ella Haines), and hankers after Nell, the girl next door (Louella Maxam). While he tries to chat her up, a local ne’er-do-well called Diamond Dan (Edgar Kennedy) gets one of his cronies to “start some legal trouble” so he can horn in. The crony goes into the bar and starts shooting at the ceiling, which causes Big Jim to come crashing in and beat up everyone in the place. He makes no arrests, just leaving the unfortunate rowdies lying on the floor, then he returns to find Nell talking to Dan. He pulls her away, but soon he has to go see about a local widow being evicted from her place. He pays her rent for her, but once again Diamond Dan is on the spot. Jim walks Nell home, and goes back to his mother. She convinces him to ask Nell to marry him, giving him her ring for the proposal. But, by the time he gets there, Dan has already given her a bigger ring! Nell reluctantly tells him she’s always loved him…”as a brother.” He goes home and weeps piteously into his mother’s arms.

While he’s letting out his sorrow, Dan and his pals decide to hold up a stagecoach. As a result of unfortunate planning, they do so in full view of Jim’s house, and he pulls out a pocket telescope and figures out what’s going on. He leaps from his window onto a waiting horse, then charges into action. The bandits scatter, but Jim is able to shoot their moving horses at considerable distance. His mom meanwhile rouses a posse. He pursues Dan, after de-horsing him, back to Nell’s place. But, Dan tells Nell that Jim is just jealous, so she agrees to hide him in the chimney. There’s a funny sequence in which Jim suspects where Dan is, and he deliberately starts a fire in the fireplace to smoke him out, but Dan leaves his boots behind and climbs on the rooftop. Finally, Jim finds Dan and Nell pleads with him to spare his life. Jim gives Dan his horse, then goes to find the posse. Dan sneaks back to the house and “lures” Nell into running away with him to a “back room in a hell hole” which just looks like any saloon. He tries to get her to drink whiskey, but she refuses. Jim, who is having a drink in the outer bar, overhears the commotion and bursts in, once again fighting every ruffian in the place to save her. Jim pretty much trashes the place, but Dan is able to abduct Nell and ride off again, so there’s another chase. Finally, Dan is caught by the posse and Nell tells Jim she loves him, while we see the posse preparing to lynch Dan. The end.

This spoof probably held up better at a time when making fun of silent Westerns was a more original idea. Mack Swain is very hammy, and particularly when he’s grieving for Nell’s loss he goes way over the top, but to some degree that’s what a modern audience is expecting, so it can be hard to remember that it’s deliberate. Edgar Kennedy literally twirls his mustaches as the evil Diamond Dan, but again that’s pretty much par for the course. Sometimes it’s hard to make fun of something that’s already self-parodying. The physical comedy sections are played up in fast-motion, which does make them entertaining, but they don’t seem as extreme as other Keystones, and the whole thing lacks the refined chaos I expect from Mack Sennett (who produced, but didn’t direct in this case). It’s mostly Swain’s innocent sympathy that makes this movie work, and that at least is something.

Director: Fred Fishback

Camera: J.R. Lockwood

Cast: Mack Swain, Louella Maxam, Edgar Kennedy, Ella Haines

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Shark Monroe (1918)

This rare William S. Hart feature was shown at Cinecon in 2017. He plays pretty much his usual Western anti-hero character, but transported in this case to the wilds of Alaska.

Shark Monroe (Hart), owner of a sealing vessel, agrees to take Marjorie Hilton (Katherine MacDonald) and her brother Webster (George A. McDaniel) to Skagway, provided Webster works his own passage. Webster is a drunk whom Monroe hopes to reform, but his sister sees Monroe as a bully who pushes Webster too hard. Monroe, of course, falls for her in a big way. Bert Sprotte is the typical grizzled bro-mantic sidekick with a soft heart, called “Onion” McNab. Marjorie falls into the power of Big Baxter (Joseph Singleton), a notorious character of the Alaskan coast (the intertitles tell us he is responsible for the ruin of half the women in Alaska), and agrees to marry him. Shark appears and, while his men hold the wedding party at gunpoint, marries and runs off with Marjorie. At the end of two weeks he agrees to safely return her to Baxter’s camp, revealing that the preacher who “married” them was actually a fake. Webster and Baxter arrive, however, and to restore the young man confidence Shark allows Webster to beat him in a fist fight. Later, after overhearing Baxter lie about him, Shark kills Baxter with one blow, and Marjorie finally realizes that her heart has been his all along.

According to the introduction given at Cinecon, this movie was set in Alaska because the studio could no longer find enough men to do stunt-riding during the war (all of them had enlisted), and so a story was needed that wouldn’t require any horses. There are some good dog-sleigh scenes. A number of silent films have kidnappings that turn into romances, often with some implication that the girl “learns what’s good for her” because of the man’s caveman tactics, but in this case it is played somewhat more realistically. Marjorie resents Shark for what he does and refuses even to speak to him, and only comes around after being released unharmed (and, it appears from the script, un-raped). In this case it seems more that Hart’s character uses the only tactics he can understand, only to realize when they didn’t work that he needs to prove himself in another way. Otherwise, the romance is very similar to what we saw in “The Return of Draw Egan,” with Hart pining for the girl and her horrified at his lack of civilized manners, complicated by his “tough love” approach to her brother.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Katherine MacDonald, Joseph Singleton, George A. MacDaniel, Bert Sprotte

Run Time: 50 Min

I have been unable to find this movie on the Internet for free. If you do, please comment.

The Indian Land Grab (1910)

This short film from the Champion studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was screened at the Cinecon film festival this year, so I was able to see it only once. It takes a sympathetic approach to Native American issues and even violates later standards about portraying inter-racial relationships.

The movie begins by telling us through forward-facing Intertitles that the “young chief” is being sent to Washington (D.C.) to plead the case of the tribe to congress. Each scene in the movie consists of a single shot, and each shot is preceded by an Intertitle which predicts all of the action that follows. A group of Senators and lobbyists plot against the Indians, to pass a “land grab” bill, and one Senator asks his daughter to “distract” the chief while he is in town, and she does her best to attract his eye. He gives a speech before a group of white men in chambers, however when it comes time to give the critical speech before the vote, she insists that he dance with her at a ball. He rushes in too late to speak before the vote and accuses the Senator of “theft and prostitution.” When he returns to his tribe, they strip him of his war bonnet and prepare to kill him with tomahawks, but at the last moment the daughter emerges from the forest with a letter from the President, promising to let them keep their land “for all eternity.” The daughter now tells the chief that she loves him and wishes to stay with his people. They kiss.

Although the movie attempts to give a more balanced view than many of the time, it still comes across as very simplistic in its portrayal of both people and situations, and is very old-fashioned in its approach to storytelling. By 1910, it was not unusual to see more of the story told through visuals, or at least to have the Intertitles act as adjuncts, rather than narrators, to the action on screen. The Indians are consistently in full war-dress, although these costumes are the only elaborate props in the movie and the sets are minimal. I think we see four or five different sets, and a lot of the action takes place in a sparse hallway outside of the chambers of Congress. I’m not the only one to be surprised by the ending – according to the liner notes from Cinecon, reviewers at the time referred to the kiss as “offensive” or “repugnant.”

Director: Unknown, possibly Mark M. Dintenfass

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

This rare film is not available on the Internet at this time. Please let me know if you see it online or in a home video format.

The Outlaw and the Child (1911)

This early Western from Essanay shows that Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s characters weren’t always unambiguous heroes and also gives us a glimpse of work the Chicago-based company was doing in California even before opening a permanent studio in Niles.

 

Broncho Billy plays the outlaw, and as the movie opens we see him being secured in his cell by the sheriff (Arthur Mackley), arrested for we know not what crimes and awaiting trial. The sheriff heads home to see his five-year old daughter, assuring that we get to see both of the title characters in the first few minutes of the film. She does a cute bit of searching her father until she finds a bag of candy hidden under his hat. Then the sheriff puts her to bed and gets ready to sleep himself. Meanwhile, a confederate has brought Broncho Billy a file so that he can cut through the bars of his cell. He is able to do this in remarkably little screen time, and steals a saddle and horse in order to get out of town. The deputy (Harry Todd) discovers his absence and raises a posse, heading over to the sheriff’s house to rouse him and get him to lead the search. The sheriff leaves his small child alone, and when she wakes, she finds him absent and so goes out to look for him, soon blundering into the desert with her doll. The search is unsuccessful and the sheriff returns home, only to begin a new search for his missing daughter.

 

Meanwhile, the outlaw has made his way into the dessert with a full canteen, but he comes across the prostrate figure of the child. He rushes to her side and revives her with his supply of water, but while he is doing this, his horse wanders off. Now, he must carry the child back to civilization, sacrificing all his water to keep her alive. He brings her right to the door of the sheriff’s house, where the sheriff and his posse all witness his heroism before he expires.

This simple plot works well for a one-reel Western, although there is little subtlety of character or drama. We have to accept that a seasoned outlaw doesn’t know how to keep his horse under control for a couple of minutes while he attends to another concern, and also that the sheriff hasn’t been able to teach his daughter to stay put at night (I assume it’s night, because they were asleep, though the whole movie was clearly shot in broad daylight), but these are pretty minor concessions compared to the enormous coincidences audiences expected in melodrama at the time. I rather expected when the father left the girl alone that Billy would wind up taking her hostage and then having a change of heart, but this story emphasizes his redemption over his crimes. The locations, which were in Los Gatos and Redlands, California, work well for the piece, especially the desert scenes, where I found myself thinking how vast the openness looked behind our actors, while a film crew and safety lay only a few feet away. The filming and editing are pretty standard for 1911, with pretty much all scenes sequential and shot in long shot, so that we can see actors’ entire bodies as they move about the screen. A simple piece of Americana from another era.

Director: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Arthur Mackley, Harry Todd, William A. Russell

Run Time: 15 Min

I have not been able to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment below.

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

I have not found this for free on the Internet (please comment if you do). However, it can be rented for download from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.