Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Westerns

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.

wild_and_woolly

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.

wild-and-woolly

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.

wild-and-woolly2

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.”

wild-and-woolly4

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.

wild-and-woolly7

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

Ouch.

Ouch.

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

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

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

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

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

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

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

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

The Return of Draw Egan (1916)

William S. Hart returns to the screen with familiar Western tropes done in a mature and morally sophisticated manner. While not as unrelentingly dark as “Hell’s Hinges,” this movie confirms that early silent audiences already knew that cowboys weren’t just kiddie fare.

return_of_draw_eganAs the movie begins, Hart is introduced as the title character, a wanted criminal with a price on his head. He has a sizeable gang of desperados with him, but he decides that the heat is too much and they should split up and “shift for themselves.” One member of the disbanding gang is Arizona Joe (Robert McKim), who “has a yellow streak a mile wide,” but hides it with bluster and bravado. Before they can go their separate ways, however, the posse catches up to them and chases them to an abandoned mountain shack they use as a hideout. There’s a pitched gun-battle, but several of the gunmen escape through a tunnel underneath the shack to a place where they’ve stashed horses. Arizona Joe is too timid to try this, and tries to sneak past the lawmen, but he’s captured on the way out.

return-of-draw-egan Read the rest of this entry »

The Spoilers (1914)

This is another movie I saw at the Cinecon Film Festival in Hollywood. They did us the special favor of showing both this and the 1930 version with Gary Cooper. I took notes to keep them straight, but Coop’s voice was still in my head whenever I read William Farnum’s subtitles.

spoilers_1914_film-posterThe story of “The Spoilers” is the now-hackneyed Western theme of the man-who-lays-down-his-guns-for-the-love-of-a-woman story, which maybe was fresher in 1914. The major twist is that instead of being set in the Southwest in the nineteenth century, it’s in Alaska during the 1898 Gold Rush, which makes it much more topical for an audience who had read about it in the papers just a few years earlier. This version starts with our hero, Roy Glenister (Farnum) breaking up with his girl Cherry Malotte (played by Kathlyn Williams), the classic prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold – actually she deals cards for a living, but close enough. We then see the “plot to spoil Alaska” being planned in Washington, D.C. by Alex McNamara (Thomas Santschi) as various folks sign documents and shake hands beneath portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. In connection with the plot, Judge Stillman sends his niece Helen Chester (Bessie Eyton) to Nome with important documents. She meets up with Glenister while trying to escape from the S.S. Ohio, which has been condemned for smallpox. Glenister and his buddy Dextry (Frank Clark) beat up the pursuing sailors so she can climb aboard the Santa Maria. They hide her out in their cabin while they sleep outside, and it’s clear that Helen and Glenister are sweet on each other, but she disapproves of his wild, rough-house ways. Read the rest of this entry »