"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Man from Bitter Ridge (Universal, 1955)


Tarzan rides the range




 
 
Universal made so many Westerns in the 1950s, they couldn’t all be good. By mid-decade quantity was definitely impinging on quality. Second-rank directors were used and not-so-stellar stars, and productions values faltered a little (though they were generally in nice color with appropriate ‘Western’ locations and good cinematography).

You got the impression that they couldn’t even manage to think up decent names for the movies. There were so many The Man from… titles that it was already a cliché. We have already reviewed on this blog The Man from Colorado, Del Rio, God’s Country, Laramie, Texas, The Alamo, and Utah, and there were plenty more besides.
 
 
Lex Barker was the eponymous man from. He had been enormously popular as Tarzan in a series of five movies from 1949 to ’53, but switched to other adventure yarns (including Westerns). Actually, he’d had small parts in three oaters before Tarzan, including as Emmett Dalton in Return of the Bad Men in 1948, and he’d co-starred with Randolph Scott in a Warners Western in ’53, Thunder over the Plains. In ’54 Universal tried him out as Western lead in Yellow Mountain. Bitter Ridge was his second for the studio. He wasn’t bad. But he wasn’t that convincing either. In Bitter Ridge he is, well, rather insipid as the hero.
 
Lex
 
The director of Bitter Ridge was Jack Arnold (no relation) - his first Western. Arnold was far better known as a schlock sci-fi man, especially It Came from Outer Space in 1953 and The Creature from the Black Lagoon in ’54. He didn’t really understand Westerns, though he later did a good number of Western TV shows. Probably his best Western was No Name on the Bullet, with Audie Murphy, where he was able to use his talent for the sinister/eerie. He doesn’t quite get it right in Bitter Ridge, which is slightly ‘flat’.
 
Afficher l'image d'origine
Jack Arnold
 
Not that it’s bad. For one thing it was shot in bright Eastman Color in nice Conejo Valley, Cal. locations by class act Russell Metty, and the modern print is very good. A couple of scenes - I am thinking in particular of the fistfight behind the saloon and the descent of the baddies on the sheepmen's camp - are actually quite beautiful. For another, John Dehner is the chief baddy and Ray Teal is a henchman (in a key part). Two of my favorite Western character actors.

The writing is a bit plodding, though. The adaptation of a William MacLeod Raine novel was by Teddi Sherman and the screenplay was by Lawrence Roman. Ms. Sherman had worked on the excellent Four Faces West, it is true, but mostly did TV shows, and Mr. Roman had co-written Drums Across the River for Audie but otherwise worked little in the genre.
 
Rather a ratty stage, no posh Concord
 
It’s a been-there-done-that story of a town treed by a crooked and ruthless saloon owner who wants to supplant the honest sheriff and then run for governor. The good news is that John Dehner is Ranse Jackman, the bad guy, and Trevor Bardette is also excellent as the handlebar-mustached lawman, situated somewhere between Jeff Corey and Sam Elliott. Jackman has two equally villainous brothers, Clem (Myron Healey) and Linc (Warren Stevens), as well as an evil henchman, Wolf Landers (John Cliff). Mr. Bardette was better known as the heavy in Westerns (he was Old Man Clanton in the TV Wyatt Earp) but did a solid job as the decent, tough lawman unlikely to be returned to office in the face of the crooked electioneering of the Jackman faction. Mr. Healey’s name often appears in the credits of Westerns, also as a villainous character. He is credited with an astonishing 353 Western appearances (the vast majority B movies and TV shows), from 1948 to 1960. He was The Wyoming Bandit in 1949, perhaps his biggest role. If you look out for him you’ll spot him again and again.
 
Ruthless Ranse Jackman with his equally villainous brothers
 
We first see Lex as a lone rider (in a rather dashing red shirt) and he is one of those mysterious strangers we all know about. No one knows him or where he comes from, but he looks tough – no man to cross. You know the type. It transpires after a reel or two that he is special investigator for the stage line that has suffered from a series of murderous hold-ups. It’s pretty obvious who is behind said robberies, though some local sheepmen get the blame. Unusually in this oater, the sheepmen are the good guys.
 
Mara Corday
 
The leader of the shepherds is Alec Black, played by Stephen McNally. I’m not a great McNally fan, I fear. He was nicely despicable in Winchester ’73, to be fair, but he never really convinced in the genre, being more suited to hard-boiled crime movies and the like. When we first see him, of course we expect him to be a baddy. But soon he smiles at a little black lamb, so is obviously on the side of the angels (Hollywood code always has a good guy being nice to children or animals in their first appearance). Black has set his Stetson at gorgeous Holly Kenton (Mara Corday, probably Charlotte’s sister) in sleek pants with low-slung gunbelt (she’s a crack shot) but Lex fancies Holly too, so a triangle is set up with loads of potential for fisticuffs. Ms. Corday was a Universal contract player and appeared in all kinds of the studio’s B movies. This was her first Western female lead, and she wasn’t bad.
 
Stephen McNally. Ho-hum.
 
Ray Teal is the best, though. He dynamites a tree in the opening scene, to stop the stage, which is being pursued by his accomplices. Why do bandits in Westerns always wait till the stage has gone past before chasing it at the gallop and firing sixguns at 200 yards? Even more amazing, why do they sometimes hit the driver or shotgun messenger? Anyway, Ray is excellently thuggish but is later trapped by the good guys into having to squeal on his boss, Jackman. Sadly, before he can testify he is dispatched by one of the Jackman brothers with a rifle in the final reel (sorry for the spoiler, but hey).

The baddies are very, even absurdly evil. They dynamite the sheep. Hell, they even kill the little black lamb. Yup, there’s dynamitin’, horse stealin’, attempted lynchin’, bushwhackin’ and all manner of Western action, culminating in rather a good major shoot-out in the streets of the town of Tomahawk. So you won’t be bored. You won’t be terribly impressed either, but you won’t be bored. It all ends happily with the villains dead, the honest sheriff re-elected, McNally making light of his failure in love and the sheepmen welcome in town. 1950s male audiences probably nodded approvingly when Lex takes the gal’s gun away and whisks her off to buy a dress (women knew their place in them days, the male spectators probably muttered).

Probably just as well

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Some-Day Country by Luke Short


Boomers


The Some-Day Country is another fast-paced paperback Western novel by the master of that genre. It was quite a late one, 1963, and, unusually for Short stories, it is set in a real place and time. Often, his tales were set in some generic ‘West’ at an unspecified date but this one is exactly placed on the south Kansas border in 1883. It is the story of ‘boomers’, settlers who illegally crossed into Indian Territory, staked out land and built a boom town.

Another fast-paced Western from Luke Short
 
Old ‘Cap’ Frane, accompanied by his feisty daughter Silence (wishful thinking came into the naming process, we are told) and his adopted Indian son Nathan, convinces hopeful settlers to pay him to take them to the promised land ‘there for the taking’. This provokes a three-way conflict: the boomers want the land to plow and farm but there are cattlemen there already who unofficially lease range from the Indians, and one of them is ruthless rancher Jess Hovey. He will stop at naught to drive the boomers off. The Army has the difficult task of persuading the boomers to leave, as peaceably as possible, and cares for neither boomer nor rancher. So it’s a triangular struggle. The ones who seem totally left out of the equation are the Indians. They don’t make an appearance, apart from Nathan, who is anyway Pawnee rather than Cherokee. The fact that it’s their land doesn’t seem to enter into it.

Although Nathan is perhaps the most attractive of the characters, the hero is really Lt. Winfield Scott Milham, stationed at Fort Reno, a classic Westerner who on the cover of my edition looks a cross between Gregory Peck and Tom Selleck. He is assigned the unenviable mission of shifting the boomers but only given a detail of twelve men to do it. He finds the inaptly named Silence very tiresome, though notes that she has grown some since he last saw her (for it is not the first time the lieutenant has had to deal with the Franes). She manages to make him look a fool, and he doesn’t care for it at all.

There's a sub-plot with two characters, a gold-digger woman and saloon-owning man who are as unscrupulous as each other yet both curiously sympathetic.
 
Frederick D Glidden aka Luke Short (1908 - 1975)
 
Well, Hovey provokes an ‘accidental’ stampede which flattens the boomers’ new crops, and in retaliation Nathan burns down Hovey’s house and barns. But then Hovey kidnaps Silence, and Lt. Milham – out of uniform - is assigned the task of finding her. He takes Nathan along. You see, it is now obvious that Nathan loves Silence. So here’s another triangle, for we all know there’s going to be a Lt./Silence romance.

I won’t reveal the ending. But it’s quite exciting. It’s all done with Short’s usual ability. Believable characters, all with strong points and failings. Authentic detail – though there is one bit where he seems to confuse single- and double-action revolvers. Action, pacing, terrain. It would make a good B movie, as all Short novels would, and indeed, many were made into motion pictures, some of them very good ones.

There is a basis in historical fact to the story. In 1879 David Lewis Payne, a Wichita, Kansas, pioneer settler and politician, supported by his common-law wife, Rachel Anna Haines, began recruiting followers for an intrusion into what he regarded as vacant lands. In late April 1880 Payne led a party of twenty-one men from Wichita to the site of present Oklahoma City. There on the south bank of the North Canadian they laid out a town called Ewing and it grew fast, until Lt. George H. G. Gale arrived with a troop of Fourth Cavalry and took them under arrest to Fort Reno. After being held there for a short time, the boomers were escorted back to Kansas.

Payne was not intimidated by his arrest or by President Rutherford B. Hayes's proclamation forbidding unlawful entry into Indian Territory. He organized a larger group and returned to the Ewing site. Again the settlers were arrested, escorted to the Kansas line, and set free without going to court. In March 1881 the government prosecuted Payne at Fort Smith, Arkansas, before the famous Judge Isaac Parker, who ruled against the Boomer leader. The only legal action that could be brought against Payne was under a federal law levying a thousand-dollar fine for a second intrusion into Indian Territory. Payne, however, had no money or property against which the fine could be assessed. News of his arrest only made him more popular on the frontier and further publicized his cause.

Payne persisted. In 1884 the Army burned his next settlement and confiscated his Oklahoma War Chief press. Payne would doubtless have continued but he died suddenly from heart failure that year. Other boomers took his place, however, and eventually, in 1889, the lands were opened to settlement in the famous Oklahoma land rush.

Boomer camp east of Arkansas City, Kansas (Oklahoma Historical Society)

Luke Short’s novel is a very free interpretation of this story but it has an authentic ring to it. Any Luke Short you pick up will more than repay the cover price. This one is no exception.


Monday, July 25, 2016

5,000 Dollar Elopement & Legal Advice (both Selig Polyscope, 1916)





Tom and Vicky ride again




 
 
Since we are on early Tom Mix one-reelers, another couple, both from 1916.

5,000 Dollar Elopement is another comedy short, typical of Tom’s output at this time. It co-stars his lover, Victoria Forde (they were to be married in 1918 when both had won contracts from Fox) as well as Tom’s eternal sidekick and bosom pal Sid Jordan. As the title suggests, Tom and Vicky are in love and want to wed, but Vicky’s miserly and vigilant dad (Joe Ryan) objects (“he’s got as many eyes as a seed potato”), so they decide to elope.
 
A portrait of Tom dedicated to Vicky
 
The plot thickens when a couple of varmints (one is Sid) rob Vicky’s dad’s home. They know he has withdrawn $5,000 from the bank to buy cattle, and they want to get their evil hands on it, so they turn up in a wagon at night (with some rudimentary day-for-night shooting) and sneak inside. Now, ready for the elopement, Vicky thinks she’ll play a joke on Tom and hide in the elopement wagon to surprise him, but guess what? Yup, she gets the wrong wagon, and conceals herself in the robbers’ one. Oops. The badmen flee with both loot and fiancée.
 
The robbers are apprehended. That's Sid in the white shirt, next to Tom & Vicky.
 
Well, Pa has lost five grand and Tom has lost his true love, so they decide to join forces and pursue the villains together, in Pa’s buckboard. They catch the rogues up, Tom makes a good stunt leap from buckboard to wagon, and the thieves are halted. Pa wants to take Vicky home but Tom is clear: you got your money back, old man, and I got my girl. It’s fifty-fifty. So they all lived happily ever after (except the robbers). The End. Good stuff.
 
 
(In 1913, by the way, there had been another silent movie, The One Hundred Dollar Elopement, but that’s inflation for you).

In Legal Advice, however, released the following month (Mix made about one of these movies a week) and with pretty well the same cast, Tom falls for a lady lawyer new in Dareville (Vicky was usually an Eastern lady come West) and so he steals the sheriff’s horse, rides it into the saloon and shoots up the town in order to get her to defend him. His plan is to get himself released on bail into her custody. Well, Sid ropes Tom with a deftly thrown lasso and Tom duly lands in jail. It then turns out that lawyer Vicky has a husband already. Tom shoots himself. The End.
 
Tom aims to woo lawyer Vicky Sands by getting released on bail into her custody
 
As with all these pictures, we cannot accuse them of being sophisticated rom-coms. Still, they are entertaining, in a pretty basic way. There’s a lot of slapstick (for example when the cowboys build a new cabin for the lawyer) and some entertaining ridin’ and shootin’. And, well, it’s Tom Mix, after all. You can’t dislike Tom Mix.

 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Wagon Tracks (Paramount, 1919)









Wm S Hart on the Santa Fe Trail




 
 
Lambert Hillyer, the director who worked so often and so closely with William S Hart, claimed that Wagon Tracks was the inspiration for Paramount’s The Covered Wagon four years later. It may have been at that. It is in any case a classic wagon train movie with Hart as the brave and resourceful captain and guide. It is also a first class Hart Western and a high-quality film.
 
A fine movie
 
It’s a little different in some ways: it’s set quite early for one thing, 1850, and Hart appears in buckskins and coonskin cap. And he does not play the good badman redeemed by the love of a good woman that he usually did.

Like many of Hart’s pictures at this time, it was produced by Thomas H Ince and photographed by Joe August, so two of the giants of early motion pictures were involved. It really does repay a watch, and for a true Westernista, it is really essential viewing.

The original print ran 78 minutes but a 64-minute Kodascope version is more usually seen. The quality of the print on my DVD (Alpha Home Entertainment) isn’t that good and the film would ideally be remastered but it’s more than watchable and you can appreciate the fine cinematography.

Another attractive feature is the rather beautiful captions, which are elegant to look at and poetically phrased without being purple prose. The wagon train is described as a white-sailed armada and after velvet nights and purple we have the first faint ribbon of the dawn.

The story starts in two ways, skullduggery by card-playing rogues in suits on a Mississippi riverboat intercut with the wholesome life of a decent buckskin-clad Westerner. Hart (in a tan) is that Westerner of course, Buck Hamilton, “true son of the new Empire”, and his goody-credentials are immediately established by his talking kindly to his horse and mule (those who are nice to children or animals in the first reel of Westerns are always the good guys). Further east, though, we see a man named Merton, in Victorian-melodrama villain whiskers, cheating at cards with his accomplice Washburn. Their victim is an honest medical student, Billy Hamilton, who, it later transpires, is our hero’s young brother, just back from his medical studies back East. Now the first reel of this movie is especially good because it features a derringer. The pocket gun is palmed by Merton and used to kill Billy when the lad tumbles to the dastardly plot. It’s rather a modern-looking derringer for 1850 but we’ll let that slide.

The thing is, though, that Washburn’s sister, Jane, who is in the room next door, is shocked and confused, and her bad-egg brother and her fiancé, the rotter Merton, let her believe that she has shot the poor boy. She is distraught and tells the sheriff she didn’t mean to do it. She is allowed to go and later realizes what happened but keeps silent to protect her brother and fiancé. Still, she is ashamed and traumatized by the affair. The two cads don’t care; they have got away with murder.
 
 
Merton, the derringer owner and Jane’s intended, is played by Lloyd Bacon. Bacon was an interesting chap. Born into a stage family, he switched to being the stuntman and heavy in Broncho Billy Anderson Westerns (he did 17). After World War I he moved into comedies and was a gag writer. He started directing in the early 20s, joining Warner Bros in 1925. He directed Warners’ big-budget Moby Dick in 1930. Westernwise, two Hart Westerns (this one and Square Deal Sanderson) followed his 17 Broncho Billy ones, and in 1921 he was in a Tom Mix oater, Hands Off! He directed the musical Western Cowboy from Brooklyn, with Dick Powell, in 1938, directed Cagney and Bogart in The Oklahoma Kid in ’39, and he finished by directing a Jeff Chandler number for Universal, The Great Sioux Uprising, in 1953 (rather a clunker, I fear).
 
Lloyd Bacon
 
Jane Novak was the female lead. She was a well-known silent star and did five Westerns with Hart. He proposed to her but when she refused him their professional relationship ended as well. The same year as Wagon Tracks she also appeared with Tom Mix in Treat ‘em Rough.  Years later she had a bit part in Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950).

The brother is Robert McKim, later Douglas Fairbanks’s rival in the silent Mask of Zorro, and young Dr. Billy is Leo Pierson, who was born in Abilene in 1888 so had good Western roots.

Buck arrives at Council Grove in time to grieve tragically over the corpse of his bro. He is remarkably forgiving to the gal who shot the boy. This part of the movie is too long and too slow. But then Buck is elected cap’n of a wagon train heading off down the Santa Fe Trail, and Jane, her fiancé and brother are all part of the train. Well, there are the usual wagon train adventures. The wagon carrying the water crashes and there is a prolonged period of heat and thirst. Hart gives his precious water ration to his dogs, horse and mule, and Jane looks admiringly on, “understanding for the first time what true manhood means.”

She falls in love with the noble Buck, and cannot but reveal the truth to him. She spills the beans about the murder. Buck’s face sets in a hard expression (which Hart specialized in) and he determines on a ruthless plan to get the villains to admit their guilt. He takes them both out on foot into the desert, without water, until one, the brother, breaks down and blurts out that Merton shot Billy. Meanwhile, the Kiowas have taken a hand. They, “insolent but inclined to be friendly”, have come to the wagon train and one pioneer has shot dead a brave who was fingering the shawl of his wife. The Kiowas demand a life for a life, or they will attack at dawn and annhilate the travelers. Uh-oh. Now Buck arrives back and guess who is chosen as the sacrificial lamb to give to the Kiowas? Why, evil Merton, of course.
 
Buck forces the villains to admit the truth (that's Lloyd Bacon on the right)
 
Finally, they get to Santa Fe where Jane is met by her uncle. You think Buck and Jane are going to live happily ever after but nay, Buck shakes her hand, says, “Good-bye, Miss” and sets off back to lead another wagon train, a solitary rider on the Western plains, “the Empire builder”. Fin.

So you see, classic stuff. By the standards of the time Hart doesn’t actually overact all that much (though he hams it up unmercifully by modern standards) and there is a certain ponderous dignity about the story. The DVD has Dvorak’s New World symphony dubbed onto it, which helps give a certain appropriate grandeur to the film.

 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Raw Land by Luke Short


A credit to the genre


Regular readers will know how keen I am on the Western novels of Luke Short (Frederick D Glidden), 1908 – 75. Raw Land, first published in Western Story Magazine in 1940 under the title Gunsmoke Graze, is an absolute cracker. Short’s stories read just like a good B movie, and indeed, many of them were made into top-class films – classy motion pictures such as Albuquerque, Blood on the Moon, Ride the Man Down, Ramrod, Coroner Creek, Station West, Vengeance Valley and Ambush all came from Luke Short novels. Raw Land could have been a gripping movie too, maybe starring Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher, for example. It wasn’t, but it still makes a great read.

Don't be put off by the lurid cover

Short gave us taut, gripping storylines with believable characters and authentic detail. His novels were paced like movies, with a contained number of characters, none all-good or all-evil, all understandable, with developing plot and a gripping climax. It’s a pretty good recipe.

Raw Land concerns tough hombre Will Danning, who turns up in the one-horse town of Yellow Jacket. He has bought a hardscrabble farm nearby. No one gets why he should want it: it’s a ratty place with bad land and little water. A local rancher’s foreman, Pres Milo (the nearest we get to an out-and-out bad guy) seems overly keen on the place and will do pretty well anything to get it (including murder). But Will won’t sell. Myself, I see Randy Scott as Danning, Arthur Kennedy as Pres and John McIntire as the ruthless rancher.
 
Luke Short
 
The rancher has a pretty but strong-minded daughter, of course, Becky (I’m going for Susan Hayward), who is attracted to Will (and vice versa, let it be said) and there’s a stern but fair Sheriff Phipps (Edgar Buchanan, definitely). Lastly, of the main characters, there’s the urbane, glib foreman of Will, a smiling lady’s man, Milt (perfect for Lyle Bettger) who, it turns out, is on the run and being sheltered by Will.

As the story pans out, the reason why Pres wants the ranch is made clear and various plots are hatched to enable him to secure it. Will is forced to strap on his guns and go on the run. There’s a showdown ending. I shall not reveal to you, dear e-reader, what this dénouement may be. You will have to read the story for yourself to find out.

What I will tell you is that Raw Land is another fast-paced story from the master. Some have accused Luke Short of churning out pulp Westerns. It is true that his novels are short paperbacks, often with lurid covers. But don’t be fooled: they are classy well-written tales which are a credit to the genre.

 

 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Cactus Jim & The Auction Sale of Run Down Ranch (both Selig Polyscope, 1915)





Tom wins a shop girl
 
 
 

 

 
Two one-reel Tom Mix Westerns from 1915, when Tom was ensconced in Las Vegas, NM, were the entertaining Cactus Jim (aka Cactus Jim’s Shop Girl) and The Auction Sale of Run Down Ranch. Cactus Jim has as leading lady Goldie Colwell, a Mix regular, while Run Down Ranch stars Victoria Forde. Mix had recently met and fallen for the actress Ms. Forde (rather to the displeasure of his third and current wife, Olive). Both movies are comedy shorts, which ‘Colonel’ Selig, owner of Polyscope, encouraged as being quick and cheap to make, popular in the nickelodeons and thus profitable.

 

 
Cactus Jim starts with Nell (Coldwell), a “lonely shop girl in an Eastern town” (the girls Tom fell for were often Easterners). She spots an ad in the local paper in which an equally lonely cowboy out West (in Purgatory, AZ) proposes marriage to a likely lady. She replies, offering to wed. Cactus Jim (Mix) – for it is none other than he – takes a stage and turns up at the store where Nell works. But in the meantime Nell has had second thoughts. She is wooed by a handsome sales assistant who treats Jim as a bum. Jim soon sees the effete rascal off, though. Still, he is disappointed that he will not now be a husband, and furthermore, he fears the ribbing of his fellow ranch hands back in Purgatory, to whom he has boasted he will return with a bride.
 
 
So he develops a wheeze. He acquires a store-window dummy (dummies figured largely in Tom Mix Westerns), complete with elegant outfit, and passes this mannequin off as his new bride. It fools his pards too, for a while. Then two of them see the ‘bride’ is but a tailor’s dummy and rush off to get their fellow hands to come and mock Jim. But meanwhile Nell has had “second second thoughts”. She no longer cares for the dapper salesman, who is too forward, and she follows Jim West. She turns up at the ranch and when the cowboys come back they are dumbfounded to find that Jim has a beautiful consort after all. The ‘justice’ is hurriedly sent for and matrimonial bliss ensues. The End.

Run Down Ranch concerns Bill Herrick (Pat Chrisman, a regular) and his wife Vicky (Forde) who decide to sell up, so they go into town to arrange the sale, where Bill nips off unobserved (he thinks) to buy booze, which he hides from his wife. She, however, is fully aware of the reprobate’s actions, and pours kerosene into the liquor jug, a mean act if ever there was one. The caption assures us that “man proposes but woman disposes”, doubtless true. Now there appears on the scene a potential buyer, Isaac Goldplate, a figure that would today be found offensively anti-semitic. Isaac happens on the spot where Bill has spat out the disgusting kerosene-polluted whiskey and is convinced that he has detected oil sands, so he offers the huge sum of $5000 for the ranch and hands over a check, at which Bill faints. Isaac later discovers that there is no oil after all and sets off to stop the check at the bank but cowboy Tom now steps in. He gets hold of the check, cashes it, and splits the proceeds with Bill and Vicky. Tom, Bill, Vicky and ranch hand Sid Jordan all laugh at the unfortunate Jew (who obviously – according to 1915 Western lore - deserves to be cheated as he is Jewish). The End.
 
 
Run Down Ranch isn’t therefore too pleasant in its subject matter. Still, Vicky has a very dashing embroidered holster and cowgirl outfit.

 In both movies there is ‘comic’ and annoyingly repetitive piano and orchestral music dubbed onto the DVD which becomes tiresome after a quarter of an hour. The actors were experienced in mime, for most of the action has to be suggested without captions. The films are interesting today as typical examples of Mix’s output and of the lighter kind of Western being churned out in the 1910s. You probably wouldn’t want to watch them often, though!
 
 

 
 
 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Narrow Trail (Lasky/Paramount, 1917)











Fritz is really the star




 
 
The Narrow Trail is a classic William S Hart Western about a badman redeemed by the love of a woman.

It dates from the year 1917 in which Hart accepted a lucrative offer from Adolph Zukor to join Famous-Players Lasky, which later became Paramount Pictures. It was one of eight Westerns he made that year and it continued his collaboration with the great Thomas H Ince. Hart was by now firmly established as the leading Western actor, doing feature films rather than shorts, and his pinto Fritz, who is practically the star of The Narrow Trail, was almost as famous.
 
Hart with Fritz, later in life
 
The 68-minute picture was shot largely on location near San Francisco, with quite a large cast, so it was no low-budget affair. Hart starred in it as the outlaw chief Ice Harding but he also co-wrote it (with Harvey F Thew, who wrote screenplays, including six Westerns, from 1916 to 43) and co-directed it (with Lambert Hillyer, a Western specialist who teamed up with Hart and worked on a great number of his pictures).
 
A classic Wm S Hart Western
 
The story is a simple, if (by 1917) traditional one: we are in the Sierra Nevada. “A King of Evil,” is introduced to us, “Ice Harding, the daring chief of the most desperate outlaw band that ever outguessed ‘Judge Lynch’”. Ice sees a wild stallion, a pinto he admires (Fritz, of course), which is head of a herd, and he manages (in some rather good scenes) to rope it and tame it. He gives it the name King, and they become inseparable and famous – dangerously so, grumble the outlaws, for it makes the band far too recognizable. They even make threatening moves toward King but Ice holds ‘em off with his sixguns.
 
Masked and dangerous
 
Now, Ice holds up a stage, as presumably was his wont, and aboard this mudwagon are ‘Admiral’ Bates (Milton Ross) and his attractive niece Betty (Sylvia Breamer). While robbing them, Ice falls head-over-heels for Betty. Bates, we are told on a caption card, is “One of San Francisco’s Captains of Infamous Industry”, and infamous is underlined. He says he is a banker but he must be a crooked one. We are told that his niece Betty is also in on the schemes of her uncle but to Ice she is “The most wonderful being he had ever seen”. Hart looks rather splendid in his frock coat and mask. As he rides away, with the spoils looted from the stage passengers, one takes a shot at him and his rather Teddy Roosevelt-ish hat flies off. He wheels Fritz – sorry, I mean King - and rides back to say, “I don’t mind your shootin’ but be keerful of my hat”. Quite right. A man’s hat is sacrosanct, as countless Westerns have attested (see, for example, Wild Bill), and as Lyle Lovett sang, “You can have my girl but don’t touch my hat.”

The local vigilance committee has organized a posse and this posse is scouring the hills for the outlaw gang. Ice tells his compadres he will hold them off while they scatter, and he bravely does so, King easily outrunning the merely mortal horses of the pursuers. There is a rather obviously painted backdrop in a scene where Ice and King are the only ones daring enough to cross a gorge using a fallen tree, leaving the fuming posse behind.

Ice now doffs his mask and poses as an ordinary rancher in Saddle City, where he runs into banker Bates and his lovely niece again. She is having second thoughts about her part in her uncle’s disreputable profession and is sighing over the “big, honest mountains” and also, we feel, over the bold outlaw who held up her stagecoach. She feels a vague notion of recognition and attraction when the ‘rancher’ appears. Beautiful moon-faced Australian actress Sylvia Breamer was twenty at the time, to the unbeautiful Hart’s 53, so there’s a bit of cradle-snatching going on here but that was par for the Hollywood course, and anyway, a mature man can admire a comely young woman, cain’t he? Ice modestly woos the maid in a rather charming shy way, she equally modestly reciprocates, and Uncle Bates approves because he spots a fiscal opportunity in the rancher’s bank accounts.
 
He will be redeemed by the love of a good woman, or is it vice versa?
 
Well, Bates and his niece soon set off back to San Francisco, but not before Ice has persuaded Betty to give him her address there. And sure enough, Ice, lonely, decides to abandon his profession of outlawin’ and set off for Frisco to find redemption in the arms of a good woman, as all Western badmen are supposed to do.

Imagine, therefore, his disappointment when he presents himself at the handsome mansion on Nob Hill whose address he has been given, only to be told by a snooty maid that no such person resides there. He walks the streets of the city (no sign of King) and down on the waterfront falls into the clutches of Moose Holleran (Bob Kortman), a rough sailor who shanghais unsuspecting landlubbers who then wake up on the ocean wave, impressed into a crew. Moose invites Ice into a neighboring disreputable saloon to get him drunk (stern Hart takes only one drink) and blow me down, who should be running this honkey-tonk but ‘Admiral’ Bates and his niece Betty! He is no banker at all, but a scurrilous saloon owner, and she no angel but the boss of the dime-a-dance trollops! Poor Ice is shocked to find this out and flintily rebuffs Betty, who in vain pleads her desire to reform (“Don’t leave me to this!”)
 
There's quite a good saloon fight. Could that be Ince in the cap, on the right?
 
So quite a lot of this movie is a Barbary Coast shocker rather than a pure Western. The rest of the film concerns a San Francisco horse race that Ice enters King in (for the pinto has magically reappeared), to win a thousand dollars as a stake in his future with Betty. For yes, she has convinced him of her true desire to be good. And he has proposed (“I’m askin’ you to marry me, ma’am.”) Normally, of course, Western badmen are redeemed by the love of a ‘good’ woman (a saintly schoolma’am, usually) but here we have an outlaw and a lady of the night: two wrong ‘uns, therefore, both wishing to go straight with the help of the other, whom s/he believes to be ‘good’. So it’s a bit of a twist on the standard plot. Both desire now to follow the “narrow trail that leads to the light” (there was something slightly sanctimonious about Hart’s Westerns).

The horse race is exciting because the bad guys have recognized the pinto and have tumbled to who the rider really is (the daring chief of the most desperate outlaw band, you recall) but of course King wins by a nose, the villains are thwarted, Ice scoops up Betty and they bolt for the “big, honest mountains” where, in a final Zane Grey Purple Sage-ish scene (I wonder if Grey had seen the movie?) they live (and kiss) in romantic bliss having (presumably) wed.
 
Wm S Hart
 
All good stuff, no doubt about it. There are quite a lot of close-ups and some careful framing of shots and no wonder, for the cinematographer was Joe August, Ince’s right-hand man and quite an artist, who worked on Hart’s pictures more than forty times. When Hart retired he went to Fox and worked with John Ford.

I highly recommend this movie to you, dear e-pard, as an excellent example of a William S Hart Western.