Early & Silent Film

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Bioscope Westerns

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2017

The Kennington Bioscope is a film club well known to discerning Metropolitan film buffs; one of the programmes to be found at London’s Cinema Museum. And it is an attraction that justified a trip from Yorkshire down to London. March 11th saw a day devoted to the Early Westerns. Programmed by John Oliver, with a substantial input from Kevin Brownlow, this was a real treat. There was a fascinating selection of titles from the early days of the genre: and nearly all the titles were on 16mm or 35mm with live piano accompaniments. There were also detailed programme notes and brief introductions to the separate programmes.

The day started with a Monogram five reel title from 1924, Thundering Hoofs [16 mm]. This featured ‘The World’s Greatest Western Star’ Fred Thomson. In his day he rivalled Tom Mix. A particular aspect of his onscreen persona was his horse Silver King. This equestrian performer could rival human characters with his intelligence and bag of tricks. Dave (Fred Thomson) loves Carmelita (Ann May) but is rivalled by Luke (William Lowey), dastardly, manipulative and a crook to boot. Dave and Silver King win through, though the climax in a bullring was slightly hard viewing for horse lovers. The film was directed by Al Rogell, a long time filmmaker in Hollywood. Of equal interest the film was written by Frances Marion under an alternative name. It also offered an early example of splendid stunt work by Yakima Canutt.

The second programme was four ‘Early Westerns’. These included films shot in or near New York, on the East Coast, and films shot in and around Hollywood, the West Coast. The representation of the Indian/Native American was rather different. East Coast western’s being sympathetic, even empathetic, whilst West Coast/Hollywood was in line with the stereotypes that were to dominate representations in the Studio era.

The first was a 1911 Biograph title directed by D. W. Griffith, The Squaw’s Love (The Twilight Song – 35 mm). The film was set entirely in Indian society, in and around their camp.  Gray Fox (Alfred Paget) loves Wild Flower (Mabel Normand), but as she is the daughter of the Chief she is forbidden and he is banished from the tribe. With the help of his friends White Eagle (Dark Cloud) and Silver Fawn (Claire McDowell) he is re-united with his love. The film follows their adventures as they are hunted by tribe members and the heroine shows both courage and imitative.

The India Vestal (1911 – 35 mm) from Selig Polyscope had a more convertional plot. The Vestal (Viola Barry) was a baby taken by the Sioux in an attack on a emigrant wagon train. She was raised in the Sioux tribe but only found romance when she encountered a white trapper. The film was well written and directed by Hobart Bosworth who also played the trapper. Part of the film was shot in the spectacular Yosemite Valley. The towering rock faces, water fall and rapids added immeasurably to the visual appeal.

Custer’s Last Fight (16 mm) was produced by 101-Bison in 1912. 101-Bison combined a film studio with a Western Circus, and the company was able to mount large-scale scenes of characters, props and settings. The director was Francis Ford, who also starred, and the production was under the auspices of Thomas Ince, then introducing a systematic approach to production. So the film’s recreation of the events leading up to Little Big Horn were impressively mounted. The plot appeared to follow the historical events fairly closely. Custer was seen as a flamboyant hero rather than an officer suffering from hubris. Sitting Bull (William Eagle Shirt) was treated somewhat respectfully, but generally the Indians were the ‘other’ to the US Calvary. Oddly there was hardly any mention of Crazy Horse. The version we saw was a re-issue from 1926 with many of the title cards changed, which seemed to lessen the dynamism of the film.

Broncho Billy’s Adventures (1911 – 35 mm) was one in a popular series of Essanay ‘cowboy’ films. Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson was the writer, director and star. In this film he was slightly less central, being the enabler for a romance between a young cowboy and his sweetheart. However Broncho Billy did get to display his prowess with six-guns, ‘writing’ with bullet holes in a fence.

Programme 3 was titled ‘A Copyboy’s Best Friend’: his horse, of course.

We first enjoyed a one reel from 1911 and Selig Polyscope, Saved by the Pony Express (35 mm). This credited Tom Mix as writer, director and star, the Pony Express Rider. Mix, like Broncho, was the saviour rather than the centre of the plot. There were romantic rivalries over Belle (Edna Fisher). When one of the lovelorn cowhands was found dead his rival Jim (Fred Church) was the suspect. Mix had to ride  with the evidence that would save him from the judge and a hanging. The film allowed Mix to show off his riding skills and those of his faithful companion Old Blue. Old Blue became a star in his own right: one of the first equestrian celebrities. He appeared in 87 films alongside Tom Mix. Years later he was laid to rest at the Mixville ranch, where most of the films were shot.

The accompanying film was a four reel from the Hal Roach Studio, The Devil Horse (1926 – 35 mm). This starred Rex the Wonder Horse – King of Horses and Yakima Canutt. Watching the film was slightly problematic after hearing of some of the ‘training’ methods that Canutt used on the horse. Apparently Rex was a fairly forceful character. A parallel problem was that in the film ‘the Devil Horse’ ‘hated’  Indians who captured him after na attack on the a wagon train. At that point Rex was  colt and David (Canutt) a young boy. They were reunited later in the film when we saw Rex taking out his ire on Indians. And there were also some problematic lines of dialogue.

Programme 4 gave us ‘Women out West’. The opening title was an extract, The Sawdust Trail (1924, Universal Pictures] with Josie Sedgwick as calamity Jane: one of her many roles in early westerns.

This was followed by a 1911 Vitagraph, A Girl of the West (35 mm). In this Lillian Christy played Polly Dixon, younger sister of Dolly (E. Helen Case), on whom John Winthrop (Tom Fortune) was sweet. He sold his horse for the princely sum of $500. However, Scarfaced Bill (Ralph Thornby), planned to abduct the horse and pocket the money. He was assisted by Dance Hall Nell (Helen Galvin). Polly was an excellent horsewoman. And she needed her skills to ride and warn the buyer of the plot. She also had to outmanoeuvre the Dance Hall Nell. Apart from the great character names and some excellent horse riding the film moved along at a great pace.

The Substitute (1911 – 35 mm) from the Lubin Manufacturing Company had familiar plot tropes. The un-credited cast included Jennie Rock, a telegraph operator. Her brother was an engine driver, but also an alcoholic. So Jennie had to masquerade as him and to drive the express. Worse or better followed: the train was held up and robbed. Jennie was able to signal a warning about this with a present from her Calvary amour, also a telegraph operator.

Two Little Rangers came from Solax in 1912 (35 mm). This was the company with the key pioneer Alice Guy Baché, who both wrote and directed the film. The key player and the older of the ‘rangers’ was Vinnie Burns, a protégé of Alice Guy and a stunt woman as well as an actor. The ‘two little rangers’ were the daughters of the village postmaster. When he was robbed they ride for help and then save an innocent man by exposing the real villain.

South of Santa Fe Frohman Amusement Corp. was a two reel film from 1919 (35 mm). The film starred Texas Guinan, who had a long career in films and ran her own production company for a time. Her tough persona was offered

‘ as a rowdy cowgirl who tames men as easily as horses’.

In this film she was hired as a foreman to control a group of rowdy cowhands who had defeated her male predecessors. They soon found that she was as handy with a fist as with a gun.

The Narrow Trail (35 mm)was a William S Hart production filmed at the Biograph Studio in 1917 with producer Thomas Ince. Hart was the most famous and popular of the screen cowboys of his era. Almost equally popular was his regular horse Fritz, a distinctive pinto horse. Hart regularly played ‘road agents’ or outlaws: in this film Ice Harding. His earliest films portrayed the partnership of man and horse. As his career developed the presence and influence of a ‘good woman’ took increasingly centre screen. In this film she was Betty (Sylvia Bremmer] and she shared a less than reputable past with Ice. The film included a visit by Ice to the great metropolis of San Francisco. But the bulk of the film found us in familiar western landscapes. As nearly always the couple resolved their difficulties and Ice evaded the law and ‘goes straight’.

The final film was The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), directed by Henry King for Samuel Goldwyn with a screenplay by Frances Marion. Unfortunately this was the only film on digital. The screening did rather lack good definition and the digital format did not cope well with the film’s tinting. I had seen the film in a 16 mm at the 1999 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It is a fine production. The film dramatises the reclamation of an area of California with a vast irrigation project [the Salton Sink in 1905]. There were some fine large screen sequences and the dramatic climax when the Colorado river bursts through the barrier and flooded the sink was extremely well done. Ronald Colman was fine as the engineer Willard Holmes. Gary Cooper as his rival Abe Lee seemed rather underused. And Velma Banky was a stand out as the titular object of their wooing. A good end to a full and really enjoyable day.

 

So a worthwhile trip. A fine selection of early westerns well presented: a couple had also been screened in the Western programmes at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.. And a word of praise to the musicians who provided accompaniments at the piano: Lillian Henley, Meg Morley, John Sweeney, Neil Brand and Cyrus Gabrysch.

Credits, quotation and stills courtesy of the Kennington Bioscope.

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