Early & Silent Film

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Beginnings of the Western, Pordenone 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on July 11, 2017

‘The Escape of Jim Dolan’.

 

These programmes continued the exploration started at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This year the focus was on films produced in 1912 and 1913 as the genre began to take shape in the early Hollywood studios. The first of three programmes presented cowboy films shot in California by these young companies.

At the End of the Trail was a Vitagraph production from 1912. This was a stock trade but with some distinctive features. A Sherriff [George C. Stanley] learns from a group of cowboys that they have seen a wanted horse thief. He sets off, with a wanted notice,  in pursuit of the Mexican. The meet and fight in a desert, [shades of the later Greed]. At first successful the Sherriff is wounded and overpowered by the Mexican. We follow the latter to his cabin where his daughter Mercedes is of a religious turn. She has  small religious shrine on the wall of  the cabin. Mercedes is also literate unlike her father, She reads the wanted poster that he has pick up but which he does not understand. Pointing to the cabin crucifix she accuses him. Lacking in morals and paternal care he attacks his daughter and leaves. The wounded sheriff, finding the Mexican’s horse caught tin a bramble bush, arrives at the cabin. Mercedes tends his wounds. Then the Mexican returns. Mercedes is killed in the shootout. Now a posse of Cowboys arrive. Standing round Mercedes grave they all remove their hats, except the Mexican, obdurate to the last.

The film was projected form a 35mm print with Dutch intertitles and translation. Filmed in the familiar fairly standard long and mid-shots. What stood out was the tinting in the desert sequences. This was a sort of yellow-brown, suggestive of the later yellow tinting in the Stroheim’s ‘Greed’. In terms of representation there was the familiar Mexican stereotype with the daughter a good and sacrificial character to offset this.

A Wife in the Hills (1912) was produced at the Essanay studio and was part of a famous series, “Broncho Billy”. ‘Billy’ was played by G. M Anderson, founder of the studio and the regular writer and director of these westerns. Not all the characters he plays are “Broncho Billy”. In this film he is an outlaw Bart McGrew. The plot of the film parallels in an odd way the preceding film, At the End of the Trail. Bart’s partner Don Trout (Brinsley Shaw) is having an affair with McGrew’s wife (Vedah Bertram). So seeing  a wanted notice that offers a pardon to any gang members who turns himself in he sells out Bart to the Sherriff. At his arrest Bart realises about the affair and the betrayal. Later he escapes from prison and is pursued by a posse. But reaching the cabin he has run out of ammunition. In a providential intervention a shot by the posse hits and kills Don,. As his unfaithful wife tends the body Bart smiles! This is an usually ironic ending for an early western.

The film was screened from another 35mm print from the EYE Museum. The chase sequence is fairly extended and as it nears the cabin the spatial relationships become slightly confused. And at one point the camera ‘crosses the line’, a technique not yet elevated into a taboo. Richard Abel in the Festival Catalogue noted:

“[this] makes the shooting of Trout all the more grimly ironic – and a sharp contrast to the ending of Essanay’s A Pal’s Oath (1911), shown last year in Pordenone, in which Broncho Billy decides not to exact vengeance when, through an open window, he finds his nemesis embracing his wife (Billy’s former lover) and child.”

The Greater Love USA 1912 was from the Vitagraph Company. The story is simple but the treatment is notable. The Kansas Kid (Robert Thorny) is the subject of a wanted notice. Meanwhile the Sheriff  (Fred Burns) has  a sweetheart (Edna Fisher). She tends a wounded stranger who turns out to be the Kansas Kid. She and the Kid also feel a mutual attraction. This leads to a dispute between the Kid and the Sheriff, who only later realise that the man is the wanted outlaw. Following  a pursuit the Sheriff is wounded and the kid takes him back to be tended by his sweetheart. The grateful Sheriff shakes his hand.

Richard Abel provided some informative notes in the Festival catalogue.

“This surviving film print [35mm] includes a range of tinting characteristic of the period, which differentiates one time of day from another as well as exteriors from interiors.”

He goes on to note the stylistic treatment in the film:

“It also uses a series of objects to effectively highlight key moments in the story: the wanted poster, a rain barrel, a flower, several written notes, and a photograph.”

The poster appears at least three times. And the photograph functions to inform or influence both the Sheriff and the outlaw. And in addition,

“this Vitagraph film deploys eye-line match editing, in not one but two scenes: the fist involving the sheriff and the young woman; the second (with one mismatch), the gunfight between the Sheriff and the Kid.”

I also thought, [but only on one viewing] that there was match when the Sheriff observes the glances between outlaw and the young woman. Also what struck me as uncommon was a high angle camera shot as the Sheriff and the outlaw face off for their confrontation.

Richard Abel’s commentary also left me uncertain. I noted that after the return of the wounded Sherriff and the handshake between him and the outlaw that the cowboy posse also shook the hand of the outlaw. I may have misread this shot as Abel writes:

“but the Sheriff’s men still arrest the Kid and lead him away.”

The Escape of Jim Dolan, USA 1913.

This was a two reel Selig western, the 35mm print including tinting in parts. The plot is full of incident and action. Jim Dolan is false accused by the Foreman of Brown Ranch because of they both admire the Rancher’s daughter Grace. However, there is also a dispute over water rights. The foreman buries a cattle hide on Dolan’s claim, resulting in Jim being convicted for cattle stealing and sentenced to ten years in jail. A title card announces

“The Escape of Jim Dolan.”

Grace smuggles in tools hidden in a basket of food. Jim breaks out at night and is soon pursued by Posse. Hindered by his horse going lame, Jim hides in a river, ingeniously breathing through the barrel of his gun [is that technically possible?]. But his troubles continue. He is captured by Apache and tortured. But the rope which ties him to the horse as it gallops breaks and Jim is assisted by a passing prospector. Back near the ranch a bar brawl leads to the confession of the Foreman. Reading of his innocence in newspaper Jim returns to his claim and to grace.

Jim is played by Tom Mix, a major star and noted for his horsemanship. So one impressive sequence has Jim fleeing on a relay of horses as he escapes from prison and the posse. Mix manages to dismount and then remount

“In scarcely more than a second’s space.” (New York Dramatic Mirror quoted in the Catalogue).

The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species, USA 1913.

This was a delightfully bizarre western. The 35mm print was missing one section, so the details in the Catalogue relied on the Lubin Film Co. synopsis.

“For those weary of cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians, Romaine Fielding’s The Rattlesnake – a film that still brings gasps – gives us an unclichéd and ruggedly symbolic West. Lubin advertised it as a “strange and weird story” of “a man’s gratitude to a snake for saving his life.” The two-reeler is set in Mexico, and was filmed around Las Vegas, New Mexico, east of Santa Fe, where the landscape looks as unforgiving as the story’s obsessive central figure, played by the director.” (Scott Simmon in the Catalogue).

Tony’s life is saved when the rattlesnake bites an assailant who subsequently dies. Tony, full of gratitude, adopts the snake. However, his girlfriend Inez (Mary Ryan) demands that he choose between her and his reptilian friend. Seven years pass and Inez has married John Gordon ((Jesse Robinson). When Tony attempts to shoot Gordon he ends up being bitten by the snake. By the close the snake is dead and Tony has lost an arm.

This is the only full-length film of Romaine Fielding to survive. though he worked on over a 100 between 1912 and 1915. One wonders if there were imaginative but sadly lost melodramas about horses, cattle, donkeys, and of course dogs. I would be happier, though, if the film did not repeat the stereotypical representation of snakes as untrustworthy.

As Simmon notes the film’s use of landscape is excellent. The New York Dramatic Mirror praised the film but could not resist a rather obvious pun:

“The venom of jealousy has never furnished a better basis for a story than this film portrays. Nor have we in years seen this plot germ presented in a manner more original in conception and development. Romaine Fielding struck upon a singularly appropriate personification of this character  trait in the use of a rattlesnake … Hi shows the hand … of a master of technique in his development of atmosphere to the last essence.” (Quoted in the Catalogue).

The Trail of Cards, USA 1913

This title from the American Film Company was preserved on a 35mm at the Library of Congress. [The same title occurs in the same year on a Selig sea-faring film]. It was noted re the Western,

“In 1913 ”Moving Picture World’ published a list of narrative “bromides” that scriptwriters would do well to avoid if they desired to steer clear of clichéd storytelling. … But The Trail of Cards was singled out for redeeming [a] …hackneyed situation by giving it a “brand new twist”. (Festival Catalogue).

The ‘hackneyed’ story involved two suitors for the one young woman, Bess (or Rose – Lillian Christy). The two suitors, Bob (Edward Coxen) and Pedro (no credit), test their mettle in a fight which Bob wins. Thus he wins Bess. However Pedro has his men kidnap Bess and carry her off – in a hammock slung between two horses. We actually see Bess’s mother vainly shooting after the kidnappers. The ‘twist’ is that Bess leaves a trail of playing cards which Bob and Bess’s father follow to rescue her.

This short film is stylistically innovatory, as Charlie Keil [in the Catalogue] points out:

“Tracking shots recur throughout the film, [most frequently as Bess plants the ‘trail of cards’], and a notable variant serves wrap up the plot: the reunited couple ride towards her ranch as the camera dollies backward, …”

In some ways this film could have slotted into the later ‘cowgirl’ programme.

Philip Carli provided the accompaniment for the films. The films were projected at 18 fps except A Wife in the Hills projected at 16 fps. Most often frame rates are a judgement by archivists. These all looked fine and offered steady movement. The rate of filming and projection in this early period is an intriguing issue.

 

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