Early & Silent Film

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Beginnings of the Western – Cowgirls.

Posted by keith1942 on August 8, 2017

This was the second programme offered a in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 presenting the early years of the major Hollywood genre. Richard Abel’s introduction in the Festival Catalogue noted,

“something like a genre begins to emerge out of a wide variety of films – cowboy films, Indian pictures, and cowgirl films – during the two-year period of 1912 – 1913.”

What also seems to be the case is that women characters did better in this developing period than was often the case when an identifiable and conventionalised genre did emerge. In this programme we had six films where women were important characters and even were the dominant actor.

Broncho Billy’s Narrow Escape, USA 1912

This was an Essanay production directed by and starring G. M. Anderson. Happily John Oliver has just written a profile of ‘The First Cowboy Film Star’ in ‘Flickers’ June/July 2017. [Gilbert] Anderson worked in the early US films, including a small part in the 1903 The Great Train Robbery. He was a co-founder of Essanay in 1907 and in 1909 commenced a long series of popular westerns. He generally directed and starred in these films but,

“Despite regular appearances, Anderson would still introduce variations from film to film as to how the character was portrayed. In one film Broncho Billy could be bandit, in the next a cow puncher, and then a miner in the following film. He could even be a bit of a bumpkin. He could even die at the end of a film.”

The last was not typical of what the western became.

In this title Billy is a wandering cowboy hired by a Prospector Ben Martin (Arthur Mackles). Billy develops a mutual attraction with Martin’s daughter Lois (Vedah Bertram): there is a happy shot as they sing and duet on a guitar and banjo. However, Billy’s rival Baxter (Brinsley Shaw) manages to convince some cowboys that Billy is a horse thief. The response, that becomes a typical event in westerns, is a proposed lynching. But Lois rides to the rescue and as Abel notes:

“The film ends with an emblematic shot of the couple smiling and chatting, until Billy (in an atypical gesture) slides a ring onto her finger.”

Lois is shown as a skilled horse rider. Vedah Bertram made 22 westerns with Anderson but she died young [aged 20] in 1912. Apart from the riding sequence the film also uses shots in silhouette as characters move from interiors to exterior light.

A Girl of the West, USA 1912

A Vitagraph film probably directed by Rollin S. Sturgeon. This was one of the last westerns shot by Vitagraph on the East Coast,, in their New York studio and nearby locations. The locations are uninspired and a later Vitagraph in the programme demonstrates one important factor in moving west to California.

Scott Simon in the Festival catalogue notes that in the film we get the following title:

“HOORAY! FOR THE AMAZONS.” shout cowboys in the final inter-title of the slightly mist titled A Girl of the West, which features two gun-toting, rapid-riding women – the ranch girl (Polly) and the outlaw (Nell) – along with the heroine’s older sister (Dolly) who lectures her unsuccessfully about proper female behaviour in the west.”

Lillian Christy plays Dolly (Daisy in the print), Helen Case as Polly and Helen Galvin as Nell.

Simon’s reservation regarding the film’s title are justified, Polly acts out of love for a cowboy John (Tom Fortune) whilst Nell is the moll of the villain Scar-faced Bill (Robert Thornby). The plot lacks plausibility. John sells him horse and is to collect the $500 purchase price when he delivers it to the ranch. Scar-faced Bill and his henchman steal the horse and delivering it to the ranch collect the $500. Given the purchaser had agreed the bargain with John this seems unlikely or the men really are dumb. The best bit of the film is the conflict between |Polly and Nell, as they battle with Polly successfully riding to recover the money.

The 35mm print was 902 feet, running 13 minutes at 18fps. Likely there is a little missing, as so often the case with early film. Certain Dolly’s appearances and role seem a little truncated.

The Craven, USA 1912.

This is a Vitagraph film shot in the new Los Angeles Studio, in Santa Monica in California. Laura Horak, in the Festival Catalogue, comments on the film and its star,

“Schaefer had moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles with Vitagraph regulars Sturgeon, this film’s director, and actors Thornby, Bennett and Burns (all in this film ) in October 1911 to form the Western branch of the Vitagraph Company. The Western Vitagraph films were often praised for uniting spectacular locations with quality photography, complex plots and mature acting.”

The changes are notable in comparison to A Girl of the West. California offered better and more varied locations and a brighter climate with better light for the cinematography. And the working conditions seem to have better suited the production crew.

The film opens with the title,

“The wife of a coward.”

Anne (Anne Schaefer, Maud in the print) is the niece of a ranch owner. The new hand out from the east is Harvey (Robert Thornby). Harvey shoots a line that impresses the ranch hands and even more Anne. They marry. Her eyes are opened when a Mexican bandit ((William) Eagle Eye) threatens them for money; Harvey is prepared to hand over money but Anne chases off the bandit.

Harvey gets the credit and is elected sheriff. However nemesis arrives when he is required to apprehend a noted bandit Black Pete (probably Tom Beckett). But Anne has to undertake the task, tracking down Black Peter. In an well staged confrontation Black Pete hides in rushes, but when he jumps out Anne is quicker and shoots him dead.

Back at the cabin Anne sends Harvey to collect the body, thus preserving

“my father’s honour'”

throwing down the gun, possibly a motif that developed into the badge thrown down. Thus Harvey preserves his reputation and his

“unearned honour.”

The plot is seemingly not unusual, Laura Horak notes,

The Craven was one of many films from this period that dramatised white male cowardice (e.g. The Honour of His Family, 1910). It was also one of the many in which courageous white women took over from incapacitated brothers, husbands and sweethearts ….”

A Bit of Blue Ribbon, USA 1913.

This is another Vitagraph filmed in California. By now the company had moved to a new studio in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, located near hills and open country: likely a factor in the move.. The film has what seems an unusual plot and the print we viewed was only 741 feet, apparently with missing shots and title cards. So the opening of the film is unclear. It seems that Kitty (Marty Charleson), the daughter of a ranch  owner, has a favourite horse Seňor: she also has a human sweetheart, Steve (Robert Burns). The father Hartwell (Charles Bennett) orders Steve to shoot Seňor, though why is not clear. The mother in this film is played by Anne Schaefer but she has much less to do than in The Craven.

Steve honourably refuses to shoot Seňor so Hartwell decides to carry out the deed. Fortunately he is interrupted and shot by a Mexican horse thief (William Eagle Eye again). Unfortunately the Mexican is able to throw the blame on Steve. In an early example of what becomes one of Hollywood’s most common motifs Steve is discovered by other cowboys bending over the wounded Hartwell. This confirms his guilt and he is dragged away. In another conventional trope the cowboys vote and agree to lynch Steve. Kitty now rides to save Steve and confronts the Mexican. He mages to escape but drops the titular blue ribbon. Kitty recognises this as belonging to her father. She rides again to save Steve from hanging. Later the Mexican is apprehended and [it seems] sentenced to hanging [or possibly lynching].

Una of the Sierras, USA 1812.

This was another Vitagraph film, directed by Ralph Ince, younger brother of key producer Thomas Ince; though Rollin S. Sturgeon also had a role in the production. This is another classic plotline. The western gal goes east [or north] and encounters the world, the technology and the mores of  urban life. Una (Mary Charleson) is

“Brought up in the Mountains Wild. She is more that a match for a Crafty Financier. She’s a Hummer and Can Do Things.” (The Vitagraph promotion quoted in the Festival catalogue).

Ulna’s father is a prospector in California. At his death she comes into

“enough gold to pay the national debt!”

So she goes to live with her aunt in the city. There are amusing scenes as she explores her aunt’s property, encounters a motor car and jumps in the Pacific clothed. Romance arrives in the shape of two financiers, shady investor Sharpe and kindlier stockbroker Clifford. Sharpe tries to eliminate Clifford through a share scheme, but Una saves him and the day.

“In the unpublished synopsis, she asks Clifford “if they are engaged” and he answers with a kiss.”

Sallie’s Sure Shot, USA 1913.

This was a Selig western that I had seen before and which repaid a second viewing.

“A Tale of Devotion and Dynamite.”

Coyote Jim (Lester Cuneo) and his gang plan to take over the Ralston mining claim. Rob Ralston has gone to town to register the claim leaving his daughter Sallie (Myrtle Stedman) alone. Her sweetheart Fred warns off the gang. But they return, take Sallie to nearby claim and plan to trap Fred by dynamiting the cabin. Whilst there attention is elsewhere Sallie grabs a rifle and cuts the fuse wire with her ‘sure shot’. First time round Stedman’s body twirl and the accompanying cut occasioned applause from the audience.

Fred reasserts some masculine prowess when the gang relight the fuse by throwing it through the window at the gang. Following the explosion the gang are trussed up and handed over to the sheriff.

Laura Horak notes that

“In fact, Sallie was not the first Selig heroine to display such impressive shooting skills – in The Girl from Montana (1907), Pansy Perry’s character races on horseback to rescue her falsely accused sweetheart and shoots through the suspended rope just as he is hung.”

Whilst tropes and motifs from these early westerns became a regular part of plots in the western genre, the ‘can do’ woman were much less common. This selection was revealing and enjoyable. Several of the 35mm prints were from the EYE Filmmuseum with title cards in Dutch. We had an English translation provided. And there were a couple of instances where characters names had changed, as noted. Donald Sosin provided the accompaniment at the piano.

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