Wednesday, December 4, 2013


TREASURES 5 – THE WEST, 1898-1938 – Video Review

Cavalry & Indians at Little Big Horn

The wonderful, dedicated folks at the National Film Preservation Foundation, who brought you LOST & FOUND – AMERICAN TREASURES FROM THE NEW ZEALAND FILM ARCHIVES (if you missed my review, HERE is the link . ) have outdone themselves for Western fans, and just in time for Christmas. 

TREASURES 5 – THE WEST, a three disk set, plus a 110 page book, runs for more than ten hours, and contains forty films, from one-minute newsreel clips to several full-length features.  From slapstick to melodrama, from documentary to real drama, they offer a kaleidoscopic view of the American West from a vast range of perspectives.  Additionally, each film has an optional audio commentary, from experts in Western history, filmmaking, and film preservation.  It’s wonderfully entertaining, highly informative, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

Nearly every important film company of the era is represented – Biograph, Selig, Nestor, Kalem, Essanay, Vitagraph, Thomas Ince, Famous Players – Lasky (later Paramount).  The stars featured include Tom Mix, Clara Bow, Richard Dix, Bronco Billy Anderson and Mabel Normand.  The directors include D.W. Griffith, Victor Fleming, Gregory La Cava, Mack Sennett and W. S. Van Dyke.  The story sources include authors Bret Harte and Sinclair Lewis. 

Among the unexpected delights are every-day events filmmakers recorded nearly a century ago. HOW THE COWBOY MAKES HIS LARIAT (1917), though only three minutes, shows the entire process, starting with culling the hair from his horse’s tail; it’s probably the only in-depth recording of the all-but-lost process ever made.  LIFE ON THE CIRCLE RANCH (1912), presents typical daily ranch work convincingly.  But wait until you watch it again with the commentary, and realize how much of it was staged for the camera, and all of the rules of ranching that were broken in the process!


On D. W. Griffith’s very first trip to make films out west, in 1910, he filmed OVER SILENT PATHS: A STORY OF THE AMERICAN DESERT.  Starring Marion Leonard and Dell Henderson, the barren desert also stars; it was an unusual film locale at such a time, when most Westerns were shot in and around lush East-coast forests.  Marion and her prospector father W. Chrystie Miller are a set to pack it in and go to civilization, when her father gets robbed and killed by unsuccessful prospector Henderson.  When she, desperate, meets up with Henderson, she has no idea he killed her father.  Can you see the romance coming?  Shot by the great Billy Bitzer, using the then-ruined and abandoned San Fernando Mission as a location, it’s as emotionally affecting as you expect with Griffith.  And fast?  It was shot in two days the first week in April, and released in May.  And the previous week he’d shot RAMONA, with Mary Pickford, at the ranch where Helen Hunt Jackson had set her story.


TOURISTS (1912) was also shot by the Biograph Company, by a small ‘B’ unit following the bigger Griffith unit.  Slight but fast and amusing, this one’s directed by Mack Sennett shortly before he left Biograph to start his Keystone company.  Shot entirely in the Santa Fe Train Station in Albuquerque, using the exteriors of Fred Harvey’s (as in THE HARVEY GIRL) Indian Building, and clearly improvised, it stars Mabel Normand as a tourist who gets in trouble with local Indians when she and her friends miss their train, and the chief takes a liking to Mabel.  And going against the not-yet-established Hollywood tradition, many Indians are played by Indians.  Speaking of Fred Harvey, also included is the 1926 film THE INDIAN DETOUR, a how-to film as well as a travelogue, featuring the wonders of ancient New Mexico as seen from modern Harvey trains and buses.  This film helped Harvey introduce and popularize the concept of cultural tourism.
Some sponsored films are more subtle than others.  SUNSHINE GATHERERS (1921), in often stunning color, shows and tells the story of Father Serra bringing Christianity to the beautiful new world of California.  Only gradually do we realize that the ultimate master plan is to make the riches of California available to the world through Del Monte canned fruit.  I felt positively noble eating my canned peaches while watching this with breakfast! 

Many of the fictional films make great use of their exotic locations.  A prime example is THE SERGEANT: TOLD IN THE YOSEMITE VALLEY (1910).  Part of the great treasure-trove of American films discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive, SERGEANT is a Selig-Polyscope film, starring one of the screen’s first great leading men Hobart Bosworth as the title character, trying to rescue his kidnapped  beloved.  Taking full advantage of Yosemite’s remarkable features, the film’s inter-titles both advance the story, and identify where each sequence is shot.  Similarly, SALOMY JANE, A STORY OF THE DAYS OF ’49, PRODUCED IN THE CALIFORNIA REDWOODS (1914), opens with the title gal emerging from a cut in a redwood.  Made by the once-thriving California Motion Picture Corporation of Northern California, it’s the only one of their films known to survive. 

Clara Bow

Among the more unexpected pleasures of this set are a pair of sophisticated comedy features with western settings, MANTRAP (1926), starring Clara Bow, directed by Victor Fleming and lensed by James Wong Howe; and WOMANHANDLED (1925), starring Richard Dix and Esther Ralston, and directed by Gregory La Cava.   When New Yorkers Dix and Ralston meet, she tells him she’s tired of prissy city-men – metrosexuals before the term was coined – and Dix sets out to become the westerner she wants.  Not only does he remodel himself to please her, finding the West she longs for to be gone, his does his best to recreate it.  In MANTRAP, big-city manicurist Clara Bow marries backwoodsman Ernest Torrence, but devoted as they are she soon becomes bored with his life, and falls for his unlikely friend, big-city divorce lawyer Percy Marmont.  It’s set in Canada, but shot around Lake Arrowhead.  And Clara Bow is an absolute delight, playing a woman so independent and naughty and lacking in guilt that she could only exist in Hollywood in the pre-Code days.


In fact, one notable feature of many of these westerns is that the women are so plucky and strong.  In BRONCO BILLY AND THE SCHOOLMISTRESS (1912), Billy’s romantic pursuit of the new teacher puts him at odds with every other man in town.  His judgment is so clouded that he nearly gets himself killed – and guess rescues the cowboy hero?  In the similar LEGAL ADVICE (1916), Tom Mix, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, tries to get himself into legal trouble in order to make time with the new lady lawyer!


Of course, it’s not all hijinks and hilarity.   In THE BETTER MAN (1912), a Vitagraph film shot in Santa Monica, the heroine and her sick child are alone as the worthless husband goes off to drink and gamble.  An Mexican outlaw with a price on his head comes to the house to get food, and is about to make his escape when the plight of the mother and child touches his heart, and he goes out seeking the doctor, not guessing that the erring husband is looking for the outlaw, and a quick reward.

LADY OF THE DUGOUT - Al & Frank Jennings 
question a lawman

Made six years later, the feature THE LADY OF THE DUGOUT (1918) has a similar plot to THE BETTER MAN, but with a remarkable twist: some of the actors are playing themselves!  Ten years earlier, former U.S. Marshal Bill Tilghman, whom, with fellow Marshals Chris Madsen and Heck Thomas rode for Judge Parker, and were known as The Three Guardsmen, decided to make a western movie.  Called THE BANK ROBBERY (not a part of this set), it starred himself, Heck Thomas, Quanah Parker, and bank and train robber Al Jennings.  Jennings found he loved the movie business, at least in part because he could rewrite his own history.  His film BEATING BACK (1904), which is considered lost, set the pattern for films about outlaw do-gooders. 

Al robs the bank

Produced and co-written by Jennings, and starring himself and his brother Frank, and Corinne Grant, LADY OF THE DUGOUT is directed by the great W.S. ‘One-take-Woody’ Van Dyke, and is one of the greatest treasures of this collection.  The plot is much like that of BETTER MAN; a pair of outlaws robs a bank, and when they run short of food, they come upon a woman living in a dugout house on the prairie, she and her child starving as they wait for worthless dad to come home with some food.  The outlaws are so moved that they get provisions and bring them back, endangering themselves.  Director Van Dyke, who would go on to direct TARZAN OF THE APES, the THIN MAN MOVIES, and so many more, is a wonderful visual storyteller, and his use of reflections and night-for-night photography is memorable.  But it’s his collaboration with Jennings that shows off the startling authenticity of the criminal behavior.  There’s a chilling naturalness to a gunman’s stance while shooting away; removing a bullet from a shoulder room is shown unflinchingly by the camera, born indifferently by the wounded man.  Incidentally, the little starving boy grew up to be Ben Alexander, Jack Webb’s first DRAGNET partner.

Lawman in the dust, Al & Frank
make their getaway

Of course, Jennings spins the story his own way.  The criminals are so noble, and the law so venal that when a train is reported robbed, it’s assumed that the sheriff is behind the crime.  Poor real lawman Bill Tilghman must have concluded that he’d created a monster, and he produced and starred in PASSING OF THE OKLAHOMA OUTLAW (1915) as a response to the glorification of the bad guy.  Though not complete, it’s a satisfying chunk of film detailing the apprehension of many of the Oklahoma Territory’s most infamous bandits, and the lawmen are in many cases played by the very men who did the deed: again Bill Tilghman and Heck Thomas, as well as Arkansas Tom Jones.

The travelogues are stunning, some going as far back as 1898, and featuring railroads, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Hot Springs, Arizona.  Among the remarkable finds is an 8 minutes segment from the feature-length FROM THE GOLDEN WEST, an amateur film made by an unknown Easterner for club screenings.  It’s ‘L.A. as seen from a blimp’ footage is delightful.

Soundstages seen from a blimp in

Newsreel clips are included, some celebrating the American Indian, others patronizing him, and one sequence features 7th Cavalrymen and Lakota and Cheyenne warriors ‘burying the hatchet’ at The Little Big Horn fifty years to the day after the event. 

In DESCHUTES DRIFTWOOD (1918) we get a travelogue of Oregon trains and waterways from the point-of-view of a hobo who’s been sprung from jail to do the honors.  Eighteen years later, in a Hearst newsreel, we see THE PROMISED LAND BARRED TO HOBOES (1936), showing roadblocks set up in California to keep the unemployed out.   

Made during the Mexican Revolution, MEXICAN FILIBUSTERS (1911) is a romantic tale about gun-smuggling.  AMMUNITION SMUGGLING ON THE MEXICAN BORDER (1914), is also about gun-smuggling, but stars a sheriff re-enacting his own kidnapping and his deputy’s murder, just weeks after it had actually happened. 

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power produced ROMANCE OF WATER (1931), about getting water from the Owens Valley.  It’s followed by a Hearst newsreel clip, A NEW MIRACLE IN THE DESERT (1935), and no matter how loudly you turn up the sound on these two, you can still hear John Huston and Jack Nicholson talking in the back of your head.

I know that I’ve just brushed the surface of this terrific collection – I haven’t even mentioned a great Thomas H. Ince feature, THE LAST OF THE LINE, but hopefully I’ve given you a sense of the wonders to be found in this set.  And I should mention that each of the forty films has an original music score.  I heartily recommend it as a gift for anyone on your list with a love of Western movies or Western history, or American history in general.  At more than ten hours – twice that with the commentary – this is not a set to be consumed at a sitting, but to be savored over days or weeks or months.  Then again, if you’re a binge watcher, have at it!

Although it lists for $59, you can buy it from Amazon for $32 HERE


I apologize again, for the Round-up being several days late again.  I’m still getting over this bug I’ve had for nearly two weeks.  I’m very touched by all the get-well wishes I’ve received.  I don’t want to give the impression that something serious is wrong – it’s just an upper respiratory infection; not even the real flu!
Anyway, I’d better get well soon, as I’ve got a bunch of book and movie reviews coming up, and some very cool giveaways just in time for Christmas! 

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright December 2013 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. I've researched and collected data on European westerns during the silent film days and you would b surprised how many Italin, German, French and British silent westerns there are. What's puzzling to me is the lack of silent filw western posters on the Internet. I would think Silent Film collectors would be proud to show off their collections on the Web.