Tuesday, February 24, 2015
LESTER CUNEO – THE FIRST ITALIAN WESTERN STAR! PLUS TCM FEST, COWBOY FEST, AND SELECTED SHORTS!
LESTER CUNEO – THE FIRST ITALIAN WESTERN STAR!
The idea of an Italian western star immediately conjures up the 1960s, and the image of a handsome European, perhaps with an Americanized moniker, riding a horse through the Tabernas Desert. But the first, actually a Chicago-born actor of Italian heritage, started his screen career in 1912 in the United States. Lester Cuneo’s name is largely unknown today, because he died before the transition of films from silents to talkies, and because his films have long been unavailable. But now Grapevine Video has made two of his starring features, SILVER SPURS and BLAZING ARROWS, both from 1922, available. His work is overdue for reappraisal.
Born in 1888, the tall and handsome Cuneo, with dark eyes and a Roman nose, was a stage actor from his teens, and entered movies at the age of 24. He was lucky to be in Chicago, headquarters of film pioneer Col. William Selig, and went to work at Selig-Polyscope Studios. For more information on Cuneo and Selig, I turned to Andy Erish, author of the definitive biography of the man, and history of the studio, SELIG – THE MAN WHO INVENTED HOLLYWOOD.
He told me, “(Cuneo) only made a couple of films at Selig's Chicago studio hub before traveling to Colorado to join the company's Western unit. Ironically, one of the films made in Chicago was a comedy/drama about Italian immigrants in the US called ACCORDING TO LAW, but Cuneo played an immigration cop - not one of the immigrants! Anyway, Cuneo appears to have been assigned to the Colorado unit as a replacement for Tom Mix, who decided not to renew his contract early in 1912 in order to help organize and participate in the first Calgary Stampede. Cuneo played the same sorts of roles Mix had opposite William Duncan - occasionally as the hero, but more often as the villain. When the director of Selig's Colorado troupe, Otis B. Thayer, left after a few months, Duncan took over. Cuneo still alternated playing villain and hero with Duncan.
“Mix rejoined the Selig western unit at Canon City, Colorado around Thanksgiving 1912 after sustaining some serious injuries in the Stampede and the rodeo circuit. Now Mix was often cast in the roles that had been played by Cuneo or Duncan, though all three at various times continued to play hero, villain or henchman. The troupe moved to Prescott, Arizona at the beginning of 1913 where they remained for a year and a half. Duncan directed all of the films and wrote most of them, too, until Mix began writing scripts around September 1913 that more fully integrated his cowboy skills and athletic prowess into his characters and plots. Mix had written a handful of scripts since first joining the company in 1910, and suggested bits of business (physical action) to liven up others' scripts (including those written by Duncan). But the movies written by Mix that were made in Prescott in the fall of 1913 completely transformed the movie cowboy into an action hero whose exploits were an outgrowth of rodeo stunts. Mix had already developed an international following in 1910-11, but the content and success of the films he wrote in Prescott put him in a class by himself.
“Cuneo became the odd man out, serving as sidekick or henchman to Mix's heroes or villains. At the end of 1913 Duncan was reassigned to focus his energies solely on directing Mix - no more acting. Mix had brought a couple of old rodeo and ranch pals into the Prescott unit, notably Sid Jordan, further displacing Cuneo. By the time Selig moved the Western Unit to Glendale, California in mid-1914, Mix had already taken over as director, writer, producer, star, (with) Duncan leaving for Vitagraph. Cuneo seems to have remained behind in Prescott, where he starred in a handful of Selig Western shorts directed by Marshall Farnum (brother of better known actors William and Dustin). Sometime during the summer of 1914 Cuneo left Selig for Essanay, and appears to have relocated to their Chicago studio.”
Lester Cuneo established himself as a star in Westerns, and unlike many of his contemporaries, starred in films of many other genres. A more versatile actor than most, he was screen-tested by Ernst Lubitsch for the title role of FAUST in 1923 (sadly, the film was never made). In 1920 he married beautiful co-star Francelia Billington, and they would produce fourteen movies – and two children – together. Already a notable actress in her own right, the previous year she had what would be her most important film role, as the married woman pursued by Austrian officer Erich Von Stroheim in BLIND HUSBANDS.
SILVER SPURS, co-directed by Henry McCarty and James Leo Meehan – both first-time directors! – opens in contemporary (for 1922) Manhattan, as the very cosmopolitan Lester, a western novelist, is at his gentlemen’s club, kidded by his friends for wanting to escape to the simpler life of the imagined west. They surprise him with a good-luck gift of a pair of silver spurs, and he is on his way.
In the California town of San Vincente he befriends the local padre (Phil Gastrock), and soon becomes embroiled in helping lovely Rosario del Camarillo (Lillian Ward), by inheritance the queen of the rancho, who has been swindled out of her property and position by Juan Von Rolf (Bert Sprotte). Von Rolf is such a swine that although married, he treats his wife like dirt, and flaunts his relationship with cantina-girl Carmencita (Zalla Zarana), who makes a play for Lester, in part to make Von Rolf jealous.
In BLAZING ARROWS, again directed by McCarty, an Indian couple, Gray Eagle (Clark Comstock) and Mocking Bird (Laura Howard) discover a white couple, dead by their wagon, and a helpless baby. The childless couple raises the baby – calling him Sky Fire – as their own. Abruptly the babe has grown into college student John Strong (Lester Cuneo). He is on the verge of proposing to wealthy co-ed Martha Randolph (Francelia Billington), but in a nod to Conan Doyle, she is an orphan being raised by guardian Lafe McKee. Lafe has mismanaged her money, is in hock up to his ears to villainous Lew Meehan (who also co-wrote the script), and will do whatever it takes to keep her from marrying, and gaining control of her fortune.
John Strong is about to reveal to Martha that he is an Indian (he doesn’t know he was adopted) when Lafe announces it, and forbids the marriage. Crushed, John drops out of college, goes home to his Indian family. Distraught, Martha is sent away to the country to ‘get over’ John. And wouldn’t you know it – they end up in the same place where, as luck would have it, Lew Meehan is known and reviled as a crooked exploiter of Indians. Contrived as it may sound, the film is very entertaining.
Although not in the Tom Mix league, Cuneo was a talented horseman, and in both films acquits himself well in the saddle. Both films have plenty of plot-motivated riding and shooting and fighting, and effective villains. Unusually, the SILVER SPURS villain, Juan Von Rolf, is described as a German and Mexican ‘half-breed,’ perhaps carrying some lingering hostility after the recent Great War. Ethnicities, and the views of the period, are important in both stories. In BLAZING ARROWS it is a given that Martha could not marry an Indian. However, in a switch on the old Cavalry pictures, it is the Indians to the rescue when the good guys are hopelessly outnumbered. In SILVER SPURS, Cuneo sees Rosario’s devoted Indian servant, Tehana carrying her mistresses’ laundry, and in a courtly manner carries the load for her – but he doesn’t let her ride! She still walks while he stays on his horse!
Another interesting aspect of Westerns of the early 20th century is that they didn’t think of the ‘old west days’ as over, and happily mix debonair Manhattan parties with Indians in tepees and every westerner on horseback.
Tragically, three years later, the very talented and promising actor would be dead, and by his own hand. He had fallen out of favor as a leading man, and had begun taking supporting roles in poor films. He had begun to drink to excess. Francelia filed for divorce; the decree came in November of 1925. Reportedly, he told his children, “Daddy’s going away,” took a pistol from a closet, locked himself in the bedroom, and killed himself. He was 37. After his death, his widow, who had appeared in 140 films, would make only one more without Lester, before the coming of sound, and four years later would make her one ‘talkie’ movie, a supporting role in a Hoot Gibson western, before succumbing to tuberculosis, and dying at age 39.
But SILVER SPURS and BLAZING ARROWS preserve that moment when Fracelia were young, active, attractive, and full of hope. Each film is available for $16.95 from Grapevine Video HERE . BLAZING ARROWS also includes UNCOVERED WAGONS (1923), a one-reel comedy starring Charlie Chase’s kid brother James Parrott. It features pioneers in Calistoga Model-Ts, and Indians on bicycles, and is an irreverent hoot!
In researching this piece, I came upon an article from the November 1920 issue of Screenland magazine, with Lester Cuneo telling about an adventure in the Mexican desert. The text is below.
There are so many interesting events on the near horizon that it’s time to start marking up your datebook, and making reservations! I’ll have more details on some of these as the dates get closer.
THE PAPERBACK COLLECTOR SHOW – SUNDAY, MARCH 22ND
For decades fans of soft-back books have met annually to buy and sell, and for the second year in a row this event is being held at the Glendale Civic Auditorium, with a paltry admission price of five bucks. More than 80 dealers will be showing their wares. This is a not-to-be-missed event in my book – sorry – and I’ve always had great success filling in missing gaps in my Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Luke Short, and other series here. You can buy very high end, or be a cheapie like me, and buy what are sneeringly called “reader copies”. In addition to regular paperbacks, there are many pulp magazines of all genres.
Earl Hamner signing books last year
Best of all, over 45 artists and authors will be attending and signing their books for free! Sadly, there are rarely Western authors there, but among writers of particular interest are TWILIGHT ZONE writer George Clayton Jackson, TZ writer and THE WALTONS creator Earl Hamner Jr., sci-fi writers Ib Melchio, William F. Nolan, and Bob and Ray biographer David Pollack. You can learn more HERE.
THE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL – MARCH 27th THROUGH MARCH 29th
History According to Hollywood is this year’s theme. Turner Classics pulls out all the stops for this annual Hollywood event, which will feature way-more-screenings-than-you-can-see at Grauman’s Chinese with their new IMAX screen, the Chinese Multiplex, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, The Ricardo Montalban Theatre, and poolside at The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The Red Carpet opening will feature a restored SOUND OF MUSIC with Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and other stars in attendance. The current schedule, still in flux, lists 27 movies. Of particular interest to Round-up readers are the musical CALAMITY JANE (1953), starring Doris Day as Jane, and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok; and the world premiere of the restoration of THE PROUD REBEL (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Alan Ladd, Olivia De Havilland, and David Ladd – and David Ladd will attend!
Among other guests attending will be Ann-Margaret, Dustin Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, William Daniels, Sophia Loren, Spike Lee, Norman Lloyd, astronaut James Lovell, and stunt-man Terry Leonard. You can learn more, and buy passes, HERE.
MONSTERPALOOZA MARCH 27th – MARCH 29th
The Burbank Marriott Hotel and Convention Center will play host to as creepy a bunch of people and near-people as you have ever seen, at this annual event that attracts horror-movie fans from around the world for screenings, panel discussions, and a tremendous dealers’ room. Guests of particular interest to western fans will be Michael Biehn and Julie Adams. Also attending will be NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD director George Romero, Sonny Chiba, Linda Blair, Yaphet Kotto, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Sybil Danning, Richard Anderson and Gary Conway. You can learn more HERE.
MYSTERY AUTHORS’ LUNCHEON – MARCH 29TH
At the Sheraton Park Hotel in Anaheim, Behind The Badge is the name of the event which will feature a talk by LONGMIRE author Craig Johnson, as well as writers Allison Brennan and Robin Burcell. You can learn more HERE.
THE SANTA CLARITA COWBOY FESTIVAL – APRIL 18TH – APRIL 19TH
For the 22nd year, fans of cowboy poetry, cowboy music, cowboy literature, cowboy movies, and art, and clothes, and food, and cowboy everything imaginable will converge on Santa Clarita, an early home to western moviemaking. For several years now the joyous gathering has been at Gene Autry’s old Melody Ranch, but that venerable movie studio, now run by the Veluzat family, has become so busy with the upswing of western movie and TV production that the celebration will take place in the heart of Santa Clarita proper.
The action and entertainment will be at several easy-to-walk venues clustered around Main Street, including The Vu Theatre, The Repertory East Playhouse, The Canyon Theatre Guild, The OutWest Boutique and Bookstore, and there will be three stages and many other exciting escapades featured at William S. Hart Park, once home to one of the greatest of cowboy stars.
In addition to covering the event for the Round-up, I will be for the second year be taking part in events at OutWest, moderating panel discussions and doing one-on-one interviews with writers. There’s no schedule yet, but among the poets, authors, artists and songwriters taking part will be John Bergstrom, Almeda Bradshaw Al P. Bringas, Margaret Brownley, Karla Buhlman, Jim Christina, Peter Conway, Mikki Daniel, Eric H. Heisner, Dale Jackson, Jim Jones, C. Courtney Joyner, Andria Kidd, Stephen Lodge, Petrine Day Mitchum. Audrey Pavia, Karen Rosa, Katie Ryan, J.R.Sanders , Tony Sanders, Peter Sherayko, Janet Squires, Miles Swarthout, and Cowgirl Hall of Fame, stuntwoman Shirley Lucas Jauregui.
Next week I’ll have a run-down of the musical performers. To learn more, and to buy tickets, go .HERE
THAT’S A WRAP!
If you haven’t yet read Andy Erish’s book, COL. SELIG – THE MAN WHO INVENTED HOLLYWOOD, there is likely to be a gaping hole in your movie-history education: there certainly was in mine. The other great movie moguls who outlived him rewrote Hollywood history, and the poor Colonel got largely deleted, but his contribution to cinema is remarkable, and should be known to all who care about our art-form. You can learn more, and buy it,.HERE
All Original Contents Copyright February 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved