Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Lady of the Dugout

(Al Jennings Productions Co., US 1918) P: Al Jennings; D: W.S. Van Dyke; SC: Al Jennings, W.S. Van Dyke; DP: David Abel; cast: Al Jennings (himself), Frank Jennings (himself), Corinne Grant (Mary, the lady of the dugout), Ben Alexander (her son), Joe Singleton (her husband), Carl Stockdale (Zonie); DigiBeta, 64’; from: Academy Film Archive, Los Angeles (from a 16 mm print at the Library of Congress Packard Audio Visual Conservation Center, Culpeper, VA). English intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Gabriel Thibaudeau, 4 Oct 2011.

Scott Simmon (GCM Catalogue): "Al Jennings, the real-life outlaw behind this feature-length film – its producer, co-writer, and star – had quite a career path. He was a small-town Oklahoma lawyer in 1895 when one of his brothers was killed in a shootout. Seeking retribution after the killer was acquitted, Al joined a group of outlaws who took up bank and train robbery and soon became the infamous Jennings Gang. Al Jennings’s distinctive red hair made him easily recognizable even when masked, and he was captured in 1897. Thanks to lobbying by another Jennings brother, Al’s life sentence was commuted to five years by President McKinley, and in 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt issued him a full pardon. On release, Jennings took to the evangelical circuit, using his life as lesson. Roosevelt’s pardon had restored his voting rights, and in 1912 he campaigned against Oklahoma City’s political machine by running for district attorney. According to one witness his speeches told listeners “about his past, prison and all, until he had them crying like penitents at the mourners’ bench. Then he’d say, ‘There, I’ve told you everything I ever did. Those machine fellows – they won’t tell you what they did!’” He won the Democratic nomination but lost the election. Undiscouraged, he took to the campaign trail again in 1914 and came in third, with a respectable 24 percent of the vote, for the Democratic nomination for governor of Oklahoma – the state that had put a bounty on his head less than 20 years before. His autobiography was adapted into a (now-lost) feature by the Thanhouser company in 1914, with Jennings playing himself."

"The Lady of the Dugout, the former outlaw’s self-produced second feature, opens surprisingly in the heart of filmland – on a veranda of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where a guest is reading the opening episode of Jennings’s life story as it was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. Fortuitously, a dapper Al happens by and tells his audience that he is thinking of putting episodes from his life onscreen “for the beneficial effect it may have on young men. Among the first will be the story of the ‘Lady of the Dugout.’” We settle into the film’s self-reflective, double-flashback structure: Jennings tells his story, and within his story the “lady” tells hers. At 55, Al Jennings should be too old to impersonate his wild younger self, but his weathered face and sinewy frame convince. (Born during the Civil War in 1863 – while his father was fighting for the Confederacy – he would live to 1961.) Also playing himself is Al’s older brother and partner in crime, Frank Jennings, who did five years in the Leavenworth federal prison. The Lady of the Dugout makes out the Jennings brothers as populist Robin Hoods who rob a bank and gallantly bestow loot on a famished mother and child barely hanging onto life in their half-underground “dugout” home. The film’s director, 29-year-old W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke, would become known in the industry for his economy in shooting, a skill that must have been appreciated by Jennings, who exhausted production funds before this film was completed."

"Although The Lady of the Dugout survives complete only in a 16 mm reissue print, its apparently effortless authenticity still shines through. “I’m not putting on ‘wild west’ pictures. These are real west pictures,” Jennings told Photoplay in 1919. The Lady of the Dugout is the rare Western to acknowledge poverty, to present the West as a place where dreams can go bad. The homestead in this film is far more desperate than any to come in Hollywood films. As Jennings described them, the “deserted dugouts with their dingy chimneys sticking above ground marked the spots where men had settled, struggled, and failed.” This is a Western where the happy ending is a return East. Announced as the first of the “Al Jennings Outlaw Stories,” The Lady of the Dugout was also the last, despite critical praise. Moving Picture World called it “tremendously effective in its simple realism and heart appeal.” Variety liked it also (even if that paper’s famously screwy style got the better of its review): “A simpler, more appealing picture has not been shown in these parts since the inhabitants of Mars went Democratica. … It deserves to make a lot of money.”"

"But make a lot of money it didn’t. First screened in August 1918, the film had a slow rollout over several years. This was Jennings’ last starring feature and the only film from his short-lived company. In 1920, bills were introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to create a national film censorship board within the Bureau of Education, with provisions prohibiting films depicting acts of “ex convicts, desperadoes, bandits, train robbers, bank robbers, or outlaws.” Al and Frank Jennings were surely the only film actors to fall under all those categories. The bills didn’t pass, but such prohibitions were essentially self-imposed by Hollywood studios in the 1920s. A film like The Lady of the Dugout would never be made again." Scott Simmon

AA: A Western. A remarkable discovery in the Western genre, a memorable film that was produced before the stereotypes had started to dominate. The real outlaws play the leading roles, and there is a true sense of location. The many milieux (the dire dugout, the wealthy planter's mansion, the arid Western towns) feel authentic. The accounts of the hold-ups by the professional criminals feel real, too (including their strict rule to avoid killing, and using gunplay just to scare people off). There is a double flashback structure: the reformed criminals telling their story, and the lady of the dugout telling how she got there."We had sowed the wind and reaped the wild wind." A religious film about reformation through the experience of evil, a companion to the The Three Godfathers story, and to many William S. Hart movies. Print: from unpromising source materials a watchable Digibeta has been created. The visual poverty befits the subject.

No comments: