Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Selig Polyscope 2: The West and the Wilderness

Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Selig Polyscope), with e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Tama Karema, 9 Oct 2012.

THOR, LORD OF THE JUNGLE (De Heer der wildernis) (Selig Polyscope Company, US 1913). F.J. Grandon; SC: James Oliver Curwood; C: Kathlyn Williams (Gene Brandt), Charles Clary (Henry Barlum), Thomas [Tom] Santschi (Jan Karl), Lafayette [Lafe] McKee (Gene’s father), William Holland (hunchback); rel: 22.12.1913; orig. l: 2690 ft [3 rl.]; 35 mm, incomplete, 548 m, 29' (16 fps), col. (tinted, Desmet method); print source: EYE Film Institute Netherlands, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection; printed 2009). Dutch intertitles.

Andrew Erish: "Thor, Lord of the Jungle was William Selig’s big 3-reel Christmas release for 1913. The narrative combines two of the most common settings for Selig’s “wild animal” films: the jungle and the circus. The "all-star cast” includes Kathlyn Williams as the innocent daughter of a Dutch South African farmer, played by theatrical veteran Lafe McKee, Tom Santschi as her kind-hearted boyfriend who lives on a neighboring farm, and Charles Clary as dashing Henry Barlum, an American circus-owner’s son who travels to South Africa to procure wild animals. Among the animals he captures is a lion named Thor."

"Clary entices Williams to accompany him and Thor back to the States, but during the voyage proves himself “a drinker, a gambler and a libertine.” Williams becomes the queen of the circus. Her only friend is Thor, though she is worshipped from afar by an abused hunchback. Thor, Lord of the Jungle offers the spectacle of long processions of animals being transported through the jungle, showing not only the success of the safari within the story but also a small sampling of Selig’s wild animal menagerie. The finale provides audiences with a glimpse of Kathlyn Williams’ fearlessness in working with dangerous animals. One week after the release of Thor, her daring would become even more renowned with the debut of the 13-chapter serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first action-adventure movie serial produced in America." ANDREW ERISH

AA: The plot is primitive: the no good American circus owner's son Henry is taken care of by Thor, king of the jungle (called Sultan in this print) when Henry tries to force his way on Kathlyn at night. Fine footage from the South African veldt. Kathlyn is convincing as the woman who has no fear of lions. The theme of the conclusion is the same as in Born Free. Thor is set free to return to the arms of the jungle. There are scenes with fine composition, a sense of vivid life in the frame, and good effects with depth of field. There are age marks but also a good definition of light and a fine colour on the print.

THE COWBOY MILLIONAIRE (De Cowboy millionair) (Selig Polyscope Company, US 1913). D: ?; SC: William N. Selig; C: Carl Winterhoff (Bud Noble), Winnifred Greenwood (his wife), Mack Barnes, Adrienne Kroell, William Stowell, Harry Lonsdale; rel: 3.2.1913; orig. l: 2 rl.; 35 mm, 410 m, 21' (16 fps), col. (tinted, Desmet method); print source: EYE Film Institute Netherlands, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection; printed 2009). Dutch intertitles.

"For many years William Selig was the predominant producer of Western dramas, establishing key visual and narrative components that would forever define the genre. It isn’t surprising then that Selig would also become the first to satirize the Western. The Cowboy Millionaire is a 2-reel remake of a 1909 one-reel Western comedy which Selig took credit for writing. Cowboy Bud Noble inherits 10 million dollars and moves to Chicago. After getting married, Noble invites his old cowboy friends to visit, but realizes they’re too rowdy to fit in with his new civilized lifestyle."

"The opening sequence and a later flashback feature a wild-west troupe engaged in typical rodeo stunts, similar to scenes staged for Edwin S. Porter’s Life of a Cowboy (1906) and Selig’s own Ranch-Life in the Great Southwest (1910). A promotional synopsis prepared by Selig Polyscope states that the story begins at the Diamond S Ranch in Prescott, Arizona, at the time home to the company’s Tom Mix Western unit. However, none of the Mix troupe is in the film; the rodeo scenes appear to have actually been staged on the backlot of Selig’s Chicago studio. scenes involving the cowboys were filmed in several other Chicago locations, including a dynamic tracking shot of them galloping down a street near the Selig studio photographed from the back of a moving vehicle." ANDREW ERISH

AA: An early instance of a popular Western story concept, also used by John Ford in Bucking Broadway. In a more general sense the "cowboy in the city" concept has been used later also in Bus Stop, Coogan's Bluff and McCloud. The movie is based on rude slapstick. There is no sense of rhythm; the opening and closing rodeo sequences are over-extended. Memorable scenes: Bud's instant attraction with the notary's secretary, the cowboys riding on the streets of Chicago wielding lassoes; the cowboys, armed with pistols, participating in the drama played at the theatre. Unpleasant: the racist stereotypes, the mistreatment of black people presented as comic. The most touching aspect: Bud's final cowboy dream, and his decision to abandon bygone illusions. There are long takes with almost documentary qualities.

SAVED BY THE PONY EXPRESS (Gered door een expressryder) (Selig Polyscope Company, US 1911). D: ?; C: Tom Mix; rel: 1.8.1911 (US), 8.10.1911 (GB); orig. l: 1 rl.; 35 mm, 919 ft, 15' (16 fps); print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. Dutch intertitles.

"In 1909 Moving Picture World observed that Selig and Biograph represented two “schools” of filmmaking, one for the “majority of our public [who] insist on action,” and the other for “people who demand good acting, who like ‘delicate touches’,” respectively. Of the two schools, the World correspondent declared, “Acting is a delightful luxury; but action is a prime NECESSITY.” The importance of the Western in establishing physical action as a defining characteristic of American cinema has been largely underestimated."

"By the time Tom Mix began working for William Selig early in 1910, virtually every American producer was making Westerns. The earliest stars associated with the genre such as “Broncho Billy” Anderson had no discernible cowboy skills other than being able to stay atop a horse in theatrical melodramas staged outdoors. Tom Mix’s background as a ranch hand, deputy sheriff, and rodeo performer brought a new type of authenticity to the Western, rooted in exceptional athleticism."

"Saved by the Pony Express features Mix racing with evidence to prove a friend innocent of murder. As a Pony Express rider, he changes horses in running mounts and vaults from one galloping horse to another. The film’s story, attributed to Mix, also allows him to lasso and ride an unbroken bronco. By 1912 Mix had achieved international stardom, with one exhibitor in Southsea, England, singling out Saved by the Pony Express as a “thrilling Western (with daring feats of horsemanship).”" ANDREW ERISH

AA: A race to the rescue, a showcase for the riding skills of Tom Mix with bravura feats such as detailed above. During the race Tom even breaks a wild stallion and makes it to the courtroom at the last moment. There is a signed statement of the dead man that he shot himself accidentally. The mise-en-scène is lively. Long takes, long shots, full shots. A low contrast print from a battered source.

THE STAGE-COACH DRIVER AND THE GIRL (Selig Polyscope Company, US 1915). D, SC: Tom Mix; DP: Lou G. Ostland; C: Tom Mix (Tom, the stagecoach driver), Louella Maxam (Edythe, the girl from the East), Goldie Colwell (Alice, Tom’s sister), Ed [E.J.] Brady (the gambler), Ed Jones (the sheriff), Sid Jordan (guard); rel: 9.3.1915; orig. l: 1 rl.; 35 mm, 279 m, 15' (16 fps); print source: EYE Film Institute Netherlands, Amsterdam (printed 2002). English intertitles.

"From mid-1911 through 1912 William Selig’s Western unit was based outside Denver, Colorado. They spent the following year and a half making films in Prescott, Arizona, with star Tom Mix taking on additional responsibilities as writer-director. In mid-1914 the 19-member troupe was moved to Glendale, California, not far from Selig’s Los Angeles headquarters. It was in Glendale that The Stage-Coach Driver and the Girl was produced, for approximately $500. Lou G. Ostland’s cinematography contains flourishes seldom seen in other Mix one-reelers, such as fluid tilts and pans, and tight compositions. There are also two exceptionally smooth tracking shots of Tom Mix driving the stage along mountain paths. Some unusual stunt work involves Mix driving the stagecoach as a horse collapses to the ground, and later leaping from the stage as it topples over after one of the wheels falls off."

"The film also contains some inside humor. An insert shot of the payroll letter written from Prescott, Arizona, and addressed to Dewey, Arizona, acknowledges the troupe’s former production base and the fact that Mix and longtime sidekick Sid Jordan, who plays the stagecoach guard, originally worked as marshals in Dewey, Oklahoma. Supporting Mix and Jordan are Louella Maxam as the girl visiting from the East, Goldie Colwell as the stagecoach driver’s sister, and E.J. Brady as the villain." ANDREW ERISH

AA: As detailed above, the stunts look thrilling, scary, and dangerous. The siege of the collapsed stagecoach by the armed robbers is the main action. Based on long shots and full shots, there is a particularly impressive Olympian one where the camera tilts from a long shot on the siege towards the mountain top where we see the rescuers emerging and riding down the slope. A high contrast print with a duped look.

LEGAL ADVICE (Selig Polyscope Company, US 1916). D, SC: Tom Mix; DP: Chuck Welty; C: Tom Mix, Victoria Forde, Pat Chrisman, George Pankey, Joe Ryan, Sid Jordan; rel: 15.7.1916; orig. l: 1 rl.; 35 mm, 968 ft, 15' (17 fps); print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. English intertitles.

"At the beginning of 1916 Selig’s Western unit led by Tom Mix relocated one final time, to Newhall, California, which was within the Los Angeles County limits and yet still resembled the Old West. The move coincided with a general trend in the industry of consolidating all production within the Los Angeles area."

"Mix wrote, directed, and starred in Legal Advice (1916), one of several Selig comedies to address the changing roles of women. Victoria Forde co-stars as an attorney who arrives in a Western town to establish a law practice. Competing with the town’s other cowboys for her attentions, lovesick bungler Mix decides to break the law so the attorney can represent him and thus allow them to become better acquainted, but he’s in for a shocking surprise during the trial."

"The quality that distinguishes the film from other contemporary Western comedies is that the professional woman isn’t the butt of the jokes, the cowboy is. Rather than serving as a nostalgic ideal, Mix’s cowboy is an anachronistic buffoon. Mix’s self-effacing stuntbased comedies have served as a template for many action stars, from Douglas Fairbanks to Jackie Chan."

"In 1917 Tom Mix signed with nickelodeon-operator-turned-producer William Fox, who also purchased Selig’s Edendale studio. Much of Fox’s success can be traced to his following the business and aesthetic models of William Selig’s Tom Mix Westerns." ANDREW ERISH

AA: The lawwoman in Wild West. The intertitles are in verse. As Andrew Erish states above, the female protagonist is portrayed with dignity, and Tom Mix creates a cowboy figure who makes a complete fool of himself. The cowboys are glad to help build the lawwoman her office. In a funny full shot with Tom Mix and Victoria Forde there is a wind so strong that the woman has to struggle to keep her skirt in place. There is both farce and dignity in this movie. In the conclusion the lawwoman's husband arrives, and all the cowboys, including Tom Mix, shoot themselves. The visual quality is often very good, revealing a fine definition of light.

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