Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Deschutes Driftwood

(Educational Films Corp. of America, US 1916) P+D: Robert C. Bruce; 35 mm, 900 ft, 11’ (22 fps); from: 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 + harmonica: Stephen Horne, 4 Oct 2011.

Scott Simmon (GCM Catalogue): "Twenty years into the history of the movies, short “scenics” needed something more than picturesque views to attract attention. Deschutes Driftwood, filmed in 1916 in central Oregon, announces its novel approach in an early intertitle: “This is a Scenic picture from a hobo’s point of view,” with its “leading man” cast from “a county jail.” Although the Deschutes River, which runs north to join the Columbia upriver from the town of The Dalles, still has its share of driftwood (and had more in 1916 when logging was more active), the film draws its title from another source – a poem, “Driftwood,” about a semi-employed wanderer alone in the West, which is quoted (but not identified) late in the film."

"Before 1912, central Oregon was the largest populated area in the United States without a railroad, thanks to its difficult terrain of 10,000-foot mountains and rushing rivers (“Des Chutes,” named by fur traders, being French for “of the rapids”). Deschutes Driftwood paradoxically celebrates a recent triumph of engineering via a workaverse hobo. It travels a rail route around whose creation swirled legal, labor, and engineering battles, but adopts from its “leading man” a relaxed, observational tone. After decades of inaction, by the summer of 1909 two competing railroad corporations were racing to build separate lines up the opposing banks of the Deschutes River, with legal maneuvers, fistfight brawls, and dynamite sabotage making construction all the more hazardous. But with the death that fall of railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman, owner of one of the routes, the “Deschutes Canyon War” came to an end, and work progressed rapidly on the Oregon Truck Railway that we travel with our hobo hero. As can be glimpsed from the dates carved above tunnel entranceways, most of the route was completed by 1913."

"The film’s director and its probable cinematographer, Robert C. Bruce, made many such documentary shorts for Educational Films, soon better known for its low-budget comedies. Bruce’s series of films shot in Oregon in the summer of 1916 were praised by Moving Picture World for their “photography and cleverness.” Among the others (none known to survive) were Mazamas and the Three Sisters (about a mountaineering club) and Hans, Henri and the Neophyte (about Swiss alpine guides who immigrated to Oregon after their homeland was cut off from tourists by World War I). That Deschutes Driftwood’s uncredited lead – “Walter,” or “Weak Knees” – came from a “county jail” may be a literary conceit. The Western wanderer in “Driftwood” tells us, “Sometimes I drifts to the county jail.” The poem is from Songs of the Workaday World (1915) by Berton Braley, whose early proletarian poems appeared in such periodicals as Coal Age and The Colorado School of Mines Magazine. The half stanza quoted in the film defines hell as mine work in the West (specifically mining in Nevada summers, evoked earlier in the poem): “When I dies, I reckon I’ll drift / To a hot box hole and an endless shift.”"

"Hoboes in the West were usually riding the rails in search of seasonal work, rather than avoiding it, and traveled established routes into well-populated hobo communities. Still, our point of view alongside solitary Weak-Kneed Walter makes sense when one recalls the most popular film star of 1916. Charles Chaplin signed his unprecedented contract with the Mutual Film Corporation early in the year, making him at that time easily the highest-paid entertainer in history. The Tramp (1915) ends with a shot that would become iconic for Chaplin and that Deschutes Driftwood copies: Our hoboes, evicted from society, walk from us down a deserted road, alone but with undimmed freedom." – Scott Simmon

AA: A wonderful railway film shot on location in Oregon with a framing device of a hobo giving us a point of view to the many scenic views (river, swift torrents, Celilo Canal, hand-car, tunnels). On my inner soundtrack are Jimmie Rodgers's "Waiting For A Train", and the excellent Finnish cover "Makasiinin luona" by Tuomari Nurmio.

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