Friday, October 09, 2015

Beginnings of the Western Prog. 3: Early Cowboy and Cowgirl Films

Brinsley Shaw and Gladys Field in The Sheriff's Chum. At first, he is the nice guy. Photo:  Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: GCM Masterclass alumni: Koeraad Spijker, Ilyess Bentayeb, 9 Oct 2015

THE SHERIFF’S CHUM (Essanay – US 1911) D, P: G. M. Anderson; C: G. M. Anderson (Sheriff Will Phelps), Gladys Field (Jessie Phelps), Brinsley Shaw (George Arden), Fred Church (escapee), Harry Todd, Victor Potel, Chick Morrison, John B. O’Brien; rel: 8.4.1911; 35 mm, 750 ft, 11' (18 fps); titles: ENG; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.

Richard Abel (GCM catalog and website): "In October 1911, Essanay began running trade press ads that staked its claim as the “indisputable originators of Cowboy Films.” G.M. Anderson produced, directed, and starred in nearly all of those films, and Essanay soon promoted him as the “most photographed man” in the business."

"In the opening, Jessie (Field) chooses Will Phelps (Anderson) over his rival, Brinsley Shaw (Arden); the couple goes west to his ranch, and he becomes sheriff. When Shaw visits and is warmly welcomed, Phelps is called away to pursue an escaped prisoner whom he re-captures. In his absence, Shaw makes subtle advances to Jessie, who rejects him. On his return, Phelps confronts Shaw, which leads to a rousing fight. Beaten in the fight and no longer a “best friend,” Shaw slinks away."

"The trade press was conflicted about the film. While a Billboard reviewer found it “entirely lacking in plot,” with “the chain of events ... poorly connected,” Motography’s critic praised its narrative construction and “expressive” acting, notably the effective restraint in the scene where the sheriff “went into the hut of the desperado and brought him out hand-cuffed without any fuss or ado.” All agreed, however, with the New York Morning Telegraph: the fight was “as dramatic and well-worked up as any heretofore seen in motion picture plays.”"

"Shortly after the film’s release, an experienced cowhand wrote to the New York Dramatic Mirror, describing Anderson, for this and other roles at the time, as by far “the best cowboy character delineator of any film concern.” Essanay’s own promotion of Anderson that autumn was timely, making him one of the first recognized movie personalities or stars, just as Majestic Pictures was exploiting Mary Pickford’s departure from Biograph and promoting “Little Mary” as its own.
" – Richard Abel

AA: While the sheriff (G. M. Anderson) is away to chase an escaped prisoner his chum (Brinsley  Shaw) flirts with his wife (Gladys Field). The progress of the flirtation is in touching pantomime, turning from the humoristic to the embarrassing. There are impressive moments in the parallel chase action story, ending with the fight where the sheriff beats his ex-chum. There is a lively atmosphere in the direction of G. M. Anderson, a vitality in the performances. In long shot. Though with a duped look the visual quality is pleasant all the same.
G. M. Anderson in A Pal's Oath. In jail he swears vengeance. Photo: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
A PAL’S OATH (Essanay – US 1911) D, P: G. M. Anderson; C: G. M. Anderson (Jack Manley), Brinsley Shaw (John French), Harry Todd (U.S. Marshall; minister), Arthur Mackley (doctor), Gladys Field (Marie Wentworth); rel: 18.8.1911; 35 mm, 895 ft, 13' (18 fps); titles: ENG; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.

Richard Abel (GCM catalog and website): "In late 1911 and early 1912, some theater managers took to calling G. M. Anderson “Bullets” in newspaper ads promoting “Essanay’s Great Western Thrillers.” By then, Anderson often appeared as a “good badman” (which soon came to typify his Broncho Billy character), an outlaw with enough conscience to finally turn away from crime and lead a more or less honorable life."

"A Pal’s Oath, like The Sheriff’s Chum, begins with two pals, Jack and John, cowboys working on a Wyoming ranch. When John falls ill, Jack goes for a doctor, who demands payment in advance. Returning to the ranch, Jack decides to rob a Pony Express rider so the doctor can treat his friend. Later, both fall in love with Marie, a neighboring ranch owner’s daughter. When she accepts Jack’s proposal, John, who has been told about the robbery and promised to keep it secret, betrays his pal, and Jack is arrested. In prison, Jack swears to get revenge, and years later, after John has courted and wed Marie, he slips up to their cabin. Through an open window he spots his pal and is about to fire his revolver, when John lifts a baby girl into his arms."

"Startled, Jack lowers his gun but then raises it again. Now Marie throws her arms about the baby’s neck, and John embraces both. In despair, Jack steals away, leaving the “happy little family” unaware of what has happened. "

"Moving Picture World described A Pal’s Oath as “a sermon picture with as strong a moral and as human a story as has recently been released.” This followed Essanay’s report of a pastor who had written Anderson, “complimenting him for the uplifting and ennobling influences of his productions.” That partly explains why Anderson’s westerns appealed not only to boys but also to a much wider audience. Perhaps that also is why Motography put a production photo from the film on the cover of its August 1911 issue.
" – Richard Abel

AA: The cowboy Jack Manley (G. M. Anderson) saves his pal John French (Brinsley Shaw again) by bringing him a doctor for whose services he pays via robbing Pony Express. When both of them fall in love with the same woman, Marie Wentworth (Gladys Field again) John betrays Jack who lands in prison, swearing vengeance. Back in freedom, Jack is about to shoot John but at the very moment the family, including baby, is in happy embrace. G. M. Anderson's way of storytelling is fast and economical, in stark pantomime, with effective recurrent devices (crucial revelations seen through the window: first John seeing Jack embracing Marie, and finally, Jack witnessing the happiness of the family of his ex-pal). Visual quality: a duped look, not good, but still pleasant.
A Range Romance. The ranch owner has strange feelings towards the cross-dressing "cowboy". Photo:  Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
A RANGE ROMANCE (New York Motion Picture Company / Bison-101 – US 1911) D, P: [Fred J. Balshofer?] or [Thomas H. Ince?]; C: Madeline West? (Mary), J. Barney Sherry? (Clark, the ranch owner); rel: 8.12.1911; 35 mm, 825 ft, 12' (18 fps); titles: ENG; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.

Laura Horak (GCM catalog and website): "Bob leaves his cranky wife, Mary, and heads West, bringing along their young daughter, Bessie, disguised as a boy. Ten years later, Bob and Bessie (still disguised) get work at Clark’s Ranch, where Bessie and the foreman become friends. The ranch cowboys kick out an ethnically stereotypedChinese cook; and Mary, who has come West in search of her family, gets hired to replace him. The foreman guesses Bessie’s secret, and the two declare their love. Bob soon discovers Mary’s presence, and the family is reunited. Three years later, we see Bessie and the foreman, now married, showing off their glowing child, as Bob and Mary look on contentedly."

"A Range Romance crystallizes fantasies of the West – where a broken middle-class family could be revitalized, and a girl could spend her adolescence as a boy, but then move smoothly into the role of wife and mother. In reality, many of the “men-women” of the West lived their whole lives as men and even took wives, but these stories never made it to the silver screen. This film also represents the homoerotic nature of the frontier. Cowboy songs and stories often described friendships that blossomed into romance when cowboys discovered their best pals were female."

"A Range Romance was produced during a transitional period for the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMP). Filmmaker Fred J. Balshofer and exchange owners Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann had founded the company in 1909. NYMP released westerns under the brand name “Bison” and quickly became one of the most successful independent firms. In November 1909, Balshofer set up shop in Edendale, California, and shot films throughout Southern and Central California. "

"Two years later, however, Kessel and Baumann hired Thomas Ince away from IMP and sent him to California to take over from Balshofer. A Range Romance was shot by either Balshofer before he left or by Ince when he arrived. In contrast to the ambitious films that Ince later pioneered, A Range Romance is a compact drama that nonetheless embodies the gendered and sexual upheavals of the frontier.
" – Laura Horak

AA: Bessie, disguised as a boy, and the ranch foreman become friends and, "her sex discovered", more. Meanwhile, mother has recovered and joins the family in the West. Visual quality: tending towards high contrast, detail missing, yet watchable.

A WESTERN GIRL (G. Méliès Manufacturing Company – US 1911) D: William Haddock; DP: William Paley; C: Mildred Bracken (Mary Brown), William Clifford (Dick), Francis Ford (Hartley), Richard Stanton (Mr. Brown), Fannie Midgley; rel: 7.12.1911; 35 mm, 928 ft, 14' (18 fps), col. (tinted); titles: ENG; print source: George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.

Matthew Solomon, David Pfluger (GCM catalog and website): "After a fight with a local bully, Hartley, a chivalrous Easterner named Dick struggles to find gold. He perseveres with the help and encouragement of Mary Brown and her father, eventually making a lucky strike, but Hartley and his gang contest Dick’s claim. Through “pluck and desperate riding,” however, the female protagonist “thwarts the villain.” (Plot summary from Moving Picture World, 2 December 1911, p. 771)"

"Filmed during the summer of 1911, shortly after the Gaston Méliès Manufacturing Company relocated from San Antonio, Texas, to Santa Paula, California, A Western Girl was part of an early western sub-genre of gold mining films. It was also one of more than 90 films that Gaston Méliès made in 1911-1912 in Southern California, where “The G. Melies [sic] Company ... confined itself largely to Western subjects in which the interest is not gained through crimes or promiscuous shooting.” (Moving Picture World, 3 February 1912, p. 388)"

"Advertised as “American Wild West Films” in Europe under a trademark horseshoe bearing the name “G. Méliès,” Gaston Méliès’ films were often mistakenly credited to his younger brother Georges, who remained in Paris and received royalties from the sale of prints. Though surviving royalty statements are incomplete, at least 13 prints of A Western Girl had been sold in the United States alone by 17 July 1912. (Cinémathèque Méliès #26 [1995], p.35)"

"By that date, however, Gaston Méliès’ filmmaking activities in the United States had dissolved. He and what remained of the so-called Méliès Stock Company embarked on a long sea voyage to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Java, Cambodia, and Japan, where they made a series of “Méliès ‘Round the World’ Films.” Gaston Méliès died in Corsica in 1915 at the age of 63."

"Georges Méliès later harshly criticized his older brother’s westerns, calling “the famous ‘Méliès Indians’ the worse [sic] in the World!” (letter to Merritt Crawford, 6 December 1930). Subsequent commentators have often endorsed this dismissal. A few surviving Gaston Méliès films (from around the 240 he made overall) provide us with an opportunity to reassess this judgment.
" – Matthew Solomon, David Pfluger

AA: Dick (William Clifford) finds gold but gets badly wounded. Mary (Mildred Bracken) helps him although she has found a signed photograph of another woman in Dick's pocket. The bully Hartley (Francis Ford) tries to register the claim to Dick's mine but thanks to Mary Dick wins and the sheriff arrests Hartley. "I did it for your wife and boy". Dick laughs and shows the missing bit of the torn photograph signed "sister Mary". The narrative is a bit confusing after the scene where Mary discovers the photograph and cries (footage missing?). There is a subtle toning in this print.
The Loafer. The leader of the horsewhippers and the loafer's wife. Photo: BFI National Archive. London
THE LOAFER (Essanay – US 1912) D: ?; SC: ?; C: Arthur Mackley, Julia Mackley, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, Marguerite Todd, Kite Robinson; rel: 20.1.1912; 35 mm, 840 ft, 12' (18 fps); titles: ENG; print source: BFI National Archive, London.

Charlie Keil (GCM catalog and website): "Filmed in San Rafael, California, The Loafer probably has received more attention for its formal prescience than its contribution to the conventions of the western. Both Barry Salt and Kristin Thompson have remarked on the film’s deployment of an extended shot/reverse-shot sequence, all the more notable because it may be the earliest extant version of the technique in American cinema. The dexterity with which The Loafer handles the technique prompted Salt to speculate that “this variety of the reverse-angle had begun earlier,” since its appearance already suggests familiarity with the device. Thompson, for her part, observes that the film is “generally remarkably advanced in its application of classical principles,” and notes that it also features modified multi-plane staging and strategic exterior back lighting; additionally, it may be an early instance of two lines of narrative action that come together in the film’s conclusion."

"Those two lines of action converge to fashion a morality tale that Moving Picture World labeled a “western story built on lines different enough to make it novel and interesting.”"

"A layabout is humiliated by a group of concerned citizens, who horsewhip him in an attempt to effect a change in his behavior. The loafer swears that he will kill the disguised leader of the group if he ever discovers the man’s identity. The next day, the leader, his identity still unknown to the loafer, gives the man two horses as an incentive to improve himself. Later, the loafer, having turned his life around, refuses a loan to another; in spite, that man reveals the identity of the leader of the horsewhippers. The reformed loafer goes to the man’s house with vengeance on his mind, but has a change of heart when he overhears a threat of foreclosure. Instead of revenge, he offers thanks by way of paying off the man’s mortgage. Here the revenge motive and the reform narrative run up against each other, the latter prevailing."

"The Loafer’s “novel” approach to the western favors character transformation over action, and channels it through editing patterns that would soon become customary for rendering point-of-view shots into a building block of character-based storytelling.
" – Charlie Keil

AA: The reformed loafer [in Finnish: lorvi] swears to kill the man who had had him whipped but when he realizes that the man who had also generously helped him is now facing foreclosure he changes his mind and helps him out. A lively sense of atmosphere: first we see the world. There are several layers in depth in the shot. Medium shot is in use. It would be interesting to learn the name of the director of this movie. I confess I had a moment of fatigue and missed the famous shot / reverse-shot sequence. From a worn source with a duped look.

HOW STATES ARE MADE (Hoe men in de Verenigde Staten grootgrondbezitter wordt) (Vitagraph – US 1912) D: Rollin S. Sturgeon; C: Fred Burns (the homesteader), Anne Schaefer (his wife), Robert Thornby (the intruder), Mildred Harris (their daughter?), Charles Bennett (the witness?); rel: 8.3.1912; 35 mm, 231 m, 11' (18 fps), col. (tinted); titles: DUT; print source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

Laura Horak (GCM catalog and website): "Like Tumbleweeds (1925), How States Are Made dramatizes the Cherokee Strip Land Rush of 1893. Of this film, Moving Picture World wrote: “It stands out like a leaf of true American history as compared with a page from a cheap novel. A land rush! Who has not heard of such a thing? Yet, how few have any idea of the way it is done, or the great excitement that pervades it. ... This picture is in the nature of a revelation.” The film starts a few days before the race, with a demoralized family on a covered wagon. They are jubilant to learn of the land rush, but danger lurks. An intruder harasses the wife while her husband is away and later shoots and injures the husband. Riding in his place, the wife discovers an ideal plot, but the intruder finds it, too. They struggle, then race back to the Registration Office. She beats him, but he disputes her claim. Luckily, a witness identifies the shooter, and he is arrested. In the final shot, we see the couple years later, on their fertile farm, surrounded by exuberant children."

"The Opening of the Cherokee Strip was the last big land rush in the United States. More than 115,000 people raced to claim one of 42,000 lots of land, encompassing more than 6 million acres. Ironically, the U.S. Government had pushed the Cherokee from their verdant land in the East to the arid Oklahoma Territory in the 1830s, a journey that came to be known as the “Trail of Tears.” Much later, the Government bought back the land they had forced the Cherokee onto, offering it to homesteaders."

"The film’s happy ending was not typical. The first winter after the land rush was hard. Of those who filed claims, only 20 to 30 percent stayed on their land for the six months required to acquire a deed."

"In October 1911, Vitagraph sent director Rollin S. Sturgeon and a company of actors, including Schaefer, Thornby, and Bennett, to Los Angeles to form the company’s Western branch. This, their first film, was widely praised, and it was one of many to show an athletic woman standing in for an incapacitated man."

"Singled out for her “great intensity” and for this and later “strong womanly characters,” Schaefer even inspired an “Anne Schaefer Society,” whose members were young California girls."

"Another, slightly longer, print of the film (with English intertitles) is held at George Eastman House.
" Laura Horak

AA: This short belongs to the same tradition with Tumbleweeds and Three Bad Men. The family arrives in their covered wagon. "Cherokee Strip is open for sellers". While father (Fred Burns) gets a doctor for the sick daughter, an intruder (Robert Thornby) harasses mother (Anne Schaefer) and when father returns, shoots him, injuring him. Anne gets to ride in his stead in the land rush and stakes a plot but the villain intrudes even there. Anne has to race and fight with him until the Registration Office, but the intruder is finally arrested. An impressive film about the Western woman, a character familiar also to Nordic viewers. There is an epic approach to the land rush sequence. Visual quality ok to good.

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