Friday, October 09, 2015

To the Last Man (1923)

Richard Dix and Lois Wilson in To the Last Man
Victor Fleming directing Richard Dix and Lois Wilson in To the Last Man at Tonto Basin. James Wong Howe is the second from the left. Photo: Arizona's Little Hollywood.
Lois Wilson in To the Last Man. They have a date but she never shows up.
Viimeiseen mieheen. Famous Players-Lasky; dist: Paramount – US 1923. D: Victor Fleming; P: Jesse L. Lasky; supvr: Lucien Hubbard; SC: Doris Schroeder, based on the novel by Zane Grey (1922); translated into Finnish as Viimeiseen mieheen by Väinö Nyman / Kirja (1928), reprinted until 1959. DP: James [Wong] Howe; ass D: Henry Hathaway; Soviet re-editor: Sergei Vasiliev; C: Richard Dix (Jean Isbel), Lois Wilson (Ellen Jorth), Noah Beery (Colter), Robert Edeson (Gaston Isbel), Fred Huntley (Lee Jorth), Leonard Clapham (Guy), Frank Campeau (Blue), Eugene Pallette (Simm Bruce), Guy Oliver (Bill), Winifred Greenwood (Mrs. Guy), Edward Brady (Daggs); rel: 23.9.1923; orig. l: 6965 ft. (7 rl.; c.75'); 35 mm, 1798 m, c.71' (22 fps); titles: RUS; print source: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano, harmonica, and flute: Stephen Horne, 9 Oct 2015

Kevin Brownlow (GCM catalog and website): "“If you like swift melodrama you are sure to like this one,” said Photoplay. And since the story was by Zane Grey, the locations had to be those specified in his novel. He even came out and camped with the company to make sure."

"The story is based on the Graham-Tewkesbury feud, also known as the Pleasant Valley War, “the bloodiest conflict between cattlemen and sheepmen in the history of the West”, according to historian Joe McNeill in his well-researched articles in the magazine Sedona Monthly. “The violence began in 1886 in central Arizona’s Tonto Basin region and reached a deadly climax when the last of the Graham family was murdered in Tempe in 1892. About 20 deaths can be directly linked to the vendetta.”"

"Having sold several of his novels in perpetuity to Fox in 1916, Zane Grey soon realized his mistake and in 1918 established his own independent film company. This allowed him to cut out the middleman and supervise production himself. He began research on the book that would become To the Last Man – initially entitled Tonto Basin – and made three trips to establish “the truth” about the feud, spending the astonishing sum of $30,000 on research. The first part of his story was fiction, involving the illegitimate birth of heroine Ellen Jorth. “In the reimagined version of history (so much for “the truth”) it is the lustful behaviour of her parents, members of opposing clans, who live together without ever marrying, that triggers the bad blood between the two families.” This was all eliminated in 1921, when Country Gentleman magazine published the story as a serial, and retitled it To The Last Man."

"Zane Grey had been stung by the industry’s corrupt accounting – most of the profits from the seven films made by his company had been pocketed by his partners, Benjamin B. Hampton and Eltinge F. Warner. He filed suit against them, charging fraud, declared bankruptcy, and sold what remained of the company to Famous Players-Lasky. “It was a good deal for both sides,” wrote McNeill. “Grey would be paid $25,000 upfront for a seven-year option on each title, with a share in the pictures’ profits; in return, the studio could prominently promote Grey’s name on its westerns, which would help ensure big box office returns.”"

"Jesse Lasky announced that Lois Wilson, co-star of The Covered Wagon (1923) would be teamed with Richard Dix for the first of these Zane Grey productions, and the location would be the Tonto Basin, “one of the most difficult spots of access in the entire United States.” The same team would star in The Call of the Canyon and The Vanishing American. Wrote Joe McNeill: “During Last Man filming, gossip columnists began to link Dix and Wilson romantically and for a few months they apparently did have an off-screen relationship.”"

"Chinese-American James Howe, later known as James Wong Howe, worked with Fleming on this and The Call of the Canyon (not to mention Mantrap and The Rough Riders). He was only 24. He would become one of the most respected of all American cinematographers, awarded ten Oscar nominations in his career, winning twice."

"“For two weeks,” wrote McNeill, “the company climbed each morning to locations as high as 2,500 feet above base camp. A number of important scenes were photographed at Sheep Basin mountain, a deeply isolated spot in the wilderness about 6 miles east of Payson, near the town of Young. Young had been the actual site of the Graham-Tewkesbury feud.”"

"Lois Wilson got a sense of the isolation when introduced to a local rancher’s wife, who said she was the first woman she had seen in two years."

"“The most Western ‘Western’ I’ve ever seen,” said the Los Angeles Times, “but the mortality is really shocking and those who are not shot or stabbed are ground to a pulp when a dynamited cliff topples over on them.”
" – Kevin Brownlow

Peter Bagrov: "The only material for To the Last Man was known to exist at Gosfilmofond as an incomplete and disordered print, which was therefore never shown to the public. However, the missing reel was found in the archive a year ago, after which the print was finally able to be put in order. So the screening at this year’s Giornate is a premiere of sorts."

"The film is still 13 minutes shorter than it should be; small fragments here and there remain lost. But one should keep in mind that, as a rule, foreign films were heavily re-edited in Soviet Russia."

"Edgar Arnoldi, one of the leading Soviet critics of the 1920s, recalled in his memoirs:"

"“Often the editors distorted and rehashed foreign films unmercifully and unconvincingly. They transposed beginnings and endings, interrupted the action in the middle, achieved the opposite sense through the intertitles. In such cases audiences were furious, and even the critics noted the plot as being disfigured to the point of nonsense – or they intellectualized on the crisis of content in bourgeois cinema. ‘There is no plot in the film,’ stated one of the reviewers. ‘The salad they are trying to pass as a plot is the last thing to be called a plot.’ It wouldn’t take much effort to guess who is the cook that made this salad...”"

"Occasionally such re-editing was done by talented people who used this opportunity to master the art of filmmaking – Sergei Eisenstein and Esfir Shub among them. Luckily for us, two Fleming titles – To the Last Man and The Call of the Canyon – were re-edited by Sergei Vasiliev. One of the future directors (with his namesake Georgi Vasiliev) of perhaps the most popular Soviet film of the 1930s, Chapayev (1934), he was famous for elegantly reshuffling “unsuitable” films beyond recognition. At the same time, whenever he ran into a masterpiece, he would do his best to keep as much as possible of the original (the existing Soviet print of A Woman of Paris is proof of that). “The Vasiliev brothers” valued Fleming immensely, and even wrote an article defending him from class-vigilant critics. They characterized To the Last Man as “a simple and dramatic story of murderous revenge”. So it is very likely that Sergei Vasiliev left the film as it was – a most difficult task for a re-editor.
" – Peter Bagrov

AA: I read many of Zane Grey's novels as a child. Some 30 of them were translated into Finnish, and I read most, perhaps all. To the Last Man may have been my favourite, and at least it was different from the others, but 50 years have passed since I read them.

Many of Zane Grey's novels were based on history, sometimes on family tradition, and also To the Last Man is based on fact, though not on family history this time. The sense of place, landscape, and geography is strong, as usual in Grey's novels.

To the Last Man stands out from the others in that it is a tragedy. Two families are wiped out, some 20 people die. The carnage can be compared with Shakespeare's tragedies or the story of the Troyan war which we saw dramatized on screen in Pordenone yesterday.

Grey invented a Romeo and Juliet story here. Jean Isbel (Richard Dix) would like to stop the war but is drawn into it anyway, and in the final embrace he is about to bleed to death. Ellen Jorth (Lois Wilson) hates her family when the truth is revealed to her.

Richard Dix and Lois Wilson co-starred also in Victor Fleming's next Zane Grey film The Call of the Canyon. They also played together in a third Zane Grey film, The Vanishing American, directed by George B. Seitz. Their chemistry is convincing.

Victor Fleming's sense of landscape is powerful. With great difficulty, under Zane Grey's guidance, the film was shot on the locations where the actual tragedy had taken place. In the first meeting of Jean and Ellen by the mountain sheep lodge the characters' attitude to the little lamb reveals something of their nature, following the Griffith lesson (good guy pets dog, bad guy kicks dog).

I like this film adaptation of To the Last Man. The details such as Jean waiting for Ellen and contemplating shooting a bear until he notices it has cubs. He leaves a package (much later we learn that there are a pair of shoes initially intended for Jean's sister). (In the novel we learn at once during their first meeting how embarrassed Ellen is for her raggedy clothes). Ellen never shows up but she is watching him from the forest. When he is gone she keeps kicking the package in front of her. She cannot make up her mind whether to open it or throw it away. She has denied Jean's accusations flatly, but confronting her family, when she realizes their wrongdoing, she turns against them.

There is insight in the psychology of Ellen Jorth, in her hesitations and her contradictions, and in her final resolve. The name of the novel and the film notwithstanding, this is Ellen's story.

When a widow enters the battleground to dig a grave to her husband it is a very moving turning-point. At the same time the Isbels realize that "we must destroy the whole clan or hold onto the last man". In the final chase the Jorths manage to kill all Isbels except Jean in an explosion in a mountain pass. The stone avalanche is terrifying.

A central role for a brave Western woman was a Zane Grey hallmark since his first novel Betty Zane (based on family history). Lois Wilson carries her part with the right spirit. In the finale Ellen is alone against the last villain, Jim, who is about to rape her. Ellen is even ready to sacrifice herself to save Jean who is bleeding to death in the attic when Jim notices the blood on Ellen's hand.

From a low contrast Soviet source with a fleetingly ok visual quality.
The Finnish edition of Zane Grey's novel To the Last Man.

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