Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Beginnings of the Western 2, Prog. 1: Cowboy Films

The Escape of Jim Dolan. Poster, source: AllPosters.com

BEGINNINGS OF THE WESTERN 2, PROG. 1 Film di cowboy / Cowboy Films
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Origini del Western 2
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian by Sub-Ti, grand piano: Philip C. Carli, 4 Oct 2016.

At the End of the Trail. D: Rollin S. Sturgeon | United States | 1912 | Vitagraph Company of America (United States) | Film from the collection of EYE (Amsterdam) - EYE on YouTube.

AT THE END OF THE TRAIL (De Dochter van den Mexicaan) (US 1912). D: Rollin S. Sturgeon. C: George C. Stanley (sceriffo/sheriff), Robert Thornby (Manuel Lopez, il ladro di cavalli messicano/the Mexican horse thief), Edna Fisher (Mercedes, sua figlia/his daughter). PC: Vitagraph. Rel: 29.06.1912. 35 mm, 860 ft, 13'51" (18 fps), col. (tinted); titles: NLD. Source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection).
    Richard Abel: "Several cowboys enter a sheriff’s office and inform him they have spotted a Mexican horse thief. Armed with a wanted poster, the sheriff pursues the thief, whose horse runs off after he dismounts and tosses away an empty canteen . The thief struggles into a harsh, empty landscape and collapses; the sheriff finds him and cautiously gives him some water. As the thief tries to attack him with a knife , the sheriff shoots him in the arm and then handcuffs him. The thief surprises the sheriff and knocks him out, frees his hands and handcuffs the fallen man, takes his gun and wanted poster, and rides off on the sheriff’s horse . The thief reaches a cabin, where his daughter doesn’t recognize the horse and becomes suspicious."
    "He can’t read the poster, but she can; accused beneath a crucifix on one wall, the thief nearly strangles his daughter, and then leaves. After finding the thief’s horse, the sheriff reaches the cabin, where the young woman begins to tend to him. Hearing her father returning, she sends the sheriff into a bare bedroom, where, still handcuffed, he finds a revolver in some straw. The thief hears the crash of a pitcher; the sheriff steps out of the other room; and the first member of a pursuing posse opens the outside door. As the daughter steps between the sheriff and her father, the two men shoot, and she falls dead. While the sheriff and posse honor the dead daughter, her father refuses; and , standing with the other men, he remains unrepentant ather gravesite."
    "This is a familiar story of good and bad Mexicans, in relation to whites, with the Mexican daughter ending up as a sacrifice, while her father seems unmoved by her death. Unlike the Mexican in Vitagraph’s The Better Man (available on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s DVD set Treasures 5), this thief ignores the daughter’s appeal to the crucifix. Most striking in the film, however, is the yellow-brown tinting of the long scene in the desert sands, as if anticipating the climactic scenes ten years later in Stroheim’s Greed.
" Richard Abel

AA: Thoroughly described by Richard Abel in his program note above. Rough and unvarnished. There is a true sense of a battle of life and death. The racial stereotype of the Mexican is troubling. Interesting tinting, an ok to good visual quality in the print. Mediocre.

A Wife of the Hills. D: Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson | United States | 1912 | Essanay Film Manufacturing (United States) | Film from the collection of EYE (Amsterdam) - EYE on YouTube.

A WIFE OF THE HILLS (Een vrouw van de bergen) (US 1912). D: G. M. Anderson. C: G. M. Anderson (Bart McGrew), Brinsley Shaw (Dan Trout), Arthur Mackley (sceriffo/sheriff), Vedah Bertram (moglie di McGrew/McGrew’s wife). PC: Essanay. Rel: 20.07.1912. 35 mm, 282 m, 925 ft, 15' (16 fps); titles: NLD. Source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection).
    Richard Abel: "The outlaw gang leader Bart McGrew lives with his wife in a shack in the hills. Unknown to McGrew, his wife is in love with an outlaw partner, Dan Trout, and they plot to run away. Trout chances to see a sheriff’s notice that promises to free any gang member who turns himself in; he uses this opportunity to lead the sheriff to the shack, where McGrew is arrested."
    "Realizing the two lovers’ treachery, McGrew vows vengeance. The next morning, he escapes from jail and heads for the shack, pursued by the sheriff’s posse.. Reaching the shack and looking in the open window at the lovers, he is about to fire his gun, when the sheriff’s bullet meant for him misses and hits Trout, who falls dead across a table. Smiling at his wife sobbing over her lover, McGrew turns and lets himself be captured and led away."
    "This is a rather unusual film in Essanay’s “Broncho Billy” series, not in that Anderson plays a differently named character (which he often does), but that the story refuses to lead to the outlaw’s expected transformation and redemption."
    "The posse’s pursuit of McGrew may be extended longer than need be, and directions get a little confusing as the outlaw and the sheriff and his men separately edge through the brush and trees toward the shack. But that delay makes the shooting of Trout all the more grimly ironic — and a sharp contrast to the ending of Essanay’s A Pal’s Oath (1911), shown last year in Pordenone, in which Broncho Billy decides not to exact vengeance when, through an open window, he finds his nemes is embracing his wife (Billy’s former lover) and child.
" – Richard Abel

AA: Again thoroughly described by Richard Abel above. There are instances of a fine mise-en-scène in Broncho Billy Anderson's direction. The desolate shack, the wild chase, and the striking turning-point of the stray bullet are among the memorable features. A somewhat duped visual quality at times, but the print is quite watchable. Average.

THE GREATER LOVE (De verloofde van den sheriff) (US 1912). D: Rollin S. Sturgeon. C: Robert Thornby (Kansas Kid), Fred Burns (lo sceriffo/sheriff), Edna Fisher (the sheriff’s sweetheart), Charles Bennett (her father). PC: Vitagraph. Rel: 17.05.1912. 35 mm, 1,004 ft, 15' (18 fps); col. (tinted); titles: NLD. Source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection).
    Richard Abel: "In the opening scene, as a young ranch woman teases the local sheriff who loves her, a wanted poster introduces the Kansas Kid. Using a set of binoculars, she spots the injured outlaw coming down a distant hillside, and the sheriff, with her father’s help, brings him into the ranch house, where she bandages his head wound. They are attracted to one another, which incites the sheriff, and she has to break up a threatened gunfight. After writing a note revealing who he is , the Kid rides away; chancing to read the note, the sheriff goes in pursuit. Noticing the sheriff in the distance, the Kid attaches a note on a stick, which leads the sheriff to an open area, where they face off on horseback. In the gunfight that ensues, the Kid wounds the sheriff and discovers a photo of the young woman in his hand. Now the Kid bandages his rival, brings him back to the ranch, and, as the sheriff’s men look on, gives him a drink of water from a rain barrel. The sheriff shakes hands with the Kid, and the young woman and her father thank him; but the sheriff’s men still arrest the Kid and lead him away."
    "This surviving film print includes a range of tinting characteristic of the period, which differentiates one time of day from another as well as exteriors from interiors."
    "It also uses a series of objects to effectively highlight key moments in the story : the wanted poster, a rain barrel, a flower, several written notes, and a photograph. Finally, like Essanay’s slightly earlier The Loafer, this Vitagraph film deploys eyeline-match editing, in not one but two scenes: the first involving the sheriff and the young woman; the second (with one mismatch), the gunfight between the sheriff and the Kid.
" – Richard Abel

AA: Again thoroughly described by Richard Abel above. There are lively touches in the storytelling and the direction, and a sense of humour in the rivalry between the sheriff and the bandit for the woman's attentions. Interesting tinting. Print ok to good. Above average.

Oversized release flier for The Escape of Jim Dolan, 1913. Source: Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Author: Chicago: Selig Polyscope Co., Publisher

THE ESCAPE OF JIM DOLAN (US 1913). D: William Duncan. C: Tom Mix (Jim Dolan), Lester Cuneo (Ed Jones), Nip Van (John Wellington), Victor Frith (Tom Wellington), Myrtle Stedman (Grace Wellington), Sid Jordan (sceriffo/sheriff), Rex De Rosselli (Brown). PC: Selig. Rel: 17.11.1913. 35 mm, 1795 ft, 30' (16 fps), col. (partially tinted); titles: ENG. Source: The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Special thanks to Archive Film Agency. Preservation funded by The Film Foundation & the Celeste Bartos Fund For Film Preservation.
    Richard Abel: "Jim Dolan is a prospector who incurs the hatred of Ed Jones, foreman of the Brown Ranch, because of his attentions to Grace Wellington, daughter of a nearby rancher. Because his ranch borders Dolan’s “claim,” Brown and Jones try to force him out by buying up his water rights. When Dolan refuses, Jones frames him by stealing some branded hides, burying them on Dolan’s claim, and then aiding the sheriff in their discovery. Dolan is arrested and falsely convicted of this crime and sentenced to ten years in prison. While he is held temporarily in the local jail, Grace cleverly helps him escape , and friends set up a relay of horses so Dolan can repeatedly outride his pursuers. The last horse turns up lame, however, and Dolan has to run to a nearby river, where he escapes detection by submerging himself and somehow breathing through his gun barrel. Later, he is captured by Apaches on the riverbank and dragged off, tied to the tail of a wild horse . A fellow prospector rescues him and nurses him back to health. From a newspaper wrapped around the old man’s supplies, Dolan learns that Jones has been wounded in a saloon fight and confessed to the frame-up. After telling his story to the prospector, Dolan returns to his claim and is reunited with Grace."
    "The New York Dramatic Mirror praised the film’s “clear photography and fine perspectives,” but was most impressed by Mix’s stunt work , especially the thrilling horseback riding, in which he repeatedly demonstrates his skill in dismounting and remounting one horse after another “in scarcely more than a second’s space.”
" – Richard Abel

AA: A thrilling Tom Mix western adventure with a frame-up plot. Wrongly accused, Jim Dolan escapes until his innocence is proved. Tom Mix provides his own exciting stunts where he moves from one riding horse to the next at full speed. Plenty of action. Mostly based on long shots, there are some epic distant views also. From a worn source, watchable. Above average.

The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species (US 1913), D and starring (featured in the photo): Romaine Fielding as Tony "The Rattlesnake", photo: BFI National Archive, London.

THE RATTLESNAKE – A PSYCHICAL SPECIES (US 1913). D: Romaine Fielding. SC: Romaine Fielding, Emmett Campbell Hall. Cinematography: L. Guy Wilky. C: Romaine Fielding (Tony), Mary Ryan (Inez), Maurice Cytron (José), Jesse Robinson (John Gordon), Al Jacoby (padre di Inez/Inez’s father), Lillian Brockwell (madre di Tony/Tony’s mother). PC: Lubin Film Co. Rel: 10.1913. 35 mm, 1684 ft, 25' (18 fps); titles: ENG. Source: BFI National Archive, London.
    Scott Simmon: "For those weary of cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians, Romaine Fielding’s The Rattlesnake – a film that still brings gasps – gives us an unclichéd and ruggedly symbolic West . Lubin advertised it as a “strange and weird story” of “a man’s gratitude to a snake for saving his life.” The two -reeler is set in Mexico, and was filmed around Las Vegas, New Mexico, east of Santa Fe, where the landscape looks as unforgiving as the story’s obsessive central figure, Tony, played by the director. The opening pastoralism in the flowering hollyhock garden of Tony’s would-be love, Inez (played by Fielding’s usual co -star, Mary Ryan), is rapidly over taken by murderous jealousies. Tony is “saved” by a rattlesnake that bites his rival – and then things get stranger. If there was ever a more daring performance by a film’s director, it’s hard to think what that might be. His character lives with his friend the rattlesnake for a decade."
    "No other director of Westerns has had his reputation more diminished by the dismal survival rate of his films than Romaine Fielding. Of the more than 100 films he produced and directed (and usually wrote and starred in) across the Southwest between 1912 and 1915, The Rattlesnake is his single drama known to survive in anything close to a complete state. (A couple of uncharacteristic – and unfunny – short comedies from his troupe also survive.) Fielding, who typically cast himself as outcasts, crazed by the West’s expanses, or as Indians or Mexicans , is likewise forgotten as an actor, although he topped Motion Picture Story Magazine’s popularity contest in September 1913, a month before The Rattlesnake’s release."
    "The surviving print has one gap, near the start of the second reel, w hich makes for confusion. The story leaps ahead about two years, from when Inez says, “ tony, until the snake is dead i will never speak to you again.” Missing are scenes in which (according to Lubin’s synopsis) Inez “eventually marries the American and they have a little girl baby.... Years later we find the American at his work. Tony, whose association with the snake has made him any thing but human, comes on the surveyor and is about to shoot him.”Moving Picture World thought the film not Fielding’s greatest , but defended it against the reactions their critic observed in the theater: “ There were some in the audience not wholly pleased by Romaine Fielding’s production. Mr. Fielding is apt to lay on the horrors, but...true realism always seems raw. At his best, Mr. Fielding is head and shoulders above nearly all other producers we know... The story was brilliantly conceived but developed in a rather lawless way.” The enthusiasm of the New York Dramatic Mirror was unqualified: “ The venom of jealousy has never furnished a better basis for a story than this film portrays . Nor have we in year s seen this plot germ presented in a manner more original in conception and development . Romaine Fielding struck upon a singularly appropriate personification of this character trait in the use of a rattlesnake... He shows the hand...of a master of technique in his development of atmosphere to the last essence.” Without The Rattlesnake, we’d have little evidence of Fielding’s body of work , so inventive in storylines and shooting locations . For Lubin, he was “the man who put the ‘real’ in Realism.
” – Scott Simmon

AA: A crazy Western thoroughly described by Scott Simmon above. "We are known by the company we keep". The director Romaine Fielding portrays the madly obsessed Tony who identifies himself with his rattlesnake. A nearly fatal accident with his rival's little daughter shocks him to return to his normal self. A tale of madness – and recovery. (I was thinking about Jean-Pierre Léaud as Colin in Rivette's Out 1 which I had just seen). This film could be very interesting but it is neither well directed nor acted. There are stunning panoramic landscape shots. The visual quality is at times good, at times with damage marks from the source. Weird.

THE TRAIL OF CARDS (US 1913). D: Gilbert P. Hamilton. SC: ?. C: Edward Coxen (Bob Renwick), Lillian Christy (Bess). PC: American Film Company. Rel: 9.1.1913. 35 mm, 930 ft, 14' (18 fps); titles: ENG. Source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.
    Charlie Keil: "In 1913, Moving Picture World published a list of narrative “bromides” that scriptwriters would do well to avoid if they desired to steer clear of clichéd storytelling. One of these overused plots was to have two suitors vie for the hand of a woman by performing a task, with the preferred suitor finally proving his worthiness through honesty. But The Trail of Cards was singled out for redeeming this hackneyed situation by giving it a “brand new twist.” One can’t be sure what this “twist” entailed: converting mere rivalry into active retribution through the jilted suitor’s abduction of the woman, or having the captor inadvertently provide his kidnapped object of affection with the means of her liberation when he supplies her with a pack of cards?"
    "Maybe the variation had nothing to do w ith narrative tweaking of the formula, but rather the film’s inventive use of the moving camera. The Trail of Cards stands out for its ostentatious mobile framing: as the abducted woman is hauled off on horseback, she releases a series of playing cards to mark her changing locations, the moving camera tracing the path of dropped clues. This moment of overt narration is indicative of the transitional period, and one can read the prolonged tracking shot as either an outré instance of latter-day attractions, or a novel stylistic solution to the problem of rendering a potentially confusing plot point decipherable."
    "Tracking shots recur throughout the film, and a notable variant serves to wrap up the plot: there united couple ride toward her ranch as the camera dollies backward, rounding off the story while affirming the moving camera as a central storytelling device."
    "Early Westerns were often a testing ground for all manner of stylistic experimentation, from majestic long shots to moody atmospheric lighting to space-defining shot combinations. If the narrative tropes employed in Westerns were often the source of complaints in the contemporary trade press, the genre’s stylistic toolbox of storytelling aids proved increasingly adaptive during the early 1910s.
" – Charlie Keil

AA: Thoroughly described by Charlie Keil above. There are expressive close-ups of faces. The release of the playing cards as leads is a clever plot idea. Outrageously, the woman is kidnapped in a hammock suspended between two horses. A highly impractical solution, it considerably slows down the bandits. A good visual dynamics towards the end. Average.

The Trail of Cards (US 1913), D: Gilbert P. Hamilton, photo: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. The mother is alerted and she shoots a warning shot.

AA: A second series to Pordenone's Beginnings of the Western project.

Part 1 was screened last year.

In this first show of this year's selection the production companies include Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, and American Film Company. The directors are Rollin S. Sturgeon, G. M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, William Duncan, Romaine Fielding, and Gilbert P. Hamilton. Among the stars are George C. Stanley, Robert Thornby, G. M. Anderson, Fred Burns, Tom Mix, Myrtle Stedman, Romaine Fielding, Edward Coxen, and Lillian Christy, all professionals with often long and solid careers.

I am not a connoisseur of early Westerns, but ever since reading William K. Everson's books I have wanted to see them. Thus this series for me is a "dream come true". Of the talent included in this show I only knew the biggest stars G. M. Anderson and Tom Mix. We know that the conception of simple moralism of the Western has never been true (it only applies to certain of the most trite and routine productions). Also in this show it is interesting that stars relish the opportunity to play ambivalent characters or even villains. There is a clear sense of morality in these films, but also an acknowledgement that life is complicated.

None of the films in this show were among the best of the genre.

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