Saturday, October 06, 2018

The Covered Wagon

The Covered Wagon starring J. Warren Kerrigan and Lois Wilson.

I pionieri / Karavaani
US 1923
regia/dir., prod: James Cruze.
scen: Jack Cunningham, Walter Woods; based on the novel by Emerson Hough.
photog: Karl Brown.
mont/ed: Dorothy Arzner.
tech. adviser: Colonel Tim McCoy.
asst dir: Vernon Keays.
cast: Lois Wilson (Molly Wingate), J. Warren Kerrigan (Will Banion), Ernest Torrence (Jackson), Charles Ogle (Mr. Wingate), Ethel Wales (Mrs. Wingate), Alan Hale (Sam Woodhull), Tully Marshall (Jim Bridger), Guy Oliver (Kit Carson), John Fox (Jed Wingate).
prod: Famous Players-Lasky.
dist: Paramount Pictures; pres. Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor.
première: 15.3.1923 (New York).
uscita/rel: 8.9.1924.
copia/copy: 35 mm, 7359 ft. (orig. 9407 ft.), 98′ (20 fps); did./titles: ENG.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM).
    Grand piano: Neil Brand.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone (The Parade's Gone By di Kevin Brownlow 50), with e-subtitles in Italian, 6 Oct 2018.

Kevin Brownlow (GCM): "Dedicated to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, The Covered Wagon was based on a story by Emerson Hough, who had travelled the plains in a covered wagon himself. It enjoyed unparalleled success in 1923 as a 10-reel epic Western. It survives at Paramount on 35mm in 8 reels, and, as I remember, a very fine print. But lost in the abridgement is a spectacular prairie fire, which survives only on 16mm in a private collection."

"The Covered Wagon began as just another programme Western. Veteran director George Melford had been entrusted with the project, which was to have starred Mary Miles Minter. Jesse Lasky disposed tactfully of both Melford and Minter by telling them their talent was worthy of better things."

"Lasky’s grandfather had been a pioneer, and inspired his fascination with the Old West. Buying into the legend that James Cruze had Indian blood (he didn’t), Lasky consigned the project to him. Still, few men could have been more suitable, for covered wagons had been a familiar part of his youth."

Cruze was born in l884, so little more than a generation separated him from the pioneers. His parents, Danish peasants following the religion of Brigham Young, had travelled across the plains in a covered wagon and settled in Utah, where they lived on a ranch and raised a large family. On cold winter mornings, Cruze would come downstairs to find two or three Indian women sitting on the kitchen floor, waiting patiently for breakfast. He was a man of little formal education. He had played in medicine shows, graduating to the legitimate stage and reaching stardom in motion picture serials. By the time he was offered The Covered Wagon, he was achieving a reputation as a top-class director."

"The main location was the Baker ranch in the Snake River Valley on the borders of Utah and Nevada. Run by an old cattleman named Otto Meek, the ranch provided as much land and water as the picture could require. Carpenters were sent ahead to lay down board-flooring for tents – an essential precaution against bad weather – and under the command of Tom White, an army style camp appeared. Some of the Mormon extras bedded down in the wagons and lived exactly like the pioneers."

"Dorothy Arzner, who later became one of the few successful women directors in Hollywood, was the editor of the film. “There was a wonderful spirit in those days – the pioneering spirit is what it was…. When we were delayed by the snow, even Paramount wanted us to come back and finish the picture on the Lasky lot. I remember Jim Cruze telling them, ‘You’ll have to come and get us!’ He talked to the whole company. He said, ‘We may not be paid.’ To a man, they said, ‘Let’s stay.’”"

"Tim McCoy was in charge of the Indians. Some of the older Indians refused to come on the film because they believed it was a plan to break up the reservations. Many cowboys worked on the picture; old Milt Brown, veteran of cattle drives, played in several scenes, as did Ed “Pardner” Jones, a crack shot and former sheriff, who did all the critical shooting, including the scene of the horse collapsing over the bluff in the Indian attack. This gruesome stunt was known as “rim-rocking”."

"Karl Brown, Cruze’s long-time cameraman, who had been Bitzer’s assistant with D. W. Griffith, became fascinated with the extras, who behaved so much like the pioneers. As a result, his first film as director, Stark Love (1927), was a drama-documentary about the mountain people of North Carolina."

"Despite its simplistic plot, The Covered Wagon succeeds so impressively in documenting an era that one regrets its shortcomings all the more. The main shortcoming is its leading man. J Warren Kerrigan was selected by Cruze more from friendship than conviction. When his mother fell ill, Kerrigan retired from the screen to look after her. Once she had recovered, Cruze invited his old friend to take the part. Karl Brown said that his double, Jack Padjeon, would have been far more convincing."

"Publicity claimed that the countryside was scoured for original Conestoga wagons, named after the Pennsylvania valley where they were made. But the huge Conestoga was seldom used on the long trip West; lighter wagons were more suitable. And many of these, some heirlooms, some still in use, were rounded up from farms and ranches."

"There were errors made – wagon trains never camped for the night in a box canyon, for instance. “And,” wrote Houston Horn, “almost never in all the history of western migration did an Indian war party descend upon a circle of covered wagons.” Tim McCoy nonetheless admired the film. “On the whole,” he said, “it was as authentic as you can make entertainment.”"

"Cruze had a remarkable feeling for documentary. He shot most of his films on location, and included factual elements in many of them. In the 8-reel version, when someone in the wagon train dies, they are quickly buried, and the entire wagon train is ordered to roll over the grave so the Indians would not find it."

"Cruze must have been gratified by a letter from an ex-soldier from the years 1862-1865 which appeared in Motion Picture Magazine: “I know that the director did better than any other man could do in organizing this train… He shows the exact way the emigrants travelled, especially in the crossing of streams. I have often seen such a sight when the emigrants were crossing the Platte River.”"

"Paradoxically, the criticism attracted by The Covered Wagon bestowed upon it a unique status; it was the first Western to be taken seriously by historians. Said the New York Herald: “There is one adjective that one thinks of first. That adjective is ‘honest’. The picture is honest in its simplicity, in its fidelity, in its sincerity, and in its regard for the importance of the theme. It has been extensively advertised and exploited. Well, for once the advertisements don’t lie. The Covered Wagon is worthy of the best in the way of superlatives that its press agents have to offer.”"

"Adolph Zukor, the President of Paramount, said in 1964 that  his company made many pictures of importance, but The Covered Wagon was one of which he was most proud."

"And the film received the Photoplay Gold Medal – the equivalent of an Academy Award at the time."
Kevin Brownlow

AA: An early epic Western with a touch of the mythical heroic adventure. The action takes place in all seasons during 1848–1849, a historical period earlier than in most Westerns whose action usually happens during post-Civil War decades.

To Kevin Brownlow's sober assessment above it is hard to add anything. The film is mostly well cast, but the direction of actors is not quite electrifying.

The film is at its strongest in epic views of endless wagons moving across plains, a buffalo hunt, and a war with Indians. The most rousing sequence is the crossing of the magnificent, dangerous river.

Another strength is a sense of rugged authenticity in wagons, ferries, costumes, and bar scenes. Such realism was not unique in early Western but it vanished slowly from the genre, making room for more polished representations.

The villain among the pioneers (Sam, played by Alan Hale) betrays and murders an Indian ferryman, causing a massacre, warfare, danger, and devastation for all.

An interesting character is the trader Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall) balancing between civilization and savagery, "the best scout of the Rockies", surviving as long as he does not carry a weapon.

The most potent image of the movie is the plough, prominently displayed in turning-points.

A misunderstanding about Will Banion's action in combat before the start of the narrative keeps Will (J. Warren Kerrigan) and Molly (Lois Wilson) from getting one another. Will has confiscated cattle to feed his troops.

I have been following the cinema's curious obsession with the cancelled wedding. In The Covered Wagon the wedding between Molly and Sam is cancelled because in the nick of time Molly learns the truth about Will whom she has loved all along.

In the finale the pioneers reach the promised land of Oregon. Connections emerge between films: a week ago at the Helsinki Film Festival I saw Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, also set in the forests of Oregon. The theme of home is central to both films, but in contrasting ways.

A vigorous piano interpretation by Neil Brand.

The visual quality is good in many passages of this print. Other passages seem duped or blown up from narrow gauge sources.

No comments: