Monday, October 07, 2019

In the Sage Brush Country

In the Sage Brush Country advertised in the bottom right. Photo: Internet Movie Database.

US 1914
regia/dir: William S. Hart.
scen: C. Gardner Sullivan, Thomas H. Ince.
cast: William S. Hart (Jim Brandon), Rhea Mitchell (Edith Wilding), Herschel Mayall (Frank Wilding), Thomas Kurihara (Juan, un messicano/Juan, a Mexican).
prod: New York Motion Picture Co., supv: Thomas H. Ince.
dist: Mutual/Kay-Bee.
uscita/rel: 25.12.1914.
copia/copy: DCP, 29′; did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
William S. Hart
Musical interpretation: Günter Buchwald (grand piano, violin), Frank Bockius (alla batteria).
Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in Italian by Underlight, 7 Oct 2019.

Richard Abel (GCM): "In what scenarist C. Gardner Sullivan misleadingly called “The Romantic Adventures of a Woman of the ’50s,” this story has Hart play Jim Brandon, who has just robbed the Wolf Creek stage of a payroll meant for Frank Wilding’s Lost Hope Mine. Fearing another holdup, Wilding reluctantly entrusts his daughter Edith with the next payroll. Confident of his concealed identity, Brandon comes to town, orders drinks at the local saloon, and hears that this is “payday” for the mine. Outside, he realizes Edith will be carrying the payroll and follows her onto the stage. When it stops at the Mountain House Restaurant, Brandon protects Edith from a man forcing his attention on her, which forges an unacknowledged bond between them. A Mexican thief later stops the stage, tosses Brandon’s revolver over an embankment, takes his watch, and steals a kiss from Edith, who slaps him. The thief takes Edith with him on horseback to a deserted shack, forces her into a bedroom, and strangely leaves her to barricade the door. Meanwhile, Brandon recovers his gun, follows the horse’s tracks on foot, and finds the thief trying to break the door in. In an exchange of gunshots, Brandon kills the thief and takes back his watch. Edith entrusts the payroll to Brandon, but, after escorting her near the mine, he returns it, so she can deliver the money safely to the waiting miners."

"The first reel is remarkable in a number of ways, especially because this was only the second film Hart directed, and was shot in just five days. Brandon’s cabin interior exemplifies Hart’s concern for “authentic detail” in the overturned barrel he uses for a table, the pouch of stolen gold he hides in the fireplace, and the can used to brew coffee. That “authenticity” also has one of the Inceville Sioux play the Indian maid washing dishes in a background room of Wilding’s office, but contrasts with the industry convention of often having a non-Mexican play a Mexican (here, unusually, the actor is Japanese-American). Hart also begins to set the characters he plays apart, with his knee-length black coat and embroidered vest, his skill in striking a match on his thumbnail, and the “stone face” he adopts as a mask throughout. Not only does clear intercutting set up the parallel plot lines that introduce Wilding and his daughter and then Brandon, leading to Brandon joining her in the stage, but Hart’s steely looks and centered stance outside Wilding’s office slowly register his growing awareness of how the payroll will be delivered. Finally, in the restaurant Brandon gets the owner to support him against the threats to Edith with a quick sure shot that hits a sign on the wall, twinned with a witty intertitle."

"The second reel begins with Hart doing some stunt work, rappelling down a cliff to retrieve his gun and later, his face dotted with sweat, sliding down a hillside to spot the thief’s cabin far below in a valley. In an unusual series of shots, Brandon slowly cracks open the cabin door and sees the Mexican reflected in a window, which allows him to fire before the thief can. Edith’s offer of the payroll comes in a relatively close shot, accentuated by camera movement. After they share looks, a pan isolates Brandon as he turns away; another returns to Edith as she holds out the payroll pouch; a third reframes them as he turns to take it from her. He leads her on horseback along a barren road until they spot the mine buildings far below. Now he returns the payroll pouch and kisses her hand, then watches her slowly ride off toward the mine before turning and walking off alone. This ending establishes a familiar trope in Hart’s westerns: a lone figure, having disavowed love, looking or walking into the background of an unknown future." Richard Abel (GCM)

AA: William S. Hart already has great presence in this film, the earliest I have seen of his, and his persona is already mature. Here we have the introduction of the strong silent man into the Western cinema, the model for Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Clint Eastwood. In Hart's case he is silent literally.

Hart tells an early version of his signature narrative: a bandit's conscience is awakened by an encounter with a woman. The woman appeals to the better angels of his nature.

William S. Hart and Charles Chaplin are great parallel figures in 1910s Hollywood. Both started in the year 1914, the year of the Great War. Both played the tramp. The tramp is violent and destructive until he meets a woman who means something to him. But the narrative does not necessarily have a happy ending.

In the Sage Brush Country, like many films of Chaplin, ends with the protagonist vanishing into the horizon alone. He has saved the woman, but he remains outside society, he belongs to the wilderness. In the Westerns of the 1950s a character like this was prominent in Shane and The Searchers. William S. Hart invented it with the full and conscious force of existentialism.

Hart displays talent in establishing a situation via looks. The ambience is rough and realistic. The suspense is mounted in intelligent and original ways. Hart manages to shoot the villain with the help of a calculation based on reflections. The villain has tried to force his way to the woman with an axe that has become stuck at the beam with which the woman has propped the door.

As Richard Abel states in his excellent program note quoted above, Hart appears stonefaced throughout. But having departed from the woman he has saved his face is convulsed in sorrow and agony, and his proud posture is stooped for the only time during the film. The film ends with a fade to black.

The musical interpretation of Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius was vigorous and inspired.

On display was a DCP processed from a digibeta from a work-in-progress reconstruction, with flash titles stretched. The visual quality of the copy is very modest, indeed, but it was a privilege to see this movie even in this condition.


AA Facebook capsule:

In the Sage Brush Country is the earliest entry in Pordenone's William S. Hart retrospective. He has great presence immediately, and a taut and vigorous touch as a director. William S. Hart and Charles Chaplin both started in the year 1914, both often playing a tramp, an outlaw who is initially violent and destructive. The meeting of a significant woman changes everything, but there is no happy ending for the male protagonist.

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