Silent Reflections – Three 1920s Westerns

by HELEN GEIB

There is a widespread tendency to view the cinema of the studio era (roughly, beginning in the mid 1910s and ending in the mid 1950s) as different in kind from contemporary cinema. This tendency takes many forms. Among avid classic movie buffs, it is expressed in a belief that movies were better back then. To a public with little knowledge about or interest in movies older than whatever year they themselves became moviegoers, early cinema is variously dismissed as archaic, irrelevant, primitive, the province of specialists. Nostalgia merchants encourage the characterization of old movies as wholesome products of a more innocent age. Film critics and culture critics of all stripes exalt the past to derogate the present, or less often, reverse the direction of that comparison.

Fifteen years of voracious film consumption have persuaded me that the American cinema writ large is today pretty much the same as it’s been since the inception of the feature era c. 1914. Admittedly, the continual adoption of technological advances has changed the surface dramatically: the introduction of sound and color; improvements in film stock, cameras, lights, all the equipment of moviemaking; the use of computers. Fashions change in performance styles, editing rhythms, storylines. The rise and decline of censorship is reflected in many aspects of film production. But although I could go on enumerating areas of change and difference, the dissimilarities mask a fundamental underlying continuity.

It is as true of today’s movies as the movies of yesteryear that some are good, some are bad, and many are indifferent. That some films have broad audience appeal and others cater to a niche audience. That some are sophisticated, some are simplistic, and most fall somewhere in the vast middle ground. That Americans like a good story and characters they can root for, and that audiences’ ideas of what constitutes each have changed very little. That stars matter to the audience. That the skills of the actors, the director, and the writers matter to how good the film turns out to be. That it’s possible for a movie to be made on a shoestring and still look good, but a big budget is a nice thing to have. That some movies are made to make a buck and some out of conviction, and that neither motivation guarantees (or precludes) a quality film.

These musings were inspired by the May program of 1920s westerns at The Silent Movie Theater, films that have their descendants and corollaries in modern film (and television, the true heir of some segments of studio-era film production).

The Great K&A Train Robbery

The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926) is a star vehicle for Tom Mix and his boon companion Tony the Wonder Horse. For its type, it’s a good movie. My acquaintance with that type is not extensive, but I daresay it’s safe to assume this is one of the best films of its kind. The Great K&A Train Robbery, one of seven (!) Mix films released in 1926, was a movie guaranteed to thrill the hearts of young boys everywhere. It is an action extravaganza. Mix jumps on and off (with Tony’s assistance), runs atop, engages in shootouts aboard, and (with Tony) races speeding trains; outruns (with Tony), engages in fistfights and shootouts with, and surprises in their hideout, train-robbing outlaws; dives (with Tony) into water to make narrow escapes; hangs off cliff faces (with Tony’s assistance); and generally outwits, outfights, and outguns all comers.

Frankly, I was bored. Tony was truly a horse among horses, but his strongest partisans wouldn’t claim Mix was much of an actor. The story is happily generic and characterization one step away from non-existent. Some of the comedy is actually funny and some of the stunts are impressive, but that’s about all the film has going for it for the non-Saturday matinee crowd. My loyalties will always be with Bill Hart.

The singing cowboy was a Mixian staple of the neighborhood theater in the first two decades of sound films. In the 1950s, the inheritors of Tom Mix’s star mantle migrated to the small screen, appearing weekly on popular network television shows beloved by children. In today’s fractured media landscape, his spiritual descendants are the stars of cable television series for children and tweens. She commands fan adulation, is imitated and idolized, draws thronging crowds of admirers, sells merchandising tie-ins: Miley Cyrus and her ‘tween/teen idol brethren are the Tom Mixes of our day.

The Vanishing American

The Vanishing American (1925) is remembered as the first feature film to spotlight the contemporary plight of American Indians. While the history books correctly place it within the continuum of Hollywood’s socially conscious filmmaking, noting that it is based on Zane Grey’s novel of the same title gives a better idea of what the film is like. It is a story crafted by a knowledgeable and respectful outsider, an expose mediated by melodrama, and a depiction of Indian culture refreshingly free of the “noble savage” and “innocent primitive” stereotypes. The Indian hero is due the respect owed to every person because he is a human being, and the protections of the rule of law because he is an American. That is the message of this “message film.”

The film is set on a reservation in the southwest around the time of the American engagement in World War I. Less literally, the story is located at the interface between the Indian and the White Man and focuses on the hero’s struggles against the depredations of the Indian agent, the local representative of the federal government who is variously abetted or unhindered by virtually all of the area’s non-Indian residents. In a shameful Hollywood casting practice that endured well into the 1950s, the hero is played by a white actor (Richard Dix, also responsible for getting the film produced) who was a popular star in Westerns. Necessary mental leap made, he gives a good dramatic performance. The heroine (Lois Wilson) is the white teacher at the reservation school. She is a typically estimable Grey heroine, resolute, intelligent, and forward-thinking. Notably, she’s the only person working in the agency town who has learned to speak the tribe’s language.

The young men of the reservation enlist in the army and are deployed on the Western Front. The survivors return to find that their service (and sacrifice) means nothing to the federal government or the local community. The immediate plot point about the insanely corrupt agent is part of the mediating melodrama, but the larger truth of the characters’ experiences and frustrated expectations continues to resonate.

It’s not all good, by any means; the film has its flaws and its painful aspects. George Seitz’s direction is stolid, making little of the human drama or the stunning landscape (the movie was filmed in part at Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon). Some of the title cards have dated very badly. Worst of all is the risible and excruciatingly overlong prologue meant to provide a capsule history of human habitation in the southwest. The purpose, to illustrate that all civilizations rise and fall in the tide of human history, would have been better served by a couple of introductory title cards. I’m not sure I would have made it to the good part if I had been watching this one at home.

The Vanishing American is fairly typical of Hollywood “tolerance is good” films, from the 1910s through today. The producers have done everything they can to insulate it from the possibility of commercial failure. It features a star who is almost aggressively not the “other” who is the purported subject of the film; Gregory Peck in Gentlemen’s Agreement, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia are a few of the more prominent examples of this strategy. The supporting cast is filled out with name actors, the story is conventional and melodramatic, and it is adapted from a popular novel. Bold by the standards of contemporary mainstream media, it pushes lightly and cautiously at mainstream public opinion. The message and the intentions are good, the execution compromised by ingrained prejudices and an aversion to risk-taking.

The Iron Horse

The concluding film in the series was John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) (previously reviewed here). Thinking about the film again, I’m struck most of all by its bigness. This is an ambitious, confident, big movie. Story, cast of characters, themes, landscape, comedy, drama, action: everything is big and bold and stirring. There’s not a half measure or a pulled punch in sight.

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is a recent film in the spirit of The Iron Horse. Gangster is notable for a similar ambitious breadth of story, wide-ranging in time, place, and characters. It likewise uses a classic American genre as a platform to explore social upheavals of the recent past. Ambition coupled with intelligence and informed by skill and experience is a good filmmaking formula, and one I can’t see too often.

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