Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tumbleweeds (William S. Hart Productions/United Artists, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a movie I’d recently burned from an download, Tumbleweeds, the last film of the remarkable early Western star William S. Hart, who began his career in the teens under producer-director Thomas H. Ince (the man who, more than any other single individual, invented the studio system both figuratively and literally; he build the huge complex that was taken over by Triangle, the company he, D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett founded when they merged; then by Goldwyn Pictures, then by MGM and now by Sony). Born in upstate New York in 1862, Hart was old enough to have lived in the Dakota Territory in the 1880’s and thereby personally witnessed the latter days of the frontier era in the West, and though he wasn’t the first major film star to specialize in Westerns (G. M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson was), he did pride himself on the authenticity of his films. In his book The Liveliest Art, a history of the movies, Arthur Knight summed up how the mythos of the American West as depicted in films was changing in the early 1920’s and rendering Hart’s rather bleak, dark vision of it obsolete:

Early in the 1920’s the Westerns veered sharply away from the realistic portrait of frontier life that had characterized the William S. Hart pictures. Hart’s hero had been the Good Bad Man — a hard-drinking, hard-riding, hard-shooting he-man, often an outlaw, often the adversary of law and order, but always true to the moral code of the old frontier. After the First World War, Hart’s descriptions of the West, although essentially truer than anything that has been done since, came to be dismissed as “old-fashioned.” Moviegoers — even Westerners — preferred the more romantic version of the West they found in the films of Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard. Now the hero was a Good Good Man, riding the range to protect the weak and bring the outlaws to justice. He never drank, never smoked and — unlike Hart with his blazing six-shooters — he used his pistols only when forced to.

I think Knight is being a bit unfair to Ken Maynard — films like Tombstone Canyon and Smoking Guns may not have been going for realism, but they have a moral ambiguity and a dark, almost Gothic obsessiveness far beyond what audiences expected from “B” Westerns in the early 1930’s — but it’s certainly true that Hart’s vision of the West was losing its commercial appeal. Hart knew it, which is why when he made Tumbleweeds he not only decided it would be his last film (which it was; though Hart lived 21 more years between its release in 1925 and his death in 1946, he never worked again and his only other on-screen appearance was narrating a brief prologue to Tumbleweeds for a sound reissue in 1939) but made it an elegiac piece about the passing of the West. He chose for his subject the Oklahoma Land Rush, that bizarre episode in 1889 in which a big chunk of the Cherokee Strip in what later became the state of Oklahoma was opened to white settlers. The date fixed for the opening was April 22, 1889, and a cannon was fired at noon to signal the beginning of the rush, during which would-be homesteaders would race to the choice pieces of property and literally stake their claims. Of course, a number of people tried to cheat, sneaking family members or friends onto the choicest parcels before the official start of the rush; they were called “Sooners” and became legendary enough that “The Sooner State” became one of Oklahoma’s mottoes. Hart cast himself as cowboy Don Carver, who finds it harder to make a living because the government is fencing off key cattle lands in preparation for making them available to farmers during the rush; he and his comic-relief buddy Kentucky Rose (Lucien Littlefield playing essentially a Walter Brennan role pre-Walter Brennan) both encounter women — Don falls for Molly Lassiter (Barbara Brennan, delivering a quiet, understated performance with none of the flibbertigibbet fluttering and coyness that marred all too many silent ingénues) and K. R. for Widow Riley (Lillian Leighton), who’s come out to homestead and is convinced she can do it on her own (which might have actually made for a more interesting plot line!).

The land rush claimants assemble in the town of Coldwell, Kansas, which suddenly becomes a boom town while all these people are staying there waiting for the Big Day. The villains of the piece are Molly’s brother Bart (Jack Murphy) and the no-goodnik who’s using him, city slicker Bill Friel (Richard Neill) — and, needless to say, in addition to wanting to make a killing by seizing the former Box K Ranch during the rush, Bill also wants to marry Molly and thinks that by making her brother his stooge he can pull that off. Written by Hal Evarts and C. Gardner Sullivan, and directed by King Baggot with uncredited assistance from Hart himself (I suspect that Hart, like Buster Keaton in his glory days, pretty much directed his own films no matter who was officially credited as director), Tumbleweeds is relatively non-violent but otherwise is quite a good Western, occasionally veering off into clichéd situations but telling the cowboys vs. farmers part of the Western legend with surprising eloquence and power. Hart himself is an arresting screen presence, visibly old (he was 63 when he made this film!) and craggy, anticipating the worn, weather-beaten appearance of Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood in their late-in-life Westerns. The plot has Bart and Friel framing Don and getting him arrested on the eve of the rush in hopes of keeping him out of it; he breaks jail with a spectacular pole-vault out of the stockade where he’s being held (no doubt Hart was doubled in the sequence!) and tears through the rush on his horse, anxious to get to the Box K and claim it for himself and Molly — only in a bit of a surprise, Molly lets herself be convinced by her brother that Don really is a crook, which leaves Don determined to leave Oklahoma and go to South America, where there’s enough free rangeland to make cowboy a realistic career option — only in the end agriculture and domesticity win out and Don and K. R. settle down with their respective wives-to-be on their homesteads.

Tumbleweeds is quite a movie — obviously Hart was out to compete with the spectacular big-budget Westerns from the major studios like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (Paramount, 1923) and John Ford’s star-making film The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924) — and he was determined to stage the land rush and the other spectacular sequences without any use of stock footage. (Naturally, Tumbleweeds became a major source of stock footage for later “B” producers wanting spectacular scenes and lacking the budget to stage any themselves.) It may not be quite the poetic evocation of the passing of the West Hart was hoping for, but it is a quite well-done movie; unlike a lot of movie stars of his time, Hart had saved his money and went out on a high note before his well-deserved retirement. Alas, Hart’s departure from active filmmaking and the financial failure of Ford’s surprisingly sophisticated Three Bad Men in 1926 pretty much put on hold any attempt to make deeper, more intelligent Westerns for nearly three decades, until filmmakers of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s started coming up with “psychological Westerns” — and thought they were inventing the whole idea!