Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Painted Desert (RKO-Pathé, 1930, rel. 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we picked out was the 1930 version of The Painted Desert, which I’d been curious about watching again since we screened the 1938 “B”-Western remake with George O’Brien — and surprise, the remake was better! The original Painted Desert, produced by Pathé Pictures just before RKO took over the company’s U.S. branch (which had never recovered from a horrible fire at their New York lot in 1929, which killed 11 people while they were shooting a musical number under cramped and decidedly risky conditions: this remains to this day the most serious accident, in terms of loss of life, ever during the actual shooting of a film), is known today if at all only because it was Clark Gable’s first film. At least it was Gable’s first true acting role in a film — he’d been to Hollywood earlier and done extra work in the mid-1920’s, appearing in the crowds of Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise and Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (ironically working for much better directors than he got as a star!) — he was a New York stage actor seeking an entrée into films, either that or a quick paycheck before he went back to his true calling on the stage, depending on which source you believe — but what is certain is that he was sent for to play a villain, Rance Brett (at least they gave him a Gable-esque name!), though he doesn’t appear until about 15 minutes into the film and the star, William Boyd — yes, the one who later played Hopalong Cassidy, here essaying a similar role — doesn’t show up until even later.

The film opens with a scene in which two hard-bitten prospectors meet in the Painted Desert and rescue a baby boy from an otherwise abandoned covered wagon, only to argue over the baby’s name and separate, starting a feud that it will take the rest of the movie to reconcile. Cash Holbrook (early Western star William Farnum) takes the baby away from his friend Jeff Cameron (J. Farrell MacDonald) to look for grazing land to raise cattle, while Jeff remains behind in the Painted Desert and finds his own route to prosperity by laying claim to a watering hole, meaning that every rancher driving his cattle across the desert has to pay him to let their herd drink there. Years pass, long enough for the baby from the covered wagon to grow up to be William Boyd (his character name is Bill Holbrook, after Buffalo Bill and probably after the actor’s real name as well), while Cash has had a child of his own (how? We have no indication that he ever got involved with a woman; maybe he found this one in a covered wagon, too), daughter Mary Ellen (Helen Twelvetrees). Rance Brett enters the action when, attracted to Mary Lou, he promises to keep Cash Holbrook’s cattle from her dad’s watering hole — only just about this time Bill Holbrook shows up and causes both men’s herds to stampede.

Then Bill persuades Cash and Jeff to join with him to mine the Cameron property, which is rich in tungsten (as I noted in my comments on the remake, the fact that the mineral they’re mining is tungsten, a metal valuable far more for industrial uses than anything precious in itself, and not gold or silver is a sign that this is at least to some extent a “modern” Western), and they open a mine, borrowing money to do so, and are actually successful — until Rance Brett decides to sabotage the mine by stealing two sticks of dynamite that were supposed to be used to clear a mountain, and instead blows up the mine itself, for reasons which aren’t all that clear in the film itself (it’s vaguely attributed to Rance’s jealousy over Bill’s interest in Mary Ellen, but it’s anybody’s guess why writers Tom Buckingham and Howard Higgin, the latter of whom also directed, why Rance thought he could win Mary Ellen’s hand by putting her father out of business), and there’s a final confrontation between the two men in the town saloon (where else?) in which we get the interesting and rather kinky thrill of seeing Hopalong Cassidy pulling a gun on Rhett Butler.

The Painted Desert
was largely filmed there, near Flagstaff, Arizona — and when I saw it before the thing I remembered was the utter grandeur of the Arizona scenery (this is one black-and-white film from the classic era in which you do miss color) — but it also had some of the deadly-dull slowness that afflicted many early talkies. Howard Higgin wasn’t much of a director; he had the actors speak their lines relatively slowly and carefully pause between their cue line and their own line — a failing that makes many early sound films almost totally unwatchable and makes it more believable how many critics thought sound would destroy the art of film — and he also paces the action slowly and rather dully. What this film needed was a director like John Ford, who would not only have known how to shoot the action scenes with a sense of real pace and how to get the most out of the spectacular natural locations, he could also have made that prologue with the two old-salt cowboys arguing about the baby genuinely moving instead of just a bland piece of exposition the story could do just as well without (and did in the remake, which strengthened the story by focusing almost exclusively on the Painted Desert itself and keeping the plot line of the tungsten mine while jettisoning just about all the rest).

It also doesn’t help this movie that the version we were watching was a 73-minute version (from of a film that originally ran 79 to 85 minutes (sources differ) — thanks to the “suits” at RKO who actually cut up the negative to raid it for stock shots to use in the remake. (It seems odd that they didn’t reissue it later with Gable’s name over the title to take advantage of his subsequent superstardom, the way early films featuring Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Alan Ladd and Robert Mitchum were reissued with new billings, credits and sometimes titles as well that made it look as if they had been the stars all along.) The Painted Desert is supposedly the one movie Clark Gable made before he signed with MGM and had a plastic surgeon bob his ears at MGM’s request — Gable biographer Lyn Tornabene says there’s some dispute about whether that happened, and Gable always denied it (though it is known that MGM ordered him to have all his teeth pulled and got dentures made for him — people who knew Gable in the late 1940’s remember him as saying, “God, I can’t wait until I can throw these clackers right through L. B.’s window!”) — though since he’s wearing his hair long in this one it’s hard to tell whether his ears were really bigger then than in his major movies later on.

His acting is O.K., though since he’s playing a not particularly interesting villain he doesn’t have much of a chance to shine — I doubt anyone catching this movie in 1931 would have thought, “That man’s going to be the male sex symbol of the next decade!” — and the distorted shape in which the soundtrack survives is unkinder to him than anyone else in the cast, turning virtually all Gable’s dialogue into a barely differentiated snarl. (Farnum and MacDonald also get their voices trashed in the lousy sound quality.) William Boyd is acceptable in the Western-hero mold in which he’s best known today — though The Big Gamble, another RKO-Pathé release, gave him a far meatier role — and likewise Helen Twelvetrees comes off as a simpering silent ingénue and a far cry from her marvelously world-weary performance in Panama Flo just a year later: if I hadn’t seen that movie I’d have just assumed she couldn’t cut the adjustment from silent to sound.