Sunday, August 21, 2011

To the Last Man (Paramount, 1933)

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

The film was To the Last Man, a 1933 Paramount release — though it’s acquired a plethora of studio affiliations since then; our print said “Favorite Films, Inc.” at the beginning, had a Columbia logo towards the end (perhaps it was included in one of the repackagings Columbia did of old movies for TV in the 1950’s, leasing films from other studios as well as including some of their own: the most famous were the Shock Theatre and Son of Shock packages of horror films, mostly Universal’s but occasionally Columbia’s own productions like The Devil Commands, and when I started watching old horror films on TV in the early 1970’s they frequently bore Columbia logos on the end as well as Universal logos at the beginning, and as late as the 2000’s Charles and I saw San Diego, I Love You, a Universal comedy from 1944, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in a print with a Columbia logo at the end), and according to the American Film Institute Catalog there was also a “Unity Productions” re-release that changed the title to Law of Vengeance.

The film was part of a series Paramount was making based on the popular Western novels of Zane Grey — indeed, the opening shot shows an old-fashioned hand press printing out a title page that turns out to include the name of the film, its director (Henry Hathaway) and, on a separate card, its writer (Jack Cunningham) and cinematographer (Ben Reynolds) — though Grey had published the novel in 1922 and Paramount had bought the rights then and made a silent film in 1923, with Noah Beery as the principal villain — a role he repeats here. The film opens in 1865 with the news (communicated in a banner headline from a newspaper being printed on that hand press) that Robert E. Lee has just surrendered at Appomattox, and Confederate soldier Mark Hayden (Egon Brecher, who makes a brief reference in his dialogue to “the old country” from which he presumably emigrated, since his accent would be utterly unbelievable as that of a native-born American Southerner) is driving a wagon back to his home in Kentucky, from which he plans to emigrate West in order to avoid the Colbys, a family that has been feuding with the Haydens, presumably for decades (the real-life Hatfields and McCoys were obviously Zane Grey’s inspiration). Since his wife had already died, before he went to war Hayden had left his sons Lynn (Jay Ward — no, not the same one who later produced Rocky and Bullwinkle) and Bill (Cullen Johnston), and daughter Ann (Rosita Butler), in the care of their mother’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Spelvin (Harlan Knight and Eugenie Besserer — she had previously played Al Jolson’s mother in The Jazz Singer).

Unfortunately, no sooner has he returned home than Jed Colby (Noah Beery) and another man stalk Grandpa Spelvin and shoot him in cold blood, hoping thereby to re-start the feud and get Mark Hayden to respond in kind so the Colbys will have an excuse to massacre the entire Hayden family. Instead Mark does what’s considered, in the twisted mores of this part of Kentucky, the dishonorable thing of complaining to the law; Jed Colby is arrested, tried for murder and sentenced to 15 years. Leaving his older son Lynn in Kentucky to take care of Grandma Spelvin, Mark and his other kids light out for the West and finally settle in Nevada, claim a homestead and build up a thriving cattle ranch — until Colby is released from prison (oddly, Noah Beery is clean-shaven when he gets out — he had a beard when he went in — and the change actually makes him look younger than he did 15 years’ worth of story time earlier!) and decides to go to Nevada himself with his henchman Jim Daggs (Jack LaRue) and his tomboy daughter Ellen (Esther Ralston). By now Bill has grown up to be Buster Crabbe and Ann is Gail Patrick; her last name is now “Stanley” because she’s married, and her husband Neil (Barton MacLane) is living with the Haydens.

Colby sets up next door to the Haydens and mounts a slow campaign of attrition against them, stealing their cattle and doing as much petty sabotage as he can while getting ready for the grand blow that will eliminate the Haydens once and for all. Just then Lynn Hayden — now old enough to be played by Randolph Scott (both he and Buster Crabbe were handsome men but it’s hard to believe in them as brothers!) — comes from Kentucky to rejoin the rest of his family in Nevada, and of course he comes upon Ellen Colby bathing in a lake and it’s love at first sight for both of them — until she finds out who he is and tears into him, saying she wants to see him and all his kinsmen dead for what they’ve done over the years to her family. Eventually, however, love wins out over feuding and Ellen decides to reject the unwelcome attentions of Jim Daggs and tell her dad flat-out that she’s going to marry Lynn Hayden whether he likes it or not. Dad’s response is to organize an en masse invasion of the Hayden spread in which Bill is killed. That’s the last straw for Mark Hayden, who finally decides to join the feud and goes over to the Colby farm to kill Jed — only Jed kills him first. The Haydens organize to ride to the Colby place to get their revenge — only Daggs, unbeknownst to anyone else including Jed, has rigged a mountain with explosives to cause an avalanche, and in the end all the feuding characters are killed except for Daggs, Lynn Hayden and Ellen Colby. (This sounds like Zane Grey’s rather forced attempt to avoid the obvious Romeo and Juliet parallels: it’s as if he were thinking, “Shakespeare killed off the young lovers and left the families alive; I’m going to kill off the families and let the young lovers live!”)

There’s a final confrontation in a barn (which looks like the same standing set on the Paramount lot in which the end of the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business was filmed) in which Daggs, thinking Lynn has been killed along with everyone else, makes his move on Ellen; Lynn, lying wounded in the barn’s upper loft, tries to intervene but is too weak to hold on to his gun; Daggs and Ellen both reach for the gun — Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney again! — and eventually Daggs ends up dead, following which we cut to a trick ending repeating the printing-press motif of the opening sequence, only in this case we’re in a photographic darkroom watching a print develop, and it turns out to be Lynn’s and Ellen’s wedding photo. To the Last Man is an odd and rather infuriating movie because so much of it is well done — writer Cunningham and director Hathaway have no problem documenting the utter idiocy of the Hayden/Colby feud, and at two different occasions they give their two leading actresses intensely emotional scenes, but these stand out largely because most of the dialogue is delivered in a slow, monotonal manner that sounds more like a film from 1929 than 1933.

The real star of this movie is Ben Reynolds, who turns in a dazzling job of cinematography; whereas most “B” Westerns, even from major studios, were pretty flatly photographed, this one is full of dappled-light effects that make the most of the gorgeous scenery of the outdoor locations and add atmosphere to the interiors as well. The actors are O.K. and Ralston and Patrick each do justice to their One Big Scene, but for the most part the performances are surprisingly bland — and Henry Hathaway, later known as a model of pacing and action, directs incredibly stiffly and slowly. It doesn’t help that Ralston’s role cries out for Barbara Stanwyck — Ralston is a quite good actress but she can’t achieve the needed combination of nerviness, passion and sincerity Stanwyck regularly commanded, especially at this early stage of her career — or that the other men are so stiff Randolph Scott looks good by comparison (his entrance 23 minutes into this 65-minute film is a breath of fresh air), even though nobody ever accused him of being a great actor — and that “nobody” definitely included Scott himself: there’s that famous anecdote of Scott applying for membership in a country club and being refused because “we don’t admit actors.” “But I’m no actor!” Scott protested. “Just see one of my pictures and you’ll know I’m not an actor!”