These silent films from the golden age of Westerns paved the way for stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and John Wayne.
By Gary Eugene Brown
Since quality Westerns are seldom released, we rely on videos of our favorite cowboy movies. However, we can only watch them so often as we anticipate what the next line will be. A remedy is we can rediscover some of the best films ever made, yet seldom seen “photoplays” from the “Golden Age.”
With an insatiable appetite for Western movies, I began to watch silent Westerns. I viewed them with a new perspective. I had thought they wouldn’t be very entertaining. However, once you confront your biases and appreciate the technology cinema pioneers had to work with, it is easier to make a paradigm shift. As such, I began to truly enjoy the films made before the advent of sound, a grand experience.
From 1903 to the advent of sound (1929), there were scores of western movies made. The western was the perfect vehicle for the early film industry as dialogue was not as important as it was to the melodrama. Riding, roping, fighting, hangings and stampedes required minimal dialogue.
RECOMMENDED SILENT WESTERNS
The following recommendations (ranked in order) are based upon production quality and availability.
1. THE IRON HORSE (1924) John Ford’s first major Western, which centers on the construction of the transcontinental railroad linking the East with the West, is an epic film that holds its own even toda. George O’Brien was the protagonist. His leading lady was Madge Bellamy and Fred Kohler, the villain. The two + hour cinema has pathos, excitement, humor and is a visual history lesson of one of our country’s major triumphs.
2. THREE BAD MEN (1926) John Ford’s second major Western was loosely based on Herman Whittaker’s novel Over the Border. In terms of pure entertainment, it too is a memorable production. Ford realized that background location was as important as the script and the actors….and it shows! The story of the Dakota Territory gold rush, again starred George O’Brien and the femme fatale was Olive Borden. The memorable three outlaws were: Tom Santschi; J. Farrell MacDonald and Frank Campeau. Their nemesis- Louis Tellegen. The moral of the story is there may be some good in the worst of men.
3. THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926) The story of bringing water from the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley, was based upon a novel by Harold Bell Wright. The major production was directed by Henry King and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The photoplay featured Ronald Coleman, Vilma Banky and a young Gary Cooper. VARIETY described the movie as – “Epic! Miraculous! For massiveness of production, this film is incomparable.”
4. TUMBLEWEEDS (1925) Centered on the Oklahoma land rush and William S Hart’s finale, Tumbleweeds is also a major Western. Directed by King Baggot and co-starring Lucien Littlefield as the “trusty sidekick” with Barbara Bedford. He bucked the studio system and financed the film himself, however he paid the price in doing so and Tumbleweeds consumed all of Hart’s capital. In 1938, Hart re-released Tumbleweed and was able to recoup some of his investment. He also added a prologue, one of the most moving soliloquies in film history. Hart, in his 70s, in his Shakespearean voice, took the opportunity to bid farewell to his many loyal fans who had never heard him speak before.
5. WILD HORSE MESA (1925) The production was based upon a Zane Grey novel. It starred Jack Holt, a major actor and an accomplished horseman It is a most enjoyable western, however the film print is not as pristine as the aforementioned. This movie filmed in the four corners area of Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Idaho, told about capturing wild horses, sometimes in less than humane ways. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Billie Dove and Noah Berry Sr. were costars.
Here are five other films that are worth watching. They are not full-length films of ninety minutes or more, however the quality and entertainment value are are high.
THE TOLL GATE (1920) Another film by William S. Hart which is perhaps his finest role. In the Toll Gate, a film of revenge and redemption, like many of his films, Bill starts
out as an outlaw, however by the end of the picture show, a mother, sister or pretty school marm had convinced Bill to reform his ways and go straight. The story line is still
relevant today, as one eventually has to pay for his past transgressions. You must “pay the fiddler” when the dance is over.
THE GREAT K&A TRAIN ROBBERY (1926) There was only one Tom Mix. Larger than life, he personified the western hero, perhaps not the way he really was, yet perhaps the way he should have been. Mix was and still is the symbol of the cowboy film star, “an idol of a million boys.” This is one of his best movies that have survived. It has non-top action, fearless stunts and humor. It was filmed on location in the Royal Gorge area of Colorado.
RIDERS OF THE PURLE SAGE (1926) This was based upon Zane Grey’s finest novel and it too stayed true to the novel. Filmed in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California,
it is one of Tom Mix’s rare serious roles. Mix portrays the vengeful Lassister, one of many who played the famous Grey character on the silver screen. However, the film was
not as popular with Mix’s fans as it lacked the non-stop action and was almost totally void of humor. However, it is a fine movie nonetheless.
THUNDERING HOOVES (1924) One of the best cowboy stars of the 20s was Fred Thomson. Almost forgotten today, he was number two in the box office behind Tom Mix
and was about to pass him in popularity. Unfortunately, this former, national decathlon champion died of tetanus, while in his prime at only age 31. This one surviving, complete film demonstrates the agility of Thomson, who was as acrobatic as the famous Douglas Fairbanks Sr. One wonders what could have happened to his career if Thomson survived and entered the sound period as the number one cowboy film star.
THE ROPING FOOL (1925) This is a testimony to the roping skills of probably the most beloved man of the 20th century. Will Rogers was the best, unequalled roper in
history and this semi documentary little film verifies that fact...see it for yourself. There is a humorous story line of Will being obsessed in roping. His arch nemesis is Big Boy
Guinn Williams who went on to star in silents as the hero and later as a sidekick. With Will being a vaudeville performer, famous movie star, honorary Mayor of Beverly Hills,
champion roper, humorist, newspaper columnist, noted speaker, aviation pioneer and good will ambassador to the world, if he died today in a plane crash, with instant mainstream and cable TV news and the internet, people would be glued to their TVs. In 1935, the world was in complete shock, while sitting in their living rooms in front of their family radio.
HONORABLE MENTIONS There were other films that played an important role that helped pave the way for the Western cinema. THE SQUAW MAN (1914) based upon a famous play, was directed by a young Cecil B. DeMille. It supposedly was the first major film made in Hollywood. In 1917, John Ford directed his first feature film STRAIGHT
SHOOTING starring Harry Carey Sr. and costarring a young Hoot Gibson. James Cruze filmed the first major western extravaganza THE COVERED WAGON (1923) that told of the settling of the West. Even though it seems more dated in its appearance compared to the highly recommended films, it has many memorable scenes portraying the hardships
that the early pioneers had to endure. It is worth a look-see as the recreation of the migration West, could have been an actual documentary, as some of the people in the film were actual participants in the earlier wagons west movement. Due to the immense success of The Covered Wagon, Cruze went on to direct THE PONY EXPRESS in 1925.
It was not close to the same production values of Cruze’s earlier film, however it is a historic film nonetheless.
Hopefully, you’re encouraged to discover for yourself some of these mostly forgotten gems. Remember the saying “Silence is golden”. In this case, it surely was.