The Covered Wagon (1923) Review

The Covered Wagon (1923) Director: James Cruze

★★★☆☆

Billed by Paramount as the next big budget film after D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), The Covered Wagon is often regarded as the first great epic Western film. I am a sucker for a film that captures the true beauty of the American countryside, and in this respect few films can compete with Westerns. In all, The Covered Wagon is a fun adventure following a band of pioneers across the country, however in my view the film ultimately falls short in certain respects.

The story was adopted from the 1922 novel of the same name by the American Western writer, Emerson Hough. We begin in 1848 as a caravan of wagoners await departure from Kansas to travel westward to Oregon. Jesse Wingate is leads the main caravan, but soon the brash, young Will Banion (played by J. Warren Kerrigan) joins the caravan. He falls for Molly Wingate (played Lois Wilson), daughter of Jesse Wingate and fiance of Jesse Wingate’s right-hand man, Sam Woodhull. They attempt to ford the rushing Kaw river, though Banion disputes this decision. In fact, this was a highly dangerous scene for the actors, reportedly two horses drowned during filming.

Further ahead, Woodhull’s wagon train is fatally attacked by Indians. Once across the river, they hunt for buffalo meat. Eventually, Molly rejects Woodhull for Banion, but she is injured by a stray arrow in an Indian attack. As the caravan proceeds, Banion leaves for California in search of gold, distraught about a misunderstanding with Molly, however she sends men to find Banion while she remains with the Wingate group traveling to Oregon. One year later, Woodhull catches up to Banion and tries to kill him for taking Molly away, but he fails and is killed. Banion leaves Oregon to reunite with Molly at their new pioneer home in Oregon.

Appropriately, a Western was one of the biggest blockbusters of the silent era (the budget was a risky $782,000 in 1923). It was shot in various locations: Palm Springs, CA; Utah; and Nevada, and it required a cast of thousands. In the scenes where thousands of buffalo appear, the director employed chains of mechanical buffalo –sadly by this point in time the buffalo had been nearly hunted to extinction. However aside from mechanical buffalo, at least authentic wagons were used from real pioneer families, these family heirlooms were borrowed on behalf of the production crew. In an earlier cut of the film, Director James Cruze appeared as an Indian, but he was later cut out of the film as he didn’t appear authentic.

The following are a few notes I gathered upon watching this film: J. Warren Kerrigan was a silent film actor who starred in several early films, most notably The Covered Wagon and Captain Blood (the 1924 version). He was perhaps better known for his off-screen controversies –making unfortunate comments about “lesser valuable” people being sent to war, and controversially living with his gay partner (fellow actor James Carroll Vincent) at his mother’s home from 1914-1947 until his death. The other star, Lois Wilson, was a former Miss Alabama beauty pageant star who appeared in many now lost films from the 1920s-1940s. She never married.

Seven Chances (1925) Review

Seven Chances (1925) Director: Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton

★★★★☆

Based on the musical of the same name, this silly film tells the story of Jimmie Shannon, a stock broker, who is on the verge of bankruptcy. However, a lawyer chases him and his business partner around town, hoping to inform them that Jimmie’s grandfather has left him an inheritance of $7 million (they avoid the pursuing lawyer thinking he might be issuing a summons to account for the mounting debts). However, they do catch one another and the only provision for Jimmie to receive the inheritance is that he must be married by 7 o’clock on his 27th birthday. In a panic, he realizes it is actually the day of his 27th birthday and so he rushes to propose to his long-time girlfriend, Mary, but she declines because she is worried Jimmie only cares about the money. Back at the office, she tries to call him but his phone is off the hook and she overhears his despair in a touching scene as he professes his love for Mary. Instantly, she sends a note over to him, but the note is delayed as Jimmie is chased all over town by a large group of women suddenly wanting to marry him for his money until he arrives at the doorstep of Mary and they are wed moments before the 7 o’clock deadline.

Buster Keaton actually hated this play when it was on broadway, but he owed money to Joseph Schenck who had bought the rights to the play so Keaton reluctantly agreed to make the film, though he never really liked it. Seven Chances was later remade several times by The Three Stooges, and as recently as The Bachelor in 1999. While it falls short of some of his other movies, such as The General (1926) or Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Seven Chances is a splendid and charming little film worth seeing for fans of Buster Keaton’s repertoire.

Greed (1924) Review

Greed (1924) Director: Erich von Stroheim

★★☆☆☆

Greed is often celebrated as one of the great films of the silent era. It was directed by eccentric Austrian-American director, Erich von Stroheim, and based on the 1899 novel called McTeague by Frank Norris. Von Stroheim, upon emigrating to America, began claiming he was of distinguished European royalty –a Count no less– though much of this alter ego persona seems to have been fabricated. For starters, he apparently spoke only a feeble form of German, but some of his acting performances are the stuff of legend, memorably in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and later in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim started his career working under D.W. Griffith, most notably as an uncredited role in Intolerance. He is sometimes ranked among the three great early epic film directors, along with Cecile B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. Von Stroheim died in 1957 at his chateau near Paris, France.

Although Greed is popularly considered a masterpiece of early cinema, I hesitate to admit that I found this film too painfully difficult film to stomach, both for its length as well as the poor quality of its surviving footage. I recommend this film only to those true devotees of the classics.

Greed tells the story of a miner posing as a San Francisco dentist named McTeague who marries his best friend, Schouler’s girlfriend. Her name Trina. Suddenly Trina wins the lottery, a handsome sum of $5,000 but they refuse to spend any of it. An angry Schouler reports to the authorities that McTeague does not have his license to practice dentistry and he and Trina soon fall into poverty. Eventually, McTeague murders Trina, by beating her to death, and he takes the money and runs away to Placer county and Death Valley with the remaining money that hasn’t been spent.  Soon, Schouler confronts him and they fight as McTeague’s horse takes off running and Schouler shoots the horse blasting open the only water jug he had. McTeague beats Schouler to death but Schouler has handcuffed himself to McTeague and the film ends with McTeague handcuffed to a corpse, with no water, and out of reach of the last of the lottery money.

This film was originally much longer, it was 42 reels in total, but was severely edited by the studio and others, much to the chagrin of von Stroheim, so that the heavily truncated version we see today is only 10 reels long. The film was a box office flop, receiving mostly poor reviews, and it took at least 9 months to 2 years to film. Many of the original scenes were hand drawn and gold-tinted by von Stroheim himself, however the original has been lost forever. It received mostly negative reviews and even caused a riot upon its release in Berlin. The riot was believed to have been caused by the Nazi party.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Review

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Director: Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton

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★★★★★

Along the Mississippi River, a riverboat called the “King” floats into the harbor at River Junction Bank. The wealthy owner of this big fancy boat, Mr. J.J. King, boasts about how the “King” will run the old but lovable steamboat “Stonewall Jackson” out of business. The “Stonewall Jackson” is owned by local riverboat Captain William Canfield. However, Capt. Canfield receives a telegram that his son, Bill, will be visiting him. Mr. Canfield has not seen his son for many years and he hopes that his son has grown into a large and muscular man so that he can help with the steamboat business.

Annex - Keaton, Buster (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)_NRFPT_03

Bill (Buster Keaton) arrives via train, wearing fancy urban garb, donning a white carnation and an effeminate Parisian hat. His father is immediately shocked and dismayed at how silly and clumsy his son appears. Once again, in a Buster Keaton film we encounter the recurring theme of a son disappointing his father. Bill’s father takes it upon himself to transform his weakling son into a man. They head into town so that Bill can have a shave and be outfitted in new clothes, hopefully ones that don’t appear quite so foolish. In town, Bill meets the owner of the “King” and his lovely daughter, Kitty. The Kings are a high class family, wanting for nothing. However, J.J. King and Capt. Canfield are mutual enemies and they instruct their children to stay away from one another.

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However, in the evening Bill sneaks away from his room to meet Kitty but he is caught. The next day, both fathers get into a brawl and Capt. Canfield is imprisoned. Bill tries to go break him out of jail but he is in unsuccessful (there are some hilarious gags here). Bill tries to sneak into jail for his father, but Bill winds up in a hospital. Suddenly the weather conditions change and a cyclone begins to emerge. Buildings begin to crash down and people are blown away. Cars are sent skidding down the road, and objects are sent barreling into people as the river dock breaks apart. What follows is a meticulously orchestrated, utterly iconic scene. The walls of the hospital come rocketing upward while Bill’s hospital bed comes flying down the road. For these incredible scenes, Buster Keaton actually used massive plane engines to create the illusion of severe wind conditions. Bill is blown into one chaotic situation after another –including an old theatre which grants Buster Keaton’s the chance to flex some of his old vaudevillian chops. At one point, a house lands on his head only for Bill to cartoonishly open the front door as the house comes collapses behind him. In another, he stands in the road while the side of a building comes crashing down around him, he is only saved by the third floor window which just so happens to land right where he stands (this iconic scene has been parodied innumerable times). In yet another scene, Bill grabs hold of a tree which is suddenly uprooted and is sent flying all over town. The technical ingenuity of this whole cyclone is the summit of Buster Keaton’s engineering skills.

Bill eventually rescues Kitty and his father who is trapped in a floating prison. It is Bill’s engineering prowess which saves the day. The film ends as he rescues the town’s minister much to the appreciation of all parties. At the end, Bill has earned the respect of his father and the love of Kitty.

Keaton. Steamboat Bill Jr.tree fly

The last of Buster Keaton’s independent films created under Joseph Schenck, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a wonderful homage to the near-end of Buster Keaton’s golden years. Sadly, during filming, Keaton’s increased alcohol abuse allowed him to perform these highly dangerous stunts. In fact, in the famous scene where the wall comes crashing down around him, most of the staff and crew actually walked off the set rather than watch Buster Keaton possibly kill himself –in truth, Keaton used a real full-sized wall to perform the stunt! Amazingly, he survived to tell the tale. Steamboat Bill, Jr. was followed by Buster Keaton’s ill-fated MGM deal which coincided with his messy public divorce and the coming demise of silent cinema. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a reminder of his glory days –an era where one stone-faced clown could cheat death over and over in a string of carefully-crafted, mathematically-calculated gags. Buster Keaton’s world gives the illusion of anarchy but, in truth, it is actually a well-ordered vaudevillian stage framed only by Buster Keaton’s cinematic lens. With trains, steamboats, and cameras, Buster Keaton offers us an engineer’s dreamland –and what a marvelous world it is!