An upstart studio arrived in Hollywood and made this 1914 oater. The film is about a British gent who takes the blame for a crime and heads out west. He romances and marries a Native American but finds himself conflicted when an opportunity arises to go back home to England. The film is also notable as the directorial debut of one Cecil B. DeMille.
Note: I will also be covering the 1931 talkie remake, also directed by DeMille. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Go west, middle-aged man!
Cecil B. DeMille’s name means “epic” to most moviegoers but we all have to start somewhere and the somewhere in this case is a relatively low-budget western melodrama called The Squaw Man. An early feature made in Hollywood, it was an enormous hit when first released. We are going to see how it has held up.
In 1913, Cecil B. DeMille was a struggling actor and playwright who had not enjoyed the success of either his father or his older brother, William. The 1910s were not a good time to be a floundering theatrical performer. The legitimate theater was having trouble selling tickets and movies were to blame. These vulgar entertainments were luring the lower-income patrons away from theaters and into nickelodeons where the exploits of Florence Lawrence, Broncho Billy Anderson and Mabel Normand were delighting paying audiences.
Ever restless, DeMille contemplated a jaunt to Mexico, which was in the midst of its revolution. However, before DeMille was obliged to become a war correspondent, a better offer arrived.
Sam Goldwyn (who used the name “Goldfish” at the time but I shall use his more famous moniker for consistency) was a glove salesman who believed wholeheartedly in the power of movies. His brother-in-law was stage producer Jesse L. Lasky, who had worked with DeMille on one-act operettas. Goldwyn and Lasky invited DeMille aboard their grand adventure: The movies!
The Squaw Man was a popular stage property first performed in 1905. It told the tale of an Englishman who takes the blame for an embezzling scandal and flees to America, where he marries a Native American woman and it all ends in tragedy. The western backdrop made the need for expensive sets minimal, an important concern for a fledgling movie company.
Popular star Dustin Farnum was cast as the hero, his real-life wife, Winifred Kingston, was cast as his English love interest and Red Wing (of the Ho Chunk Nation) was hired to play his American Indian wife.
In preparation for his job as director, DeMille spent a day at the Edison studios learning the motion picture game. To hedge their bets, Lasky and Goldwyn also hired Oscar Apfel. Apfel had been directing short films since 1911 but had never made a feature. In fact, relatively few directors had taken a stab at longer films. Short films were a more profitable business and many in the film industry preferred a steady income to an artistic risk. This was truly uncharted territory.
So let’s break this down. One director had never made a feature movie. The another had possibly never even seen a movie. And they had been sent off to film a full-length motion picture on location. What could possibly go wrong?
The movie was to have been made in Flagstaff, Arizona (DeMille and Apfel adapted the script on the train ride from New York) but DeMille found the scenery and light all wrong for his purposes. Dustin Farnum suggested Los Angeles as an alternative and the fateful decision was made to move shop.
Remember how I mentioned that things might go wrong? Well, they did, in spades. DeMille knew that nitrate film was flammable and that the movie was a do-or-die effort so he kept two sets of footage, one at the lab and one at his home. This precaution was wise as someone broke into the lab and ground the negative into the dirt, irreparably damaging it. Threatening letters began to arrive and DeMille himself was shot at twice.
Was this the work of a disgruntled former employee (DeMille’s theory) or was it the work of the nefarious Patents Trust? The Trust was a consortium of major motion picture studios who would sometimes resort to thuggish tactics in order to maintain a monopoly on the movies. In any case, no charges were ever brought for either the destruction of the footage or the threats to DeMille.
The movie was completed but another problem reared its head during the preview screening. It was a matter of sprocket holes. Motion picture prints needed to be perforated with sixty-four sprocket holes per foot but the only copy of The Squaw Man had been perforated with sixty-five. This meant that the movie would not hold still on the screen. Thousands of dollars of borrowed money. A do-or-die movie. And it was unwatchable.
In desperation, Sam Goldwyn sent the film to Lubin’s motion picture laboratory. Thin strips of celluloid were glued over the old sprocket holes and the film was reporferated. You can still see white sprocket-shaped marks where the newly punched holes adhered to the film.
The film finally premiered on February 17, 1914 and it was everything that DeMille, Goldwyn and Lasky could have hoped for. The movie had cost about $15,000 to produce and made a net profit of $244,000. Both DeMille and the Lasky picture company had arrived.
(This is the extremely abbreviated version of the story. For full details, I recommend my primary sources, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood by Robert S. Birchard and Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman. Both authors had access to DeMille’s papers and Paramount’s records and the books are excellent.)
The most important thing to remember when watching The Squaw Man is that it was based on an extremely popular play that a majority of the population had likely seen. This means that the narrative does not flow so much as leapfrog. We are shown a scene and then a chunk of plot occurs offscreen and we are shown another scene. Of course, The Squaw Man is no longer a ubiquitous pop culture element so this can get just a bit confusing.
Here is this bare bones version of the story:
James Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum) and his cousin, Henry (Monroe Salisbury), are English aristocrats who have been put in charge of a generous orphans fund. Henry has a gambling addiction and has secretly embezzled money to pay his debts. When Wynnegate catches his cousin in the act, he takes the blame himself. You see, Wynnegate is in love with Henry’s Wife, Diana (Winifred Kingston).
Pursued by the law, Wynnegate escapes to New York and then to Wyoming, where he buys a small ranch and soon runs afoul of Cash Hawkins (William Elmer), a local bully. (Fun fact! The role of Cash was originated on stage by none other than William S. Hart.) Cash fixes to shoot Wynnegate in the back but he is shot himself first. No one sees who fired the shot but a young Native American woman named Nat-U-Ritch (Red Wing) confesses to Wynnegate. He tells her to keep it a secret.
Later, Wynnegate gets snow-blinded in the mountains and stumbles into some poisonous hotsprings. Nat-U-Ritch tracks him down and carries him back to safety. As she nurses him back to health, they become lovers. Wynnegate sees her making teeny-tiny moccasins, realizes what has happened and immediately gets a justice of the peace. (To my knowledge, this is the only time a hero’s marriage of necessity was expressed so overtly in an American film of this period. The censors seemed to have been having an off day.) A few years pass.
But what is this? Henry conveniently gets himself killed, confessing his guilt with his dying breath. Diana rushes off to find Wynnegate. Once they arrive, she and her friends convince Wynnegate to let them take his son back with them to England so he can learn “civilized” ways. And new evidence has surfaced tying Nat-U-Ritch to Cash’s murder.
Losing her son and faced with prosecution, Nat-U-Ritch commits suicide. Slow fade.
You know, I think they could have filmed a making-of documentary for the movie and it would have been more exciting. As you can see, the story has not aged well. Most viewers are going to find the “exotic” Nat-U-Ritch to be the most relatable character of the tale. She’s brave, resourceful, practical and loyal. I’d certainly want her to have my back if I was in a jam. On the other hand, Wynnegate’s attitudes and motivations could scarcely be stranger if he came from Mars.
Think about it. He is in love with his cousin’s wife and his way of showing that love is to leave her in a marriage to a known wastrel who has already stolen thousands from orphans. Henry is a louse through and through. Why in the world would any sensible person find it better to let Henry off the hook? He has shown himself to be utterly without conscience, it would have only been a matter of time before he pulled another atrocious stunt.
I know, I know, Wynnegate doesn’t want to be seen profiting from his cousin’s downfall. That’s where the self-sacrifice should have come in. Well, let Henry take his lumps and then DON’T marry Diana. At least you will have saved the orphan fund and spared Diana the pain of bankruptcy once Henry runs out of funds again.
The story would have been far stronger if Wynnegate had been framed but then I suppose he would have stayed in England to try to prove his innocence.
The death of Nat-U-Ritch provides the climax for the film but it is not without its problems. The opportune offing of inconvenient spouses is an aspect of fiction that really sticks in my craw. It’s a) rather callous and b) lazy writing. When the protagonist is trapped between husband/wife and love-of-his/her-life, killing off the spouse takes away all the dramatic tension and makes a mockery of the internal debate that has to be raging inside.
(To see the trope turned on its ear, check Leave Her to Heaven.)
That being said, I thought that Nat-U-Ritch’s climactic suicide was handled well. The audience is not insulted by showing a happy reunion between Wynnegate and Diana over the body of the “unsuitable” wife. The film chooses instead to fade out on Wynnegate cradling his wife’s body. So, while I object to the idea that Nat-U-Ritch had to die, I do appreciate that her death was not minimized or overlooked.
Unfortunately, The Squaw Man goes to the well once too often. You see, Henry also conveniently dies while mountain climbing. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that these were not accidents or suicides…
So the plot is no help at all.
The acting is pretty typical for 1914, still very stagey and full of grand gestures. Farnum is a likable, masculine presence on the screen and Red Wing has a disarming sincerity but Winifred Kingston is just dreadful and her oversized hair bow is ridiculous. The rest of the cast range between offensive (Joseph Singleton as Red Wing’s drunken dad) and hammy. So the acting is no help at all.
What does this film have going for it? Why, the very thing that caused DeMille to make his move to Hollywood: The scenery!
The highlight of the film is Nat-U-Ritch’s recue of Wynnegate by the poison hotsprings. The characters silhouette against the snow beautifully and the smoke and bare trees add to the eerie quality of the scene.
In the end, The Squaw Man is more important for its history than for what it accomplishes on the screen. The novice directors try their best but they do make a few mistakes. Most of the problems come from often-crowded staging (which character are we supposed to focus on in this crowd?) and pacing (did we really need those extended scenes of the detective chasing Wynnegate?) but the movie generally gets the job done.
While not the best introduction to silent films, it is a valuable work and should be seen at least once.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The Squaw Man is widely available on DVD. I recommend the version released on DVD-R by Warner Archive. It features a stunning score by H. Scott Salinas, which does a marvelous job of elevating the material. Plus, it includes the 1931 remake.
Oh, and I am being picky here but the image on the cover is not from the 1914 version but the mostly-lost 1918 remake starring Elliott Dexter.
We’re in for a real treat this time! Cecil B. DeMille remade The Squaw Man twice: In 1918 with Elliott Dexter in the lead and Ann Little as his Native American wife and in 1931 with Warner Baxter in the lead and Lupe Valez as the wife. Only fragments of the 1918 version remain but the 1931 version is alive and well. So, for the first time, we are going to compare two films made nearly two decades apart but directed by the same man.
The Talkie Challenger: The Squaw Man (1931)
Many years had passed but some things hadn’t changed…
In the early 1930s Cecil B. DeMille was once again fighting for his professional life. He had formed his own production company in the mid-1920s but it never really got off the ground and only had two blockbusters to its name (The Volga Boatman and King of Kings). The failure of his studio could not have come at a worse time. Hollywood was converting to sound and executives were using the change as an excuse to cut back on expensive talent.
DeMille signed a three picture contract with MGM and entered the world of talkies. He had one melodrama (Dynamite), one nutty musical (Madam Satan) and The Squaw Man was the final picture of the deal. From the start, everyone knew they had a bomb on their hands. The cast was simply too expensive for the film to have a prayer of breaking even.
The plot is very much the same as before. Captain Wingate (Warner Baxter plays the hero with simplified spelling) takes the blame for his shiftless cousin’s embezzling. Diana (Eleanor Boardman) is the real reason, of course, and Wingate carries his love all the way to Arizona.
Once there, he meets Naturitch (Lupe Velez), who shoots the nefarious Cash Hawkins (Charles Bickford) and then saves our hero’s life. They become lovers, get married and produce a son (Dickie Moore). However, the terrible cousin dies in a shockingly realistic horseback riding accident and Wingate is cleared! It all ends tragically with Naturitch’s suicide.
First, let’s talk about the pros of the film.
DeMille clearly no longer objected to Arizona as a setting and the film benefits greatly from the realistic scenery. Many of DeMille’s sound films were made on sound stages with rear projection filling in for the great outdoors. This gives them an airless quality. The Squaw Man shows that the old showman still had it when he felt like it.
The character actors, particularly Charles Bickford and DeMille veteran Raymond Hatton, are fun to watch. We also get a Julia Faye sighting as a rich American heiress. It’s also nice to hear Eleanor Boardman’s voice, though her role is cut in favor of Lupe Velez’s character.
(A lot of online biographies list Eleanor Boardman as another victim of the talkies. It is far more likely that her career ended due to her acrimonious divorce and custody battle with director King Vidor and her subsequent move to Europe. In any case, Boardman was not enamored of the Hollywood life and sounded relieved to finally leave it. Moving to fascist Spain was… a choice, though.)
Warner Baxter does well enough but his character is on the mopey side. I have a very low tolerance for mope (I prefer brooding and/or smoldering) and his “woe is me” attitude gets tiring very quickly. What does Naturitch see in him?
Lupe Velez is one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen and her raw charisma really shows through. Unfortunately, her dialogue is written in the clichéd broken English that was attached to so many Native American characters in the sound era. Even after she has been married to Wingate for years, she remains in the “Me Jane, you Tarzan” mode of speech. Worse, Wingate talks back to her in the same way! “Wife take ’em out trash? It Thursday and truck not come back for many moons. Wife separate recyclables or county level plenty big fine.” Lordy! I wanted to smack him. Later in the film, she is described as having a primitive mind. This contemptuous attitude toward the true heroine of the picture is rather hard to take.
It gets worse. When Wingate’s friends come to Arizona, they announce that he must allow them to take his son back to England lest he “rob the boy of his heritage.” Um, that boy has cultural heritage from his mother as well. Oh, right. That doesn’t count.
Naturitch’s suicide is once again handled with taste and style but it is marred by the rather unfortunate racial attitudes displayed toward her by the other characters and particularly her husband.
And the winner is… The Silent!
While the 1931 version boasts of better pacing, beautiful scenery and a truly talented cast, I have to pick the silent. The contempt toward Native American culture rings out much louder and clearer when it is spoken in dialogue. Further, I must give the 1914 film points for casting Red Wing in the part of Nat-U-Ritch.
The later period also exposes the creaky plot contrivances of the source material. The whole “I shall take the blame!” plot was starting to show its age in 1914 but it really does not hold water in 1931. And, with a depression on, we are expected to cheer when the hero takes the blame for embezzling, leaving the real crook free to try again?
While I admired some of the performances and the scenery in the 1931 version, it just was not able to take a 1905 oater and spin it into gold. The film tanked at the box office and ended DeMille’s brief career at MGM. He was unemployed for nearly a year and potential deals in England and the USSR fell through.
Finally, he returned to Paramount, hat in hand, and inked a deal through his old partner Jesse Lasky. His comeback film was The Sign of the Cross, a religious epic that also left plenty of room to show sin in loving detail. The film was a massive hit, saved Paramount from financial disaster and dictated the scope and direction for the remainder of DeMille’s career.
Availability: Released on DVD.