After the Silents: The Hard Hombre (1931)

Poverty row. That phrase gets thrown around a lot but what does it mean? Basically, poverty row studios were smaller concerns that specialized in producing inexpensive motion pictures. Both faded stars and fresh-faced up-and-comers would cycle through, making movies on the quick and cheap.

Don’t let the low budgets scare you. While many poverty row offerings were pretty awful, there were quite a few diamonds in the rough as well. Plus, it is an ideal place to catch up with silent talent whose careers were on the rocks.

The Hard Hombre was one of three films rodeo star (and silent era cowboy) Hoot Gibson released in 1931. What sets it apart from the others is that it features two actresses from opposite ends of the silent era.

Lina Basquette, widow of Sam Warner, was only twenty-four but had seemed poised for stardom before her fall from grace. Florence Lawrence, widely considered to be the first movie star, had been struggling to revive her career for nearly fifteen years. The Hard Hombre contains one of her rare speaking roles.

I won’t be covering Hoot himself today but look for him to show up in later reviews!

As usual, I will talk about the film and then cover the silent talent with some brief bios.

Review

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(via westernclippings.com)

The plot of The Hard Hombre has been used dozens of times. A nebbishy fellow discovers that he is the very spit and image of a Very Bad Man. Emboldened by the new-found respect that this mis-identification confers, our hero is able to vanquish bullies and find love. But what will the Very Bad Man do when he discovers that his reputation has been purloined?

In the case of The Hard Hombre, Hoot Gibson plays “Peaceful” Patton, a mild-mannered mama’s boy. He gets hired as the foreman at a local ranch owned by the beautiful widow, Senora Martini (Lina Basquette). It sounds like a showgirl at the Copacabana but Senora Martini it is. Martini is being harassed by the requisite bad ranchers but they soon back down when they see Peaceful. He looks just like a notorious outlaw called… the Hard Hombre! Da da DUM!

However, it’s not all easy going for Peaceful. He has to deal with the Hard Hombre’s abandoned girlfriend (Florence Lawrence, who has a grand total of two lines of dialogue) and, eventually, the Hard Hombre himself. And all with his mother (Jessie Arnold) watching!

The ever-affable Hoot Gibson.
The ever-affable Hoot Gibson.

Will Peaceful win over Martini? Will he defeat the Hard Hombre? No surprises here. Yes and yes.

I am not the biggest fan of westerns but Hoot Gibson has an affable screen presence that is very charming. The film itself, however, leaves much to be desired. As I said before, the plot had been made many times before and it would be made again many more times. This familiarity works against the movie as most viewers will recognize the story and will have seen it done better. There is no fresh twist to the tale. Worse, the pacing is jerky and much of the humor falls flat.

Lina Basquette in modern dress.
Lina Basquette in modern dress.

Lina Basquette is pretty awful as the leading lady of the picture. She makes a painful attempt at a Spanish accent, simpers and generally makes herself annoying. Jessie Arnold has a few good moments as our hero’s mother but their relationship is a little too close for comfort.

Hoot Gibson is the single best thing about the picture. Gibson was noted for his gentler, more family-friendly take on the western. This mildness is extremely welcome, especially in contrast to the rowdier western films made during this time period.

For all its faults, The Hard Hombre is not a bad movie. It’s an entertaining enough way to spend an hour and it is interesting to see the two famous silent leading ladies work in sound. It’s lightweight but fun enough thanks to Mr. Gibson.

Florence Lawrence

It’s a sad thing when a performer is reduced to a historic footnote. Florence Lawrence is often listed as the first movie star but most of her films have either decayed or are locked in vaults. She is a remote, distant figure. This is a pity since, in the few films I have seen her in, she had a vibrant, likable screen persona and a beauty that must be seen moving to be appreciated.

Florence Lawrence was born in Ontario, Canada in 1886. She made her first motion picture in 1906. At the time, actors were not identified by name on either film credits or marketing materials. Producers were afraid that named performers would demand more money and many actors and actresses were not overly eager to have their names associated with something as tacky as the movies.lawrence 1

Lawrence’s resume reads like a who’s who of the early film industry. Edison, Vitagraph, Biograph… D.W. Griffith later credited Lawrence for giving him the idea of keeping a stock company in his employ. Lawrence’s popularity in the Griffith films earned her the moniker of The Biograph Girl.

The incident that most often gets noted in film history books happened when Lawrence signed on with Carl Laemmle’s IMP (Independent Motion Pictures). In order to gin up publicity for his semi-legal endeavor (movies were tied up in patent wars at the time), Laemmle took out large ads claiming that Lawrence (who had been reported killed in s streetcar accident) was, in fact, alive and that she would be appearing in his next film. These ads are significant because they identified the actress by name. (It is generally believed that Laemmle started the rumors of Lawrence’s death himself.)

The famous IMP ad.
The famous IMP ad.

The causes of Miss Lawrence’s fall from favor are a bit obscure. She certainly remained popular into the ‘teens (as late as 1914, she was in the top 15 of a national poll) but her star began to fade in the middle of the decade. Some accounts blame this on burns sustained rescuing a co-star from a fire. In the book Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl, author Kelly R. Brown points out that this fiery rescue was actually part of the plot of the film Lawrence was working on and that her injury was likely a strained back caused by dragging her husky co-star, Matt Moore, around the set.

For whatever reason, Lawrence sat out 1915 and did not return to the movies until 1916. Of all the years to sit out, 1915 was one of the worst. The movie industry was undergoing a massive shift that it would not see again until the introduction of sound. One and two-reel dramatic films were being rapidly replaced in favor of full-length features. Lawrence never really found her foothold in this new medium. She made one film a year in 1916, 1917 and 1918 and then did not return to the screen until 1922. By 1926, she was playing uncredited bit roles.

lawrence 4A stage veteran, Lawrence’s voice was fine for sound. (You can hear her speak in the clip at the beginning of this section.) She continued to work in small roles at minor studios.

In 1936, Lawrence was one of a dozen or so early stars to be given a modest contract and promise of steady work at MGM. Louis B. Mayer was the force behind the decision. While some historians dismiss this move as a publicity stunt, others state that Mayer genuinely wished to assist the pioneers who had helped found the film industry. In any case, the steady paycheck and work were welcome to these shopworn performers.

In 1938, ill health and depression caused Lawrence to take her own life. She was 52 years old.

Lawrence’s reign as queen of the movies may seem brief because so few of her films are available to the general public. However, she was a popular and beloved figure for the better part of a decade, a long run in the fast-moving world of the nickelodeon. She has been gone for decades but certainly not forgotten. In 1991, Miss Lawrence’s grave was finally given a proper marker thanks to a generous donation from actor Roddy McDowall.

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Lina Basquette

basquette 4Hollywood had a way of giving some of its citizens a wild ride and few rode wilder than Lina Basquette. She was born Lena Baskette in 1907 and entered the motion pictures in 1916 as a child actress. The same year, her beloved father committed suicide.

Lina started a career on the New York stage in 1923 and it was there that she caught the eye of Sam Warner, who was more than twice her age. Warner proposed and Lina was pushed into the union by her ambitious mother. In time, though, she began to genuinely love her husband.

Sam Warner was, of course, the Warner brother who believed in the power of the talkies but he died suddenly on the eve of the release of The Jazz Singer. His family had never approved of Lina and initiated legal battles to gain custody of her daughter, Lita, and to minimize her access to the Warner Bros. assets. Lina eventually signed over custody of her daughter and settled her share of Sam’s estate in exchange for a $40,000 insurance policy, a car and chauffeur, a $100,000 trust fund for herself and a $300,000 trust fund for her daughter. Basquette quickly regretted the decision and tried to regain custody but to no avail.

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Lita later stated that she felt she was better off in the care of her father’s family. “With Lina, I would’ve had a wild life. It wouldn’t have been the greatest thing to have been brought up by her.”

It’s easy to criticize Basquette for signing over a large share of Warner Bros. for pennies on the dollar but we must remember that she was only twenty when her husband died and under intense pressure. In fact, her legal troubles and the loss of her daughter left her suicidal.

(This is a hugely simplified account of a long and complicated legal case that stretched on for years.)

Lina Basquette’s most famous role is her turn as the atheist heroine of Cecil B. DeMille’s last silent film, The Godless Girl (1929). The film also won her a following in both Germany and Russia, though it did poorly in the United States. Sound had come to the movies and silent films, no matter how good, were living relics.

Lina Basquette and George Duryea in The Godless Girl.
Lina Basquette and George Duryea in The Godless Girl.

As a result of her conflict with the Warners, Lina found herself blacklisted from most major studios. Her cash settlement ran out quickly (her parties were famous) and she began to work off and on in poverty row productions.

Miss Basquette later stated that she was Adolph Hitler’s favorite actress and was invited to Germany to star in motion pictures. She claimed that she fought him off with a sharp kick to the groin (and by revealing a Jewish grandmother) when he got grabby. Before we get too caught up in this colorful detail, it is important to remember that no supporting evidence has surfaced. Basquette’s half-sister, Marge Champion (famed choreographer and dance model for both Disney’s Snow White and the Blue Fairy), said that the first she heard the account in the 1970’s. Basquette also claimed to have been a secret agent, though she was never clear as to which side she was working for. A few grains of salt are clearly called for.

basquette 3All told, Lina Basquette was married seven times and widowed twice. She endured another tragedy when her dear friend, actress Thelma Todd, died under mysterious circumstances. In 1943, the same year as Basquette’s retirement from the screen, she was raped by a GI. Her attacker was sentenced to life in prison.

Miss Basquette finally found her calling with Great Danes and became an authority on the subject of breeding, judging and caring for the dogs. After her hard early life, Lina Basquette finally attained a measure of happiness. She reconciled with her daughter, her film career began to be re-evaluated in the 1980’s and she made her final film appearance in 1991 after a hiatus of nearly half a century. Lina Basquette passed away three years later at the age of 87.