A fun little genre mashup that is half-romantic comedy, half-western. You think it’s hard getting people to sit down for a silent movie? Honey, you ain’t seen nothing until you have tried to get them to watch a silent western. This movie is an ideal ambassador. It’s good-natured, fast-paced and leading man Harry Carey is as charming as can be.
The droll west.
Would you like to know what kind of silent film makes me the happiest? Well, I’ll tell you.
Silent movies range in fame from well-known to forgotten. I have run into my share of acclaimed films that do not live up to their reputations. I have been treated to famous films that actually surpass their reputations. I have seen silent movies with bad reputations that have pleasantly surprised me. And then there are the duds that are reputed to be bad and turn out to be even worse in person. But the best kind of silent movie, at least to me?
The buried treasure. A silent film that is not mentioned in the history books, is seldom reviewed but is also a splendid bit of entertainment. These discoveries tickle me pink. I love going into a film that does not promise much and coming out with a gem. Obscure titles like A Woman of the World, Barbed Wire, Redskin and The Charlatan have become favorites of mine.
Well, I can now add Beyond the Border to this happy little list. A droll little western comedy, it features an actor I have always liked but has recently been promoted to my ever-growing list of favorites: Harry Carey.
I admire Harry Carey very much as an actor. I am going out on a limb here but I think that of all the silent cowboys, he was the one with the most raw acting ability. He could play heroes, villains and anything in between, he could be light or heavy, funny or intense and he did it all with a surprising subtlety. Further, he possessed considerable screen charm but was able to turn it on and off like a spigot. That’s no easy feat. His silent feature films are quite difficult to find (as of this writing, there are only six available on DVD in the US that I am aware of) but I enjoy his performances.
I am not a John Wayne fan but there is one topic upon which we absolutely agree: We both love Harry Carey. Carey was Wayne’s idol and the two men became friends. Wayne’s forlorn pose at the end of The Searchers mimicked Carey’s signature mannerism (holding his left elbow with his right hand) as an affectionate tribute.
Carey was fortunate in his early directors. His nascent career was spent at Biograph as part of D.W. Griffith’s stock company. He played Elmer Booth’s gangster pal in The Musketeers of Pig Alley and was part of that famous close-up.
In the later teens and early twenties, Carey was paired with John Ford for a series of westerns, a collaboration that ended when Carey left Universal.
By this time a popular cowboy star, Carey spent the middle part of the twenties hopping from studio to studio and continuing to churn out his unique brand of semi-realistic-yet-affable oaters. Flash and flair may have been the order of the day for most twenties cowboys but Carey and William S. Hart remained devoted to a more dusty aesthetic.
This is where Beyond the Border comes in. It was one of seven films that Carey released in 1925 under the banner of Hunt Stromberg Productions. So far, only two of Carey’s films from this period are available on DVD in the U.S. and Beyond the Border is one of them.
Carey plays Bob Smith, the taciturn sheriff of a dusty little town called Cameron. The film opens with him in hot pursuit of a payroll bandit, Bob Moore (William Scott), who is hightailing it for the border. Moore’s horse gives out and Smith is able to arrest him without much of a fight. In spite of being on opposite sides of the law, the men take a liking to one another. Moore is a nice kid who seems to have fallen in with the wrong crowd but he refuses to tell Smith where he hid the loot or who his accomplices are.
By the time Smith returns to town with his prisoner, he discovers that he is no longer sheriff. The sleazy owner of the local saloon, Nick Perdue (Tom Santschi), managed to push through a special election in Smith’s absence and get his own candidate voted in. Perdue is behind the payroll robberies and is making plans to get rid of Moore once his own man is in office.
Smith is angry at the news but does nothing. He’s a thoughtful man who likes to watch things unfold before he acts. Besides, what can he do? The election was unethical but legally binding. The rougher element of the town is overjoyed to be rid of Smith’s firm enforcement of the law.
Moore, meanwhile, has other worries. He became a thief in order to send money home to his ill mother. Well, his mother has passed away and his kid sister, Molly, is coming to Cameron to see him. He can’t stand the idea of her knowing that he is a crook. Moore’s real name is not Moore, it’s Smith. He changed his name so his family would never know his true profession.
When Molly arrives in town, she is going to ask for Bob Smith and will be directed to the sheriff. Moore begs Smith to go along with the misidentification. Molly was a small child when he left home, she has no idea what her brother looks like. Smith feels sorry for Moore and finally agrees.
Well, Molly (Mildred Harris) arrives and there are two problems. First, she’s no kid. Second, she is not visiting, she came out west to live with her brother and she means to move into Smith’s ranch. And one extra problem: Molly comes from a very touchy-feely household. Awkward? Only slightly.
Molly is delighted by her respectable brother. Smith is tied up in knots. Horses? He knows those. Fistfights? Fine. Bandits? Bring ’em on. Young ladies? No clue, none at all.
To make matters worse, Perdue has spotted Molly and has turned on the charm. To Molly, everything is wonderful. She has a terrific big brother and a handsome suitor. Who could complain? For Smith, it is pure torture. You see, he has fallen hard for Molly. Things are about to get very, very problematic.
Moore has a new set of problems. He has been convicted for the payroll robbery and being sent to prison. Perdue promises to let him escape en route but that is just a trick. Moore is to be shot in the back as he makes a run for it.
Smith catches wind of the scheme, straps on his gun belt and rushes off to the rescue. Before he goes, though, he plants a rather unbrotherly kiss on Molly. Whoops.
(I should note, though, that early-century American families did kiss one another on the mouth much more often than we see today. Molly would have likely considered the kiss to be a bit… warm but the warning bells would not have gone off the way they would for a modern woman.)
Will Smith save Smith? Will Molly figure out who she is really related to? Will Nick get caught in his schemes? I think you probably know the answers but getting there is all the fun.
Beyond the Border does not break any new ground as far as story and action go but it takes a familiar tale and tells it very, very well. The cast and direction are excellent and the whole film is so lighthearted and affable that you can’t help liking it.
The movie is a fairly rare genre mashup: The western romantic comedy. Mashups are chancy since you risk alienating fans from both sides of the aisle. Beyond the Border strikes the perfect balance. It has enough western action to keep things interesting and enough wacky romantic hijinks to keep things sweet.
We get the best of both worlds. We get the “close down this saloon” scene, the ride to the rescue and a tidy little gunfight in the dark. We also get a meet cute scene and plenty of awkward romantic tension.
Beyond the Border reminds me of the friendly western comedies that James Garner would make nearly a half-century later. The town of Cameron has its heroes and its villains but it also has more than its share of eccentrics. In fact, I wish the movie had been ten or fifteen minutes longer so we could have seen more of these local loonies.
There is a very funny sequence in which Smith is locked inside the hotel, which has been placed under quarantine. The goofy town doctor misdiagnosed an allergic reaction to strawberries as… smallpox? Then there is the town drunk who has seen fit to make himself an honorary deputy. This actually comes in handy as he later overhears the villains plotting and helps save the day.
The film’s greatest asset, though, is its star.
One of the more amusing little details of Smith’s character is how his pockets are full of change, knives, little bits of paper and he has to sort through the mess to find things like the keys to the jail and his badge. These cute little touches greatly add to the overall quality of the film and help round out what could have been a generic character.
Mildred Harris also deserves praise for her charming turn as Molly. Harris is best known as the first Mrs. Charlie Chaplin but she was a pretty darn good actress in the right role. Molly is engaging and naive without being cloying and much of the credit goes to Harris. (I mean, her character fails to notice that her “brother” is a good two decades older than he ought to be. Harris did not have an easy job.)
This movie is a great gateway choice for anyone who thinks they do not like silent westerns. (You think it’s hard to get people to watch a silent movie, try getting them to see a silent western.) Carey is delightful, the romantic comedy aspect is sweet and the whole movie will make you smile.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
Beyond the Border was released on DVD by Alpha, a budget disc concern. The print is fairly battered, the film is played a bit too fast and there is a canned score that ranges from so-so to wildly inappropriate. (What do you mean they didn’t play Italian Baroque music in the old west?) However, the price is nice (you can snag it for as low as $3.00 as of this writing) and this is the only home video release for the film. I recommend employing some of the suggestions found in my Silent Film First Aid Kit.