Welcome back to After the Silents, where we examine the careers of silent movie cast and crew in the sound era. This time, we are going to be looking at a movie with possibly the best poster in the history of film.
So many questions. So, so many questions. What about recoil? Does the gunpowder burn her backside? Shouldn’t she be wearing shorts at least? How does he aim? Where is her right shoulder?
It gets better.
Aaaaaah! What happened to Paulette Goddard’s neck? Who twisted it?
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH! How did she shrink? Where is her pelvis? Help! Help!
Come on, we have to see the film now, don’t we? And, as is traditional, after the review I shall take a look at the silent era career of a member of the cast or crew. In this case, director Cecil B. DeMille himself.
Our story opens in London, where Abby (Paulette Goddard) is on trial for murder. She killed a member of a press gang trying to recruit her brother and now she has two choices: death by hanging or fourteen years as an indentured servant in the American colonies. Since Abby already conveniently has an American accent, she opts for the fourteen years. (Before anyone defends DeMille on the accent thing, let me remind you that he could have consulted with any number of English people he had been acquainted with. Like, you know, his mother.)
On the boat to the colonies, Abby catches the eye of Garth (Howard Da Silva), a scoundrel of the first water. In an impressive bit of acting (considering the painful dialogue), Da Silva manages to evade the Code and convey exactly what he wants to do with Abby. He announces that he will buy her fourteen year contract. Help! Damsel in distress here! Wait, where are Abby’s man-killing skills? Oh, forget those. Heeeeeeeelp!
Never fear, Gary Cooper is here! He is Chris Holden, captain in the army and all around hero-type guy. Chris outbids Garth and Abby is saved from the cad. The thing is, Chris is expecting to marry on his arrival in America and he can’t exactly explain his purchase of Paulette Goddard to his fiancée so he decides to free her instead.
The problem? Chris didn’t get a receipt. Garth realizes this little detail and, a few bribes later, is in possession of Abby. He tells her that Chris was just funnin’ with her and he never meant to free her. As Garth has proven to be such an upstanding citizen thus far, Abby naturally believes him.
Chris gets dumped by his fiancée (she digs his brother more) and is at liberty in the colonies when he spots Abby with Garth’s crew. Garth tells Chris that she asked him for a job and he gave her one. And because Garth has been such a sparkling gentleman, Chris naturally believes him.
It should be pretty clear by now that Unconquered is one of those movies that would last fifteen minutes if everyone involved wasn’t a complete moron.
Anyway, it seems that the Native American tribes, the Seneca in particular, are planning to take out Fort Pitt and Garth is supplying them with weapons to do the job. Everyone has a big meeting and it’s one of those “pause for emphasis” meetings you see in historical films. You know the kind.
“But is war the answer? What do you think… Colonel Washington?”
(Washington slowly turns, looking as much like a quarter as he can.)
“I believe it is but let’s consult out map makers… Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon.”
“It may be the answer, Colonel Washington, but will this city of ‘Pittsburgh’ ever catch on? I mean, will we ever have as many as a hundred citizens?” (Broad wink.)
“I’m sure we will get a thousand!” (Laughter) “But first, we need a symbol, a banner, one with stars, preferable spangled, methinks… Can you handle that… Betsy Ross?”
Ugh. Painful stuff.
Anyway, Chris knows that Garth is causing the war and arming the local tribes and Garth knows that he knows and General Washington knows too. Something must be done! So Chris announces he will counteract the rising bloodshed by delivering messages of peace to local tribes. In front of Garth. And would you believe that Chris is attacked on the way and his mission scuttled? Shocking!
Meanwhile, Abby is being mistreated by Mike Mazurki as far as the Code will allow and she has met Garth’s wife, Hannah (Katherine DeMille, Cecil’s younger daughter). Hannah is the daughter of Guyasuta, leader of the Seneca, and she doesn’t share well. It strikes me that she should be angrier at Garth but there you have it. It doesn’t matter because Chris storms into the tavern where Abby works, realizes that (gasp!) Garth is a liar and performs a rescue.
(Cecil B. DeMille’s very first film in 1914 had been The Squaw Man, a surprisingly sensitive, albeit dated, tale of love between an Englishman and a Native American Woman. He remade it in 1918 and again in 1931. DeMille said that he loved the creaky story and meant to remake it every decade if he could. He didn’t officially do so in the 1940s but the marriage between Garth and Hannah can be seen as his way of including his favorite story.)
The story is… well… The nearest I can come to describing it is to imagine DeMille and company with a giant dartboard that has plot points on it. The characters don’t act or react. Rather, they are dragged along because the script needs them to get from point A to point B and accomplish XYZ while doing it.
After Chris rescues Abby, he is determined to kill Garth because… reasons. And so he decides to set a trap and bait it with Abby. When Garth emerges, Chris will kill him. What is this trap? Chris takes Abby to a ball after getting her a bubble bath, nudge nudge, and giving her a green dress he just happened to have lying around. He apparently plans to lure Garth out by dancing with Abby… Why did he do that? Why didn’t he just send a note? Why didn’t he lie in wait for Garth at the tavern? What is the point of all this?
Suddenly this thing turns into My Fair Lady and Abby is the belle of the ball. But how would an impoverished Londoner know how to rub elbows with the smart set? Wouldn’t she use the wrong fork? (DeMille touched on this exact issue in his 1922 romantic dramedies Forbidden Fruit and Saturday Night.) Oh well, at least we get a glimpse of Victor Varconi, Hungarian heartthrob and DeMille regular since the twenties. (He was married to Roxie Hart in the very first screen version of Chicago.)
Chris and Abby dance and then go for a romantic walk. Abby gets mad about being used as bait for Garth and Chris is all, “No human should own another!” and then she says, “Okay, Abby’s outta here!” and then he’s all, “But I own you!” and then she leaves anyway and he has no idea what to do. But then she stops and dances with some delectable redcoat to make Chris jealous and the weirdest thing is that THE PLAN WORKS. Garth shows up.
So, we have had dozens of scenes, a couple of costume changes and one bubble bath to bring together three characters who were already together at the beginning of the film. I don’t know about all of you but I’m exhausted.
It gets better. Gary Cooper and Howard Da Silva start fighting over Paulette Goddard and actually twirling her back and forth between them saying, “Mine, mine, mine!” It’s absolutely hilarious. And then it turns out that Garth still has a receipt so he gets Abby after all and we are back to square one. Great plan, Chris. Brilliant. A gold star for you. (I’ll bet Chris drives his accountant bonkers.)
If you can make sense of this, you probably could get a job working for DeMille. Me? I’m still wondering why Chris was schlepping green dresses (that conveniently fit Miss Goddard) all over creation.
Fortunately for our heroes, Garth is just as stupid as they are. He takes Abby to the Seneca encampment and leaves her with his father-in-law, Guyasuta (Boris Karloff). Keep in mind, he has been flaunting his lust for Abby in front of his wife, who is none too pleased. And so Garth is like, “Hey, Guyasuta, can you do me a solid and take care of Abby and make sure she doesn’t get hurt and stuff? Love being married to your daughter, by the way.” And Guyasuta’s all, “Oh yeah, we’ll take care of Abby, suuuuuure.” And so off Garth goes, the doofus, leaving Abby to face certain death.
This gives Chris an opportunity to save Abby, which he is able to do because, you guessed it, Guyasuta is also an idiot. What an unbelievable coincidence! (Seriously, these guys need to start a club. This is basically colonial Dumb and Dumber.) Chris convinces the hapless chief that a compass is a death-dealing super weapon and he is able to make off with Abby. Boris Karloff seems mildly embarrassed in these scenes but, hey, it’s a living.
(Can I also start a petition to stop Gary Cooper from pronouncing non-English words? He sounds them out like he’s a second grader reading them out loud for the first time. Everyone else is like, “Guyasuta.” Cooper is more, “Guy-ya-soo-tuh” and it seems to confuse him terribly.)
So Chris and Abby are speeding away in canoes, trying to outpace the Seneca when we come to The Scene. When Unconquered gets mentioned at all, this is the scene that gets brought up. With the Seneca gaining on them, Chris and Abby go over the rapids and over a waterfall. Are they doomed? Ha! Chris has spotted a tree branch and grabs it as they go over. The branch is seemingly made of rubber and it swings them behind the waterfall, which safely hides them from their pursuers.
If you’re thinking that this sounds a bit like Our Hospitality, be assured that the audiences of 1947 had a similar reaction. It’s generally a good idea NOT to present a stunt as a serious dramatic moment if it was perfected by Buster Keaton for comedic purposes. Just saying. While I was watching the stunt, I wanted to shout, “BOING!” Still, the waterfall business is not the same level of accidental hilarity as the goofy antics at the ball.
So, will Abby and Chris get back to (somewhere) in time to stop (something or other) or will they face doom at the hands of the villains? Will cavalry (in this case, Scotsmen) come in time to save the day? Will they wear kilts? Would it be cheating if they play bagpipes? I think it’s cheating but I’m not giving anything more away because it’s too funny and you really must see it for yourself.
Phew! These characters are so stupid that I hope somewhat thought to file the points off their steak knives. They’re the people those “do not use underwater” stickers on hairdryers were invented for. When the movie gods were handing out brains, the characters of Unconquered thought they heard “rain” and they hid under a table.
To restore your faith in humanity (or at least the average American movie audience) circa 1947, let me assure you that moviegoers and critics met Unconquered with considerable snickering. Life described the film as “a wild mixture of history and pure hokum.” The New York Times appreciated the proper spirit of the film:
“Laugh as one may—and one does laugh—at such accumulated old stuff as Indian fights, tavern brawling and a canoe going over a waterfall—and hoot as one may at such brave lines as “I’ve killed men for less than that!” and “This is greater than you or me or both of us”—two hours and twenty-five minutes of such cannot be blinked. “Unconquered” is a picture worth seeing, if for nothing else but laughs.”
(My personal favorite line is when a dying soldier tells Gary Cooper, “You’ve got long legs, get ‘em a-goin’.” It tickles me to picture Cooper as a colonial Rockette.)
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (motto: not quite as thick as Mordaunt Hall but working on it) does start the thing out by declaring that this was the sort of thing that flew in silent films. Um, no, Mr. Crowther. DeMille’s silent work was far, far superior but we will be touching on that in a bit. As usual, silent cinema gets blamed for the sins of the Victorian stage.
Old-fashioned is a good way to describe pretty much everything about the film. The attitude toward the native tribes is very much of the “it’s their fault for being on our land before we got here” school of thought. Frankly, though, the colonials don’t acquit themselves very well. I mean, we can agree that the entire plot is based on absolutely everyone being a total idiot. In short, they might want to rethink their whole “superior civilization” notion. If I were the Seneca, by the end of the film I would be shaking my head and saying, “However did they win?”
The ladies don’t fare much better. Paulette Goddard is every inch the damsel and has to wait for big strong Gary Cooper to save her, think for her, lead her along… How did she manage to survive to adulthood? And she’s always getting herself in some state of undress, dearie me. Grrrr! It annoyed me so much that I had to pop in a few Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Stanwyck films to detox. Where are the feisty DeMille heroines of yesteryear? Alas and alack!
The European costumes are pretty good for their time (though Goddard is in serious need of a trip to Victoria’s Secret for a proper bra fitting) but Garth’s preference for shiny leather trousers seems rather more glam rock than American colonial, no?
Can we talk about the music? Composer Victor Young opts to use Yankee Doodle as the film’s them music and he plays it again and again and again. Happy, sad, tragic, adventurous… By the end of the film, you are ready to scream. To cope, I recommend singing along whenever the melody shows up.
On the plus side, the film looks great and some of the scenes are genuinely exciting. Particularly fine is the night attack on Fort Pitt, which features burning arrows and balls of pitch flying at the structure. In one scene, Garth is looking out the window when a flaming arrow flies right at him and he barely closes the shutters in time. However, beauty cannot make up for its other flaws.
Unconquered is terrible history, it features terrible dialogue and all of the dramatic scenes are horrendous. It’s also one of the unsung kitsch classics of the 1940s. If you like your movies to be very, very bad, Unconquered in just the film for you. It’s outrageously entertaining. There are a few fits and starts in the narrative but there is almost always something diverting on the screen. This movie was made for a group of friends, some good beer, a pizza or two and lots of quips.
Cecil B. DeMille
Silent film fans have a hard enough time getting people to watch any films from the period. It takes begging and pleading to get friends to even try the work of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, both of whom enjoy excellent reputations. Getting them to see a Cecil B. DeMille silent? It’s like pulling teeth.
Not that I blame people for being gun shy. DeMille’s sound films are what one might describe as singular. Dialogue? The man had a tin ear. Romance? Corn right off the cob. History? Surely you jest! We’re talking about the man who made The Crusades all about Richard and Saladin fighting over who gets to date the queen of England.
Here’s the thing: 75% of DeMille’s films were made during the silent era and only watching his talkies means dismissing three-fourths of his career. And what a career it was.
In 1914, DeMille was a struggling actor and playwright who, out of desperation, decided to throw his hat into the motion picture ring. Using the popular stage property The Squaw Man was insurance that the project would succeed. When Arizona proved to be not quite what DeMille wanted for scenery, he and co-director Oscar Apfel relocated to California.
The Squaw Man was beset with difficulties, sabotage and death threats. (Details in my review of the film.) However, DeMille saw it through and it proved to be the hit he needed. It was the pictures for him from then on.
DeMille hit his creative stride in 1915 with the triple punch of Carmen, The Cheat and The Golden Chance. His films were lean, clever and visually striking. They moved along at a furious pace and skirted the edge of lurid (or dove right in, in the case of The Cheat).
There is a rumor, spread by Charlie Chaplin among others, that DeMille embraced overstuffed crowd-pleasers because he was so hurt by the fact that The Whispering Chorus, his arty 1918 crime drama, bombed at the box office. I always doubt a story about the movies that sounds like the plot of a movie. In fact, The Whispering Chorus did just fine and turned a tidy profit. The movie that was the real turning point for DeMille was Joan the Woman (1916), a Joan of Arc tale that was his first foray into the mega epic. It just broke even and DeMille was forced back into cheaper fare but it gave him a taste of what he wanted.
In 1919, DeMille discovered a winning combination that took the box office by storm. In Male and Female, he combined a class system romance with a lavish historical flashback. Audiences went crazy for the elaborate costumes (both modern and historical) and a whole new sub-genre was spawned.
DeMille swung back and forth between marital comedies, lavish dramas and costume epics for the rest of the silent era. However, he also made The Godless Girl, which was an expose of atheism and reform schools, and was the ghost director of a very saucy screen version of Chicago.
Reeling from the sound transition (many independent producers could not afford the upgrade in equipment), DeMille had a brief stint at MGM before returning to his old stomping grounds at Paramount. There, he perfected a few new formulas. He made biblical epics that showed sin in loving detail and then moved on to American history (often starring Gary Cooper) as seen through the DeMille lens.
However, something was lost in the transition to sound and, later, color. DeMille’s films grew bigger, slower, more bloated. The costumes were still beautiful but they lost the quirky opulence that designers Natacha Rambova and Adrian brought with them. DeMille’s films were still popular but he never made anything that quite matched his silent era glory. His sound films are more famous, yes, but his silents are a consistently better product.
But after all those years, DeMille didn’t forget his roots. He made a practice of setting aside roles for early film stars who had fallen on hard times. If they were able to handle a bigger part, he would give it to them. If they weren’t up to the task, he would get them extra work. If they were unable to even do that, he would give their spouse a job. Part of the fun of watching DeMille’s later work is spotting his old associates in various supporting roles. (Unconquered is unusually lean in this department but we still get Victor Varconi, Julia Faye and Henry Wilcoxon.)
1947 was a pivotal year in DeMille’s career and the end of an era in many ways. His frequent collaborator, partner in brainstorming and lover, screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson succumbed to cancer in August of 1946. She had written her first DeMille script in 1915 and had worked on the majority of his silent films. Personally devastating, the loss of Macpherson also meant that DeMille lost of one his major advocates for strong female characters in his films. (Macpherson did not officially work on many of DeMille’s sound films but he did continue to consult with her.)
Macpherson’s death came on the heels of the suicide of Wilfred Buckland, DeMille’s art director for The Squaw Man and many of his other early Paramount titles. While the two men did not agree artistically and ceased working together, they remained friends. It was Buckland who came up with the idea for the waterfall sequence, which is possibly why DeMille (highly sentimental under his bluster) allowed it to remain in the picture.
Movies set in colonial days or during the American Revolution have always been a tough sell, for some reason or other and even DeMille could not break the box office curse. Unconquered made money but not enough to cover its generous budget.
DeMille had said that audiences would not be interested in a fight over a stockade, which explains the rather over-buttered nature of the film. (I would argue that audiences do care about stockade fights if they are properly invested in the soldiers doing the fighting. I find Alamo movies tedious in general but Zulu is just ripping.) In any case, Unconquered ended DeMille’s American history period. This is important to mark because westerns were by far his favorite and most common genre to film. His first motion picture had been a western and he had had a string of talkie western hits under his belt.
All was not lost, though. The relative failure of Unconquered allowed DeMille to switch gears and take up his long-cherished dream of making a Technicolor mega epic of Samson and Delilah. The change paid off lavishly and paved the way for his final film, a remake of The Ten Commandments.
Okay, so most of his talkies are pretty cheesy but I hope that anyone reading this will consider giving DeMille the director a second chance in the silents. He was a unique talent and it’s a shame that he is judged by his worst work.