Looking for something different in American silent film? How about a film shot in Oklahoma with an all-Kiowa and Comanche cast? Thought lost for decades, The Daughter of Dawn was recently recovered and restored.
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project. Be sure to read the other posts!
You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!
In the summer of 1920, actor turned writer-director Norbert Myles oversaw the production of The Daughter of Dawn. The film employed a cast of hundreds of Kiowa and Comanche locals from the Oklahoma location. Like many independent productions, the picture seems to have fallen victim to distribution issues; it was granted a few screenings but quickly disappeared from theaters and lay buried for decades before being rediscovered.
While The Daughter of Dawn is neither the only nor the first film with a Native American cast it is still a valuable historical document for students of film history and we are very fortunate that it was recovered. (However, it is one of the first features shot entirely in Oklahoma so devotees of that state’s history should be ecstatic.)
The film turned up in the hands of a private collector who, after some finagling, was persuaded to sell it. At first, it looked as though a reel was missing as the film was known to have been six reels in length but only five were present. As it turned out, this was due to the intertitles being cut down to a frame or two. Whew! So, The Daughter of Dawn was rescued in its complete form, which is nothing short of a miracle. (Compare the fate of The Curse of Quon Gwon, the earliest surviving Chinese-American production, which is missing chunks that are likely never going to be recovered.)
Excuse me for being grumpy but there is something that has been bothering me. When reviewing an independent film of historical importance, I have to make a choice about exactly what standard I will be holding the picture up to. I generally prefer to take into account the difficulties that the cast and crew would have experienced during the production and give the film a bit of slack. That being said, any movie must be judged on its ability to entertain.
Here’s the thing about silent movies that break into the mainstream: many of the critics and reporters who cover the film are not familiar with the silent era. They may have seen some Chaplin and maybe something German but most people view silent films as scratchy, jerky relics. As a result, when these critics and reporters see a silent film that is considered important, they are quick to do backflips, proclaiming the silent film to be oh-so polished or at least typical for the era.
This really drives me nuts and makes me feel like I am stuck in a Blackadder sketch. (“So, what you’re telling me, Percy, is that something you have never seen is slightly less blue than something else you have never seen.”) The worst of it is that these critics are almost always wrong. They simply have not seen enough silent era footage to be qualified to make a comparison.
I am going to be approaching this film as a devoted silent movie fan with thousands of viewing hours to her name. I will tell you truly whether The Daughter of Dawn stands up to scrutiny. Onward!
The story centers around a Kiowa village and the wooing of the local beauty, the Daughter of Dawn (Esther LeBarre, credited as Princess Peka). White Eagle (White Parker) is brave and intelligent, an all-around good guy but he hasn’t a bean. Black Wolf (Jack Sankeydoty billed as Sanka Dota) is wealthy but he is also a cowardly jerk. So, yeah, the character names give everything away. To add to this love polygon, Red Wing (Wanada Parker) is in love with Black Wolf but he won’t give her the time of day and so she sits around and mopes. White Eagle is considerably more successful in his wooing of the Daughter of Dawn and the two share romantic moonlight walks and canoe rides.
The main tension of the film comes from a Comanche band. They have stolen ponies from the Kiowa and plan to lure them into a trap so that they can raid the village and kidnap the women. Black Wolf spots a Comanche spy but opts not to tell anyone because that’s just the sort of villainous villain he is.
Eventually, the Daughter of Dawn’s father decides to settle to romantic tangle by ordering both suitors to jump off a cliff. The Daughter of Dawn will marry the survivor. (And if they both die? Um, dad, couldn’t we settle this with a nice game of Scrabble instead? White Eagle spelled quizzify with a triple word score just last night!) White Eagle is giddy on a cloud of love and he jumps without hesitation but Black Wolf balks and must leave in disgrace with Red Wing following. And you will never guess which mean neighbors he decides to visit…
Okay, so the plot is a bit paint-by-numbers. In fact, if you just watch the first reel, you can pretty much figure out how things will turn out at the end. This would be quite typical for independent films of the era. It seemed there was no middle ground: independent concerns either went for hoary chestnuts or they made films that can objectively be described as insane. We tend to think of the cataloging of standard tropes and plot devices as a modern invention but the silent era was awash in screenwriting books that taught the craft by mixing and matching stock characters and situations. The story of The Daughter of Dawn has a prefab feel to it and it would not surprise me one bit to discover that it was the result of a screenwriting correspondence course.
I have seen other reviews describe Myles’ direction as typical for the era. I think a better word would be pedestrian as directors working in the American film industry were showing quite a bit of spark by the 1910s and 1920s. (Check out the work of John Collins, Cecil B. DeMille, Maurice Tourneur and Marshall Neilan for examples of flashier and more artistic American films.) The direction is professional, Myles doesn’t make any blatant mistakes and is usually content to simply record the action as it unfolds. Some of the shots are beautifully composed but the picture does drag a bit and I think one reel could have been cut with no harm done. There is also a distinct lack of tension, with neither the Comanche nor the Kiowa seeming to feel any particular urgency.
(While Norbert Myles did not continue long as a director, he did continue to work in Hollywood, switching his focus to makeup. He is credited as belonging to the makeup team for The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and the 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad.)
In films of this type, it all comes down to the appeal of a cast of amateur performers. I am happy to report that the film’s romantic leads are up to the task and the cast is generally excellent. In the silent era, inexperienced performers had a tendency to mimic stage productions and mug for the camera but the actors in The Daughter of Dawn actually underplay and this makes their performances much more accessible to modern viewers. White Parker is the standout as the cheerful hero. (He also has an interesting biography in his own right, being the son of Quanah Parker.) He does particularly good work in his love scenes, which are notoriously difficult for many actors. Parker has a charming smile, a gentle touch and an upbeat personality. What more could you ask for in a romantic lead?
In fact, I should mention that the subtlety of the love scenes is probably one of the keys to the film’s success. America was coming out of its vamp phase in 1920 and was about to embark on its sheik phase, which meant that overblown love scenes were the flavor of the moment. I dub these “Pepe le Pew” romances due to their resemblance to the wooing of a famous cartoon skunk and, frankly, I almost always find them rather silly. As you can probably guess, White Eagle and the Daughter of Dawn’s quiet conversations and romantic walks were very much to my taste.
In contrast, Jack Sankeydoty does not seem entirely comfortable with his role as the villain of the piece. The role is written as quite a mustache-twirler but such a part requires a performer who is willing to go over the top in deranged style. I’ve never met the man but I suspect that Sankeydoty may simply have been too nice in real life to be mean on the screen. Melodramatic villainy must be fed ham in order to survive and there is none forthcoming in this picture.
As stated above, the background players generally do fine work and add the proper touch of romanticized authenticity to the picture. Of course, the main advantage of casting Kiowas and Comanches is not just window dressing. Any time a performer has insight into the culture being portrayed and is allowed to use these insights in their performance, the film benefits. The cast of The Daughter of Dawn was not made up of outsiders seeking to mimic the traditional ways, they were people who either lived the culture or who had parents who did so. The clothes and props were provided by the performers and their families, they are not replicas created in a Hollywood workshop. (Younger members of the cast reminisced about their mothers caring for their buckskin dresses when filming ended for the day.)
The fact that this film was made at a time when the United States government was actively trying to suppress the cultures of Native Americans makes these details even more significant. (I should note that this suppression of culture was directly addressed in a 1929 Paramount film provocatively titled Redskin, which focused on the Navajo and Pueblo peoples.) There is a natural rhythm and flow to the village scenes that would have been impossible with a Caucasian cast in makeup and wigs.
(Hollywood has yet to understand this fact as Native American performers are regularly snubbed in favor of whitewashed casts and their cultural suggestions are ignored or heckled on movie sets and on the internet.)
Most significantly, the Native American cast is allowed to be the center of the story. There is no convenient white child raised by the tribe or a strapping U.S. army scout who swoops in to romance the Daughter of Dawn. Again, this was neither the first nor the last American motion picture to take this approach but it is a refreshing change from the expected.
While The Daughter of Dawn is hindered somewhat by its slow pace and tired plot, the cultural detail, scenery and performances save the day. The result is a very decent piece of entertainment with historical importance as the icing on the cake. Anyone interested in the history of Native American performers or independent productions will want to check this movie out.
Where can I see it?
The Daughter of Dawn has been released on DVD and Bluray by Milestone. It includes a fine orchestral score and some mini-documentaries detailing the production, release and recovery of the picture.