This movie is not actually about the Oregon Trail but a later wave of settlers. Hey, never let accuracy interfere with a great title! The picture stars Art Mix and concerns his attempts to woo a pretty young lady in a covered wagon.
When it comes to silent westerns, I would say that my knowledge is deep rather than wide. In other words, I have a few favorites and I watch the heck out of them. I have seen every William S. Hart and Harry Carey movie currently available on home media and have dabbled in the westerns of James Cruze and John Ford. I’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s westerns, Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s and a few Hoot Gibson films too. Aaaand, that’s about it. Clearly, it’s time for me to expand my knowledge.
I recently held a flash poll on Twitter. I chose a small stack of random films from my collection, movies I had never seen before, and held a five-minute vote. The winner was The Old Oregon Trail, a poverty row western. I went in completely blind and live-tweeted my viewing experience. After I finished the movie, I fell down a research rabbit hole regarding the film’s star, Art Mix, and the director, Victor Adamson aka Denver Dixon aka Art Mix (I’ll explain later). I’ll share more of my research after discussing the film but one important thing I discovered: some viewers regard Adamson as the Ed Wood of westerns. Oh my.
Is Adamson’s direction as bad as they say? Did I enjoy my trip down The Old Oregon Trail? Let’s find out!
The film opens with a group of pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Well, not really the Oregon Trail. Down a bit from it. Okay, not the old Oregon Trail at all. Sheesh! Picky picky.
Anyway, they are led by Thomas Mercer (F.C. Rose), who is travelling with his family, including his daughter, Billie (Dolores Booth). A group of ne’er-do-well cowpokes conspire to steal the pioneers’ horses but they are thwarted by a tipsy Calamity Joe (Art Mix) and his pals. Joe is well and truly smashed and doesn’t remember his heroics the next day but he is taken with Billie and promises that he will never drink again.
Joe and co. drop the settlers off at their new town and wander off. There’s a gunfight involving a giant stuffed moose (it doesn’t make any more sense in the film) but he survives. Then ten years pass and he decides to look up Billie again. Clearly, this is supposed to be one of those epic “How the West was Won” things but it fails miserably because we don’t actually care about any of the characters and there is a giant stuffed moose. Anyway, Joe saves the day again and ends up winning Billie’s hand and heart.
Is Adamson the Ed Wood of westerns? Not really. You see, a big part of Wood’s continuing appeal is that his films are dreadful but they are never boring. Wood had many issues but pacing was not one of them. Bad movies tend to drag, especially when the director has something pretty to photograph. I mean, I’m all for stunning scenery but too much of it and we don’t have a movie so much as a vacation slideshow.
Adamson continuously meanders, giving us the soup-to-nuts tour of Oregon. (Apparently, he sprung for some location shooting.) It’s especially annoying because the editor clearly doesn’t know how to cut together a coherent scene. We don’t know if the cuts happen because time passed in the movie or because the camera ran out of film. This lack of self-discipline really separates the amateurs from the professionals. For example, John Ford lingered over scenery in Bucking Broadway but it was always in service of the overall plot and it was always clear where the characters were and what they were doing.
The murky and incoherent action of The Old Oregon Trail pulls everything down but the real nail in the coffin is the pointless, meandering plot. Joe likes Billie but he never bothers to visit her for ten years? He knows exactly where she lives, so why exactly is he keeping away? What was everyone doing in the meantime? A decade passes and everyone looks and acts just the same as before except Billie is now wearing her hair in funky little knots that channel 90s Gwen Stefani.
Finally, we have issues with temporal displacement. The movie opens with everyone in old-timey bonnets and it seems to be set in the late nineteenth century but after the “ten years later” title card, the twenties are roaring. Where am I? Who am I? What is time? Is there an orbiting quantum singularity? Are the Romulans responsible? I think perhaps they are. (Collapses.)
In the end, the characters do not drive the plot. They are more like action figures in a seven-year-old’s idea of a western, getting smashed together and starting fights because it seems like a good idea. Well, it isn’t.
Art Mix isn’t great but he isn’t awful either. Dolores Booth, on the other hand, is dreadful. Her supposedly naïve pioneer girl character eyes Mix like a dog staring at a ribeye and she makes the goofiest expressions for the camera. And yet there are many, many closeups of her, more than of the ostensible star of the picture. Could this have anything to do with the fact that Miss Dolores Booth was married to Victor Adamson? Hmm…
In the end, it all comes down to pacing. While some of the title cards and much of the acting is good for a laugh, the film still manages to drag—and it’s only about 40 minutes long!
Which Mix is Which?
Art Mix? Any relation to Tom Mix? Funny you should ask because there is an interesting story behind the Art Mix brand.
Raised in New Zealand, Victor Adamson came to the United States and set about making westerns in the 1910s. Tom Mix’s colorful, stunt-filled westerns were winning over audiences and so Adamson starred in his own pictures billed as Art (tiny letters) MIX (huge letters). He wrote and directed under the name Denver Dixon but later split the labor by hiring other men to be Art Mix. One of them, George Kesterton (the Art Mix in this particular film), took the Art Mix name and made it his own. Adamson was not amused.
Adamson later claimed that he evaded a lawsuit from Tom Mix by finding a gentleman whose real name was Arthur Mix and using him as a legal shield in exchange for a percentage of the box office earnings. Whether or not this colorful story is true, it does give you the sense of Adamson’s freewheeling personality.
The Old Oregon Trail has been described as Adamson’s best silent film. If that’s the case, heaven help us. The action is difficult to follow, the plot is meandering and doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and the acting is often painful. Still it’s worth seeing for a laugh or two.
Where can I see it?
The Old Oregon Trail is available on DVD from several sources. I don’t think the picture quality is fantastic in any release but the film is not that fantastic either.