William S. Hart remakes one of his earlier short films as a feature and relocates it to the Canadian wilderness. You’re not going to believe this but he plays a rough and brutal man who finds his heart thanks to a good woman.
Fur, Flannel and Family
These days, we’re used to (and a little sick of) reboots, relaunches and remakes but, alas, this is hardly a new issue. Silent era film stars even did one better: they remade their own films just a few years after the original.
The most famous example of this is probably Mary Pickford in the 1914 and 1922 versions of Tess of the Storm Country but the film we’re looking at today, Blue Blazes Rawden, was made just three years after William S. Hart’s short film, Keno Bates, Liar. On the surface, the idea seems sound. Keno Bates, Liar mainly suffered from a rushed plot and giving it room to breathe would likely have solved many of its story issues. (You can read my review of the short here.) Hart took the added precaution of moving all the action to a French Canadian logging camp (actually the California redwoods) in order to keep the scenery fresh.
Marketing materials for the film emphasized this change of pace:
“J. G. Hawks, who wrote the scenario especially for Hart, adopted the bold expediency of divesting the noted actor of his familiar western garments, and of replacing the dashing horses and other usual appurtenances of a Hart picture with scenes of dramatic suspense.”
Well, divesting Hart of his garments seems a bit forward (and, frankly, risky) but there we have it. So, let’s check out how Hart does his thing in a little fuzzy hat.
After an interminable Longfellow quote, we are introduced to our hero. Hart plays Blue Blazes Rawden, a lumberjack, manly-man and all around tough guy. He and his tree-chopping posse (called “Hell’s Babies”) swagger into a town in Canada and proceed to carouse.
The saloon/gambling hall/hotel is owned by Ladyfingers Hilgard (Robert McKim), a crumb from the upper crust of English society who has fallen into villainy. Ladyfingers is carrying on with Babette (Maude George), a “half-breed” whose descriptive intertitles are, hoo boy, they’re something.
Anyway, Babette takes a shine to Rawden and he to her. There’s a lot of macho posturing and Ladyfingers tries to cheat by secretly unloading Rawden’s gun and then challenging him to a shootout but it doesn’t work. Once the smoke clears, Ladyfingers is dead and Rawden owns both the bar and the key to Babette’s heart.
The sticky wicket is that Ladyfingers has a mother who is coming to see him and he passes her letter on to Rawden before he dies. This is obviously awkward but Rawden tackles the problem by… doing absolutely nothing. Then he goes into a panic when mom (Gertrude Claire) and little brother Eric (Robert Gordon) actually do show up. He quickly switches out Ladyfingers’ headstone for a more flattering one and makes everyone in the bar swear to keep his secret.
Rawden finds himself growing close to Mrs. Hilgard and she wants him to return to England with her as a surrogate son (What’s Eric? Chopped liver?) but this makes Babette jealous and it looks like Rawden’s secret may not remain a secret much longer.
Will Rawden’s hand in the death of Ladyfingers be exposed? Will Babette get her man? Watch Blue Blazes Rawden to find out!
When discussing Hart’s career, one must point out that a consistent (but not constant) theme is that he plays a character in a dark place who is drawn back to the light by what would be considered classic Victorian symbols of virtue: a “good” woman, a child, a loving mother figure. The problem we have hear is that we are not given any particular reason to believe Rawden’s conversion. Mrs. Hilgard just sort of shows up and the transformation is instant.
In contrast, while Hart’s bad guy character is taken with Clara Williams from the moment he sees her in Hell’s Hinges, he is dazed and confused by his feelings and the story gives him time to process before having him take action. In Blue Blazes Rawden, he has zero introspection and just jumps into being an ideal surrogate son. I realize that the film is trying to establish him as a creature of impulses but there’s a difference between being impulsive and instantly changing one’s entire pattern of life with no apparent hesitation.
Just about every western star would at some point hang up the Stetson and try something a little different. It wasn’t usually anything too far off in left field, Canadian Mounties and lumberjacks were the go-to choice, but it did give the actor a change of pace and the audience a change of scenery. (Or rather, a change of sets.) Hart went a little wilder than most, making a Mayan-themed film with The Captive God and turning gangster in The Cradle of Courage.
This particular departure in Hart’s career does follow the familiar rustic-but-no-cowboys pattern of other film stars but, as mentioned before, it is a virtual remake of Hart’s 1915 short film alternately called Keno Bates, Liar and The Last Card. That short was a straight up western with six-shooters and chaps and, of course, a vamp because it was 1915.
Keno Bates, Liar is not one of Hart’s best films but it does have several points in its favor over Blue Blazes Rawden. First, the killing is very much justified within the context of a western motion picture. The dead man robbed Hart’s saloon and he hunts him down. Second, the dead man’s family (a pretty sister) shows up pretty soon after, which means that Hart’s terrible plan is somewhat justified.
(Spoiler) Third, Keno Bates, Liar had the vampish Louise Glaum as the bad woman and her delicious evil is a major reason to watch the short. She gleefully whips Hart’s love interest into a frenzy by sharing details of her brother’s death and Hart soon finds himself with a bullet in the guts courtesy of his girlfriend thanks to the egging on of his ex-girlfriend. In Blue Blazes Rawden, it is Eric who delivers the bullet and, frankly, we have had almost zero emotional connection with him so it doesn’t really resonate the way it should.
The western is a fascinatingly elastic genre that can draw inspiration from gangster pictures and Japanese samurai films with equal enthusiasm. And, of course, it returns the favor, inspiring genre-hopping remakes of its own. It’s also a genre that regularly benefits from self-reflection and deconstruction. Really, then, Blue Blazes Rawden represents a missed opportunity to add more depth to an interesting but abbreviated story. The new setting could have been used to call western tropes into question.
Hart would do a variation of this with The Cradle of Courage, which featured the hero’s elderly mother not as a force for saintliness but as an enthusiastic supporter of the criminal underworld. We get no such inversion here. The Good Woman-Bad Woman dichotomy of Keno Bates, Liar is still used with a mother figure instead of a lover standing in the Good Woman role.
Blue Blazes Rawden opened to mixed reviews. Photoplay declared it Hart’s finest performance to date, Motography called it absorbing while Motion Picture Magazine thought that Hart had gone to the well a few times too often. “One celluloidic thing is as inevitable as fates and taxes – that William S. Hart starts each new picture career as a bad man and ends it by being completely reformed. Like the excess tax, it is an excess reformation.”
Motion Picture News, which was a trade publication, generally liked the film but felt that, “Hart under his own direction seems to have lost certain of his remarkable restraint in the earlier scenes. There are times when, angered, he twists his face into an indefinite mass of features.” Variety was just sort of meh. “Hart is, well, just Hart. His large following of admirers will enjoy Blue Blazes Rawden as well as most of the other things he has appeared in— but no better. In his latest production Hart has not advanced any, nor has he gone back.”
The exhibitors were just as divided with some complaining that the picture was weak, not up to Hart’s usual standards and too much of the same while others proclaimed it to be the best thing Hart had ever done.
This is a rare case where I concur completely with William K. Everson (a wonderful film historian whose work I love, though our tastes are dead opposite). His sum-up of the film: “The role here is an extreme, and can probably be attributed to the fact that Hart was here his own director. In a sense of course, Hart directed all of his own films – but co-directors like Lambert Hillyer were able to keep his sentimental excesses in check. Here, on his own, Hart does tend to rather run wild, and his acting, particularly in his drunken scenes, gets a bit out of hand. His conversions from bad man to good man were always on the sudden side, but here, without even the inspiration of a heroine (after all, a one-minute reformation by a Bessie Love or a Jane Novak was quite understandable!), the change of heart doesn’t hold too much water.”
What was universally praised was the cinematography and I must concur.
Joseph H. August shows mastery of the moody, shadowing cinematography that was the signature of 1910s features. It’s elegant, foreboding and audiences wouldn’t see its like again until film noir reared its head. August’s finest work can be found in Hell’s Hinges and he worked with Hart until Tumbleweeds but he also had a long and fruitful career in the sound era as well with cinematography credits that included Gunga Din, Portrait of Jennie and the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Blue Blazes Rawden mostly takes place inside a seedy saloon/hotel and August takes every opportunity to frame the characters in doorways, conceal them in dark rooms and generally make the most of spacious set. Anyone can make redwood trees and blizzards dramatic but August makes the saloon itself a character, which couldn’t have been an easy task.
There is an error in the film that a sharp-eyed viewer noticed back in 1918 and wrote into Photoplay Magazine about.
“Joe” sure must have been excited. In the scene, where Rawdin was shot by the “Kid,” Joe, that veteran of many a fierce fight, became so absorbed, or frightened to death, that he stood for several minutes with his hand calmly reposing on a “red-hot” stove (at least it should have been “red-hot,” as there was a roaring blizzard outside).
And sure enough, here is the scene. I once had a cat who leapt from the mantle to the top of a wood stove not unlike what is in Blue Blazes Rawden. He was only on the stove for a fraction of a second but the poor baby’s paws were burnt to the blistering. (We whisked him to the vet, got his feet bandaged with cute purple socks and fussed on him until he got better. He made a full recovery and we blocked all feline entry to the mantle.) How Joe survived this particular pose with the skin of his hand intact is anybody’s guess. By the way, Joe is played by future western star Jack Hoxie.
Still, all in all, Blue Blazes Rawden is certainly one of the most beautiful pictures Hart ever made. Hart’s performance, on the other hand, is pretty inconsistent. There’s a bit too much tearful gazing heavenward and when he decides to kill Ladyfingers, his character actually starts howling with scenes of a wolf cut in for good measure. Hart was directing so he has nobody to blame but himself for these overblown and indulgent sequences. (Maude George is similarly overdone with bulging eyes and lusty sighs. I liked her so much better in The Garden of Eden.)
This brings to mind the great Buster Keaton kerfuffle, which wasn’t really a kerfuffle at all. In her infamously dreadful biography of Keaton, Marion Meade put forth the theory that Keaton’s spoof of Hart in The Frozen North was revenge for Hart allegedly attacking Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Keaton’s close friend, in the press. I go into an intense debunking of this myth in my review of The Frozen North but what I want to discuss here is the fact that Keaton spoke of Hart and was clearly a great fan of his shoot ‘em up pictures. But then, Keaton said, Hart turned ham. Soppy. Mawkish. And that was what inspired his sendup of Hart in The Frozen North, not some fictional feud.
(By the way, Marion Meade bragged about not taking a scholarly approach to her biographies. Oh, we know, honey, we know.)
Hart did sometimes turn a bit sentimental and maudlin in his pictures (The Whistle, for example) and I certainly think he is guilty of that in Blue Blazes Rawden. However, Hart did tend to re-center himself on dark, bloody and vicious killers and continued to play them until the end of his career with The Toll Gate being a great example of the dark Hart we all adore in the 1920s. That being said, his later films did often head in a more sentimental direction that was not always the best artistic choice.
I guess what I am driving at is that Hart’s performance in Blue Blazes Rawden was pretty clearly Buster Keaton’s inspiration for The Frozen North and the spoof is every bit as devastating as Marion Davies’ sendup of Lillian Gish in The Patsy.
Blue Blazes Rawden is absolutely ravishing but the lack of strong character motivation and some rather hammy acting make it one of Hart’s lesser efforts. Worth seeing for fans but not really the best introduction to his screen persona.
Where can I see it?
Blue Blazes Rawden has been released on DVD by several discount outfits but the best version is likely the one put out by Reelclassicdvd, which features a score by Donald Sosin and the 1904 Lubin ripoff production of The Great Train Robbery as an extra. (You know I LOVE dissecting ripoffs!) Alas, it didn’t arrive in time for this review but I will update the post once it comes.
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