Few directors have a feature debut as promising as John Ford’s. While the story isn’t much to write home about, Straight Shooting has gorgeous cinematography, good acting and a showdown that remains one of the best in the history of westerns.
It’s ranchers vs. farmers when the local water rights are up for grabs. John Ford’s first feature film stars Harry Carey as a Good Bad Man and Hoot Gibson as his ally.
In the mood for a so-bad-it’s-good silent film? Have I got a picture for you! This movie involves a cowpoke trying to find the man responsible for his sister’s death. To do this, he becomes a masked bandit and steals… ashtrays. Yes, you read that right. Ashtrays. No, this is not a comedy.
Harry Carey plays a cowpoke who turns to a life of crime after his sister kills herself. His only clue to the identity of the man who drove her to it is a twisted cigar butt so Harry naturally starts holding up saloons and stealing their ashtrays. Wait, what?
Some people with smallpox just refuse to be quarantined, which is plumb inconsiderate of them if you ask me. Harry Carey feels the same way in Beyond the Border, a cute little western comedy.
John Ford was in his first year as director when he made this picture, his third feature film. The plot is simple: Harry Carey loses his fiancee to a city slicker but when she calls for help, he goes racing to New York to bring her home. An understated performance from Carey and some truly stunning scene composition make this film memorable.
A nasty little film about a one-percenter who is disappointed in love and flees to the South Seas, where he styles himself a monarch of sorts and terrorizes the native population with torture, enslavement and murder. This is treated as understandable and sympathetic behavior. One of the nastiest films of the silent era, this film will leave you a bit queasy. There are goofy dance sequences that alleviate the mood somewhat but the whole thing is just horrid on the whole.
Harry Carey is a soft-hearted sheriff who switches identities with an incarcerated criminal so that said criminal’s pretty sister (Mildred Harris, yay!) will not know of her brother’s disgrace. Before you can say “Luke and Leia” poor Harry has fallen for his lil’ sis and all sorts of complications follow. Light as a feather and incredibly droll, the western comedy is perfect for viewers who don’t usually cotton to the west.
[toggler title=”How does it end? (click here for a spoiler)” ]Carey saves the brother when his old gang tries to kill him. All is revealed to Mildred Harris and romance ensues. Awww.[/toggler]
Sugared Doughnut Holes. They don’t look fancy but just try to stop at one.
Availability: Beyond the Border was released on DVD by Alpha. The print is so-so but watchable and it can be had for just a few dollars. That’s a lot of entertainment for the price of a hamburger.
Epic Alaskan prospectin’ movie that proved all too real when some of the more dangerous stunts cost lives. Typical “boy meets girl, boy gets gold fever, boy gets girl back” sort of story. Leading lady Dolores Del Rio is excellent as the leading lady, Tully Marshall and Karl Dane’s comedy relief is delightful and Harry Carey is an unexpectedly effective villain but leading man Ralph Forbes is in over his head. A bland affair with some highlights.
(You can read my full-length review here.)
[toggler title=”How does it end? (click here for a spoiler)” ]Ralph Forbes sets Harry Carey on fire and wins back Dolores. Tully and Karl remain zany. Oh, and everyone strikes it rich.[/toggler]
If it were a dessert it would be:
Vanilla Pudding. Not bad by any means but covers no new ground. Expect the expected.
Availability: Released on DVD with its original synchronized score.
Elmer Booth’s Cagney-esque turn in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (or is James Cagney Booth-esque?) stands out as one of the best performances of the nickelodeon era. In this case, he has made the decision that Lillian Gish is just the gal for him. Booth’s friend is played by future cowboy star Harry Carey. Harry overdid his scruffy makeup a bit, don’t you think.
On a side note, this is also just about how I act when I see a menu advertising flourless chocolate cake.
It’s an island. Full of brutes. That’s the plot they went with. No, I’m not sure who greenlighted it either. In any case, this is a directing effort from Harry Carey, who soon switched back to just acting. A good career move, as it happens. It’s all about some guy from Harvard who goes to the South Seas and nurses his broken heart by looting and torturing. It’s a living.
No. Just no.
Harry Carey’s silent career is generally summarized with three broad strokes. One, his time with D.W. Griffith (he was famously featured in close-up and then gunned down in The Musketeers of Pig Alley). Two, his status as John Ford’s very first leading man. Three, his rollicking westerns from the mid-twenties to the coming of sound.
In between parts one and two, though, there is another chapter: Harry Carey, director. Carey directed four films between 1914 and 1916. Of these four, two are considered lost. A complete copy of Love’s Lariat is held by the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam but it has never been released on home media. Brute Island remains the sole example of Carey’s directing that is available to the general public.
South Seas tales were popular in the silent era because they allowed the ladies and gentlemen of the cast to show more flesh than would normally be tolerated and the idea of “savage” vs. civilization fit nicely into the attitudes of the time. Throw in a native uprising, some buried treasure, pearls, a missionary or two and you had yourself a movie. (Obviously, I am referring to films that revel in the exotic locales and indulge in both adventure and hokum. Well-made dramas that happen to have an island setting are quite different.)
I have to confess I am not a big fan of the genre. More than nearly any other popular silent film sub-genre, the South Sea tales have aged badly. These films gained more nuances and subtlety in the late twenties but the early entries are often, frankly, painful. Basically, they all seemed to be in competition to see which title could fit more sexism, racism, colonialism and any other -ism into the story.
I am sorry to report that Brute Island is not going to change my mind about movies in this milieu. In fact, it cemented my dislike of them.
The movie opened with some promise. There is a storm at sea and a small group in a lifeboat are the only survivors from a wrecked passenger ship. Nancy Darrell (Kathleen Butler) is one of the lifeboat’s occupants and she is not sure why no one is rowing toward the nearby islands. The sailors who accompany her refuse to make for shore. They are terrified as this part of the ocean is ruled by Captain McVeagh (Harry Carey) and he is one unpleasant customer.
McVeagh’s full title is Cyrill Bruce McVeah and he was, we are informed, Harvard class of ’05. If that is true, it does not say much for Harvard. He is introduced in the middle of swigging gin whilst torturing one of his native servants. McVeagh has all but enslaved the island’s citizens to work at pearl harvesting. He keeps power with guns and by bribing the local chieftains with gin and beads. Oh dear. One of these transactions involves swapping his merchandise for the chief’s daughter, Liana (Fern Foster, Carey’s wife at the time).
Now, just to remind us that our Harvard boy still has a shred of decency, he means to marry Liana fair and square once the missionary makes his rounds. Oh good. Because I was really worried about that. Apparently, purchasing another human being is just fine if your object is matrimony. Fortunately, Liana goes for soused psychopaths so the union just might work.
But then Nancy shows up and it turns out that she is the cause of everything. Her rejection of McVeagh sent him down the path of darkness. It is all her fault. Obviously. To prove his point, Harvard ’05 has a couple of freelance pearl divers shot in front of her and then he smacks her around for good measure. That will make her sorry she dumped such a fine fellow!
(Between this and The Wishing Ring, it’s a wonder that any movie people bothered to send their boys to college in 1914. My word! The habits they pick up!)
I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall when this story was proposed.
Harry Carey: Then Nancy dumps him. He is so broken-hearted.
HC: So he sails the oceans to forget and ends up on a remote island.
P: It often happens that way.
HC: He gives himself over to the bottle.
P: Alas, a story all too true.
HC: And then he forms an illegal pearling operation, begins to torture and strangle people, and purchases women for kicks!
P: That sounds very interes— wait, what?
Meanwhile, the natives are planning an uprising (good!) and Liana is conspiring to poison Nancy. More violence is in the offing but I think we can cut off the synopsis here.
Brute Island is one of those movies that makes you feel grimy inside. The content is so very unpleasant, so repugnant on every level that it is impossible to enjoy. It didn’t have to be that way. See, stories of people who go too far in their resentment and then slowly transform into monsters can result in intriguing character-driven films. Unfortunately, Brute Island treats McVeagh not as a monster of his own making but as a good guy who has a few bad habits. Anyway, it was all Nancy’s fault. I thought we made this clear. (Seriously, though, I don’t blame her for dumping the whiny-baby-turned-homicidal-maniac.)
Carey wrote and directed the film but his performance is the biggest problem. I have always said that of all the silent cowboys, he had the most raw acting ability. Well, in this case, bad acting would have actually been a plus. To be sure, Carey’s performance isn’t great but even so-so Carey is pretty darn good. He does spend much of the film staggering about in a gin haze. However, he is quite convincing in the more brutal scenes. I didn’t want to be convinced, thank you very much.
Carey had the rare ability of being able to turn his charm on and off like a spigot. I have never seen another performer be able to be so charismatic in one role and then switch it off completely for another. This works against Carey as a shred of charm might have made McVeagh eventual redemption more believable or welcome. And by redemption, I mean he just decides he has killed and maimed enough people and goes home. Yay?
Our director/writer/star is pretty much the whole show as none of the supporting cast is at all memorable. The direction itself is so-so. There are nice sea and sky shots and whatnot but the editing has no rhythm or flow and the action is difficult to follow. There are relatively few cuts and even fewer closeups (which are, oddly, reserved for relatively minor characters) and this really gives the film a static, archaic quality. Some of the compositions are interesting but this is cold comfort what with the nasty plot and all.
Brute Island shows the dark side of movie making in the early feature film era. It was apparently re-released in the early twenties to capitalize on Carey’s popularity but it has sunk into obscurity since then, deservedly so.
One interesting footnote: Both the film’s production company and Carey himself were named in a lawsuit claiming that the film was withheld and shareholders shorted. It seems, though, that nothing came of the case. (The movie is listed under its original title, McVeagh of the South Seas.)
Brute Island is one of very few Carey silent features available to the general public. This is a pity as it seems to have been one of his worst appearances.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★
Where can I see it?
Brute Island has been released on DVD. I would compare versions and all that but you’re not going to make me watch it again, are you?
The story is as old as the hills: Country boy loses girl to city slicker but then gets a chance to win her back. Speaking of being lost and found, this film was once thought lost before turning up in France. A good thing too as it is the second-earliest John Ford-directed film to survive. Harry Carey plays the unfortunate Wyoming beau.
Continue reading “Bucking Broadway (1917) A Silent Film Review”
Look, I know there are times when you have to go out with a cold. The world doesn’t stop just because you are sick. But I really have a problem with people going about and lavishly hacking up their germs all over everyone else. Stop that! It’s gross.
Harry Carey is trying to shoo away a fellow who may or may not have smallpox in the adorable western romantic comedy, Beyond the Border. I think I may have to make use of a newspaper and try out this line next time someone with a runny nose decides they just have to talk to me in the produce department.
(You can read my review of Beyond the Border here.)
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.
Continue reading “Beyond the Border (1925) A Silent Film Review”
Sometimes silent movies have a title card that just makes me lose it. This is one such card. It’s from the 1925 Harry Carey western comedy vehicle entitled Beyond the Border. The whole movie is quite droll (Carey is a charmer) but this throwaway gag involving quarantines and strawberry allergies is the best part of the film.
(In case you are curious, Carey gets locked in a quarantined hotel because the goofy town doc diagnosed one of the guests with smallpox. It turns out that the poor man just had a strawberry allergy and is none too pleased about being locked up sans pants.)
The film is the sort of thing James Garner would make nearly half a century later. Will definitely be reviewing it soon. Plus, I’m just wild about Harry.
The chaotic year of 1928 was the last gasp of the silent epic. The film industry was converting to sound but many larger films were already in production during the talkie revolution. Soon the realism and grit of silent epics would be replaced by the glossy sheen of the studio-bound talkies but the silents reigned for one more glorious year.
Continue reading “The Trail of ’98 (1928) A Silent Film Review”
Two sisters, an empty house, a dishonest maid and a fortune in the safe. A recipe for a melodrama if I ever saw one! D.W. Griffith directs the Gish sisters in their motion picture debut, with able support from Bobby Harron, Elmer Booth, Harry Carey and a very early appearance from Antonio Moreno!
Continue reading “An Unseen Enemy (1912) A Silent Film Review”
See poor Lillian Gish, a damsel in distress once again! What can she possibly do when Elmer Booth (one of the screen’s first charming gangsters) tries to make her his chicken? Why, she must faint, of course!
(I hope you can see the GIF. Lillian smacks Elmer and shoves him back. Good girl!)
On a side note, Elmer Booth’s oddly made-up friend is future cowboy star and John Wayne mentor Harry Carey.