Welcome back to my curated list of silent films selected with the newcomer in mind and designed to be viewed one weekend at a time. This week, we’re diving into a genre that is very much love it or hate it for most viewers.
(You can read my complete list of curated selections here. If you want a more general guide to silent film, read my Silent Movies 101 posts here.)
What genre would this be? Westerns! (I can hear collective squeals and groans at this point.) Okay, western fans, I’m going to talk to the western non-fans for a second so sip some sarsaparilly and chill at the bar, I’ll be right back.
Non-fans, come over here. Don’t be scared, I just want to talk to you.
To non-fans of the western: Look, I get it, I understand. I’m not a fan of every western I’ve seen and I think John Wayne is a perfect carbuncle. (Good thing the western fans aren’t here because I think they would not take kindly to such talk.) The thing is, silent westerns are a bit different from sound westerns. They cover different material and are considerably more grownup than many newer entries into the genre. So if you’re willing to try out silent films, please consider embracing the silent western as well.
I think the western fans have finished their sarsaparilla so let’s rejoin them in the saloon and get this show on the road!
Evening One: Welcome to the Apocalypse
There’s an erroneous belief that Stagecoach (1939) was the first “adult” western and it started a juvenile genre onto its road to maturity. We’re going to debunk that myth by watching a 1916 western that can hardly be described as being “for the kids.” Think of this as a 1960s spaghetti western that somehow landed in the 1910s.
Hell’s Hinges (1916)
William S. Hart was one of the major western stars of the silent era and his commitment to a darker, more adult approach to the genre makes his films extremely accessible to modern audiences.
Hart’s patented screen character was the Good-Bad Man, a nasty fellow who turns to the side of good thanks to either religion or a good woman. What makes Hart particularly interesting is that his good side and his bad side often have blurred edges.
In Hell’s Hinges, he plays a gunslinger who is determined to drive the religious do-gooders out of town but changes his tune when he meets the minister’s sister. But the villains, being villainous, drive him over the edge, which leads the to justly famous finale. Hart may technically be a good guy but his vengeance is… thorough.
Hell’s Hinges is inky black in its outlook and it features an apocalyptic finale that is justly celebrated as one of the most dramatic in silent cinema.
Why am I watching this? Making Mr. Hart’s acquaintance is essential to anyone interested in silent film. His distinct style has more in common with the morally ambiguous westerns of the 1960s than the epics and programmers of the 1920s and 1930s. He is also a curious set of contradictions, both ahead of his time and behind it. All in all, a ripe subject for study and fun to watch in the bargain.
You can read my full-length review here.
Availability: The best version is found in the box set Treasures from American Film Archives but it is out of print and pricey. A good alternate choice is Reelclassicdvd.com’s version.
Evening Two: A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”
Whew! Yesterday sure was intense, wasn’t it? I think we could all use a breather and so we are going to switch over to a western comedy. I personally love comedic westerns (James Garner is my jam) but I think this one should charm even the most determined non-fan of the genre.
Beyond the Border (1925)
Harry Carey is best remembered for his early silent westerns with John Ford and his later work as a character actor in the talkies but his post-Ford silent career is worth checking out.
Beyond the Border is a trifle but it’s just as cute as a bug’s ear and the cast sells it. Carey stars as a sheriff who learns that no good deed goes unpunished. He switches identities with a prisoner so that the latter’s sister will not realize that her brother is a criminal. This gets rather awkward because the sister is played by Mildred Harris and Carey soon finds himself having rather unbrotherly thoughts about her.
There’s a subplot about political corruption but we’re really here for the amusing characters and the daft situations they find themselves in. Wacky situations include a strawberry allergy misdiagnosed as smallpox (why not?) and the villains attempting to murder both Carey AND Harris’s real brother. Oh, those cards!
Why am I watching this? In order to appreciate the full range silent films were capable of, even withing one genre. The film also introduces Carey and Harris, who is often dismissed as just the first of Charlie Chaplin’s teen brides. Harris proves herself to be a charming and appealing heroine.
Read my full-length review here.
Availability: This film is only available from Alpha. Not my first choice but all we have.
Extra Credit: Judex (1916-1917)
Watch episodes four and five of the French serial Judex, one on each evening. The emotional stakes have risen and a few plot threads introduced at the beginning of the serial are starting to pay off.
Judex is available on DVD.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s selections! Come back next week and we’ll be showing some love for a pair of crowdpleasers.
Nice picks. My go-to Hart rec is usually The Toll Gate, mainly because I love Anna Q. Nillson and the ending.
Thank you! Yes, The Toll Gate is excellent!
I’m one of those people who had a hard time convincing myself to embrace Westerns. For anyone serious about American film history, they are just too important to ignore, but, yeah, there’s some painfully bad associations. Fortunately, there are some really great ones, and once you’ve seen a few of them, it’s possible to start exploring without quite so much trepidation. Silent Westerns are interesting in part because they were made closer to the time period they depict, and so the the West is less a legend and more of a memory.
Yes and many of the first generation of western stars were working from experience or nostalgia, which adds to the enjoyment. (Not all, obviously, some were city slickers and many exaggerated their old west credentials.) Hart definitely had some problematic issues in his films, mostly in the form of title cards, but a good number of silent westerns avoid the more disturbing issues of later sound entries in the genre.
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