An eccentric millionaire decides he wants to spend his golden years reliving his youth as a gold miner in California and so he sends his secretary out west to set things up. This is the only known surviving film directed by Ruth Ann Baldwin.
Back to the Gold Rush
Westerns were popular warhorses of silent cinema and that made them ripe for parody. Straightforward comedians like Harold Lloyd, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Mack Swain all took shots at the western genre, Douglas Fairbanks made western comedies the centerpiece of his film career but writer/director Ruth Ann Baldwin opted for more of a dramedy.
Judge Brand (Joseph Girard) is a transplanted westerner who has never felt quite at home in the east. Now that he has retired, Brand intends to return to his beloved west but he knows that things have changed since his gold prospecting days. He asks his secretary, Tom Reeves (Leo Pierson, Mr. Ruth Ann Baldwin), to travel to California and hire a band of westerners to recreate his mining camp.
Tom ends up in San Diego. The city had constructed elaborate Spanish-style buildings for the Panama-California Exposition held between 1915 and 1917 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle filmed a comedy short there in 1915 (imaginatively titled Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition) and the buildings were used to replicate the courts of Spain in Mary Pickford’s Rosita.
In this film, the expo is used as a backdrop for a struggling wild west show. The usual eccentric actor types are present but the most important characters are Peggy (Donna Drew), the beauty of the show, and Gentleman Jim Raynor (Jean Hersholt), a sleazy fellow who runs the gambling establishment. Tom hires the entire show and they set out together for Judge Brand’s old mining camp.
Seeing these scenes, I recognized the arboretum and lily pond. Like the other surviving expo structures, it is located in Balboa Park and I visited the area last year. Here they are in the film:
Pretty cool, huh? Next time I’m in the area, I will take some proper shots that match the film’s angles and do a post on the location.
Anyway, to return to the story, Tom is immediately attracted to Peggy and she to him but Raynor glowers at them. He means to win Peggy for himself and he uses every means at his disposal to get rid of the competition, which includes blackmail, bullying and trying to feed Tom to the wolves. Well, that escalated quickly.
Judge Brand is delighted with the reenactment work of the actors but finds them a bit timid. He tries to draw them out with gunfire and wild parties and all seems to be going swimmingly but there is a cloud on the horizon. Raynor has a past connection to Judge Brand and has sinister plans for Peggy. I mean, the mustache kind of gives it away, doesn’t it? (Mustachioed villains were far less common in silent film than most people believe but they did show up occasionally.)
Will Raynor’s nefarious schemes be thwarted? Will Judge Brand’s west-centric ways get him into trouble? See ’49 – ’17 to find out!
The acting laurels for this film must go to Joseph Girard, who is both bombastic and likable as Judge Brand. The character could have easily become annoying with his insistence on recreating the west but Girard has a light touch that keeps things fun.
Donna Drew only has a few screen credits to her name but she proves to be a likable heroine, even if she descends into damseldom on the final reel. I found Leo Pierson to be weak sauce as the hero (it does help to be married to the director, it seems) but this may also be because his face and coiffure remind me of Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets and as I watched this film, I kept expecting him to find baroque methods with which to bump off the rest of the cast. Rounding things out, Hersholt certainly overplays his villainy but there are no real clunkers in the picture.
Director and screenwriter Ruth Ann Baldwin started out at Universal as an editor but quickly jumped over to writing and, eventually, directing. Very little is known about her life after she left film in 1921 (even her date of death is unknown) and few of her films survive. This makes ’49 – ’17 a valuable artifact.
I have to say, though, that I was not terribly impressed with the screenplay. While the film is clearly meant to parody western tropes, it lacks a certain amount of bite. In the end, the dudes in white hats are the good guys and the fellow in the black mustache is the villain. The finale descends into melodrama when parody is called for and it all ends with a tidy little bow of a happy ending.
One of the main issues with the film is its incessant use of flashbacks, many of which do not actually figure into the story. We see Brand’s old mining partner woo and win the woman they both love but she then abandons her husband for her mysterious lover and takes the baby. The search for the missing child does figure into the story but, frankly, it could have been handled with a few lines of dialogue as the story is just not that interesting. (The skunk who ran off with Brand’s friend’s wife is exactly who you suspect it is.) The flashbacks don’t do much to flesh out the story, they just add a whole lot of noise and create a choppy feel to the picture.
William K. Everson hit the nail on the head quite tidily:
“We cannot claim this to be a very exciting rediscovery … This is a disjointed sort of work, seemingly reluctant even to be a Western, and never quite settling on a point of view.”
Baldwin’s direction proves stronger than her writing. While the flashbacks are choppy, Baldwin does a good job of keeping her stories clear and there is never any confusion as to exactly when and where we are in the tale. She also makes excellent use of Stephen S. Norton’s cinematography and her San Diego location. (Baldwin had lived in San Diego as a teenager and served as a publicist for the Panama-California Exposition.) It’s a shame that this seems to be the only surviving example of her work as director as she showed great promise.
Baldwin’s excellent direction is the main draw for this picture but the whole thing is undone by an underbaked script. An important piece of film history but not entirely enjoyable as entertainment.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
’49 – ’17 is available on DVD from Kino Lorber.
I read that cutie Donna Drew died at age 22 in October of 1918 from that nightmare illness, Spanish flu. Her husband died a few days before her, possibly from the same cause.
Oh dear, how terrible! Seeing the film industry’s death list really hits home how widespread and deadly the epidemic was.
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