A cowpoke (who may or may not be named Steve) wanders into a whole heap of melodrama when he saves an uncredited Fay Wray from a caddish brute (or brutish cad). Solid western from Universal’s Mustang line.
A Faemmle Affair
(Huge thanks to Christopher Bird for spotting Wray, tracking this film down, having it transferred, editing the best parts of multiple prints together and sharing it with us. In addition, he helped with the research for this review.)
Westerns were a big business in the silent era and there were films for every taste and budget. Big prestige westerns? Check! Dark revenge westerns? Check! Stunt-laden, light adventures? Check! Today, we’re going to be looking at a western from the Universal Mustang series, a crop of two-reelers churned out on the cheap and promising punches and shootouts galore.
Collector Christopher Bird shared this film with me a while back with an interesting aside: it looked like the uncredited leading lady was none other than Fay Wray. Now you have to realize that I am utterly hopeless at movie star identification. I’ll miss all but the easiest makes. To be honest, I thought I would nod politely and say, “Oh yes, it’s possible.” You know, like I always do. (I’m not face blind but I’m heading that way.)
So, here is our first closeup of the leading lady of Four-Square Steve:
Oh yeah, that’s Wray. When someone like me says that it’s Fay Wray, you can believe it’s Fay Wray. And this film is all but forgotten, it’s not even listed on her IMDB filmography. Is this exciting or what? (Okay, so IMDB is hardly infallible but Wray is a pretty huge classic film star.)
I should note that while reviews of 1926 give the hero and heroine the names of Jack and Milly, the version we’re going to cover, a 9.5mm home theater reissue, calls him Steve. Because duh. (The 16mm Kodascope release renames Milly as Molly and seems to mix up the names of the hero and the villain.)
Steve (Edmund Cobb) is leading his pack mule along the trail when he spots Milly (Fay Wray) being harassed by Dick Elder, a mustachioed villain of the first water. Steve socks Dick and rides with Milly to her ranch, where she makes sure he gets a job.
However, Dick will not take his defeat sitting down. He lures Milly to an isolated cabin with a fake letter and plans to force her to marry him. The cad! But Steve rides to the rescue. Will he arrive in time? (It’s no spoiler to say that he will but we’re here for the shootin’ and the punchin’ and the ridin’.)
Melodrama in its purest form, I think you will agree. This is the kind of stuff that kept the seats packed back in the days of the nickelodeon but, you know what, I’m good with it. There’s something refreshingly honest about the unabashed corn and it’s easy to get into the spirit of the thing. This is the sort of picture I recommend watching with cowboy hats and cap pistols at the ready. Loud whooping and cheering the hero is also in order, methinks.
Critics of the day agreed that the film was exciting but were divided as to whether that was enough to recommend it. Personally, I think it is. And then we also have the Fay Wray equation.
Wray was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926 a few months before Four-Square Steve was released and as such was involved in a minor kerfuffle. While past WAMPAS alumnae had included Colleen Moore, Clara Bow, Mary Philbin, Eleanor Boardman, Evelyn Brent and other big names, the class of 1925 was generally thought to be disappointing by comparison. For 1926, names like Mary Brian (who had made a splash as Wendy in 1924’s Peter Pan), Vera Reynolds (who had headlined a 1925 Cecil B. DeMille epic) and Mary Astor (a veteran performer who shared top billing in a 1925 Universal Jewel production) were included. This was widely viewed as salting the mine as these actresses could not rightly be considered poor kids scrabbling for roles.
Motion Picture Magazine quipped that the next batch of “Baby Stars” would include Mae Murray and Louise Dresser. However, Fay Wray, Janet Gaynor and Joan Crawford all seem to be classic Baby Stars on the verge of breaking out in early 1926. As it turned out, WAMPAS was salting a rich vein of ore and the cheating (if you really can call it that) was unnecessary.
Wray stayed on at Universal and played the lead in more westerns (two more with Edmund Cobb) but her career didn’t take off until she made the jump to Paramount. She was the leading lady of Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, the first picture he had directed since The Merry Widow. Wray was also featured in The Four Feathers (1929), a perfectly smashing and terribly underrated version of the famous A.E.W. Mason ode to empire. That film was directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, you may have heard of them… Four years later, the directors would pair Wray with a very large monkey and make movie history.
Wray is pretty raw in this film but she’s not exactly playing Camille and it proves to be a good role for a relatively inexperienced actress. Edmund Cobb, an industry veteran, is a bit more confident in his role and he certainly is up to the action stuff.
If the name Edmund Fessenden Cobb doesn’t exactly sound like a western star, that’s because he was actually intended for politics. Cobb was the cherished grandson of Edmund Gibson Ross, who as senator was the deciding vote against convicting President Andrew Johnson of high crimes and misdemeanors and who was later appointed governor of the New Mexico territory. Cobb’s uncle on his father’s side was William P. Fessenden, who was the first Republican senator to declare Johnson not guilty.
Young Edmund Cobb might have entered the family business of politics but he was bitten by the acting bug and made his film debut in 1912 or 1913, barely out of his teens. Never a major star, he was reportedly an affable man, easy to work with and therefore in demand for supporting and bit parts in movies and television; his last appearance was in 1966.
Cobb’s stint at Universal included the Mustang series and the Pioneer Kid series (starring child actor Bobby Nelson) but when he and Fay Wray were reunited for Murder in Greenwich Village (1937), their positions were reversed. She had top billing and he was in an uncredited bit role as a city cop.
The rest of the cast of Four-Square Steve is uncredited as well. As I said before, I am hopeless at identifying performers. If any silent western buffs in the audience think they can ID someone, I would be most grateful if they would leave a comment.
Universal did not maintain its own chain of theaters, something most of the other major studios did. As it had to sell its films to theater owners, it adopted a classification system. Red Feather productions were cheap programmers, Bluebird were mid-tier features and Jewel boasted big budgets and top stars. There were other classifications as well: Butterfly films were between Red Feather and Bluebird, Super Jewel productions were mega-epics, Blue Streak Westerns were not prestige pictures but they did have five reels and boasted stars like Art Acord and Jack Hoxie.
Mustang Westerns were two-reelers cranked out like sausages. Universal didn’t bother to market many of the individually, they just boasted that there were 52 of ‘em and they were full of action, thrills and punches.
In addition to categorizing their films, Universal was known for the way Carl Laemmle was willing to hire friends and family for important jobs. These Laemmle Faemmle hires could lead to great finds (William Wyler) or meh talents. Ernst Laemmle directed Four-Square Steve and while his career didn’t last, he does show some talent in the action department. I know it’s just a two-reeler but I have seen two-reelers that feel like five or six thanks to poor pacing and editing.
The film is helped along considerably by the use of an Akeley camera, the same type of camera that captured some of the best aerial shots in Wings. In 1920, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers wrote that, “The main outstanding features of this camera which are equaled by no other are: facility with which moving objects may be followed, efficiency of the shutter, ability to work without tripod, lightness and rigidity of tripod, quickness of loading, and extreme range of tilt and pan.”
In other words, whether you wanted to capture charging horses or swooping airplanes on film, the Akeley was your camera when action was called for. There are also a couple of nice shots that look like they were taken by a camera mounted to a suspended mining bucket. Four-Square Steve isn’t out to set the world on fire or be the next Variety or The Last Laugh but the filmmakers do put their equipment to good use and it’s obvious that a little extra care was taken with the production.
Four-Square Steve is a breezy little melodrama that does exactly what it sets out to do: keep its audience entertained for about twenty minutes. Cobb and Wray are likable, the chases and fights are directed well (yay Ernst!) and we get a satisfying ending to this little bundle. What more could we ask for?
Is this a lost masterpiece? No, but it’s a light bit of unpretentious fun. Wray fans will enjoy it, western fans will enjoy it, people who like a good genre two-reeler will enjoy it. We can’t all be Fritz Lang but what would be the fun in that anyway? There wouldn’t be enough monocles to go around for a start.
Where can I see it?
Four-Square Steve has been professionally transferred and edited and is available on YouTube for free and legal viewing with a score by David L. Gill. Nice, huh?
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