William S. Hart turns to lighter fare in this western. He plays a set of identical twins (AND their dad!) who were separated at a young age, one becoming a taciturn cowpuncher and the other becoming the governor of Utah. Chaos ensues, obviously.
Home Media Availability: Released for streaming.
Is that human blood on your hand or are you happy to see me?
Now, I think we can all agree that psychotic, apocalyptic William S. Hart is the best flavor of William S. Hart but there were other options. Hart tried out a few different genres (Canadian lumberjack, Mayan chieftain) and experimented with more mawkish, sentimental fare, which was… not good. But one type of Hart picture that is rarely discussed is his selection of comedies.
These aren’t all out slapstick, of course, but lighthearted, humorous fare that aims to show everyone a good time. Hart’s very first feature, The Bargain (1914), was a light comedy of irony and errors and his later feature, Travelin’ On (1920), spent quite a bit of time on a trained monkey. (Hart’s displeasure with the animal is expressed through a series of cards that, shall we say, artistically illustrate his character’s colorful vocabulary.)
Three Word Brand has more serious moments than The Bargain and Travelin’ On but any time you have a plot involving separated identical twins, you know that at least some humorous mix-ups are in the cards. I am always ready for a good western comedy so let’s get this show on the road.
Hart actually plays three roles in the picture, the twins and their father, and the film opens with dear old dad blowing himself up with a powder keg in order to avoid being captured by the Native Americans who attack his wagon as he journeys through Utah. So, yeah. I realized I promised comedy but we’ll get to that soon enough.
The boys are adopted out to different families and some decades pass. Twin 1 has grown up to be Bill “Three Word” Brand, given the nickname due to his terse conversation skills, and is something of a local legend due to his prowess with the old six shooter. He co-owns the L7 Ranch with George Barton (S. J. Bingham), who handles the charm end of the equation.
(And please, feel free to insert jokes about the residents of the L7 Ranch drinking only milk and going to bed at eight. I certainly did.)
Georges sister, Ethel (Jane Novak), has recently moved to the ranch and has taken a dislike to Brand because she constantly manages to stumble upon his just as he’s pistol whipping somebody or other. George doesn’t do much to defend his partner (some friend he is) and we basically have one of those “Oh, I think I am falling for you—keep away from me, you beast!” situations.
Well, things get awkward when George is framed for murder by a rival and the only thing that can save him from a necktie party is a pardon from the newly-elected Governor Marsden.
Who also happens to be Twin 2.
Now, obviously, Brand discovers this fact and decides to use it to his advantage, both to pardon his friend and to veto a water rights bill that will ruin the L7. But how can you replace a sitting governor without anyone, especially his fiancée, noticing?
So, as you can see, this turns into a bit of a caper near the middle and I thoroughly enjoyed rough and ready Three Word Brand fumbling with new-fangled office gadgets and trying to fake his way through legislative patois. These scenes are easily the highlight of the picture.
Lambert Hillyer, one of Hart’s usual directors, does his customary good work and longtime Hart cinematographer Joseph August delivers all the dramatic mountain vistas and lovely outdoor lighting that we could wish for in a western picture. And the title cards are unusually good at putting across that old west flavor. From a technical aspect, this is quality western stuff and I have no complaints.
I also liked the grand finale (SPOILER) in which the bad guys mistake the very unarmed governor for Brand and decide to take the opportunity to assassinate their rival while he has foolishly gone out without his gun. It’s nicely suspenseful, though I think the tension could have been drawn out a bit longer. Still, it works as a suitably exciting finale for the picture.
However, there are some flaws. The most obvious issue is that Governor Marsden is pretty much sidelined for most of the picture. I would have liked to have seen the citified politician dealing with the wilderness and the ranch and finding it just as strange and awkward as Brand found the governor’s office.
In general, the identical brother plot is underused. There are some really cute moments and I liked the… chemistry (?) Hart had with himself when the brothers finally meet but in general, there just wasn’t enough of the main attraction. If you promise us twin-induced chaos, you need to deliver twin-induced chaos, darn it.
I have to say, though, Governor Marsden has the better deal romantically. Colette Forbes (some sources spell her name “Collette”) plays an ideal future state first lady. She’s smart, gives excellent political advice and supports her fiancé in his endeavors.
I really like Jane Novak as a performer generally but when they were passing out brains, Ethel thought they said rain and she hid under the table. She spends the entire picture annoyingly flying off the handle at Brand and that’s bad writing. We know Novak can charm us with good material but who can save a role that basically boils down to “paranoid old west wet blanket?”
While Three Word Brand didn’t quite reach the comedic heights I had hoped for after viewing The Bargain and Travelin’ On, it’s still a fun, breezy change of pace and is sure to delight fans who are more accustomed to seeing Hart’s more violent fare. This is a solid western comedy that is sure to entertain.
Where can I see it?
You can watch Three Word Brand in a legal, high quality version courtesy of Ben Model’s YouTube channel. And, of course, there’s a fine piano score composed and performed by Model to go with it.
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Sounds like an interesting ‘Prisoner of Zenda’ish angle – and fish-out-of-water plots are usually quite entertaining.
I love Hart and his movies, but although I caught the irony in ‘The Bargain,’ the comic quality kind of escaped me. I saw that film right after I happened to have viewed several dramas involving family separations, so that mindset left me feeling very sad about Nell’s father. His joy over his daughter’s marriage seemed forced, and it bothered me that he would be completely alone after Nell and her reformed-outlaw husband rode off to live incognito in Mexico. Why couldn’t he go with them, and be a prospector there?
The main comedic setpiece was Hart having to steal the money he stole in the first place. It wasn’t slapstick but it was definitely ironic and played for comedy.
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