A young Indiana schoolteacher finds himself embroiled in local conflicts when he falls in love with an indentured servant and must discover the identity of a gang of bandits who are terrorizing the local population.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
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Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871) started its life as a series of short stories before they were gathered together in novel form. Part of the popular “dialect novel” genre, the book attempted to realistically portray the speech and customs of rural mid-1800s Indiana complete with phonetic spellings and explanatory footnotes. (You can read an online public domain copy here.)
Now, obviously, with a book like this, the flavor of the prose was a big part of its appeal and silent films were uniquely suited to adapting a story of this kind to the screen. Further, rural films showcasing ye olden dayes continued to be popular with American audiences of the time. In short, The Hoosier Schoolmaster was built for success on the silent screen.
Henry Hull plays Ralph Hartsook, a young schoolteacher who has accepted a position in Flat Creek, a rural community full of the expected eccentric characters. There’s Bud Means (Nat Pendleton), a beefy brute of a fellow who turns out to be a softy on the inside. There’s Hannah Thompson (Jane Thomas), the indentured servant of the Means family and the prettiest girl in the area. There’s Shocky (Tom Brown), Hannah’s kid brother.
Because there is bad information circulating about indentured servitude (i.e. “The Irish were slaves too!” myth) please allow me to clarify. Indentured servitude was bad and rife with abuse, but the servitude was neither lifelong nor hereditary. Those bound in servitude were considered people and not property and their situation is not in any way equal to enslaved Africans in the United States at the time.
And you know what the biggest giveaway is? Hannah is allowed to enjoy a romance with Ralph in every film version without a single peep from the censor boards of the day. If the filmmakers had portrayed an identical romance with a black actress playing the Hannah character in 1924, do you seriously think those censor boards would have let it pass? And yet all of the Moore brothers and Eileen Percy, Irish-born one and all, were allowed to romance any and all comers during the silent era without so much as a snip of the censorial scissors. I rest my case.
Okay, now that that’s settled, back to the story.
We watch Ralph tame his unruly classroom, befriend Bud and start to fall for Hannah. The locals of Flat Creek are mad for spelling and hold regular spelling bees. When Hannah “spells down” Ralph with the correct letters in daguerreotype, it’s true love.
Hannah is still bound in servitude and so open courting is not an option but Ralph wanders through the night to see if he can catch a glimpse of her and he dreams of her at night. (There’s a highly inappropriate joke in which Ralph dreams he is canoodling with Hannah but it is actually one of his young pupils, which is… Yikes.)
Of course, not all is sunshine and spelling bees in Flat Creek. There is a gang of bandits robbing from the locals and with Ralph wandering around at all hours, it is inevitable that he would become the number one suspect, along with Shocky’s guardian who is viewed with distrust by the townsfolk.
Things start to get violent and Shocky is attacked. Bud rushes to his rescue while Ralph gets shoved down once and then just sits back and watches. I get that the film is trying to show conflict between Ralph’s educated brain and the direct methods of Bud but the guy is being attacked with a knife while trying to defend a child from being beaten to death, surely this is as good a time as any to get one’s hands dirty. This reflects particularly badly on Ralph because in the very next scene, he finally takes up arms to save his own skin.
This was a particularly odd creative choice because the book already handled that particular element: “Ralph came in sight in time to see the beginning of the fight, and he arrived on the ground just as Pete Jones went down under the well-dealt blow from the only remaining fist of Bud Means.”
It’s not necessarily the greatest sin in the history of film or anything but this incident is pretty typical of picture as a whole: minor wasted opportunities that add up to a less powerful and interesting picture but no particular dealbreakers. I hate to keep saying “fair to middling” but… fair to middling.
But in any case, we have two main conflicts set up: Will Bud and Ralph discover the identity of the mysterious bandits and will Hannah be freed from her servitude so she can marry the man she loves?
That being said, neither the book or the film put particular emphasis on the plot. This is really about setting the scene and creating a mood. And, of course, lots and lots and lots of Indiana dialect.
I am not the biggest fan of transcribed dialect in fiction (it’s more translated than read) but novels of this type were indeed popular and, as stated before, silent films were uniquely suited to adapting it. The Hoosier Schoolmaster, like many novels of the period, is also an intimate book with the author getting chatty with the reader and sometimes upbraiding us for wanting scenes of romance or action:
“And you, friend Callow, who have blunted your palate by swallowing the Cayenne pepper of the penny-dreadfuls, you wish me to make this night exciting by a hand-to-hand contest between Ralph and a robber. You would like it better if there were a trap-door. There’s nothing so convenient as a trap-door, unless it be a subterranean passage. And you’d like something of that sort just here.”
Okay, fine, yes, I would. Are you satisfied, Mr. Eggleston? (I honestly find these nineteenth century asides to be extremely charming. Thackery included something similar in Vanity Fair and Dickens ranting away about America and Americans was a highlight of Martin Chuzzlewit.)
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t get quite so informal as that. Still, the title cards do their best to convey the flavor of the novel’s dialect.
Incidentally, the accuracy of Eggleston’s dialect is generally reckoned to be the highlight of The Hoosier Schoolmaster. However, in the 1974 article Toward a Reassessment of Edward Eggleston’s Literary Dialects, author Gary N. Underwood calls the authenticity into question by comparing the Indiana dialect of Eggleston’s works with other American dialects of the period. While any scholarly linguistic debate is beyond my field of expertise, I will say that it’s possible that Eggleston took creative license but The Hoosier Schoolmaster is pretty entertaining on its own. Since the dialect wasn’t really the main attraction for me, I am not particularly caught on in the notion of absolute authenticity.
The film uses quite a bit of Eggleston’s turns of phrase in the title cards and it is a handsome picture with sunlight through the trees, candlelight in wooden houses and that sort of thing thanks to cinematographer Edward Paul. The pacing is serene without being boring and if the filmmakers hoped to evoke a weekend in the country, they succeeded.
Nat Pendleton is easily the best actor with the best part in the picture. In fact, I would have paid cash money to see the film focus on Bud rather than Ralph. Bud’s the one who dives in to save Shocky, he’s the one who solves the mystery of the bandits and he’s the one who finds the witness who can clear his friend. Further, Pendleton has a natural screen charisma that Hull utterly lacks. In fact, in the second half of the picture, the most daring theft is Pendleton stealing the film right out from under Hull. (You probably know Pendleton, a former Olympic wrestler, for his character work as muscleheads in talkies like Horse Feathers and The Great Ziegfeld.)
It’s not that Hull is a generally bad actor (anyone who has seen Lifeboat knows he is quite good), it’s just that he seems to be more of a supporting player. I had previously seen him in One Exciting Night, which, let’s face it, was not a fair showcase for any of its performers so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Nope. He’s two for two as a leading man.
The Hoosier Schoolmaster is good enough but it could have been very good to excellent if a bit more thought had been put into the adaptation. Still, it’s a decent example of the kind of rural entertainment that silent era audiences enjoyed and It’s fun to see a very young Nat Pendleton do his stuff. I wouldn’t call it a must-see but I generally liked it.
Where can I see it?
Silents vs. Talkies
The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1924)
The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1935)
With a popular novel like The Hoosier Schoolmaster, it’s not surprising that it was tackled once again in the sound era. (There was also a 1914 feature film version and it survives but I have not yet seen it, so we will stick to the 1924 and 1935 versions.)
The 1935 adaptation was released by Monogram Pictures, one of the most famous low budget studios. And, let’s be honest, most of their 1930s films looked it. But the good news is that a simple story of rural life lends itself to inexpensive filmmaking so this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker.
The screenplay, the other hand…
The plot is kinda, sorta in a way the same with one major change. Inexplicably from a narrative standpoint, this version moves the action to the end of the American Civil War. (Civil War films were big business and every anniversary related to the conflict had been reverently celebrated on celluloid since the movies began but this is rather square peg/round hole. In other words, I’m not saying the setting is inexplicable in itself but its use with this particular story is.)
We get a prologue with Ralph leaving the Union army and heading home and there are some references to the recent conflict. The biggest change is probably the local bandits being turned into a violent gang of nightriders, who were truly evil real-life villains of the era. So, did these alterations to the story pan out?
I knew when I was in trouble when the opening shot of the film showed a print copy of The Hoosier Schoolmaster with its famous first paragraph:
What’s that? I have been informed that this is not the first paragraph of The Hoosier Schoolmaster at all. This is the real opening paragraph:
“Want to be a school-master, do you? You? Well, what would you do in Flat Crick deestrick, I’d like to know? Why, the boys have driv off the last two, and licked the one afore them like blazes. You might teach a summer school, when nothin’ but children come. But I ‘low it takes a right smart man to be school-master in Flat Crick in the winter. They’d pitch you out of doors, sonny, neck and heels, afore Christmas.”
Now, I don’t have a problem with films straying away from their source material if they do so from a place of knowledge and intelligence (for example, The Penalty and Stella Maris are both better than their source novels) but why have the book-opening-to-show-first-page sequence if they weren’t using the actual first page? It’s just… weird.
So, yeah. The Civil War. See, the entire point of The Hoosier Schoolmaster novel was to invite the readers inside the rural bubble of a tiny community. If the country is recovering from a painful civil war, such a bubble is impossible without Brigadoon-level sorcery.
And, unfortunately, the regional charm of the original is not replaced by anything particularly interesting beyond a “War is Bad But Sometimes Necessary” message. Worse, leaning into the Civil War crowds out the courtroom scene that should have been the finale. Courtroom scenes are an absolute godsend for low budget productions. You don’t need fancy sets or costumes, just a lot of “I object!” and “Order!” thrown about and you get loads of suspense for free.
The cast isn’t terrible. Norman Foster as Ralph, Charlotte Henry as Esther and Fred Kohler, Jr. as Bud do what they can considering the thin material. It’s just that there’s no flow, no consistency to the story. I had hope that replacing the bandits with nightriders (who were white supremacists, included the Ku Klux Klan, who terrorized the Reconstruction era South) would increase suspense and social relevance but no.
The nightriders barely figure into the plot and there seems to have been no point in replacing the bandits at all. I’m not saying that I wanted graphic violence or anything but nightriders, like Nazis, are not something you can just bring up and then kind of sweep away in three minutes at the end. (And before anyone starts on “context” or anything like that, The Black Legion was released just two years later and Alice Joyce fought a Klan-like group in The Cambric Mask all the way back in 1919.)
So, instead of using the real suspense of the book or the nightrider threat introduced in this adaptation, either of which would have ramped up tension, we get the threat of… Ralph losing his job when he loses the spelling bee? And then there’s an angry, torch-wielding mob because letting Hannah win the spelling bee clearly means they’ve been no better than they ought? I am so confuzzled.
Further, Hannah’s indentured servitude is used as a prop for a “Yes, this is what we fought the Civil War for” speech and that’s about it. (On the one hand, acknowledging that the war was about slavery is a step in the right direction but then we have the whole “Irish slaves had it just as bad” myth lurking, so…)
In general, I am just not sure why this film was made at all, especially since the original story would have been ideally suited to low budget filmmaking as-is. It seems like the filmmakers wanted to say something important with the picture but always backed down at the last moment, which is incredibly frustrating.
Availability: Released on DVD.
And the winner is…
While not a perfect film by any means, the 1924 version nonetheless conveys the charm and appeal of the source novel and Nat Pendleton’s performance makes it worth seeing. The silent wins the day but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a route. I believe that the real winner of this conflict is the original book.
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