A U.S. Marshal on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters finds more than he bargained for when he finally tracks his quarry to their hideout. Clara Williams stars as the daughter of one of the counterfeiters and she saves the day.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE.
That ended well
There are certain movie plots that we never tire of seeing and “federal agents tracking down a criminal gang” is one of them. It should come as no surprise that this plot was a favorite during the silent era, even before Prohibition made it more popular than ever.
The Deputy’s Peril is a Lubin production and we classify it as a western today, what with the cowboy hats and gingham smocks and sun bonnets and gun fights and whatnot but the trade magazine Moving Picture World stated in its review that the film was “not essentially a western; its locale may well be any part of the Unites States.” In fact, Moving Picture News described the picture as “a detective story” with no mention of the west at all. Finally, a vintage synopsis in Moving Picture World states that the film is set “in a wild region at the Kentucky hills.”
So, is it or is it not a western? Well, Kentucky is well and truly southern, but I only found the reference to the state after I had already scheduled the review and gotten deep into the writing process and I like this picture and didn’t want to drop it. Shall we just call this the friendly southern cousin of a western picture? Kind of how Mountie and lumberjack pictures can be Westerns with Bonus Flannel. Western-adjacent, if you will.
The surviving copy that I viewed has Dutch intertitles. I am using the character names from that Moving Picture World synopsis.
Bess Adams (Clara Williams) is fetching water when she meets Roger West (Edgar Jones). He’s every inch the gentleman and immediately wins her favor with his good manners. But Bess is the daughter of a counterfeiter and Roger is the U.S. Marshal sent to track him down.
After finding a phony silver dollar by the well and receiving word that the counterfeiters are in the area, Roger follows Bess back to the cabin she calls home and sees the counterfeiting gang at work, melting metal for their fake coins. Roger climbs a telephone pole to call for backup (technology!) but when he sees Bess being attacked by a member of the gang, he bursts in to help her and is promptly captured.
Bess slips away in the chaos and her father sees her running to the marshals, who have just arrived on the scene. Enraged, he has Roger gagged and bound to a post and then pulls out a pulp and serial death trap classic: a shotgun with a string tied around the trigger and attached to the doorknob. Roger will be shot by his own rescuers as the gang escapes through a secret door in the cellar.
Will Bess be able to save the day or will the infamous rifle death trap finally work? See The Deputy’s Peril to find out!
In general, this is a very well-made film. Director Romaine Fielding, who was also a popular leading man at the time, enhances the film by cutting in closer shots. The edited closeup was at least a decade old when The Deputy’s Peril was made but its adoption was by no means universal. There’s also cutting between the deputy’s, well, peril and the marshals rushing to save him. In the middle of the action, there’s also a slower shot of one marshal marching the arrested sentry back to town. This provides a slower counterpoint to the building suspense. Good stuff.
The acting is a bit emphatic for my taste in an apples-to-apples comparison with other 1912 productions but it’s hardly The Copper Beeches. There’s just a bit more mugging than I like in films from this era but it’s not a particular dealbreaker.
It was particularly fun to see Clara Williams in a more active role. Fans of William S. Hart will recognize her as the leading lady of two of his best pictures, The Bargain and Hell’s Hinges. In both cases, she played a mild and gentle soul who tamed the savage Hart with her sweetness and religious devotion. Nothing wrong with that in itself but seeing her ride like mad to save Edgar Jones in The Deputy’s Peril was a fun change of pace.
Also, I have to say that in our modern world of cartoonish action stars demanding to never lose fights and counting the number of punches they are contractually allowed to receive, it is refreshing to see a male hero actually shaken up by a brush with death. I realize that most heroes have plot armor anyway but I do like characters to act like they thought they were in actual peril.
The scenery and costumes in this picture are suitably rustic—dodgy fake well aside—and it has an excellent sense of authenticity. However, there was one error in the picture that an eagle eyed reader noticed and wrote into Motion Picture Story to vent.
John Wallace of Oil City, Pennsylvania had this to say:
“I saw a play last week in which a deputy marshal, out in the country, climbs a telephone pole and attaches a telephone set to the line, in order to talk with his chief. This was a very nice piece of business, if it had been carefully directed. However, it struck me, and a good many others sitting near me, as very ridiculous — the way it was done. Instead of using ordinary copper or iron telephone wire, there were strung along the pole two strands of twisted wire, such as is used by telephone people in connecting the phone in a house to the line, this wire being heavily insulated. The deputy went up the pole and attached his test-set, over the insulation, to both strands, four wires, or two separate lines, and did the impossible thing of talking with such a connection. This careless bit of work spoiled the play for a good many in the audience, as they lost interest when such an impossible bit of business was enacted seriously.”
Don’t try to include your dodgy telephone connections on John Wallace’s watch! I remain impressed by the sharp eyes and minds of silent era audiences, who would notice these things without the benefit of a pause or rewind button. (By the way, director Romaine Fielding had been the distressed dude saved by an emergency wire connection in 1911’s Across the Mexican Line.)
Complaints of telephone company men aside, The Deputy’s Peril was generally well-received and described as a thrilling standout production. It’s also a well-balanced picture with enough romance for the romantics and enough action for fans of adventure.
And, of course, we get the fun of seeing a western heroine who neither faints nor shies away from danger but rushes in to save the deputy when the chips are down. The heroine running for help has never been unusual in the movies but Williams rushes back into the danger once she has backup. She distracts and helps capture the sentry at the entrance of the counterfeiter hideout and then braves gunfire to show the marshals the secret escape route that the gang is trying to use. All in all, quite a bold heroine.
(Oh, and, spoiler, the traditional way to resolve the shotgun death trap is for the captive to free themselves just in time to dodge the shotgun/harpoon gun/poison darts, etc. In this case, the deputy does not free himself in time. Instead, in breaking down the door, his friends knocked the doorknob out of place and inadvertently disarmed the trap.)
The Deputy’s Peril is a splendid little action picture and whether you call it a western or a detective story, it’s great fun to watch.
Where can I see it?
Available to stream for free courtesy of EYE.
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