Sunday, December 29, 2013

Stubs – The Squaw Man (1914)

The Squaw Man (1914) Starring: Dustin Farnum, Monroe Salisbury, Red Wing, Winifred Kingston. Directed by Oscar Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille. Story and Screenplay by Beulah Marie Dix. Based on the play The Squaw Man by Edwin Milton Royle. Produced by Cecil B. DeMille and Jesse L. Lasky Run Time: 74 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Silent, Western, Drama

It’s not always you get to see a first. And while films pre-date The Squaw Man, there are still a lot of firsts tied up in it. The first feature film shot in Hollywood, the first film directed (sort of) by Cecil B. DeMille, and the first film made by the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co., the precursor to Paramount Pictures. I had been interested in this movie since helping one of my sons, then in middle school, do a project on Los Angeles. We found a sepia still on the internet we used in his Powerpoint presentation.

Further fueling my interest was reading the Early Paramount Studios book from the Images of America series. While it is mostly photos and thus a fairly quick read, since The Squaw Man plays so prominently in the history of Paramount, the film gets more than a fair amount of attention.

Recently, TCM showed it as part of a series of films having to do with the development of films and tied to Story of Film documentaries. When the opportunity to see a film you’ve been interested in seeing is only a DVR recording away, it’s hard to resist.

We might be singing “Hooray for Flagstaff”, since that was the original location selected for the filming. Flagstaff was chosen for its exotic sounding name and the hopes it would provide picturesque vistas that could be used as background for the filming. But DeMille found the location unsuitable and pushed westward, settling on a barn at the corner of Selma and Vine as headquarters and the rest, as they say, is history.

Cecil B Demille (far left) and The Squaw Man cast. Dustin Farnum is in the white shirt.

Originally a Broadway play, The Squaw Man opened in 1905 and was revived four times, including a 1911 run that lasted for only 8 performances, but starred Dustin Farnum. Farnum was a singer, dancer and actor who had been appearing on Broadway since the then turn of the century. While he’s not a legendary actor per se, one modern day actor, Dustin Hoffman, was reportedly named after him. He would, like so many actors that followed, including his namesake, leave the great white way for Hollywood. He appeared in movies from 1914, starting with Soldiers of Fortune (1914) and staying in films until 1926’s The Flaming Frontier.

While oft credited as the first film Cecil B. DeMille directed, the lead director was really a man named Oscar Apfel. Originally an actor, appearing like everyone, on Broadway, he left the stage and went to work for the Edison Company in 1911. He started his directing career there, before moving to Reliance-Majestic Studios and then to the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Player Company in 1913, becoming one of the two main directors for that company. The other was DeMille. On The Squaw Man, DeMille learned the craft from Apfel. Up until then, DeMille’s entire film experience was one day observing at the Edison Company.

Cecil was not the DeMille that Jessie Lasky was originally interested in. He was trying to get a hold of William C. DeMille, Cecil’s older brother, to collaborate on an operetta, but he was already tied to another project. William’s agent, his mother, who ran a theatrical agency, suggested Cecil, who was not without experience, but did not have as much as William. Lasky was skeptical, but agreed to meet with Cecil and the two quickly became close friends, deciding to work together, but on a film rather than a play. Together, they formed the Lasky Feature Play Company.

Apfel was hired to show DeMille the ropes and The Squaw Man was that learning session. After Lasky, Apfel moved to Fox, where he directed William Farnum, Dustin’s brother, in a series of films. Apfel would eventually retire from directing to become a sought after character actor in other people’s films.

The cameras began to roll on the Squaw Man on December 29, 1913* and the film would be released the following year. Sadly a hundred years later, while the film has been preserved, TCM even went so far as to have H. Scott Salinas write a new score, it has not been restored. The print TCM showed was rife with omissions, even including a jump cut that makes an Aunt appear to disappear into thin air in one scene.

The movie is not easy to follow, partly due to the sheer age of the film, though I think it may also have to do with the style of storytelling used. There are few title cards and the story sometimes leaps forward by months and years. For example: Hal goes from baby bump to about five years-old in the blink of an eye. I don’t know if that’s due to missing footage or if the movie was released like that. Another problem is that in the beginning all the members of the same regiment look pretty much identical, same haircut and mustache, that it’s really hard to tell them apart.

Hard to tell them apart, but I believe the man on the far left is Captain James Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum).

Melodramatic, The Squaw Man tells the story of Captain James Wynnegate (Dustin Farnum), who is the executor of a fund set up by members of his regiment for the families of men killed in battle. When his cousin, Sir Henry Wynnegate, the Earl of Kerhill (Monroe Salisbury), embezzles money from an orphans' fund to pay his gambling debts, James is talked into taking the blame and to leave England in order to save the family’s honor. 

The discovery that the funds have been embezzled.

The person who convinces him is Henry’s wife, Lady Diana (Winifred Kingston), with whom James is in love. James accepts banishment from high society and sets out on a ship.

On board, James makes friends with the Captain and his family, but he is also followed on board by an inspector from Scotland Yard. It is not clear if he plans to arrest James or not. But James overpowers him and keeps him tied up until the boat is out of the harbor. (Frankly it is not clear what happens to the inspector. He tries to get a boat to shore but is turned down by the Captain and disappears from the film.) One day while in James’ cabin, the daughter of the Captain accidentally sets curtains in the room on fire. The fire gets out of control, the ship burns and sinks. James, with the other passengers, is rescued from the ocean by a ship headed to America.

Soon after arriving in New York, James watches a man, Big Bill (Dick La Reno), get pick-pocketed and intervenes. Grateful, Big Bill invites James to travel with him back to the plains. The sophisticated Britisher immediately changes into riding boots and jodhpurs and he is the laughingstock of the train station. 

Big Bill takes James out to meet a tribe of Ute Indians, including Chief Tabywana (Joseph E. Singleton) and his daughter Nat-u-rich (Red Wing). The men spend the night and it is obvious Nat-u-rich is attracted to James.

Big Bill (Dick La Reno) introduces James to Nat-u-rich (Red Wing). Her father,
Chief Tabywana (Joseph E. Singleton) is to her immediate left.

The next day, James, now calling himself James Carston, buys the Lone Butte Ranch for $6750 from current owner Bull Cowan. James quickly earns the respect of his ranch hands and proves himself to be a tough but fair boss.

Meanwhile, back in England, Diana’s health has worsened and it is decided that a trip to Yellowstone is in order and off she and Henry set.

Back in Wyoming, James is getting cozier with the Ute Indians. But his feud with Cash Hawkins (William Elmer) is only beginning. Jim catches Cash and his gang in the act of trying to rebrand his cattle. Cash also tries to cheat Tabywana in some sort of cattle deal while Nat-u-rich tries to stop it. James happens to arrive at the tavern when Cash is starting to get physical with Nat-u-rich. Cash isn’t able to conclude his deal and words between James and Cash are exchanged.

At about that time, Diana’s train, which is delayed because of something odd to do with the track, arrives. (There is smoke in the ties, but nothing more is explained) and is sent to the station in his town. James sees Diana and tries to avoid her seeing him. But when Cash returns, guns a blazing, demanding everyone in the Long Horn drink with him, their reunion is unavoidable. Cash, who is a real ass, threatens Henry and Diana and James is forced again to intercede and disarm Cash.

James makes an odd declaration “I won’t drink with a man who robbed the orphans of the King’s soldiers,” but then goes on to drink with Henry and Cash. When the all clear is given and everyone goes back on the train, Diana and James share a sweet and brief good-bye. The tavern clears out, but Cash who is still mad, goes back to kill James. Nat-u-rich, who arrives before Cash, hears him coming and hides in a storage room behind the bar. James, who is depressed after seeing Diana, doesn’t even notice that Cash has returned. But before he can react, Cash is shot from behind and killed.

James is too depressed to hear Cash Hawkins (William Elmer) return.
In the back, Nat-u-rich observes before she takes action.

Everyone, including the Sheriff, returns when they hear the shooting. James is not considered a suspect since his gun is still fully loaded. The Sheriff sniff checks the other guns in the bar and none have been fired. Only after everyone has left does Nat-u-rich come out of hiding. But the bartender returns and goes into the storage room, where he finds an Indian-beaded pouch. While they are alone, Nat-u-rich confesses to James that she indeed killed Cash.

Nat-u-rich confess that she killed Cash Hawkins to save James' life.

The title card skips ahead six months. James is obviously still thinking about Diana when his thoughts are interrupted by news that his horses have strayed into the hills in the dead of winter. With his ranch hands he heads out to retrieve them. They seek help from the Utes and Big Bill finds the horses. James meanwhile is snow blinded and falls off his horse. Big Bill rides back to the Utes looking for help and Nat-u-rich rides out on her own to look for James. She finds him overtaken by the poisonous fumes of the death hole. Braving evil spirits, she rescues him and takes him back to her village to recover. A witch doctor is brought in and eventually James is taken home to the ranch to recover. Nat-u-rich stays with him.

Nat-u-rich stays with James and nurses him back to health.

Lonely, James recovers and succumbs to Nat-u-rich’s charms. Several months later, the title card tells us, and Nat-u-rich is pregnant. James rides into town and fetches the Justice of the Peace and brings him back to the ranch to marry the couple. The JOP is reluctant and only officiates the wedding when Big Bill pulls a gun on him.

There has to be a piece of film missing because in a blink of an eye, the baby bump is now Hal (‘Baby’ Carmen De Rue) and is old enough to ride and shoot. Hal is also very close to his father. Nat-u-rich is kept at arm's length it seems.

While on a climbing expedition with Diana in the Swiss Alps (which appear to be Chatsworth), Henry falls. Mortally wounded and surrounded by the hiking party, Henry writes out a confession, clearing James of blame for the embezzling of the funds.

Diana and Henry in the Swiss Alps, which look a lot like Chatsworth, California.
Henry falls to his death, nearly pulling Diana down with him.

Now that he is cleared and the Earl of Kerhill, Diana goes to America to retrieve James.

Meanwhile, the local sheriff, in a bid for re-election, is forced to solve Cash’s murder, which is years old by now. The only clue is the beaded pouch that the bartender found, which Tabywana recognizes as Nat-u-rich’s and he rides off to tell her.

At this time, the train carrying Diana and her party arrive in town. She sends a dispatch to the ranch while she waits back in town.

Diana's envoy meets Hal (Carmen De Rue) at the ranch.

James is going through some hard times and has to pay his men with possessions he has, including his rifle and the medals he earned in the British army. Big Bill doesn’t need money and continues to stand by his friend. Just then Tabywana arrives and warns James that the Sheriff is coming after Nat-u-rich. But first they must smoke a peace pipe, a scene which frankly seems a bit forced.

The sheriff indeed arrives with his posse, but Bill tells them she’s gone and they ride off. Just then, Diana’s envoy arrives and tells him that he’s been cleared and he’s the new Earl of Kerhill. James fondly remembers home, but Hal interrupts his thoughts. When James realizes his son will someday be the Earl, he is willing to send him back to England to get a proper gentleman’s education. Nat-u-rich doesn’t like the idea, but Jim overrules her.

The next morning, the Sheriff returns and searches the ranch house, finding Nat-u-rich’s gun, but Tabywana, who has been keeping a close eye on him, jumps the sheriff and fights him for it. Bill arrives and takes the gun back, telling the Sheriff that it belongs to Nat-u-rich. That, along with the other evidence, points to her guilt. James arrives as Bill puts the gun back and then has him chase the Sheriff off his land. Tabywana follows after him and warns the sheriff that if he arrests Nat-u-rich, there will be a trouble with the Indians. He is laughed at, but goes back to his village to gather warriors.

An impatient Lady Diana and her party arrive at the ranch. She is happy to see James again and surprised to hear he has a son, but does embrace Hal. Nat-u-rich returns to the ranch just ahead of the sheriff, whom she knows now is coming to arrest her.

Tabywana leaves his village armed and with braves in tow. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Diana and party leave with Hal, who everyone is sorry to see leave. Even Nat-u-rich, but she is not given a chance to say good-bye to her own son. But the wagon is stopped by the sheriff and forced to return to the ranch so they can be witnesses to the arrest. Tabywana and his Ute braves arrive. James finds that Nat-u-rich’s gun is gone.

Taking the gun, Nat-u-rich goes off into a field to commits suicide. The pending arrest, the loss of her son and the loss of James’ affection were apparently too much for her to take. Her father, Chief Tabywana, arrives too late to stop her and he brings her body back to the ranch. While Diana tries to shield young Hal’s eyes, James eulogizes over Nat-u-rich, “Poor little mother.”

Nat-u-rich dies in James' arms, while Diana tries to shield Hal's eyes.

There is a lot of story for such a relatively short film. And some of the action seems superfluous at best. Why have James get on a boat to leave England, just to have that boat burn and sink, so he can get on another boat to America? You can’t blame that on a loss of film footage. It just doesn’t make sense, nor does having so many of the characters, in the beginning, look like clones of each other. Without sound cues to help differentiate the men, having them look so much alike makes it hard to distinguish one from another, let alone identify with them.

But the age of the film and its state of disrepair make judging it somewhat difficult. I’m not sure what should be in the film and what the directors chose to include. Maybe there are scenes that help put the story together better, but I don’t know if that’s the case or not. The film was a big success in its time, so there must be more in 1914 than I can see today.

As historic of a film as The Squaw Man may be, the version we’re left with is sadly not very good. Perhaps that is why Cecil B. DeMille remade the film in 1918 and again, with sound, in 1931. Interesting to note that early versions of this film showed DeMille’s inexperience. During screenings, the film would shift up and down on the screen. DeMille and Lasky prepared a lawsuit against Eastman Kodak blaming the film for the problem.

However, Sigmund Lubin, a German-born early American film pioneer, was consulted and he pointed out that the problem was with the filmmakers themselves. They had used two separate cameras to make the movie, but had not calibrated them properly. Lubin was paid a lot of money to fix the negative and process new prints of the film.

But DeMille would grow into the role of director and his riding boots and jodhpurs attire becoming synonymous with film director in any depiction of Hollywood in film or on TV. DeMille would go on to direct dozens of silent and sound films. He is probably best remembered for his epic films, including Cleopatra (1934), The Plainsman (1936), Samson and Delilah (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956). He also famously played himself in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).

DeMille learned how to be a director on The Squaw Man (1914).

While I can’t say that DeMille’s first effort is all that great, the film does deserve a look, seeing how it helped to launch not only feature films in the U.S., but the film industry in Hollywood. If you’re looking for a solidly entertaining film, I would tell you to keep looking. But if you’re in the mood to see something historic, then you might give The Squaw Man a look during its centennial anniversary. Perhaps my opinion would be higher if I ever had a chance to see a fully restored version of the film.

*Source: Images of America Early Paramount Studios (2013)

The Squaw Man (1914) is available on the Warner Archive Collection:

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