Saturday, 9 May 2015

Moore and Vidor… The Sky Pilot (1921)

Now there was me thinking this was going to involve some bi-planes… My hopes weren’t high and the lower quality of the version I watched (the Alpha DVD) lowered them still further but even the inappropriate cadences of some-other film’s soundtrack didn’t spoil my interest: this was Colleen Moore and King Vidor after all.

Even in fuzzy monotone Colleen’s energy shines through and the grand sweep of Vidor’s vision too: cattle rustling on a grand scale, an authentic bar-room brawl filmed from close quarters and more scenery than you could shake two cameras at. How would this play with a decent 35mm print and a proper accompaniment?

Vidor's symbolism: The Sky Pilot arrives on donkey-back
It feels influenced by Hell’s Hinges and whilst being nowhere near as good as that film, still takes an interesting if largely un-surprising path to modern eyes at least.

Based on Ralph Connor’s novel of the same name The Sky Pilot tells the tale of Arthur Wellington Moore (John Bowers) a preacher who, appropriately enough arrives on a donkey to bring the good word to the town of Swan Creek.

He strides from his unwieldy steed straight into The Stopping Place, where gather “those who rode the wild trail to the cut-bank of destruction”. He is greeted by the seemingly-friendly locals led by ranch hand, Bill Hendricks (David Butler) who is aghast when he realises that the new arrival is a “Sky Pilot” (sailor's slang common in the West) a preacher sent to elevate the townsfolk to a higher plane.

The Pilot fights his corner
Bill and his boys have no time for such condescension and he sets about trying to belittle Arthur’s impromptu sermon in the bar. He pushes the preacher to the floor but Arthur gets up and knocks Bill down as the two begin a lengthy fight. Arthur is too skilled for Bill and after sending him down for the final time the cowboy draws a gun on him and his men run him out of town. But Bill’s not a man without honour and he pursues Arthur to pay his respect for a fight well won and to apologise… “Say Parson, I’d be mighty proud if you’d just forget about that foolishness of mine an’ just shake hands.”
David Butler and John Bowers
Bill figures out a way to help Arthur get his message across: he needs to prove himself as much of a man as the toughs around him. He gets the preacher a job as a ranch hand with his boss, Colonel Ashley (James Corrigan) and his wife Lady Charlotte (Kathleen Kirkham) who look on with glee as Arthur manages to hang onto one of their wildest horses.

The scene shifts as we meet Old Timer (Harry Todd) a man who is still cursing God for the death of his wife and his young daughter Gwen (Colleen Moore) who looks to have been raised in the saddle. Miss Moore had already been in westerns with Tom Mix and there are some impressive scenes of what looks like her riding a horse and trap at speed. This unexpected physicality aside, one is also reminded of the vitality of a Mary Pickford character.

Is that Colleen on the horse too?
Meanwhile, there’s a man in a black suit, Duke (Donald MacDonald) planning to steal the Colonel’s cattle and with the Old Timer’s help!

Duke’s men scope out the terrain and feeling that Arthur is getting too close, shoot and cause his horse to buck, throwing him into a deep ravine. As he is swept along by the white water, Gwen comes to the rescue and pulls him out using a rope and her horse: a handy gal!

Gwen to the rescue!
She takes Arthur home and soon Bill arrives – turns out he’s her beau kind of… and then he God-hating father arrives and discovering Arthur’s calling, boots him out and with Gwen’s blessing: clearly there are some issues to clear up before a happy ending can be arranged.

Gwen overhears the plot...
 But now events step up as Gwen hears of her Father’s plan to work with the Duke. The Old Timer ignores her pleas and goes ahead with the rustle only for Bill, Arthur and the boys to intervene. Gwen is on hand to help drive the cattle back but she is knocked form her horse and in an impressive scene, Arthur stands over her and in front of the stampeding cattle that look real enough: some brave stunt work here: initially the scene was filmed with a dummy until Bowers volunteered to face the cattle himself.

No humans were harmed in the making of this film...just!
Arthur carries Gwen back to her father’s and the doctor declares that she may never walk again. Having pulled his bible from the fire to pray for her to live, the Old Timer curses the invisible deity for leaving her broken-bodied.

But Arthur cares for Gwen and manages to lift her spirits to face her new situation and the two grow closer just as the Pilot’s best buddy is secretly building him a proper church in town. All will be revealed on Christmas Day in a series of exciting events that will change the course of all their lives…

OK… there’s not much here that wasn’t covered better in Hell’s Hinges but this is still an entertaining film with heart. Colleen Moore – here 22 years old – already has the uninhibited energy of her more famous roles and she steals all of her scenes as the believable girl-woman. In their book,King Vidor, American, Raymond Durgant and Scott Simmon describe how Vidor used her with a "knowing sophistication" with an "intermittent sexuality" unusual for the time and the genre's typical heroines.

Those Irish eyes are smilin'
John Bowers also has presence and excels in his bromance with David Butler’s Bill - such a shame we can’t see their acting in clearer detail! As with Moore,Vidor cast the smooth-featured Bowers against type - he's niether the rugged bible-puncher or City-soft milk-sop you could expect and has an inner strength that only becomes apparent in stages.

John Bowers
This was Vidor’s second production from his own company and it was filmed in the snow of Truckee in the Californian mountains – now the Tahoe National Park - near Carson City and Reno - and the sunnier flat lands of Fresno  – a large-scale undertaking that gives the film a visual depth coutesy of the cinematography of L. William O'Connell and Gus Peterson

The Sky Pilot is available on the aforementioned Alpha DVD either from or through Amazon: it is an un-restored bootleg of a film in the public domain and one I’d like to see in better circumstances!

King Vidor, American is still available through Amazon - a good read about an iconic director.

A river runs through Truckee

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