Sunday, 12 March 2017

Way out West with Vilma… Kennington Bioscope, Silent Western Saturday

In his introduction to The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), Kevin Brownlow revealed that Samuel Goldwyn’s wife had been the Imelda Marcos of silent film preservation… The great mogul had stored all of his films in her closet and, in order to make room for her shoes, she cleared them out except for the ones featuring Ronald Coleman and Gary Cooper.

Those men are two big reasons to celebrate this remarkable film but it also features some of the most stunning cinematography of the era and if you think Abel Gance was impressive in capturing equine movement on frame than check out Henry King and his cinematographers George Barnes, Thomas Branigan and Gregg Toland. In close quarters to the excellent restoration projected tonight you could almost be alongside Ronald and Gary as the sun-baked, sand-drenched, landscape swirls around you in a crystal clear golden-yellow.

Vilma Banky
And on top of all that you have Vilma Banky… but today was about more than just one film and one generation but a celebration of the vast breadth of silent westerns; a genre so broad it deserves sub categorisation.

I hadn’t seen a single film on the programme for the inaugural Bioscope Silent Western Saturday, but it featured familiar names, Bronco Billy, Tom Mix, Rex the Wonder Horse… Somehow these once hugely-popular stars persist in memory alongside the real characters they emulated. More than just history, Westerns are part of America’s mythology – in some cases the real cowboys and cowgirls became performers on stage, circus and in film and eventually, inevitably, a cowboy-actor became president followed, more recently, by a low-down, no good, dirty double-crossing gambler.

William S Hart resists!
Programme 1: Shoot 'em Up Starter Thundering Hoofs (1924)

Kevin Brownlow introduced this action-packed opener with a clip from his Hollywood series in which he’d interviewed Hoofs’ director, Albert S. Rogell. Rogell explained how his star, Fred Thomson, former athlete and Great War veteran, had fallen under a four horse stage coach during the film’s set piece chase in which he has to jump on and pull the vehicle to a halt. He ended up in hospital with leg injuries while his director figured out how to finish off the scene using a stunt double - the ground-breaking Yakima Canutt.

Fred Huntley, Willie Fung and Fred Thomson in Thundering Hooves (1924)
Again, those blurred lines between reality and fiction. Thomson’s a likeable hero with considerable energy and the twinkling smile of a genuine star. His honest cow-poke, Dave Marshall, is more than a match for the scheming Luke Severn (William Lowery) and succeeds in relieving him of both the girl, Carmelita Estrada (picture-perfect, Anna May) and the horse, Silver King the Horse - played by, of course, Silver King, a horse.

The story was written by one Marion Jackson, which may or may not have been a nom de plume for Frances Marion, Thomson’s wife.

Lilian Henley played along with a lightness of touch and a refusal to over-play the wild-west chord sequence on the piano: all in keeping with Thomson’s playfulness and Hoofs’ romantic heart.           

Programme 2: The Early Western

John Oliver talked us through the genesis of the Western with a mix of Eastern-Westerns and Western-Westerns… Initially the genre was mostly filmed out East with the very first western, Cripple Creek Bar-room (1899), being filmed on a New York City roof. As films drifted towards better lighting conditions in the actual west, the authenticity increased along with the scale of the scenery.

Mabel Normand and Dark Cloud in The Squaw's Love (1911)
The Squaw’s Love (1911) directed by Griffith for Biograph showed how the treatment of Native Americans also changed over this time. Here they were the centre of the story – albeit including Mabel Normand in make-up – in an adventure of their own.

By the time of The Indian Vestal (1911) Indians were seen massacring a group of settlers and making off with a blonde child who becomes their medicine woman (Viola Barry). After years of providing mystical services for the tribe she meets a white trapper (Hobart Bosworth) and one thing leads to several others.

Custer’s Last Fight (1912) was historically interesting for showing how Custer was viewed thirty years after his demise but it lacked the dynamism of the fictional films being too concerned with fact. It was still fascinating all the same: even defeats need to be explained away by the ultimate victors.

Broncho Billy’s Adventures (1911) ended the morning on a light-hearted high as Billy (Gilbert Anderson) intervenes to make sure true love runs smooth as he fends off would be suitors for a hotelier’s daughter (Edna Fisher). Not your typical Billy but he couldn’t get the girl all of the time.

Meg Morley accompanied for this section with the surity of a sharp-shooter waiting to pounce on the slightest shift in tone and narrative. She and used some intriguingly unresolved progressions for Broncho Billy that stuck in my head for hours.

Programme 3: A Cowboy's Best Friend

Lunch consumed, the pace picked up in two fast and furious action films featuring horses, or rather ponies and a wonder horse. The pace was breakneck and, in spite of three horses being top billed in Rex’s film, the stories were dramatically compelling.

"Thrills? Man, you never knew what the word meant before!"
Saved by the Pony Express (1914) saw Tom Mix jumping on an off a succession of ponys to illustrate the importance of this fast moving postal service in saving your pal from wrongful conviction. Whilst in The Devil Horse (1926), we got to see how a horse could fight, fall in love and “hate Indians”; truly Rex was a wonder as well as being a horse – if not a politically-correct one.

John Sweeney played along at full gallop crashing down hard on the deeper notes with all the force of Rex’s thundering hooves.

Programme 4: Women Out West

Michelle Facey presented a session on female western stars and went so deep into her subject she uncovered a film featuring a troop of – currently – unknown actors. Michelle had clearly been burning the midnight oil lamp, locked in her North London garret with stacks of primary sources and the ghost of Vilma Banky, she brought back to screen a series of wonderful western women.

Josie Sedgwick was a crosspatch Calamity Jane in The Sawdust Trail (1924) and I just wish we could have seen a bit more to see her land one on the sneaky “Hoot”(yeah, sure…) Gibson.

Texas Guinan
A Girl of the West (1911) featured Lillian Christy as the pugnacious Polly Dixon, a girl who can handle horse, fists and rifle as well as any man as she proves in foiling an audacious robbery. Apparently the decade featured over 60 serials featuring such women of independent thought and deed: that sounds like a trend to me.

The Substitute (1911) was the mystery film and the only named contributor is Lillian M Rubenstein which is a shame because the actress playing Jennie Rock a fearless telegraph operator and station agent, is superb, full of character and guile. Another case for The Silent Detective…

Two Little Rangers (1912) was directed by Alice Guy Blache and featured Vinnie Burns a stuntwoman turned actress as the eldest of two feisty sisters who put paid toe “Wild Bill” Gray’s nefarious plans. At one point Vinnie’s character fashions a bow and arrow out of sticks and – presumably – a garter strap: there’s resourceful!

Vinnie Burns at Cliffhanger Point in Fort Lee, NJ for Two Little Rangers (1912)
Last up was Texas Guinan, once described as “the female William S Hart”, in South O'Santa Fe (1919). Texas plays a tough girl throughout and you’re in no doubt that she as deadly as the males.

Lillian Henley and Meg Morley took turns on the old Joanna.

There was so much detail to savour; it would be good to learn more…

Programme 5: William S. Hart The Narrow Trail (1917)

Kevin Brownlow showed us his own 35mm print taken from the original camera negatives and reminded us that once upon a time “they all looked like this”. The print was indeed very sharp, with the odd century-old blemish but an authentic look, free of digital clean-up – an analogue experience created by light patterning photosensitive cells.

For me this was the film of the day, an almost flawless 75 minutes of pacing, performance and glorious scenery – including San Francisco Bay.

Sylvia Bremer and William S. Hart
Hart is mesmeric in this film and, in spite of his 53 years, his Ice Harding is a believable leading man effortlessly shifting from heartless highwayman to a lovelorn loser in search of a perfect second chance, he covers it all with actorly grace whilst sitting in the saddle with the true conviction of a western soul.

He’s saved by the love of a good woman Betty Werdin (Australian-born Sylvia Breamer – the spit of Helena Bonham-Carter!) who has more in common with him than he knows. There’s an excellent fight sequence in which Ice takes on half a dancehall in something approaching method-brawling; it’s people like William and Lillian that brought authenticity to the early screen.

Neil Brand accompanied in emphatic style throwing in some resounding themes and noir flavours reflecting the film’s cinematic prescience: Laura and lassoes… whose heart can you really trust when the lies run so deep?

Programme 6: Mrs Goldwyn’s favourite men

The day ends as it began with Mr Brownlow introducing the stunning Barbara Worth. The film starts like an outtake from Greed as a young woman (Vilma Banky) buries her husband in the sand and then battles to save her daughter from a sandstorm. It’s a brutal beginning and photographed so clearly it could have been made tomorrow.

Vilma Banky in The Winning of Barabara Worth (1926)
The woman perishes but her daughter, Barbara, is found alive by a Mr Worth (Charles Willis Lane) and grows up to be played by Vilma. This western is definitely in the Civil Engineering sub-category and tells the story of how Mr Worth and his business rival, McDonald (Ed Brady) try to dam the Colorado River and irrigate the Californian plains.

Ronald Coleman plays Willard Holmes who works with the rival whilst Gary Cooper plays Abe Lee the boy Barbara grew up with. Their romantic rivalry runs parallel to business as the mood gets mean as McDonald refuses to recognise the need for additional reinforcements on the dam… In a film like this that’s never a good sign. Sometimes the story doesn’t quite match the splendour of the scenery but it is a magnificent thing all in all and fitting end to a day of surprises and high quality.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied filling the huge spaces with Death Valley cool as humanity fights for life and love against overwhelming heat and the onrushing Colorado River.

Ronald, Vilma and Gary
All thanks to those who organised and volunteered – it was the warmest day of the year outside on the streets of Kennington but inside we drifted the high plains sipping a heady brew of past glories tasted amidst live light and music.


  1. Just discovered your blog - what a treat! I found this article about the films fascinating to read and it has got me off googling all over the place to find out more. A wonderful treasure trove to explore at leisure.

    1. There's a lot to discover of the silent world past and present!

      Thank you very much for reading and your kind comments.

      Best wishes.