Satan Town (Pathé, 1926)
Ladies and gentlemen, I feel that I need to apologize. I don’t often watch videos. Usually when I watch something, I’m screening a film print. When I’m running something that I’ve half a mind to write about, I’ll have a video camera off to the side vaguely pointed at the screen so that I’ve got a file to pull screenshots from. It’s sometimes out of focus and poorly exposed, and maybe the top or bottom of the frame is cropped off, and the picture is always horribly skewed, but everything went wrong with today’s screenshots. I am sorry.
Satan Town — “The Wickedest Place in the World – Tourists Welcome”, so says the banner across main street. Bill Scott (Harry Carey) rides into the city looking for adventure. At the Palace Hotel, the wickedest place in Satan Town, Sue (Kathleen Collins) of the Salvation Army strives to reach one or two of the drunks, gamblers, and prostitutes that throng the saloon.
Malamute (Ben Hendricks), the bouncer at the bar, never shies from a fight, and what’s more, he’s never lost one. Sue, to her misfortune, has gotten on his nerves. Bill enters just in time to get between Malamute and Sue. After a brief but spirited battle, Malamute is bested.
It doesn’t end there, of course. Malamute attempts revenge several times and is repelled by Bill at each turn. The direct approach not working, Malamute tries a more indirect route. Sue gets a letter from Pearl, a prostitute at the Palace, saying that she’s ill. When Sue gets to room 16, however, she’s met only by Frisco Bob (Charles Delaney), the band leader. Bob is in cahoots with Malamute to ruin Sue’s reputation and thus drive her out of town. As Bob approaches menacingly, Sue picks up a convenient gun that was left on the table. Bob is undeterred. When he’s almost on her, she fires. Bob is not hit. The girl standing in the doorway, however, is. Pearl crumples to the floor, dead.
The evidence is against her and Sue is arrested. On the way to jail, Bob rides in and sweeps up Sue. A mob forms to retake her, but just then, a woman appears (I don’t know who it is — doesn’t really matter) and tells them that Pearl isn’t really dead. All of it was staged to frame Sue — Pearl and Bob are laughing it up at the bar this minute. Malamute, who’s been in the background all along, sees his plans unraveling before his eyes. He pulls his gun to shoot Sue, but Bill’s quicker and shoots him first.
The worm begins to turn. The mob rather suddenly switches sides. “Let’s wipe out the whole rotten town!” a woman cries. The way it’s acted and blocked, the scene plays out very much like the False Maria inciting the workers scene in Metropolis, so much so that, if it weren’t for the fact that this film is a year older, I’d say it was ripped off from it. As it is… well, I wonder if Fritz Lang was a fan of westerns.
Bill and Sue embrace in the middle of the road, the town literally in flames around them as a crazed torch-wielding mob races about in a frenzy of destruction, left “to a life of peace and happiness”.
I liked it. The film’s kinda hokey, its plot’s a little thin and what plot it has is well-worn, Carey is very much taking his cues from William S. Hart’s good bad man shtick and the whole story bears more than a passing resemblance to Hell’s Hinges (1916), but for all that, I liked it. It helps that it’s easy to look at, being very well acted and expertly shot (though the screenshots may not seem so). And the title is great; how could anything called Satan Town be bad?
The only questionable things are a couple of weird tonal shifts. The film was advertised as a western drama and nothing else. For everything between the first scene and the last, I wouldn’t argue that. It is, on the whole, a melodrama that’s played completely straight, but the satire is so in your face at the open and close that I can’t believe it was unintentional. I’m not sure what they were going for with that.
My rating: I like it.