I think I might do a series of reviews of silent films with gay themes, focusing on those not covered as much as the big three that everyone talks about – Different From the Others (1919), Michael (1924), and Sex in Chains (1928). This obscure Tom Mix short seems like a good starting place.
A lot of cowboy movies are homoerotic, but for what’s ostensibly a story about two men trying to woo the same woman, Roping a Bride (1915) is one of the gayest films I’ve ever seen.
The film opens with Tom (Tom Mix) and Dick (Sid Jordan) sitting together on the grass. Tom helps himself to a cigarette from Dick’s pocket, Dick remarks how over the years they’ve “naturally got to like everything jest about the same”, and they both have a good laugh at nothing in particular.
Next, we meet Vera (Goldie Colwell), the only eligible woman in Snake Hollow (population: twelve). She’s looking for a husband and the obvious choice is either Tom or Dick, but she simply can’t decide between the two. Possibly because they’re inseparable. The pair arrive for a date of sorts with Vera on her front porch and they stay all night and into the next morning, but it’s mostly just the two of them – Vera greets them both and they talk a little, but then she goes inside for an indeterminate amount of time (returning “much later”, the title says). When Vera says she has to get breakfast going (I read it as a more polite “get the hell off my porch”), the two ride off together, side-by-side, Dick’s white horse in step with Tom’s black horse.
With Vera still undecided, an arbiter is appointed to choose a husband for her: Bill Bush (or maybe his name is Sile Burton – the intertitle introducing him and the signature on his letter disagree – played by Roy Watson). His first suggestion is a duel between Tom and Dick, but they immediately reject that option. He’s all out of ideas until, sometime later, he stumbles upon Tom and Dick both tossing a lasso around pole and laughing at nothing in particular. He writes a letter to Vera outlining his plan: she’s to stand on the road, and 400 yards away, Tom and Dick will wait on horseback. When she hears a gunshot, she’s to start running while the two men race toward her as each tries to catch her with his lasso.
Tom and Dick begin practicing – together, of course. Vera watches them from a distance as they lasso a donkey and a calf, kiss them on the snout, and deliver lines like “You’re the cream of my wheat, the sugar of my rhubarb, and the light of my lantern! Let’s you an’ me get hitched!” She finds it quite amusing.
The day of the competition arrives and all goes according to plan. Tom beats Dick to Vera and tosses his rope around her. He dismounts and kneels before her, but unlike the practice donkey, Vera slaps him on the face and screams “I wouldn’t marry either one of you, unless I were a calf – or a donkey! I’m going to marry a human being!”
Tom and Dick sit by the side of a barn, looking sternly away, but slowly they turn to face each other and a smile creeps across their faces. Tom grabs Dick’s hand and says “I’m powerful glad WE didn’t marry her” (his emphasis). Dick lights Tom’s cigarette and the two laugh as the scene fades out.
I’m never entirely sure if I’m reading too much into a film and finding subtext where there is none, but I showed Roping a Bride to my mother without any context and the first thing she asked after it ended was if that was the silent Brokeback Mountain, so at least I’m not the only one to get that impression.
When I think of Selig, I think of intriguing if crudely made films, but Roping a Bride is very well put together. It’s well written, well paced, and there are no major gaps in the narrative. It’s nicely shot, and although it could have used some close-ups, good use is made of medium-close shots. Most of all, the actors really breathe life into their characters – with minor gestures from Tom and Dick suggesting much that isn’t explicitly said. I would heartily recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon