Lionel Strongheart (Tom Mix) is out on a hunting vacation in the hills. He stumbles across a couple of moonshiners — Joe and Jeff — who shoot him. When they discover he’s just a hapless tourist, they take him back to their cabin where Nellie nurses him to health. Nellie is Joe’s daughter and Jeff is in love with her, although she turns down his marriage proposal. Joe promises to plead his partner’s case, but that’s sidetracked when Sheriff Jim comes with a warrant for Jeff’s arrest. Meanwhile, Nellie and Lionel have fallen in love and decide to marry.
There’s something about this film that doesn’t sit right with me. Several things, actually: it doesn’t look or play like the sort of films Tom Mix was making at Selig in 1915; I can find no release notices for a Selig film by the name “Man Hunt” — not in that year or at any other date — nor any newspaper ads or reviews; it looks most natural at around 22fps and not the 16-18fps Selig films usually run at; Mix looks noticeably older than he does in, say, Sage Brush Tom (1915), which I happened to watch immediately before running The Man Hunt; and the plot is awfully intricate for the film’s run time, and it strikes me as an abridgement of a longer work.
What I have is a 16mm print released by Castle Films — I’m not sure when, but the edge code of the film stock dates it to 1964. The titles are replacements. It names Tom Mix (and him alone), but it doesn’t suggest that it’s a Selig production or that it was originally released in 1915. The only place I can find making those claims is IMDb, and IMDb is… not exactly the most reliable resource.
I don’t think it is a 1915 Selig one-reeler. I think it’s probably a cut-down of one of Mix’s later Fox releases, either feature length or at least two or three reels long, and that “The Man Hunt” is simply the title Castle assigned it and not what it was originally called. Now I could be wrong, but that’s my impression. With that said, I can’t really criticize the film’s abruptness, pacing issues, or its weak character development — as what’s here may not be representative of what might have been intended.
So what can I say? Well, I can say that none of the cast is acting with even the slightest conviction. It’s good that the film tells us that Jeff is in love with Nellie, or that Nellie doesn’t care for the man, or that her father inexplicably does — because none of that comes across otherwise. The titular manhunt, which is introduced dramatically with “THE MAN HUNT IS ON!”, is an oddly sedate affair. The sheriff and I suppose deputy ride slowly up to the still and simply slip the handcuffs on Jeff without any real struggle or urgency and the film just fizzles out afterward. Father’s involvement with the moonshining operation seems to be forgotten, as does the attempted murder.
What’s here isn’t good, and I can’t imagine what isn’t here was very good either. In short…
My rating: I don’t like it.
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
Tom (Tom Mix) is Vicky Jordan’s (Victoria Forde) boyfriend. He’s a cowboy or something like that and has just ridden into Las Vegas to see Vicky and to visit the local saloon. At said saloon and after several drinks, Tom spots his old friend Ned Burrows (Leo D. Maloney) coming through the door. The bartender appears and he and Ned argue over something the audience isn’t privy to. Tom, a little tipsy, pulls out his gun and starts shooting wildly. Ned is hit. Tom staggers out of the saloon and rides away. He’s met on the road by another of the barflies who tells him that he “sure enough killed Ned” and that he had better clear out of town before the police find him. Tom hops a train and disappears into the night afternoon.
A week later, the Sheriff (Sid Jordan) receives a letter from his sister Bess (Helen Gilmore). There’s going to be a riding show in Los Angeles and she wants him to accompany her there, which he does, and who should he see among the participants…
Tom Mix and Sid Jordan made a boatload of short westerns for Selig in the 1910s. They were mostly comedies or action-comedies, but Never Again (1915) is more of a drama with a twist. The setup echoes the dozens upon dozens of other “drink” films that were coming out at the time. It was during the lead-up to Prohibition and the temperance movement was growing louder by the day. The first act of Never Again reminded me particularly of a somewhat less preachy What Drink Did (1909), but the second act abandons the hard-line approach for a much more moderate message:
The film ends with the Sheriff arresting Tom and taking him back to Las Vegas, only to deliver him into the hands of Ned, who it turns out wasn’t seriously injured, and to Vicky, to whom Tom promises that he’ll “never again get drunk”.
Tom doesn’t say he’ll never drink again, only never drink to drunkenness again. That is frankly remarkable. As far as the other drink films I’ve seen are concerned, alcohol is nothing short of the embodiment of all evil. To see one that hedges that claim even slightly is a puzzle. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I have an idea for why Never Again backs away from calling for an all-out prohibition.
Who was the target audience for Tom Mix films? They had a broad appeal, surely, but they weren’t most popular among rural audiences, they were watched most by inner-city children and their mothers. City dwellers were, on the whole, against Prohibition – the loudest voices calling for it were in the suburbs and countryside. There were a host of reasons for that, but a big one was that the temperance movement went largely hand-in-hand with the nativist movement, whose subscribers thought America was going to hell in a handbasket and laid the blame squarely on the recent influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Those immigrants congregated in cities, chiefly New York, and would have made up the core of Mix’s audience. It would seem to me that Never Again is trying to cash-in on the drink film craze while simultaneously trying hard not to alienate those targeted by Prohibition.
But I haven’t said much about what I thought of the film. It’s pretty good. Like most Selig films, it offers few details regarding the characters or story and it leaves even major plot points to the audience’s imagination, but it has a certain crude charm that makes it very agreeable to watch. I’ve said before that I’m attracted to Selig films for reasons that I can’t entirely express, but I think that comes nearest to explaining why. That, and the fact that the output of any major studio that somehow re-imagines itself as a zoo when the movie business dries up can’t help but be intriguing.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon