Bad guy turns good guy to save innocent woman. Boiled down, that’s the plot of The Gun Fighter (1917) and of 90% of William S. Hart’s filmography. He played the part well, his films remained popular, and with few exceptions, neither he nor the studio (Triangle-Kay Bee, in this case) saw the need to deviate from the formula.
Cliff Hudspeth (William S. Hart) is an outlaw in the goldfields of Arizona. A rival band, lead by a bandito known as El Salvator (Roy Laidlaw), tells him that he’s claimed the town of Desert Pass and that his band had better clear out. As a reply, Cliff kills one of El Salvator’s tough-talking men. The town milliner, Norma Wright (Margery Wilson), witnesses the murder and is disgusted by it.
The town is being ravaged by El Salvator, and Colonel Ellis Lawton (J.P. Lockney) knows that, outlaw or not, Cliff is the only man who can take him on. Cliff agrees to lead an attack, but the plans are overheard and El Salvator strikes first. Norma is kidnapped during the raid. Cliff promises her little brother Jimmy (Georgie Stone) that he’ll rescue his sister.
Cliff peers through the hideout window and sees Norma being menaced by El Salvator. Cleverly, he shoots out the exterior light so that he’s invisible from inside, then aims and takes out El Salvator. Norma escapes. Cliff, who had been injured during the raid, watches her ride off across the desert before collapsing.
Child actor Georgie Stone, a couple years older since his performance in The Doll-House Mystery (1915), turns in a more nuanced performance as Jimmy. J.J. Dowling’s active Ace High character here is quite a departure from the serene Patriarch in The Miracle Man (1919). William S. Hart is, as ever, William S. Hart – stonefaced and showing little emotion, very serious – entirely the opposite of his rival Tom Mix over at Selig studio (and later Fox). The only performance that really didn’t work was Roy Laidlaw’s El Salvator. The character is much too absurd to take seriously. He would feel more at home in a Speedy Gonzales cartoon.
Hart films did occasionally show a little variation (recall The Captive God (1916)), but the plot here is your standard good-bad-man. It’s a decent example. The Gun Fighter was written by the rather prolific scenarist Monte M. Katterjohn, and Hart, who also directed the film, had this style of story down to a science.
I wouldn’t suggest watching too many Hart films at a go – they kind of all blend together – but The Gun Fighter is well made and entertaining enough to recommend.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Kitty Manning (Gloria Swanson) is the wife of Jim (Lee Hill), master of the Cybar train station. Cybar is a nothing town nestled deep “amid the desolate southwestern plains” and Kitty, who had been used to big city life before marriage, is suffering from an extreme case of ennui. A theatre agent (Ward Caulfield) overhears her singing one day and, impressed by her vocal talent, offers to find her a job. Kitty is excited at the prospect and eager to talk it over with Jim, but Jim ignores her – his life is focused on his railroad/telegraph duties to the exclusion of everything else. That night, Jim finds a note on the table – Kitty has left him.
She meets with success and becomes a chorus girl in a small revue, but at least one person thinks she should aspire to greater heights. That would be Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett), the president of the Pacific Railroad. He’s friends with the director of a major theatre in San Francisco and wants to establish Kitty there, which, after some hesitation, she agrees to.
Kitty misses a connecting train on the way to San Francisco and is forced to spend some time at Hell’s Station – a place even more isolated than the station she escaped from. It’s also manned by a married couple, but the wife here suffers from none of Kitty’s listlessness and Kitty begins to envy their happiness together.
Meanwhile, Jim is relocated to a new station and leaves for Victorville. A violent storm destroys the Hell’s Canyon bridge, over which Jim’s train is bound. Kitty, ignorant that Jim is on board but knowing that the train is doomed if it isn’t warned in time, takes it upon herself to brave the storm and “certain death” danger of crossing the canyon to stop the train.
Gloria Swanson’s filmography is usually divided into two periods: her early work at Keystone, where she starred opposite Bobby Vernon in a series of one- and two-reel slapstick comedies; and her later work at Famous Players, after she became Cecil B. DeMille’s go-to dramatic leading lady. Almost forgotten is the year she spent at Triangle between those two epochs, even though it’s the pivotal part of Swanson’s career.
The Keystone shorts are inane in general and Swanson’s character in them is essentially undefined. The only identifying trait I can think of is recklessness, and that’s hardly unique in slapstick. She was upstaged by a dog more than once. (Seriously, Teddy the Dog was a bigger name than either Swanson or Vernon at the time.) The high melodrama of her Triangle pictures were a great change of pace and really allowed Swanson to test her mettle as an actress and make a name for herself in the process. Roles like Marcia Grey in Shifting Sands (1918) and Kitty Manning here in Station Content (1918) were what led to her becoming a favorite of DeMille and achieving super-stardom in the 1920s. It’s unfortunate that so little from this transitional period in Swanson’s oeuvre survives.
On that note, most seem to think Station Content is a lost film, too. They’re not entirely wrong – what survives is an abridged copy, not the film DeMille was so impressed by in 1918. We lose out on some of the more salacious subplots, like Stephen Morton being Jim’s boss and Kitty having an affair with him. It’s just sidelong glances and a vague suggestion of things unsaid now. What saddens me is that we don’t get to see more of the action set pieces; I’m very impressed by the camera work in those that do survive. Arthur Hoyt was primarily an actor. If you’ve read my other reviews, you might remember him as Henry Caron from Trumpet Island (1920). He only directed one film before Station Content and quit directing immediately after. I can’t imagine why. There’s something about the simple composition of his shots that’s perfectly effective at conveying the characters’ emotions. Particularly striking is the scene with Kitty standing on the tracks in front of the train as the rain beats down, her arms outstretched as if crucified, with the headlight from the train morphing into a halo over her head. It’s an image of contrition and the hope of redemption.
I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for sentimental melodrama, but I think I’d like Station Content even if I weren’t. I give a strong recommendation for it.
Side note: it’s usually the case that the entire cast and crew of all the films I watch are long dead, but I can’t say that of Station Content. The baby in the Hell’s Station sequence is Fay McKenzie, and at least as of my writing this, she’s still alive at the age of 95.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Having acted on the stage for over a decade, Douglas Fairbanks broke into pictures by joining the Triangle Film Corporation in 1915. Audiences immediately took to his handsome looks and lively acting. As a rising star, he quickly outgrew Triangle and left for greener pastures in 1916. Not wanting to lose out on the profits that a film headlined by Fairbanks would bring in, Triangle took one of the last movies he made while he was still under their employ – the 1916 five-reeler The Matrimaniac – and used it along with some outtakes to assemble a new two-reeler that they released under the guise of a completely new Fairbanks picture in 1917: The Missing Millionaire.
If you’ve seen The Matrimaniac, you’ll surely recognize the footage, but not the story, as The Missing Millionaire follows an entirely different plot.
It starts with quite a cold opening – an old man in a bathtub, a couple of people standing around looking suspicious, Douglas Fairbanks slashing somebody’s tires – and it’s actually about five minutes in before we’re given the slightest clue what’s going on, but it turns out that the story isn’t too complex. Jonas Byng (Fred Warren), a seller of patent medicines and a hypochondriac himself, has just inherited a million dollars. His cousin Zeke (Clyde E. Hopkins) is eager to get his hands on the money, which he plans on doing by having Joe declared insane and naming himself the executor of his estate. Jim Lawton (Douglas Fairbanks), a shoe-salesman, is in love with Joe’s daughter Mildred (Constance Talmadge) and very much wants to prevent Zeke from robbing her and her father of their fortune. The bulk of the film (and by bulk, I mean all) is a race to the judge, with Jim and Joe on the one side and Zeke and Mildred (who he’s taken hostage, I guess) on the other.
Fairbanks gives an acrobatic performance as Jim – scaling walls, running on rooftops, tightrope-walking on telephone lines, clinging to the underside of a moving train – and Warren plays the doddering, absent-minded old man convincingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters’ actions made a great deal more sense in The Matrimaniac. Even as simple as they’ve tried to keep the plot, the movie still feels like it’s about to come apart at the seams any minute. It’s an obvious cut-and-paste job that only barely stays coherent.
The film ends with an abrupt twist that I’ll admit was unexpected, but it’s the sort of twist that the film treats as a resolution, but when you stop to think about the situation even for a moment, you realize it doesn’t resolve anything at all. At the conclusion of the film, pretty much all of the main characters, with the exception of maybe Mildred, should be in prison given all the laws they’ve broken up to that point.
It has the elements of a good film (and I mean that literally), but The Missing Millionaire isn’t a good film itself. I don’t recommend it, apart from as an oddity owing to its curious creation.
Incidentally, The Missing Millionaire wasn’t the only re-edit of The Matrimaniac: the one-reeler A Telephone Marriage (1926) was also edited from it. All three films survive. It’s interesting watching them back to back to see all the different takes on the same footage.
My rating: I don’t like it.