Definitely worth a look
Redskin is a most interesting film and it certainly repays a watch.
One reason for this is that it was in color. Color films, including Westerns, are older than we might think. Click here for our essay on that subject. Right back in the 1900s motion pictures were produced that had each frame laboriously colored by hand but as early as 1906 a new process was launched, called Kinemacolor, which shot color film. In 1911, in Hove, England, one of the industry’s pioneers, Theo Frenkel, made a Western in Kinemacolor, Fate, a 19-minute short about an Englishman who becomes chief of a tribe of Indians. It is astonishing to think that the first color Western, now tragically lost, was produced in 1911, and in England.
The first feature-length Western in color, Wanderer of the Wasteland, was made in the United States, by Paramount. It was one of the silent movies the studio made using Zane Grey stories (Jesse Lasky had bought the rights from Grey) and it starred Jack Holt and Noah Beery Sr. It was a six-reel (60-minute) picture and was directed by Irving Willat. It used an early Technicolor, the so-called two-strip process, which employed green and red filters. I don’t know if this film exists for viewing but I can’t find it, more’s the pity.
But of course in 1929 color Westerns were still mighty rare.
Redskin was directed by Victor Schertzinger. He was a musician – a violinist with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, a conductor and a composer. But he directed 89 movies, from 1917 on, ending with Paramount’s 1942 musical-romance The Fleet’s In. By 1929, six of them had been Westerns, or sort-of.
The film was tinted for some of its length and presents in a kind of sepia but the scenes which concern the Indians (it’s a Navajo story) and that’s about 80% of the film, were shot in Technicolor two-strip color. The talented Edward Cronjager (whom we’ll be discussing in our next post) was responsible for the black & white parts, and very good some of the shots are too, but the color scenes, which required different cameras and lighting, were entrusted to two photographers, Edward T Estabrook and Ray Rennahan. Estabrook had only shot filmed Western before (he would do a couple of Audie Murphy oaters late in his career), while Rennahan would become one of the great Western cinematographers, working, for example, on Duel in the Sun, whose color is absolutely stunning, Drums Along the Mohawk, California, Rage at Dawn, and many more.
Two-strip Technicolor looks a bit crude now that we are used to modern color films, and we especially miss the blue, but it was a revelation for the day, and the critics were fulsome in their praise. Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times wrote, “So beautiful are many of the natural color sequences in Redskin, which was launched last Saturday evening at the Criterion Theatre, that the spectators were impelled to applaud some of the lovely visions that greeted the eye.” Variety called it “a beautiful piece of camerawork” and added that “mountains, mesas, sky, clouds and shades in the Indian regalia are impressively picturesque.”
The picture was released with an accompanying soundtrack on nine Vitaphone gramophone records, to be played in theaters. Advanced, huh?
But leaving aside the pioneering technical aspects, there’s another reason for watching Redskin. It’s actually rather a good film.
Western-lovers sometimes think that pictures like Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway and Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow (both 1950) were revolutionary in that they showed American Indians as serious people – indeed as people at all. This pro-Indian stance was seminal in the sense that slowly (it took time, for sure) Western movies began to portray Native Americans as victims, not savages. It is true that the Mann and Daves films had a great influence. In so many oaters before, Indians were just nameless hordes to be shot down, for example by John Wayne with his Winchester from the roof of the Stagecoach. But it is sometimes forgotten that many early Westerns, going right back to the silent days, were in fact pro-Indian – in a slightly patronizing way perhaps, but nevertheless. See our article on American Indians in Westerns by clicking the link.
Redskin does not manage to avoid the patronizing assumptions. Early in the first reel we are introduced to the local Indian Agent, played in a comic-relief way by the great Tully Marshall, and we are told (on a card – it’s a late silent movie) that his trading post is “the only evidence of civilization.”
We see a young Navajo boy, Wing Foot, named for his running skills, members of whose family try to hide him from Walton, the white man come to take him off to school (Larry Steers). However, they fail, and the lad is carted unceremoniously off to what turns out to be a very military-style academy for Indians of all tribes. It was filmed at the Chinle Indian Boarding School in Arizona. That’s a problem because the Navajo and Pueblo peoples are sworn enemies, and young Wing Foot is mocked and mistreated by his Pueblo classmates. Still, he meets and falls for a young Pueblo girl, Corn Blossom. He refuses to salute the American flag and is whipped for it by Walton.
Time passes. Now grown, Wing Foot is played by Richard Dix in make-up. Dix had been noted in Cecil B DeMille’s silent The Ten Commandments in 1923 but had then specialized in Western movies and become a leading figure of the genre. His burly frame and athletic prowess got him a contract at Paramount, and indeed these talents would be utilized in Redskin, as we shall see. Redskin was one of his last pictures for the studio. He would soon move to RKO and become their top star, notably in the big Oscar-winning picture Cimarron in 1931.
He wins a scholarship to a top college, and the winsome Corn Blossom (now Julie Carter as Gladys Belmont – American Indian actors were not used) gets a job at the university as a stenographer, in order to follow him there. He uses his athletic abilities to become the college’s top track star and he is fêted. But it soon appears that he is a trophy, a token ‘redskin’, only tolerated because he wins for the college. Even a young fellow student who likes him, trying to be nice, says, “You sure acted white. For a redskin.” He decides to return to his people in Arizona.
There, though, he is rejected and ostracized by his father, the chief (George Regas) and the medicine man (Bernard Siegel) as being too white. He finds himself in a no-man’s land, regarded as too Indian to be white and too white to be Indian.
Some of the location shots are darn good, I must say. At an exhibition at MOMA in 2015, it was said “the film’s true star is the extraordinary location photography in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly and New Mexico’s Valley of the Enchanted Mesa.” Kevin Brownlow, a film historian, noted: “The color in the original print is breathtaking; Redskin leaves an impression of a kaleidoscope of awe-inspiring backgrounds, with such much happening in the foreground that one hardly has time to take in the whole frame. The color is used for emotional impact; black and white (toned amber) represents the world of the white man; color is reserved for scenes of Indian life.”
Meanwhile, his love has been called back to her people, the Pueblo, on the pretext of a sick mother, only to face a forced marriage, with the coarse and brutal Pueblo Jim (Noble Johnson). But Wing Foot will seek her out there (scenes filmed at Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico) and foil the dastardly plan. There’s a definite Romeo and Juliet vibe going on in this bit, or a Far West Side Story.
It is, I suppose, a bit on the corny side. But if you make allowances for the time, you can actually see quality in the story and the way it is filmed.
There’s a good action climax (shown in the Magnascope widescreen process during its initial release in New York City at the Criterion Theatre) when Wing Foot discovers oil on the Navajo land but some unscrupulous oilmen (white, natch) biff him on the head and race off in their automobile to register the claim. Wing Foot isn’t called that for nothing: he runs – and runs – to get to town before them and thwart their shenanigans. Mind, the speeded-up film helps. Now rich, he gives half the profits to the Navajo people and the other half to the Pueblos, securing peace ‘n’ love, etc. Naturally, he is rewarded with the hand of the fair Corn Blossom.
I liked this movie.
And to anyone interested in the history and development of the Western genre, it’s definitely worth 82 minutes of your time.