I’m writing about a film today but not reviewing it, as such. That’s because I haven’t seen it, and indeed my main reason for posting this article is to make a plea to anyone reading as to how I might get to see what is, quite clearly, an ‘important’ Western.
It’s not available on DVD and it’s not on YouTube (as many silent Westerns are). It still exists: a print is preserved in the Library of Congress and has been restored by that archive and there was a screening of the restored film in the summer of 2011 in upstate New York. The picture was also shown in December 2021, at the Autry Museum of the American West, in Los Angeles, CA. But I’m not sure how valuable it is to deem a film “historically and culturally significant” yet not make it available for viewing to the general public. We need to see this one! It isn’t lost but it might as well be.
A bit of background: in the early 1920s the genre was in the doldrums. Westerns of the time were unremarkable, often two-reelers, often juvenile. Tom Mix was all the rage and was making movies like Just Tony, Sky High or Tom Mix in Arabia – a whole lot of fun, certainly, especially for boys, but no one would call them splendid or even serious examples of the genre. Even more adult and better dramas like King Vidor’s The Sky Pilot and William S Hart’s Three Word Brand (both 1921) made little stir. 1922 saw a mere fifty Westerns released and most of these were second features or programmers.
But Paramount’s The Covered Wagon (1923) and Fox’s The Iron Horse (1924) – click the links for our reviews – big-budget epics both, suddenly made the Western both bankable and respectable. Jesse Lasky Jr said that this was by design: the goal of James Cruze, director of The Covered Wagon, was “to elevate the Western, which had always been sort of a potboiler kind of film, to the status of an epic.”
The Covered Wagon premièred in New York in March ’23 but was held back by Paramount and shown all through the year in different cities (and countries). Not to be outdone, Fox replied immediately, starting filming in January ’24 a similarly expensive ‘nation building’ epic, The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford, with the hint of a suggestion that just as trains had replaced covered wagons in the West, so Fox’s Western movie would replace Paramount’s… Ford’s picture was released in August.
Paramount had to come back. Cruze would make another major ‘nation-building’ film for Paramount, The Pony Express (again, click for review) but that would be not be released till the fall of 1925, so first the studio had another picture card up its sleeve. Cruze would direct a second expensive epic, also featuring Lois Wilson and Ernest Torrence, as Covered Wagon had, which would be, like that picture, a filming of an Emerson Hough novel, to bear the book’s title, North of 36.
However, according to a February ’24 issue of Film Daily, when Jesse L Lasky announced its production, he turned the movie over to Irwin Willat. Willat had directed only one Western before 1924, a comedy 5-reeler in 1919, but he had been a camera operator on The Covered Wagon and, more importantly, had been entrusted by Lasky with another major picture, released in the summer of 1924, also with Jack Holt, Wanderer of the Wasteland, a Zane Grey tale to which Lasky had bought the rights. This had been a critical and box-office success.
Work began on the new 8-reeler.
It had to have another ‘epic’ and nation-building theme. The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall reported, “The magnificent courage of those sterling Texas cattlemen immediately after the Civil War is portrayed vividly in the picturization of the late Emerson Hough’s trenchant story, North of 36, which is the feature at the Rivoli this week. And again one is stilled with pride and admiration as one harks back to the valorous deeds of rugged, resourceful Americans. There was The Covered Wagon, which told in inspiring scenes of the men and women who in defiance of danger and deprivation forged their way in primitive vehicles to the far-off Pacific coast. Then came the presentation of William Fox’s The Iron Horse, which told of the same blood and brawn bending its efforts in spanning a continent with steel. This new film deals with the heroic exploit of driving 4,500 head of cattle more than a thousand miles.”
Woven around that big theme there had to be a Western, of course, with action, skullduggery and romance. The AFI Catalog gives this plot summary:
In order to find a market for her cattle, Taisie Lockheart, owner of a large Texas ranch, decides to drive a herd across the thousand miles of Indian territory between the Lone Star State and the new railhead at Abilene. Sim Rudabaugh, the state treasurer, who is amassing a fortune by the accumulation of land scrip, plots to steal the scrip for Taisie’s ranch but is foiled by Dan McMasters, who is in love with her. When suspicion unjustly falls on Dan, he is fired by Taisie; he then joins up with Rudabaugh so as to discover Rudabaugh’s plans and forestall them. On the trail, Rudabaugh’s men stampede Taisie’s herd at night, and only the skill of her ranch hands prevents the loss of the cattle. Rudabaugh then kills two Comanche squaws, and the Indians go on the warpath but are fought off by the Lockheart men, led by the foreman, Jim Nabours. After a gala arrival in Abilene, Taisie sells her cattle at $20 a head and Dan overpowers Rudabaugh in a fight, handing him over to the Comanche chief. Taisie and Dan are reconciled and soon get married.
Sounds like gripping stuff.
Lois Wilson was Taisie. She was no Swanson or Dietrich. Before The Covered Wagon she was a schoolteacher and only part-time an actress but now she was a star (she’d co-star with Warner Baxter in the 1926 Gatsby and do some quite big pictures, including Westerns, notably with Richard Dix).
The scurrilous and crooked state treasurer, Rudabaugh (a good Western badman name, that) was habitual heavy Noah Beery, fifty feature oaters to his credit, nearly always the villain, with Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro in 1920, also in Republic’s talkie serial version in 1937, opposite Dix and Wilson in The Vanishing American in ’25, the bad guy in the 1931 version of Riders of the Purple Sage, and so on. He was one of the great silent villains.
The hero, though, Dan, was granite-jawed Jack Holt, topping the billing. He’d been a leading man since going to Paramount in 1917 and he became one of the studio’s top stars, especially in Westerns. He’d do a lot of those silent Zane Grey pictures Paramount made (most of which would be remade as talkies in the 1930s by Henry Hathaway, often with Randolph Scott, who was made to wear a Holt-like ’tache so that re-used footage from the silent would fit).
Torrence, a huge hit in The Covered Wagon as the cranky old scout Jackson, was ranch foreman Nabours, though according to Mordaunt anyway, “Mr. Torrence, while he fills a rôle somewhat similar to that he had in The Covered Wagon, does not have the opportunity to impress his appearance upon the spectators as he did in that famous picture.”
Again according to AFI, chief cinematographer Alfred Gilks detailed the making of North of 36 in an article in the Jan 1925 American Cinematographer. He called the film “a location picture, so to speak. In the two and one-half months that we galloped over the Texas plains, sometimes shooting from a lofty platform and at other times from the lurching floor of a floating wagon, we were not only living under primitive conditions but, cinematographically, we were photographing under like circumstances.” He generally had to rely on natural light. Film makers often played up their hardships during shooting (doubtless sometimes validly), comparing their ordeal to those of the original participants in the events filmed. This picture was in fact the first important film to be shot in Texas.
The production located a herd of 4,000 long-horn cattle on a huge ranch outside of Houston, TX, at just the time when the owner, Bassett Blakeley, was ready to drive them to market. The cattle drive, which duplicated a similar event in the 1866-75 period, consisted of three covered ox-carts, thirty-two “expert cow-punchers” hired at a Houston rodeo, and an equipment and cooking crew of four. The 4,000 cattle were strung out over a distance of four miles along the old Texas-Kansas cattle trail, Gilks wrote. The film crew kept to the speed of a regular cattle drive, which was from twenty to thirty miles a day for the first week and, later, as the cattle got tired, twelve to fifteen miles a day. Many of the shots of the actors were taken during the morning, when the cattle grazed, and at twilight, as the cowboys made camp. The cattle village of Abilene, KS, was built by the set director using mostly local carpenters. Among the buildings erected were a hotel, hardware store, saloon, dancehall, blacksmith shop, livery stable, general store, and a dozen houses, all copied from engravings in old books and newspapers.
I can’t say more about the action of the film because as I said above, I haven’t seen it.
The picture was released on December 22, 1924 (four months after The Iron Horse) and got enthusiastic reviews. The New York Times said, “There are some wonderful stretches in which thousands of head of cattle are seen in a marvelous and thrilling stampede, and later being driven across a river. These sequences impart an excellent conception of the well-nigh impossible task facing the cattlemen.” The critic added, “Miss Wilson is decidedly attractive in this picture. She is a composed and restrained heroine.” However, he did say, “But although the picture is a good one, it is by no means equal to The Covered Wagon. One of the chief failings in this production is the lack of real suspense, which materially weakens the whole story.”
The December 10, 1924 issue of Variety, however, said that it was “without doubt almost as great a picture as The Covered Wagon.” The reviewer, Fred, informed exhibitors that “North of 36 will get money in any type of house and interest and enthuse all types of audience.” The reviewer agreed that “Miss Wilson is the altogether charming” heroine. “The picture is finely directed,” Fred said, and added, “It is American, and with all its seriousness has in it a vein of comedy that lightens the heavier moments.” It was, he concluded, “A whale of a picture that will clean up.”
And critic Epes W Sargent in the Motion Picture Review of the day said that “It is inevitable that all stories of the winning of the West shall be compared to The Covered Wagon, just as The Birth of a Nation continued to be the standard of measurement long after the splendors of that first big play had been eclipsed. In North of 36 Irvin Willat has produced a story that can hold its own well with the story of the Oregon pioneers.” It is clear that The Covered Wagon had become by then the standard of reference. Sargent added, “At all times the photography is worthy of the unusual scenic settings and there are a score of shots, the stampedes and the night herding, any single frame of which is in itself pure art. Remington never did better with his figures nor Bierstadt with his landscapes.” The critic concluded, “The entire production has been cast with unusual skill to add to the ensemble. North of 36 is an achievement rather than a production.”
Have you seen this picture? Do please leave a comment if so. And, as I said above, if you have any idea where I can procure a copy, please do let me know, in a comment or at firstname.lastname@example.org If I do get to see the film, I’ll add my own slant on it in a future post.
To read how I finally did manage to see this film, and a fuller review, click the link below: