The only surviving footage of Tom Mix directed by John Ford
In 1920 John Ford moved from Universal to Fox, where he was paid more and felt he had more scope. Ford’s first Western there was with Buck Jones, whom Fox was promoting as a kind of counterweight to the studio’s increasingly demanding big star Tom Mix, and the delightful Ford/Jones picture Just Pals of 1920 still exists (click for our review).
However, William Fox was clearly grooming the young director for greater things – in 1924 Ford would be entrusted with Fox’s epic reply to Paramount’s The Covered Wagon by directing The Iron Horse. And so in 1923 Ford got to direct two pictures with star Mix.
In March ’23 the studio released Three Jumps Ahead, a 50-minute 5-reeler (with a part in it for Jack Ford’s brother Frank), now tragically lost – like so many silent movies. Then in November, another 5-reel picture, North of Hudson Bay, came out.
Most happily, forty of the fifty minutes of this picture still exist and can be viewed on the Internet Archive (click the link). It has Czech credits and intertitle cards (luckily with superimposed English translation) and was called in that language V boji se smečkou vlků (Fighting a Pack of Wolves) but I don’t know the history of how it was found and rescued.
Whereas Buck Jones Westerns were budgeted at $20,000, Mix ones habitually cost $50,000, so Ford had scope for some location shooting, representing winter Canada by filming in Yosemite (which is presumably where he found the wolves, which howl – silently – in the opening shots) and around Truckee. There are also rather cheap-looking and obviously fake interiors but that was normal.
At this time Mix did quite a few Canadian-setting Westerns, such as The Cyclone (1920) and Up and Going (1922), and as the title suggests, this was another. Ford did his best to give us the frozen north.
The screenplay was written by Jules Furthman, from his own story. Furthman was a journalist who began writing films in 1915. When the US entered World War I he used the name ‘Stephen Fox’ for his screenplays because he thought his name sounded too German, but he reverted to his real name after the war. He would become one of the most prolific and well-known screenwriters of his time, later doing the screenplays of some of respected films such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), To Have and Have Not (1944) and Nightmare Alley (1947).
The photography was by Daniel B Clark, who also later worked on important Tom Mix movies such as The Great K & A Train Robbery, Destry Rides Again and Riders of the Purple Sage. Some of it is noticeably good, though much has suffered with deterioration of the print.
Tom is Michael Dane, who lives “on a small farm in western Canada” with his sainted elderly mother (Jennie Lee, the faithful servant in The Birth of a Nation) in a Canadian cabin.
Mother Dane’s other son Peter, Michael’s brother, is away adventuring while Tom is (surprisingly perhaps) a home boy who looks after his mama. Peter is played by quite a thin-looking Eugene Pallette, in his early thirties. Eugene initially played leads in silent movies and was described as relatively athletic (he too was in Birth of a Nation and he played Aramis to Douglas Fairbanks’s D’Artagnan in 1921). The enormous girth would come later.
Peter is away prospecting, and indeed, with his partner Angus McKenzie (Will Walling, who would be fourth-billed in The Iron Horse for Ford in ’24), he has found gold. The crafty and villainous Scot McDonald (Frank Campeau, who would be the top-hatted Spade Allen in Ford’s Three Bad Men in 1926) plots to get his greedy hands on the claim. To do this he rigs up a sneaky booby-trap which kills Peter, and Angus is held responsible.
McDonald has evil henchmen (of course), his nephew (Frank Leigh) and (I think) a crooked Mountie (habitual heavy Fred Kohler, who worked six times with Mix and would also be a bad guy in The Iron Horse).
Now the beautiful Estelle, McDonald’s niece, appears, played by Kathleen Key, who had been signed by Thomas Ince and would later feature in MGM’s Ben Hur. She later had a passionate affair with then-married Buster Keaton – when he ended their romance in 1931 she beat him up and ransacked his dressing room. Then she was arrested for drunk driving. Scandalous stuff. Of course, it will be (chaste) love between Tom and her. There’s also a bit of comic ‘business’ with her hat and that of a pipe-smoking Indian woman.
There’s only one sentence for murder up here in the frozen north – the Death Trail. Angus must fend for himself in the Canadian winter without food, horse or a gun. But close to death, he finds Michael, who helps him, though anyone who gives aid to a man on the Death Trail must join him. McDonald tries to get Tom, I mean Michael, to sign over his claim and then attempts to shoot him with the rigged gun but the swine fails, he and Michael struggle, and McDonald is killed. It’s the Death Trail now, for sure.
Clever Estelle now figures out how the villains got Peter and she bravely sets out in a canoe to save her beloved. Meanwhile, out in the wild, the wolves are coming! Michael wrestles them. It’s touch and go but he drives them off. Estelle finds him but the bad guys are close behind in a second canoe. They grab her but it’s Michael to the rescue, biffing the baddies. Now Estelle is adrift in her canoe with no paddle, and the rapids are approaching! It’s dramatic stuff, I can tell you.
Then, just at the crucial moment –
The film stops. Curses.
Well, I have a sneaking suspicion that in the last reel Tom probably saved the heroine and they lived happily ever after – with a share of the mine. Just a guess.
If you like Tom Mix movies, and are interested in early John Ford, you’ll go for this one. Mix was moving into a less comic phase – he’d soon be doing serious roles like his unsmiling Lassiter in Riders of the Purple Sage. And though many of the shots are pretty basic stuff, there are glimpses of Fordian artistry here and there.
Definitely worth a look.