Worthy, if a tad dull
Continuing our current thread of ‘important’ 1920s Westerns, today we’ll look at a big Paramount picture from a time when, Fox having released John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) to respond to – and try to upstage – Paramount’s The Covered Wagon (1923), Jesse Lasky was coming back against William Fox with more ‘epic’ Westerns. These big-budget motion pictures were now all the rage. 1925 was the year of Bill Hart’s Tumbleweeds and Fox’s latest version of Riders of the Purple Sage. These films emphasized their historical and patriotic credentials: they were about the bold builders of the nation, settling the ‘empty’ wastes, crossing the continent, creating today’s America.
At the same time, there was a growing interest in the condition and plight of American Indians. The prevailing notion that Indians were only a menace, an obstacle to civilization, and that the only good Indian was a dead one, in a phrase attributed (though he denied it) to General Sheridan, was certainly strong all through the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, but there was also a trend of admittedly rather patronizing but nevertheless largely pro-Indian thought, which regarded these peoples as ‘noble savages’ who needed to be protected. James Fenimore Cooper had his evil and dangerous drunken Huron Indian Magua, yes, but he also had the dignified, courageous and loyal Uncas and Chingachgook, who were the last of their tribe, the Mohicans. There was a growing sense of curiosity, even pride among Americans of European heritage in the indigenous inhabitants of their land. Rarely has an archaeological discovery aroused such general interest as did the Folsom point arrowhead, named after the site in Folsom, New Mexico, where the first sample was found in 1908 within the bone structure of an extinct bison, Bison antiquus. The Folsom point would be identified as a unique style of projectile point in 1926. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 which limited European immigration led to American focus shifting inwards, to its own heritage. In 1924 (at last) Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the US. Native American peoples were now officially Americans.
It was in this context that Jesse Lasky put together the project of The Vanishing American.
It was, rather strangely, renamed The Vanishing Race in the UK, but actually, the American part is integral to the plot and message. At one point the heroine schoolteacher Marian (Lois Wilson) has the Indian children salute the flag (with that old-style salute that came to look unnervingly like the Nazi one), telling them they are true Americans and the constitution promises “liberty and justice for all”. Perhaps they were American citizens when the film was made, though as the story is set at the time of World War I, they weren’t yet. But in any case, patriotism is an essential part of the project.
Ms Wilson, by the way, had been a schoolteacher in real life, and only a part-time actress until she was cast in the blockbuster The Covered Wagon, and her career then took off. She was in Paramount’s big North of 36 in 1924 and she would be Daisy Buchanan in the 1936 The Great Gatsby with Warner Baxter.
Richard Dix was the Indian hero (the fourth of seven times he would co-star with Lois). I’m calling them Indian, by the way, as the title cards do throughout; the people concerned are never named. As the tale is set in Monument Valley (well before John Ford) they perhaps are Navajos but this is never specified. Dix is often thought of as the burly leading man at RKO in the 30s but before then he was a top star at Paramount, and he had led in two other Zane Grey-based silent Westerns there in 1923, To the Last Man and The Call of the Canyon (in the latter he also played a hero coming back from fighting in the Great War). It was of course quite normal to have white actors play American Indians, and the other principal ‘Indians’ in the story are also white – for example, Charles Stevens, about whom I was waffling the other day (click the link for that) has quite a big part as Shoie (Stevens wasn’t Apache as sometimes claimed). There are clearly some Indians, Navajo probably, in the group, though. Dix would have another major role as an Indian at the end of the decade in Redskin (link to our review).
The story is historical, almost anthropological, as a lengthy (20’) prologue recounts in social Darwinist terms how succeeding races were conquered by vigorous newcomers, the so called Basket Makers replaced by Slab House People, these vanquished by Cliff Dwellers, then the warlike “Indians”, next Spanish conquistadores and finally Kit Carson, played by Guy Oliver. [In 1940 the director of The Vanishing American would return to Kit Carson in a big Small production, but that’s another story.] This prologue established the ‘educational’ cred of the movie, though it is, to be frank, on the long and boring side. The film is overlong (a bit like this review) at 10 reels (110 minutes) and could usefully have been cut. Variety opined that “With cutting, the picture should improve, and it certainly can stand scissoring, as the first part is exceedingly draggy.”
The modern print isn’t too bad, in fact, and you can appreciate some good photography here and there, by Harry Perry (who would later work on Hell’s Angels and Wings) and Charles Edgar Schoenbaum – his third of fifteen silent Westerns, often with director George B Seitz, as on The Vanishing American.
Seitz would probably not be accorded the title of ‘a great director’ and he spent a lot of his career making B-movies. The IMDb bio says of him, “A prolific director, Seitz, unlike many of his B-picture colleagues, survived the transition from silents to talkies quite well, and directed everything from comedies to dramas to westerns at most of the studios around town. Although he spent a good amount of time at Columbia, he came to be most closely associated with MGM, where he directed – among others – almost all of the entries in the fondly remembered ‘Andy Hardy’ series.” He does a workmanlike rather than inspired job on The Vanishing American.
The Zane Grey novel, adapted for the screen by Ethel Doherty, had been published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1922/23, and it offered an unusually harsh portrayal of American government policies towards American Indians. The author painted white settlers as missionaries who preyed upon a subordinate race, forcefully converting them to Christianity and polluting their ancient way of life. This didn’t go down well. According to Grey biographer Thomas Pauly, “The magazine was deluged with angry letters from religious groups, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs vehemently denounced his depiction of their efforts.”
In response to these critics, Jesse Lasky persuaded Grey to tone down the negative portrayal of the American government in the film. Grey agreed, and instead of the whites all demonstrating contempt for Native Americans, the film script placed most of the blame on the corrupt character Booker. Booker would be played by resident Paramount heavy Noah Beery (Sr, obviously), who was the bad guy in most of the studio’s Zane Grey oaters, including the later talkie remakes. He was splendidly villainous.
According to an interview with Lasky in September 1925, the idea for adapting Grey’s novel into a feature film came about when he and Lucien Hubbard (who got a writing credit), the editorial supervisor for Zane Grey Productions, received an invitation from Grey to visit Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge in northern Arizona. Lasky was entranced and after spending nearly two months there, suggested they use the vast ranges as the background for a motion picture.
So that’s how it all started.
Finally the prologue ends and we get to the story proper. All these 20s Westerns had to have some kind of ‘Western’ plot at their center; they couldn’t be just historical/educational. There had to be outlaws, gunfights, and so on, as well as a love story, obviously. This one is no exception.
The Indian Agent on the reservation is Amos Halliday (Charles Crockett) but he is ineffectual and uninterested and he leaves the running of the place to the crooked Booker, who is carrying out various scams at the Indians’ expense, notably confiscating their horses under the pretext that the animals are diseased and selling them for $90 a head. There’s a benign white presence in the shape of a “government farmer”, Bart Wilson (Bert Woodruff). The kindly Wilson, beloved by the Indians, is set up as a last-reel replacement as Indian Agent, once the villains have been ousted.
You can tell Nophaie (Dix in redface) is a goody because he is nice to a little boy Nasja (Nocki, in his only film – I think he may have been Indian). The kid has quite a big part.
Booker is not only a crook, he also lusts after schoolteacher Marian (Marian in the title cards, Marion in the credits). As you know, ever since The Virginian schoolteachers in the West have been attractive and saintly, as doubtless they still are. Marian is especially so. She adores the little ‘uns and lets them play all the time (except when they are saluting the flag). Naturally, Marian repels the advances of the loathsome Booker and prefers (chastely, of course, they only shake hands) the bold and handsome Nophaie. She presents him with a New Testament which he keeps always in his bosom. Finally Booker goes too far, assaulting Marian, Nophaie whacks him and has to flee, for no one will believe him over the white official.
Now the Lusitania is sunk, war looms and the US Army needs horses. The Indians’ horses. A handsome Captain Ramsdale (Malcolm McGregor) appears, and his eye falls on the fair Marian as well as the horseflesh. Marian finds Nophaie and persuades him to bring the herd in, which he does. Not only that, he enlists. He will fight in the white man’s army – for patriotism is all (Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times said, “The orchestra injects enthusiasm by the playing of Over There”) and maybe, if the Indians serve the flag well, their conditions will improve.
So now the action shifts to France and we see, with appropriate red tinted film, the Battle of the Somme. Nophaie becomes a sergeant. He is brave and resourceful, and though wounded he gallantly saves the life of Capt Ramsdale. He was tempted to leave the captain in his shell-hole but then he looked at his New Testament.
After the Armistice, Nophaie and his fellows return but now things are even worse. Useless Halliday is gone but has been replaced by the wicked Booker. Oh no! Booker spitefully tells Nophaie that Marian has married Ramsdale, though it isn’t true. Booker has taken their fields and driven the people out into the desert. The Indians are pretty cross about this and gather for war. Nophaie, mindful of his New Testament, does his utmost to stop them. The braves won’t listen and so Nophaie runs to the white settlement to warn them. Booker prepares to use a machine gun against the Indians but, hooray, he gets an arrow through the throat before he can do so. Nophaie goes out to stop the fighting. “They won’t hurt me. I am their brother.”
He is felled by a bullet. He takes out his Testament and there’s a hole in it. We expect that the book saved him, but nay! The slug passed through and into his breast. It’s curtains for Nophaie. Maybe if he’d had the Old Testament it would have blocked the path of that bullet but the slim New one didn’t. His last words urge white man and red to live in peace, which they immediately do.
It’s all a pretty heavy-handed and melodramatic morality tale, I fear. And as a Western, it isn’t much good. Certainly The Vanishing American as screen version is not a patch on other big-budget films of the era. Of course it has its moments but overall, seeing it once is probably enough.
Despite heavy promotion by Paramount, reviews at the time were not glowing. The New York Times thought that “Marion Warner, the schoolteacher enacted by Lois Wilson, is pretty, but Miss Wilson reminds one of this fact too frequently, what with blinking her eyes to a sort of Morse code and wearing gowns that would be apt to attract any scoundrel. She has several pairs of high-heeled shoes that are hardly the sort of thing to wear in such a wild place.”
Variety said that “The Vanishing American, a Paramount production which has been widely and widely heralded as the ‘picture of pictures’, failed to live up to the advance work done for it.” The review added, “It is a ‘western’ but there is no big moment that will stir.” Variety didn’t even warm to the theme of the plight of the Indians: “The story itself calls attention to the vanishing of the real American, the Indian, off the face of the North American continent. Nothing is said about the Indians who are living in Oklahoma at this time and drawing down a weekly royalty … and riding around in sedans which they discard immediately after a tire blows, so as to get a new car.” I don’t think Variety at the time was the most liberal of organs.
As for the trade press, the Motion Picture News said, “The camera work is remarkably fine, and the battle scenes, including the bow-and-arrow and hand-to-hand engagements between redskins and cave warriors; as well as those in France with modern weapons; are the acme of realism and spectacular lure.” The review added that “it ranks as one of the really big and impressive films of the season, with pronounced educational as well as entertaining values”. Harshly, if probably accurately, the review also said, “The romantic interest is developed by a love affair between an Indian chief and girl schoolteacher. As the latter is white, it became necessary to kill off the red man in deference to the popular feeling against marriage in such cases.”
More recently, Dennis Schwartz wrote, “It’s best remembered for its historical value, that it was the first feature film to sympathetically tell of the contemporary plight of American Indians, and its star Richard Dix (a white man playing an Indian) gives a memorable performance as the sympathetic Indian hero.” Actually, it wasn’t the first. Many of the early silents in the DW Griffith and Thomas Ince era showed the ‘noble savage’ in his sorry plight, though Schwartz does say “features” and many of these were shorts. Schwartz makes the point that “Though the melodrama is conventional and the overall acting is stilted, it gets kudos for … pointing out the obvious that the Indians are the first Americans, a race who should be respected for their culture and humanity, and the Indians deserve like any other American protection under the law.”
The film was presumed lost for a long time until a copy was found and made available thanks to the efforts of the excellent American Film Institute, therefore it is unlikely that Anthony Mann or his writer Guy Trosper saw it before making Devil’s Doorway in 1950, the film which, with Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow, ushered in the pro-Indian Hollywood Western of the 1950s. However, the similarities between Mann’s film and The Vanishing American are considerable. You have an American Indian played by a white man (Richard Dix/Robert Taylor) fighting in a ‘white man’s war’ (World War I/the Civil War) and returning to the even more unjust treatment of their people. Both men fall for a white professional woman (teacher Lois Wilson/lawyer Paula Raymond) and both men die, in a way as a consequence.
There was a remake of The Vanishing American in 1955 by Republic, directed by Joe Kane, with Scott Brady as ‘Blandy’ and Audrey Totter as Marion.