Drive ‘em north
Well, I have some very good news for Western lovers. Readers of this blog may remember an article I posted in late September on the silent movie North of 36 (click the link for that), in which I lamented that the picture was not lost – copies exist and have been screened – but was unavailable for viewing to the general public. It was an ‘important’ film because it played a big part in the 1920s renaissance of the ‘adult’ Western started by Paramount’s The Covered Wagon in 1923, directed by James Cruze, and Fox’s riposte to that, John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924. Both were big-budget pictures, blockbusters, we’d call them now, with nation-building themes.
Reader Jean-Marie made some suggestions as to how I might track the picture down, and I set about my detective work. The European possibilities were not fruitful but I contacted the Library of Congress, which has a copy of the film, and the Autry Museum of the American West in LA, which screened it in 2021. I am happy to say that both the Research Room at the Autry Museum and Zoran Sinobad, Reference Librarian at the Moving Image Research Center of the Library of Congress, were both very helpful. They put me in touch with Charles Stepczyk, Senior Preservation Manager at the Paramount Archive, who told me there were no current plans for a commercial release but he might be able to get me a copy to view. Of course I jumped at that, and his colleague Michael D’Angelo arranged it. I am enormously grateful to these kind people, and impressed at their willingness to permit a viewing.
So, it worked! And I have just watched this really rather excellent Western. Hence, today, a proper review.
Just to recap briefly, the picture was to have been a follow-up to The Covered Wagon in many ways: directed by James Cruze again, it would also be based on an Emerson Hough novel, and it too would star Lois Wilson, who had been the female lead in the ’23 film, and Ernest Torrence, who had been such a hit in that picture.
However, according to a February ’24 issue of Film Daily, when Jesse L Lasky announced the production of the new picture, North of 36, he turned the movie over to Irvin 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, with Jack Holt, Wanderer of the Wasteland, a Zane Grey tale to which Lasky had bought the rights. This was a critical and box-office success. Holt would take the male lead in the new picture.
The bad guy would be 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 later 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. His character’s name is Rudabaugh, an excellent one for a Western badman – indeed Rudabaugh is one of the disreputable types in, ahem, my own novel Stay and Die – but I mustn’t get into that.
Lasky was ready to finance North of 36 handsomely. It would be an 8-reeler of 1 hour 20 minutes, shot by Alfred Gilks on location in Texas (the first major picture to be filmed there), with a massive herd of 4000 longhorns suitable to the cattle-drive subject, from a ranch outside of Houston, TX, at just the time when the owner, Bassett Blakeley, was ready to drive them to market. According to the AFI Catalog, 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.
The picture opens with quite a lot of written text, setting the scene and establishing the context and the ‘patriotic’ theme. For example: “The Texas Trail was no mere cowpath. It was the course of Empire.” Philip Ashton Rollins (a then popular writer on cowboys, cattle drives and the West). This puts the picture in the company of the Oregon Trail settlers, as in The Covered Wagon, and the construction of the transcontinental railroad, as in The Iron Horse, and their ‘manifest destiny’ nation-building themes.
It’s 1867. South of the old ‘slavery line’ of 36° latitude the country is ravaged and prostrate. Carpet-baggers infest the South, in their “quest for loot” and none is worse than Sim Rudabaugh (Beery), a former border outlaw who has somehow got himself made State Treasurer of Texas and is determined to get his greedy and ruthless hands on all the land scrip he can (a title card helpfully explains to us what scrip is), however underhand have to be his methods. He naturally has henchmen to do his nefarious bidding. One is Bob Kortman, another famous silent heavy, one of Thomas Ince’s regular villains.
The great Laguna del Sol ranch is now run by Taisie (Wilson), daughter of the former owner Colonel Lockhart, evidently murdered by Rudabaugh.
We meet Taisie’s ranch hands, whom she has no money to pay but they stay anyway, out of loyalty, headed by Jim Nabours (Torrence) and including Dell Williams (David Dunbar, Chingachgook in Leatherstocking the same year) who is soft on Taisie, and Mexican Cinque Centavos (Stephen Carr).
A handsome stranger arrives, Dan McMasters (Holt) with the news that the railroad has reached Abilene in Kansas and if cattle could be driven there, they would fetch a high price. Taisie determines to go, despite the dangers. Unfortunately, Rudabaugh’s henchmen overhear this, so we know there will be skullduggery along the trail.
There are now impressive scenes of the cattle being rounded up, and the excellent visual quality of the modern picture, in sepia, enables us to appreciate them. There are also these days rather unfortunate episodes of comic “lawdy lawdy” Negro servants but that was par for the course then. We just have to live with that. The silent singing and guitar playing also looks a bit silly, but there we are. In such a big picture maybe there was specially-written music in posh theaters to accompany the mute actors.
Naturally there has to be a stampede (de rigueur in all cattle drive Westerns since) and there duly is, pretty well staged, too. There’s also the crossing of the Red River, very well done with a camera in the back of one of the wagons. Then they have to traverse Indian Territory, and the Comanches are not best pleased.
There’s a curiously daring scene of an Indian maiden bathing naked in a river, assaulted by the lecherous Rudabaugh, who then shoots her and her chaperone or mother when rebuffed (the older lady fires an arrow at him). Rudabaugh laughs this murder off. “They were only a couple of squaws.” But the Comanche chief Yellow Hand (uncredited actor) thirsts for revenge. The cowboys are sore afraid. Luckily Colonel Griswold (Clarence Geldert) from Fort Sill arrives, and saves them. The cavalry and Indians negotiate a treaty: this drive and future ones will be allowed to pass through if the culprit of the murders is handed over to them. The colonel promises that it shall be so. But first they have to capture the swine.
And so they get to Abilene. This 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. It does look very authentic, and really quite impressive. Clearly Lasky was free with his checkbook.
The arrival of the herd is celebrated by the locals, allowing for some comic interludes, such as a mayor who can’t ride (Guy Oliver), cattle frightened by the band entering the saloon, that kind of thing. There’s a regrettable cockfight.
But Rudabaugh and his cronies haven’t given up and are still after Maisie’s trunk full of scrip (she brought it with her) so we build up to a showdown, and are not disappointed. Poor Dell is disappointed, though, when he sees Lois kissing Jack, but the cattle buyer Pattison (George Irving) offers him a job as manager in Abilene, so that’s a consolation prize.
There’s a grisly final scene when Rudabaugh is handed over to the Comanches, the Del Sol hands head back to Texas and all’s well with the world.
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.”
And I’m saving the best bit till last, dear e-pards, as a reward to those of you who have got this far in my review: the people at Paramount say that I “may share this with whomever needs to review. It should work in all browsers, but we recommend Chrome as the best option.” It’s limited time only, so first come, first served, but with a bit of luck you too can watch North of 36, by clicking this link:
Thank you, Paramount, much appreciated!