Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The celluloid Alamo: 2

 

(With) Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo (Sunset Productions/Aywon Film, 1926)

 

Today, I offer you the second in our series on films dealing with the defense and fall of the Alamo. In The Celluloid Alamo: 1, we looked at the earliest motion pictures. Let’s discuss this time the last silent movie centered on the now almost mythical action, a film that has barely survived (we have about 30 minutes of the six-reel one-hour original length) but we have enough of it to watch and appreciate, and luckily that footage contains all the Alamo part.

 

 

Anthony J Xydias was a kind of 1920s Bob Lippert, in the sense that he opened a movie theater, in 1906, so very early on; that became a chain of picture houses; then, becoming a modest tycoon, he decided to move into film distribution, then movie making. In 1921 he formed Sunset Productions and began to produce unpretentious program fillers, most of which were Westerns.

 

Anthony Xydias signs his star, Jack Hoxie

 

An immigrant from Greece grateful to the country which had allowed him to prosper so, Xydias wanted to make a series of patriotic pictures about American history. Kit Carson Over the Great Divide (1925) was followed in 1926 and ’27 by the likes of Buffalo Bill on the UP Trail, Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness and With General Custer at Little Big Horn. Film historians William Everson and George Fenin wrote that these films “were competent in their way, but fell short of their potential”, largely owing to small budgets. These films or fragments of them still survive and I’ll be writing more about them at some point – I’ve already reviewed the Custer one, which you’ll find in the index.

 

As those first Xydias theaters were in Dallas, it was perhaps natural that he should want to make in particular a movie about a story central to Texas mythology – indeed, Texas’s creation myth in a way. A press release on him said, “The stirring past of the country fired his heart, and old friends in Texas well remember his oft-declared ambition to transfer the epic of the Alamo to celluloid.”

 

An Osage, Oklahoma theater owner quoted in Moving Picture World Magazine at the time said that Davy Crockett was “the only one of the so-called Sunset Specials worth running. This one does very well. Tone, yes. Appeal, some.”

 

Frank Thompson, in his book Alamo Movies, is rather down on Davy Crockett, saying that even if the rest of it is recovered one day, “the film is probably not going to get much better if we see the whole thing; like all of the films from Anthony J Xydias’ Sunset Productions, Davy Crockett is slipshod and superficial, aimed at the lowest standards of a juvenile action audience.”

 

But I think that’s a bit harsh. I reckon it’s quite fun, and the set and the number of extras as Mexican soldiers weren’t bad at all. The acting was no worse than other silent movies of the day and the action rattles along.

 

It was directed by RN Bradbury, who would become well known to us Westernistas in the 30s with all those fast-paced one-hour Lone Star Westerns, fourteen of them with John Wayne. Bradbury had started as an actor in silent Westerns, back in 1915, and began directing in 1918. By 1926 he was an experienced helmsman.

 

Bob Bradbury with his son, Bob Steele

 

This Alamo picture was the first to put Davy Crockett front and center. In previous versions Crockett had been rather a secondary character. He was played by top-billed Cullen Landis, a Tennessean, who had been Tommy Oakhurst in John Ford’s (now lost) 1919 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat. He was only 30 at the time of the movie, to the real Crockett’s almost 50, but he looked older than previous youthful Crocketts.

 

Cullen was Davy

 

The first reel, which is preserved by the AFI, shows Davy looking sad when told by his pards that he has not been re-elected to Congress, so we must be in early 1835. He announces that Texas needs him, and he’s off to the Alamo tomorrow (actually he was delayed by a court case and didn’t go till November). This is a bit odd because the Alamo wasn’t being fortified or defended yet, but of course historical accuracy is rarely the strong point of Western movies (even if Alamo ones usually claimed extreme fidelity to the facts). The film in actuality provides no historical context at all. It isn’t suggested why Santa Anna (Fletcher Norton) might be attacking the Alamo or anything, just Davy announcing that “Texas must be freed from Mexican rule.”

 

Lige tells him he hasn’t be re-elected. But Texas needs him.

 

The film has begun, and will end, with an aged fellow telling his young grandson the story of Davy’s gallantry at the siege, so it’s a kind of flashback tale. I suppose the story in the film is told to us, the audience, in a similar way to the grandfather’s to the six-year-old. But that’s OK!

 

I liked the bit in the first reel when David, now kicked out of Congress, changes his top hat and tailcoat for proper buckskins and a coonskin cap, becoming Davy.

 

Some comic relief is provided by Frank Rice as Lige, ‘champion spitter of the South’. There’s no Susanna Dickinson figure, only men. Travis etches out the line in the sand with his boot and all the heroic martyrs rush to cross it, sick Bowie asking to be helped across. There’s no Moses Rose. There is a Mose, but he is back in Tennessee, played by Steve Clemente, for once not a white actor in blackface. He is a Negro who asks Davy to be allowed to come along to the Alamo but is sternly told no, he must stay and protect the women, “if necessary with your life.”

 

Bowie (13th-billed Bob Fleming, 33 Westerns) and Travis (12th-billed Joe Rickson, one of The Three Godfathers in the 1916 version) are curiously anonymous. There’s no backstory or attempt to portray them with any character traits. We don’t know why they’re there.

 

Bob Fleming was (a rather anodyne) Jim Bowie

 

One character is given a bit of limelight, though. That’s Pinkie (as he is first introduced on a title card, though the next time it’s Pinky) who is the messenger bringing the news that there will be no reinforcements, so it’s up to us now, fellows, and that’s the director’s son Bob Bradbury Jr, then 19, who would go on to find Western fame and fortune as Bob Steele. Much later he’d be Trooper Duffy in ABC’s F Troop, who was always bragging about having stood “shoulder to shoulder with Davy Crockett at the Alamo”. Well, he did.

 

 

Bob brings the news

 

As in Martyrs of the Alamo, the thirteen-day siege is rendered as one continuous attack/defense. Historically, Travis is believed to have been one of the first defenders killed, but films don’t usually find this dramatically convenient so they keep him alive longer. In Davy Crockett, though, he does perish earlier than the others. As he was such a relatively minor character in this version I suppose he could. The end comes not in an epic 1960-style huge battle but is more like a vicious brawl. Lige manages to spit in the face of a Mexican soldier before being killed. Pinkie rather unwisely contributes to the struggle by running round the Alamo waving a flag, a Mexican flag it looks like, but is then shot. Davy is the last to die, of course, heroically shirtless and battling to the last, taking dozens along with him. “Give them hell!” he often shouts. He manages his famous grin just before expiring.

 

There’s no San Jacinto or anything. The movie ends with the slaughter and the last scene is of bodies. So it’s pretty downbeat.  We just go back to the little boy and his grandpa. The child seems delighted: “Gee, Granddad, they didn’t give up, did they?” His grandfather turns to the camera and announces, “No, sonny, they didn’t. For they were AMERICANS.”

 

The set was rather good. It was based on the famous painting by Theodore Gentilz. Long shots show the whole compound but that was likely a model. The picture wasn’t shot on location in Texas but near Glendale and Santa Barbara in California.

 

Theodore painted it

 

The film is tinted (I don’t know if that’s original), so it’s in yellow-and-white or pink-and-white for the sunset shots and blue-and-white for night scenes.

 

It’s available as an extra on the DVD of Heroes of the Alamo, if you get the right edition.

 

An 1837 version of Davy’s death, unknown ‘artist’

 

In the next episode we’ll look at Heroes, the first talkie Alamo. Till then, happy trails, e-pards.

 

 

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