Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

White Gold (Producers Distributing Corporation, 1927)

 

Ho-hum

 

When I was reviewing the rather good 1979 picture Heartland recently (click the link for that) I said that it was in quite a long line of films about a woman facing hardships on the frontier and almost breaking under the strain.

 

This went right back to the early days of the silent movies. Famous Players’ 1917 five-reel picture The Land of Promise, based on Somerset Maugham’s play of the same name, and now lost, was remade by the studio (now called Paramount) in 1926 as The Canadians, an eight-reeler directed by William Beaudine. Between those two, in 1921, a six-reel movie directed by Henry King, also now lost, was released, The Sting of the Lash. That too concerned a young woman facing the ordeal of a brutally severe life on the frontier. MGM’s The Prairie Wife (1925) was a seven-reel melodrama from a 1915 Arthur Stringer story, part of the ‘Prairie Trilogy’; once again, it dealt with a woman having to come to terms with a hard life on the Western plains.

 

So the Cecil B DeMille-produced seven-reel (73-minute) film White Gold in 1927, dealing with a young Mexican woman forced to live a tough life on the frontier, was in keeping with this trend.

 

 

It starred Jetta Goudal, a vamp to rival Gloria Swanson and a protégée of DeMille, as Dolores, a Mexican cantina singer, who marries the stolid Alec Carson (Kenneth Thomas, in his only silent Western) and returns with him to his Arizona sheep ranch, in a time of drought.

 

Rather racy

 

The trouble is that Alec’s father (George Nichols, who had even led in a DW Griffith Western once, in 1911) is a bitter and twisted old man who deeply resents the newcomer and treats her almost as a rival. It is true that at the beginning, and indeed for most of the picture, she comes across as a shallow and spoiled creature who doesn’t do anything as demeaning as housework but lounges in bed a lot. This is perhaps a weakness of the movie, for we don’t sympathize with her enough.

 

Carson Sr sits around most of the day too, in a rocking chair (one which Hank Worden would have coveted) whose constant squeaking becomes an intense irritation to the young woman.

 

The old man sits around (they all do)

 

Then a stranger arrives, and, casting lustful eyes on the sultry Dolores, takes work on the ranch as a sheepherder (although again, he never seems to do anything; none of the characters do). This man, Randall, is played by well-known actor George Bancroft, who would make it big as the star of Josef von Sternberg’s Thunderbolt in 1929 and perhaps be best remembered by Westernistas as Marshal Curley Wilcox up on the box of the Stagecoach for John Ford in 1939. He had been excellent as Jack Slade in James Cruze’s The Pony Express in 1925. Unfortunately, he overacts in White Gold, mugging a lot and hamming it up, which is another of the picture’s flaws.

 

George overdoes it

 

This was probably down to the direction, not by DeMille (thank goodness) but by William K Howard, of whom the IMDb bio says, “Many of his early silents were commercially popular westerns, characterized by powerful images of rugged landscapes, often featuring sweeping plains and imposing monoliths. He excelled equally at spectacular action sequences.” That may be so, but in fact he’d only helmed four Westerns before this, two of them Zane Grey tales with Jack Holt in 1925, and White Gold is noticeably slow-paced and really rather turgid. You might almost think De Mille himself had done it.

 

Howard seems to be calling, “Action!” Pity there wasn’t any.

 

In the fall of 1926 Variety announced that the picture was to be directed by Donald Crisp and filmed in Australia, but that never happened, and according to a December 1926 issue of Motion Picture News, exteriors were filmed at a sheep/stock camp in Arizona. It didn’t really matter because there are hardly any exterior shots, most of the ‘action’ (there’s precious little) being filmed on a set representing the ranch house.

 

Some (much needed) comic relief is provided by Clyde Cook as ranch hand Homer, but this is of a slapstick kind, including a threading the needle party piece with Bancroft that would have been funny if Laurel and Hardy had done it but with Cook as Stan and Bancroft as Ollie, it didn’t come off. Homer also has a silly bit of cartomancy, with the ace of spades showing that death is coming, though we hardly needed a playing card to tell us that.

 

There’s some snazzy trick photography here and there, with double-exposure. Lucien N Andriot was at the camera; he would soon be one of the many cameramen on The Big Trail and would spend most of his time on B-movies and, later, TV.

 

The picture improves in the last reel as husband and wife fall out, he goes to sleep in the bunkhouse and Randall slyly waits till the man’s asleep (there’s an overlong bit showing him nodding off, in which we nearly do) then sneaks into Dolores’s bedroom – all rather daring for those days. The next morning, the old man declares that he caught the guilty couple and killed Randall. Dolores, now in whiteface and looking more vampire than vamp, refuses to explain to Alec because of his lack of faith in her. Destroying the evidence of her innocence, she throws the gun with which she shot Randall into the mud and walks away alone, to freedom.  She leaves behind her two bitter old men sitting on the porch. Downbeat, man.

 

Monroe Lathrop, drama critic of the Los Angeles Express, called it “a masterpiece … one of the ten best pictures I ever saw.” Crikey.

 

 

At one point a character demands (on a title card), “What are you waiting for?” and I feel the director and writers could have asked themselves the same question. The whole picture is too long and too slow, only coming alive in the last few minutes. One of the writers of those titles, by the way, was John Farrow, his first gig. At a 1990 screening in Columbus, OH, program notes promised that the story would be“…claustrophobic, oppressive and obsessed with lust and betrayal.” It was, vaguely, but only vaguely, and being ‘vaguely obsessed’ isn’t very exciting, honestly.

 

The ad claims to show “highlights”. Quite.

 

As a two-reeler, with better direction, it might have worked. But the following year we would get an infinitely superior treatment of this theme in the shape of The Wind, which will be our next review, so come back soon!

 

 

 

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