Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Darkening Trail (Mutual Film, 1915)


Melodrama in the Yukon


We were lamenting the other day, in our article on Lost Westerns, how many silent movies have decomposed, been thrown away, burned, or otherwise lost to us. This was certainly true of William S Hart Westerns. Two we do have, early ones he made with Thomas H Ince, are The Darkening Trail, a 4-reeler released in May 1915, and The Disciple, a 5-reel picture which came out in October the same year. Today and next time we’ll look at these.


Ince produced


The first was written by C Gardner Sullivan, later to be famous for his adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. He worked 24 times with Hart, between 1914 and 1925. It was a pretty dark tale, as the title suggests.


Sullivan wrote it


Hart directed it himself, as he was increasingly doing, and starred.


Bill Hart directed and starred


It’s an Alaska story, a melodrama, though a full third of it is taken up back East. There is a cad, Jack Sturgess, played by George Fisher, who often took cad parts, though rarely in Westerns – he did another Hart oater the same year and a (lost) Hoot Gibson/John Ford picture in 1921. Sturgess toys with an assistant in a department store, Ruth (Nona Thomas) but casts her off with a heartless short letter when she gets pregnant – this could not be stated but is very clear. Ruth’s father is furious and takes her to the Sturgess home, where Sturgess père (Roy Laidlaw) is sympathetic, and indeed threatens to cut Jack off without a penny if he doesn’t marry the girl.


Jack prefers to do a bunk, and heads for Alaska and, he hopes, riches.


Now we meet Yukon Ed (Hart) who is everyone’s friend. He proposes for the 43rd time to Ruby, who runs the store in Hope City. She turns him down again. She likes him but she doesn’t love him.


Jack does not understand local etiquette and in the Arctic Bar refuses the friendly offer of a drink by Yukon Ed. The cad’s punishment is to be tossed to the ceiling in a blanket, then ejected into the street and, in classic fashion, made to dance by shooting at his feet. Ruby is disgusted at this rowdy behavior and comes to Jack’s aid. Much to Ed’s chagrin, she falls for the handsome stranger hook, line and sinker.


There’s a tough puritan streak in Ed, though, because he turns up at the store with a parson and menacingly tells Jack that he knows he wants to do the right thing. A marriage ceremony ensues.


The reluctant bridegroom


But Jack is unhappy as a storekeeper and soon backslides into his old ways, consorting, drunk, with (again obviously but implied) a prostitute at the Halfway House, ditto re obvious/implied, a brothel.


He passes out, drunk, in the Alaska night, and Ruby comes to look for him. Wouldn’t you know it, he is fine the next day but she has contracted pneumonia. Jack doesn’t care. He smokes in her room.


Jack reluctantly tells the nurse that he will go to the next camp for the doctor there, but instead he goes back to his floozy and gets drunk again. He reckons that if Ruby doesn’t make it he can go back East with her gold dust. It’s Ed who gallops on the mercy mission and brings back the doc at midnight – but too late.


The cad says he’s going for the doctor – but instead…


Now Ed goes up to the Halfway House and drags Jack back to the store. Ruby’s last semi-delirious words had been, “Jack, dear, don’t let me go away alone!” Ed determines that it shall be so. She shall not go alone. He looks at Jack, pulls his gun… Fade out.


The last scene is Ed, alone in his cabin in the Alaskan winter, remembering his lost love. Fin.


So hardly an upbeat ending.


It’s pretty well done, though. The acting was quite restrained for the time. Hart himself was already learning to rein it in and the others are quite natural too.


Furthermore, the costumes and general ambience are pretty authentic-looking. This mattered a lot to Hart.


The picture is very much in the Victorian tradition of melodrama, but quite effective for all that.



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