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Top 10 Memorable Silent Westerns Worthy of Watching
The following list of recommended photoplays was selected first based upon the overall quality of the production and the unique contribution made to early western cinema. Also, recommended films are based upon their availability to the general public, since many great and not so great western films of this era were inadvertently destroyed due to deterioration of the nitrate film, loss in an occasional studio fire, or hording away in a private collections. The following movies are listed in rank order as to my humble opinion of the most highly recommended films. They were selected after having viewed many silent westerns, including the often-referenced western films by historians such as THE COVERED WAGON, THE SQUAW MAN, THE PONY EXPRESS, STRAIGHT SHOOTING and THE VIRGINIAN.
1. THE IRON HORSE
(1924) – This was John Ford’s first major western endeavor. The motion picture, in its truest sense, is an epic film, one that holds its own, even in the 21st century. The souvenir programs, sold at its premier at Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, besides listing “The Characters and the Players,” noted that the film included “A regiment of United States troops and cavalry, 3,000 railway workman, 1,000 Chinese laborers, 800 Pawnee, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians, 2,800 horses, 1,300 buffalo, 10,000 Texas steers.” The telling of the construction of the first trans-continental railroad even used the “actual old time locomotives” that were used in the building of the railroad: the Jupiter from the Old Central Pacific and Engine 119 of the Union Pacific. Also, the supporting cast included a few of those who actually were a part of the railroad construction crews whose challenging mission was fastening the belt buckle across the new country’s mid-section.
A youthful, virile George O’Brien was featured as the male lead. His leading lady was Madge Bellamy. The Ford Stock Players, in its early formation, besides O’Brien, included J. Farrell MacDonald, Francis Powers, James Welch, and George O’Brien’s brother Jack. An evil Fred Kohler, Sr., one of the early westerns’ great heavies, played the main villain. Behind the scenes, was Colonel T.J. (Tim) McCoy, from the Wyoming State Militia, who went on to be a major western star of the B westerns, was responsible for securing the services of the plains Indians, and for directing their involvement in accordance with the wishes of the director. Charles Kenyon and John Russell wrote the William Fox Production story and the excellent cinematographer was by George Schneiderman.
The film began as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, a personal hero to John Ford and the political maneuverings required to commence this major undertaking. The plot presented both sides of the building of the railroad, from the Central Pacific with its mix of primarily Irish and Italians to the Union Pacific with Chinese “coolies” doing the grunt work. Intertwined was a subplot of O’Brien being on the trail of the murderer of his father.
The cast and crew were subjected to the difficult weather conditions on location in northern Nevada. The breath of the actors and horses on the snowy plains depicted the harsh environment that all those involved had to endure. Flease were reported in the accommodations for the cast (railroad cars) and crew during the hot months, forcing them to sleep outdoors. During the winter they slept in the hastily built railroad towns, which were drafty and cold.
This almost two and a half hour cinema is still a remarkable film even to this day. It has pathos, excitement, and humor, and is a visual history lesson of one of the major triumphs in the building of our country. It also served as the forerunner to the many great film stories that were to be made by the legendary director John “Pappy” Ford, such as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine and The Searchers. Later, John Ford referred to The Iron Horse as being his favorite western film that he directed.
2. THREE BAD MEN (1926) – John Ford’s second major scale western was based on Herman Whittaker’s novel Over the Border. No, it is not Peter B. Kyne’s The Three Godfathers, which was also directed by Ford in the 1948 version and earlier in Marked Men (1919) starring Harry Carey Sr.. In terms of pure entertainment, it is as a memorable epic film as The Iron Horse.
The film starred George O’Brien; the hero of The Iron Horse and the femme fatale was Olive Borden. However, the most memorable characters were the three outlaws for which the movie was named. They were Tom Santschi as Bull Stanley, the broad shouldered, forlorn leader of the trio: J. Farrell MacDonald as Mike Costigan, who played an important role in The Iron Horse, and Frank Campeau as Spade Allen, the card shark. The arch nemesis was Louis Tellegen, who played Sheriff Layne Hunter, a character that one truly loves to loathe.
As alluded to earlier, John Ford recognized that the background location for a photoplay was as important as the script and the actors involved. He took his film crew to Jackson Hole, the Mojave Desert, and the Victorville area in California. Once again, he was able to capture the majesty of the Old West with sweeping panoramic shots. His Dakota land rush scenes with hordes of folks with gold fever was similar in scope to William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds depiction of the Oklahoma land rush.
The story about the Dakota Territory gold rush began with Olive Borden and her father bringing a string of thoroughbred horses out West. George O’Brien was a cowboy trailing cattle up from Texas. The three bad men were following a life a crime, one which they were quite good at. In a subplot, Bull Stanley looks for his sister who ran off with a no account tinhorn only to end up as the local sheriff, saloon and brothel owner. The moral of the story is that there is some good in the worst of men, with the exception of Sheriff Layne Hunter. It is surprising that there has not been a remake of this excellent story, then again, perhaps it’s better off left alone as it is still a most enjoyable film experience as is.
3. THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926) – The story, which centers on bringing water from the Colorado River to California’s desert in the Imperial Valley, was based upon a popular novel by Harold Bell Wright. The film is a major production, conducted under the auspices of Director Henry King and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. The photoplay stars the noted British actor Ronald Coleman, Vilma Banky and a young Gary Cooper in his first major role.
The epic film was based upon an actual incident, the collapse of a dam on the Colorado River, which was constructed to provide irrigation to the desert. It was one of the first disaster films made in Hollywood. George Barnes and Gregg Toland, the cinematographers King had selected to record the story, captured the difficult life of those hearty pioneers who settled the desert area. The disaster sequence was ahead of its time in terms of believability. Variety described the movie as – “Epic! Miraculous! For massiveness of production, this film is incomparable!” The Los Angeles Times later reported The Winning of Barbara Worth was – “One of the most important late silents.”
The film catapulted Gary Cooper from a laconic, cowboy character to a super megastar. The role was a natural for him, having grown up on a ranch in Montana. Cooper stole the movie from accomplished leading actors Coleman and Banky.
The quality of the MGM film, which was recently restored by 20th Century Fox, is excellent. Like the two recently restored John Ford films noted previously, you would think that for the absence of spoken dialogue, the movie was filmed yesterday. It is a classic that does not age over time.
4. TUMBLEWEEDS (1925) – The photoplay was based upon the Oklahoma land rush. The primary mover behind the film was also its main star – William S. Hart. Most film historians will acknowledge that he was the first major western hero of the silver screen. Even though a trained Shakespearean actor, Bill Hart had visited the west as a boy. As such, he was appalled when he saw the first attempts at making western films. This motivated him to move to Hollywood and tell others how the West really was.
This particular movie, his last one, is a full length, epic western, that holds it own against any of the westerns made in that era, and much better than most of those made since. The film was directed by King Baggot. It co-starred Lucien Littlefield as his “trusty sidekick”, which set the trend for leading B western stars in the 30s and 40s having a comedic saddle mate. Bill’s love interest was the actress Barbara Bedford.
Tumbleweeds took almost all of Bill’s capital to make the film. He bucked William Fox Studios and others of the studio system that not only made the films but distributed them and showed them in their own theaters. Hart tried to bypass the middleman and handle the film distribution, and paid the price for doing so, his film was not played in the major theaters in the country. He also took on United Artists, who wanted to drastically cut the film. Fortunately, Bill Hart prevailed regarding the latter dispute and was able to produce a fine western film, even though he took a major financial hit.
Filming of the land rush was so well done that those involved in the filming of Cimarron, the first western to win an Oscar in 1931 as the Best Picture, used some of the stock footage from Tumbleweeds. Bill, at age 49, could still ride like the wind. King Baggot did a marvelous job in recreating the settlers racing to claim a part of the Cherokee Strip. Also, there is a memorable scene early in the film, where Bill Hart and his fellow wranglers are rounding up herds of cattle from the strip to move them to other ranges prior to the land rush. Bill with his fellow cowpunchers, looks down on the thousands of cattle on what was to be the last major trail drive, and plaintively remarks: “Boys…its the last of the West!’ It was a prophetic statement.
In 1938, Bill Hart re-released Tumbleweeds. This was a daring move as sound had been in vogue for almost 10 years. By doing so, he was able to recoup some of his initial investment. He also added a spoken prologue, which is one of the most moving soliloquies in film history. Up until then, his many admirers had never heard him speak on film. Then, a man in his 60s, Bill tells the story of Tumbleweeds in his great Shakespearean voice, honed by many years in the theater. He also took the opportunity to thank his many loyal fans over the years that were then most likely married and with children of their own, for supporting his films. He concludes by saying “Adios, amigos. God Bless you all, each and everyone;” then bows slightly, turns around and walks off into the sunset.
5. WILD HORSE MESA (1925) – The film was based upon one of many of prolific author Zane Grey’s western novels. It starred Jack Holt, a major actor in the Golden Era and father of Tim and Jennifer Holt. Holt made several grade-A westerns for Paramount Studios in the 20s, mostly Zane Grey stories. The action films Holt made were so good that Paramount used footage from his films in the early Randolph Scott movies of the 30s. Scott even sported a mustache like Holt so they could use the same film stock.
This movie was filmed in the four corners area of Utah, Nevada, Colorado and Idaho. It told about capturing wild horses, sometimes in less than humane ways. Jack Holt was alleged to have been the inspiration for the face of Chester Gould’s squared jawed, new comic book character Dick Tracy. Holt was an excellent horseman. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. portrayed his younger brother, while Billie Dove, a popular actress in this period, was the love interest. Noah Berry Sr. played the arch villain, the Jack Elam of the silent years. One of his henchmen was an un-billed Gary Cooper. It is a superb western film. The sad part is that it is only one of a few Jack Holt films of the silent era that has surfaced. It also was one of the few adaptations of a Zane Grey novel that stayed true to the story line.
HONORABLE MENTION – There were other films that played an important role and helped pave the way for the western cinema. THE SQUAW MAN (1914) based upon a famous play, was directed by a young Cecil B. DeMille. It supposedly was the first major film made in Hollywood. In 1917, John Ford directed his first feature film STRAIGHT SHOOTING starring Harry Carey, Sr. and co-starring a young Hoot Gibson. James Cruze filmed the first major western extravaganza THE COVERED WAGON (1923) that told of the settling of the West. Even though it seems more dated in its appearance compared to the highly recommended films, it has many memorable scenes portraying the hardships that the early pioneers had to endure. It is worth a “look-see” as a recreation of the migration West, and could have been an actual documentary, as some of the people in the film were actual participants in the earlier wagons west movement. Due to the immense success of The Covered Wagon, Cruze went on to direct THE PONY EXPRESS in 1925. It was not close to the same production values of Cruze’s earlier film, but is a historic film nonetheless.
ALSO RECOMMENDED – There are five other films that are worth watching, provided you’ve gotten over your bias regarding the silent era westerns. These are not full-length films (ninety minutes or more), however the quality and entertainment value are there nonetheless.
THE TOLL GATE (1920) – Another film by William S. Hart which is perhaps his finest role. The Toll Gate is a film of revenge and redemption, like many of his films. Bill starts out as an outlaw, but by the end is convinced by either a mother, sister, or pretty school marm to reform his ways and go straight. The story line is still relevant today, as one eventually has to pay for his past transgressions. You must “pay the fiddler” when the dance is over.
THE GREAT K&A TRAIN ROBBERY (1926) – There was only one Tom Mix. Larger than life, he personified the western hero, perhaps not the way he really was, yet perhaps the way he should have been. Mix was and still is the symbol of the cowboy film star, “an idol of a million boys.” This is one of his best movies that have survived. It has non-stop action, fearless stunts, and humor. It was filmed on location in the Royal Gorge area of Colorado.
RIDERS OF THE PURLE SAGE (1926) – This was based upon Zane Grey’s finest novel, and it too stayed true to the novel. Filmed in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, it is one of Tom Mix’s rare serious roles. Mix portrays the vengeful Lassister, one of many who played the famous Grey character on the silver screen. However, the film was not as popular with Mix’s fans as it lacked his signature non-stop action and was almost totally void of humor. It is a fine movie nonetheless.
THUNDERING HOOVES (1924) – One of the best cowboy stars of the 20’s was Fred Thomson. Almost forgotten today, he was number two in the box office behind Tom Mix and was about to pass him in popularity when, unfortunately, this former national decathlon champion died of tetanus at only age 31. This one surviving, complete film demonstrates the agility of Thomson, who was as acrobatic as the famous Douglas Fairbanks Sr. One wonders what could have happened to his career if Thomson survived and entered the sound period as the number one cowboy film star.
THE ROPING FOOL (1925) – This is a testimony to the roping skills of probably the most beloved man of the 20th century. Will Rogers was unequalled in history as a roper and this semi-documentary film verifies the fact. See it for yourself. There is a humorous story line of Will’s being obsessed with roping. His arch-nemesis is “Big Boy” Guinn Williams who went on to star in silents as the hero, and later as a sidekick. With Will being a vaudeville performer, famous movie star, honorary Mayor of Beverly Hills, champion roper, humorist, newspaper columnist, noted speaker, aviation pioneer, and goodwill ambassador to the world, if he died today in a plane crash, with instant main stream and cable TV news and the internet, people would be glued to their TVs. In 1935, the world was in complete shock, while sitting in their living rooms in front of their family radio.
EPILOGUE – Hopefully, this article will encourage you to venture forth and discover for yourself some of these mostly forgotten gems. They will help you fill the void before the next western film of some quality plays in your local theater. Film historians are aware of their existence, however the masses are not.
In closing, remember the saying “Silence is golden”. In this case, it surely is.
Editor’s Note: The author would like to thank Grey Smith at Heritage Auctions and Bruce Hershenson at EMovie Posters.com who were kind enough to allow the use of these poster images from their archives.