Novel, play and various versions on film
In 1906 Rex Beach (1877 – 1949) published his novel The Spoilers, set in the Alaska gold rush.
Beach grew up in Florida and studied law in Chicago but the Klondike gold rush drew him to Alaska in 1900. After five years’ unsuccessful prospecting, he turned to writing. Because of this, The Spoilers, his first novel, has an authentic ring to it. Beach had witnessed claim-jumping first hand, for example.
The historical fact: in 1900, crooked politician Alexander McKenzie secured the appointment of his own carefully-chosen candidates for the posts of Federal Judge, Federal District Attorney, and other government positions in Alaska. He then traveled to Nome where his obedient judge confiscated gold mines. The judge appointed McKenzie as the Receiver to operate the mines while the owners’ cases were decided. These cases were deliberately delayed.
While McKenzie mined their gold, the original owners of the gold mines took their case to the Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The appeals court reversed the decisions of the judge in Nome but Receiver McKenzie simply refused to comply with the order of the court, and continued taking gold out of the mines. The Court of Appeals had McKenzie arrested, found him guilty of contempt of court, and sentenced him to one year behind bars. McKenzie served three months of his sentence before he was pardoned by President McKinley in May 1901. It’s quite a story!
And The Spoilers followed it closely, McKenzie becoming McNamara.
Much influenced by Jack London, Beach’s books, The Spoilers and its successors, became enormously popular. Many of them, frankly, were pot-boilers, without London’s literary quality. Read today, The Spoilers seems in tone a pulp Western heavily influenced by Victorian melodrama, dressed up in rather stilted fancy language.
Still, it’s an amusing read and not too long. It’s in the public domain and available free online if you care to peruse it (external link).
Young prospector Roy Glenister and his older partner Dextry head back to Nome on the first ship of the season, keen to return to protect their rich gold claim, the Midas. On the voyage, they give their cabin over to a young woman who has stowed away and, it turns out, fled another ship quarantined for smallpox, so desperate is she to reach Nome as soon as possible. The partners (and the ship’s captain) don’t seem to mind the risk. Glenister falls for the young woman, who turns out to be Helen Chester, niece of Judge Stillman, recently appointed as the first federal judge for the Alaska Territory—the "law" is coming to the wild northern frontier.
After reaching Nome, Judge Stillman appoints Alexander McNamara as Receiver. McNamara is aided by the crooked lawyer Struve. Glenister & Dextry, and a number of naïve Swedes, are dispossessed of their claims and McNamara runs the mines for his own profit. The miners send their honest lawyer, Wheaton, to San Francisco to fight in the courts but they also form a vigilante group.
Glenister, at first trying to avoid violence at the behest of Helen, sinks into despair, wrongly believing that Helen is in on the conspiracy against the miners, and he almost loses his stake in the Midas in a night of reckless gambling at the Northern Saloon. He is only saved from that fate by saloon girl Cherry Malotte, whose unrequited love for Glenister is patent.
There’s a sub-plot of the Northern’s owner, The Bronco Kid, turning out to be Helen Chester’s brother, and another about the crooked lawyer Struve trying to seduce Helen in a remote inn, the Sign of the Sled. Helen slowly learns about the scheme being perpetrated by McNamara, her uncle, and others, while her affections are torn between Glenister and McNamara.
Finally - well, you’ll have to read it. I wouldn’t want to be accused of, er, spoilers.
Mirroring The Virginian, about which we have been rambling lately, The Spoilers rapidly became a stage play. But of course it was a natural subject for a movie and it didn’t take long. The first one came out in 1914.
The first silent movie
The first silent version of the tale, a Selig production, is not an easy watch today. You have to be quite determined to get through it. The technical quality of the print isn’t top notch (even the title cards are hard to read) and of course the acting is, as it was in all early silents, melodramatic gesticulation pitched at the back row of the balcony: there’s no notion at all of subtlety for the relative close-ups of the camera. These films suffered, too, from the title cards which announced what was about to happen. Hard to maintain suspense or create surprise! And it’s not short, either, at 110 minutes. There must have been quite a bit of reel-changing.
Still, it does follow the book closely. Although it starts with crooked politicians hatching up the plot in Washington DC rather than, as the book does, at the harbor as Roy and Dextry wait for their ship, after that we get a pretty faithful rendering of the novel. Or perhaps I should say certain scenes illustrating the novel. Helen (Bessie Eyton) is clearly the heroine while Cherry Malotte (Kathlyn Williams), as in the book, has a relatively minor role.
William Farnum, Dustin’s brother, in his first Western, is a rather stout and far from young Glenister (he was 38). He was still going strong 61 Westerns later in Lone Star (1952) and in a happy way he played the lawyer Wheaton in the 1942 Wayne/Scott/Dietrich remake.
The part of Glenister’s more experienced partner Dextry (Frank Clark) is rather minimized.
I must say that the set is excellent and really gives you a good idea of what Nome must have been like in 1900. Shanty buildings, muddy streets, dirt and smoke. It’s very well done.
The famous fist-fight is not the climactic highlight it was to become in later versions but is still quite tough stuff for 1914.
Those interested in the story and the different film versions will see this one once, perhaps, but will rarely want to have it on DVD and play it monthly…
In 1923, also mirroring The Virginian, there was another silent, from Goldwyn Pictures. Sadly, this is not available, or at least I can’t find it. The same is true, tragically, of the 1930 Gary Cooper talkie. If prints are extant (and I bet they are) then DVD companies really ought to release them.
The ’23 one has 20s heart-throb Milton Sills as Roy Glennister (he has grown an extra n) and now Cherry Malotte (Anna Q Nilsson) has a bigger part. The great Noah Beery is McNamara. The Bronco Kid (Wallace MacDonald) has grown an H and become The Broncho Kid (perhaps in deference to Broncho Billy). The Dextry part is enlarged and is played by the fourth-billed Robert Edeson.
As soon as talkies came along, there had to be a ‘vocalized photoplay’ of The Spoilers and this time, fresh from his success in the talkie The Virginian the year before, we have Paramount's Gary Cooper as Glenister (back to one n) and second-billed is the Helen Chester part, played by Kay Johnson.
Cherry Malotte is Betty Compson, who had done five silent Westerns, and Dextry was played by James Kirkwood, a very early (1909) entrant to the film business who led in quite a few DW Griffith films and later became a director of Mary Pickford pictures.
McNamara is the famous William ‘Stage’ Boyd – a judge ordered that the ‘stage name’ be added officially in order to differentiate him from the other, 'Hopalong Cassidy' William Boyd. Stage Boyd was famous for his alcohol and drug abuse, had his RKO contract annulled on ‘morality’ grounds and died young of alcohol-related issues in 1935. He was in three Westerns, The Storm, The Spoilers and Gun Smoke. The 1930 version of The Spoilers was produced and directed by Edwin Carewe. It was his only Western. Carewe was influential in promoting the careers of Coop, Dolores Del Rio, Warner Baxter and Wallace Beery.
But very little seems to be known of the movie. In his detailed biography, Gary Cooper, American Hero (1998), author Jeffrey Myers doesn't even mention The Spoilers. Tragic that it's unavailable. So many silent movies and even early talkies either do not exist anymore or, if they do, are not released.
But of course when most people think of The Spoilers as a movie, they think of the 1942 one. Quite rightly, as not only is it available, it’s great.
It’s lusty, I think that’s the word for it, and it’s done with energy. Gusto, let’s say.
The three three big stars who lead were all at the peak of their careers. John Wayne is a splendid Glennister (two Ns). Only three years on from being the gauche Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, he is now a powerful, dominant player, an actor you can imagine leading in Red River five years later or The Searchers in the following decade. He has oomph. Full marks.
Randolph Scott was never better. He played the badman so rarely but in this case, boy, he is absolutely excellent as the smiling, duplicitous, charming villain. He is a worthy rival to Wayne.
Marlene Dietrich, Frenchy, has moved from Shinbone where she was with Destry in 1939 and now calls herself Cherry Malotte. She runs the Northern and is Glennister’s true love. The Helen Chester figure (Margaret Lindsay) has paled into a minor character, who is in on the scam all along. It’s now a simple love triangle: Duke, Randy and Marlene (and remember Dietrich and Wayne were actually lovers so that gives it an added tang). Marlene’s hair is a bit bizarre but never mind.
Dextry (not Destry) is rather good though. His part has been written up, quite rightly, and is played by Harry Carey, no less, Wayne’s guru and guiding star. He’s excellent, tough as nails and standing for no nonsense whatsoever from the shysters.
I also liked Russell Simpson as the miner Flapjack (changed, I don’t know why, from Slapjack in the book and earlier films). Simpson usually played a religious elder or respectable townsman. Here, he is clearly relishing his salty miner act.
Bronco (his H has disappeared now) is a minor role, played by veteran silent actor Richard Bathelmess in almost his last film. He isn’t Helen’s brother any more, he’s just a sharp gambler/saloon keeper who has a doomed love for Cherry. He reminds me of Anthon Quinn in Warlock.
The 1930 one was a Paramount picture but it has now moved to Universal.
In the book and the first film version, Glenister and Dextry black up their faces in order to be mistaken as Negroes as they rob their own sluices. In this version they black up and rob the bank. Unfortunately, Marlene has one of those cheerful, plump black momma servants that so often appeared in films in those days, Idabelle (Marietta Canty), and this gives rise to ‘amusing’ banter when she sees Glenister blacked up and thinks he’s “colored folk”… Oh well, it was 1942. But it’s a bit embarrassing now.
The final fistfight has now become the famous epic climax of the story. Duke and Randy (or their doubles Eddie Parker and Alan Pomeroy anyway) slug it out, smashing the saloon to matchwood and continuing out into the muddy street. It is actually quite entertaining. TheDaily News said, "It puts to shame any fight you've ever seen anywhere at any time." The Baltimore Sun was a bit more snooty: "When it is stated that Mr. Scott knocks down Mr. Wayne thirty times and Mr. Wayne knocks down Mr. Scott thirty-one times, that about covers it." Actually, Scott, not one to exaggerate or tell tall stories, said that he and Wayne did the non-double fight scenes in earnest. There was an off-set rivalry over billing (Scott was billed above Wayne, which rankled with Duke for years) and Randy had wanted the Glennister part.
Apart from Rex Beach, there’s another literary (or semi-literary), reference in this film version. At one point Cherry passes by a man scribbling in her saloon. He says he’s writing about a roughneck Yukon prospector named Dan McGrew who is shot in an Alaska saloon. It’s Robert Service, of course, writing his famous narrative poem. (US President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney used to do their own alternating recital of it).
The 1942 The Spoilers is an excellent, enjoyable film and by far the best of all the versions.
Universal’s 1955 color remake was rather weak, really. It starred Jeff Chandler as Glennister, Anne Baxter as Cherry and Rory Calhoun as McNamara. Its only merit was to have John McIntire who is very good in the Harry Carey part as Dextry. I say 'the Harry Carey part' because this is a straight remake of the 1942 film, not its own version of the book. It uses the same plot, many of the same lines and even the fistfight is choreographed similarly with details such as Glennister swiping McNamara’s feet from under him on the bar, knocking into the stove, and so on.
There are a couple of minor changes. The Midas has become the Miter - no idea why. The “lawdy lawdy” colored maid was considered inappropriate for the mid-50s and replaced with an elderly white lady called Duchess (Ruth Donnelly).
Barbara Britton plays a Helen who is on the scam from the start. As in 1942, she has a pretty minor part and certainly does not get Glen(n)ister at the end. Bronco has been replaced with someone called Blackie (Ray Danton, insipid). Wallace Ford does the old-timer color as Flapjack (not Slapjack). Bob Steele is a miner (he’d unaccountably been left out of the 1942 one).
The film was directed by Jesse Hibbs, who’d started directing low-budget Westerns in 1954 and went on to do mostly TV shows.
The movie is a rather pallid imitation of the Wayne/Scott/Dietrich one with none of the fire or gusto.
One thing that surprises me a bit about film versions (or indeed the book) of The Spoilers and that is that Wyatt Earp doesn’t appear. After the Tombstone fiasco, Earp wandered the West from gold strike to real estate boom, and from 1899 to 1901 (he was in his early 50s) he was in Nome.
He had a saloon, the Dexter (not Dextry) and there he in fact met Rex Beach. Earp was an enormously famous figure. You would have thought that Rex would have included him somehow, and you would have thought that Hollywood would have loved it. Nope. No sign of Wyatt.
The Spoilers as cinematic history
Well, that’s The Spoilers for you. I hope you enjoy it in one or more of its manifestations, book, play or film. Let’s all hope they release the 1923 and 1930 movies soon on DVD. ARE YOU LISTENING, PARAMOUNT? AND WHOEVER HAS THE RIGHTS TO GOLDWYN? If they did, The Spoilers would be a very interesting way of studying the development of cinema. If you count 1903 as the start of the narrative movie, then we more or less have a version of The Spoilers at decade intervals. It's interesting to see how far movies had come by the 1914 version of The Spoilers since the 1903The Great Train Robbery. The Spoilers is longer, more fluid, a lot more sophisticated technically, and has established actors. But it's still pretty primitive in many ways. The 1923 version (judging by other 1920s films) would be far more sophisticated. There would be Hollywood 'stars'. The actors would be less melodramatic and the whole thing would be subtler. Technically, it would be superior too. Think of 20s films that do exist: The Iron Horse of 1924, for example. These are still watchable today. By the 1930s, of course, there was a huge change: we had talkies. The Gary Cooper The Virginian of 1929 is really quite a 'modern' film and one might imagine the 1930 The Spoilers to be very good. And by 1939 andStagecoach, Jesse James, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and all the rest, we are definitely in modern territory. Still in black & white, the 1942 The Spoilers is not only a recognizable modern Western, it is an excellent example of the genre. The 1950s version brought post-war sensibilities, and color. It's a pity there wasn't a brash, commercial 1960s The Spoilers, with blood, and then a deconstructionist, anti-capitalist 1970s one. It might have been remade affectionately in 1985, along the lines of Silverado, all fine photography, beautiful color, full of action and energy and wit. Or who knows, a Clint Eastwood one photographed by Bruce Surtees. We might have had an earnest, overlong version in the 1990s starring Kevin Costner and a dark, noirish, poetic treatment in 2007 by the team that did The Assassination of Jesse James… But nay, those post-1950s versions were not to be. Still, The Spoilers does provide an interesting illustration of the history of the motion picture! And don't you think it's time for a new one? Let me see, Johnny Depp as Glenister, Scarlett Johansson as Helen, Kate Winslet as Cherry, Jeff Bridges as Dextry. Who do you think for the smiling rogue McNamara? Maybe Jeremy Irons? I'll write the screenplay.