The Squaw Man (Jesse L Lasky, 1914)
The early days of the Western
Even the title these days leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth, the word squaw having lost any shred of respect it ever had, but in fact this film is interesting as being not anti-Indian, really. It is guilty of being patronizing to American Indians but it isn’t offensive. The hero marries a Ute woman and although at first the justice of the peace refuses to carry out such a ceremony, the hero’s friends oblige him to. The two have a young son who is clearly loved by all – by both parents, the ranch hands and the townsfolk. Many early Hollywood movies were much less anti-Indian than one might imagine. The Indian maid in the story was also played by an American Indian, which was good – and unusual.
The Squaw Man is notable in many ways. It was the first film directed and written (or ‘picturized’, as the credits have it) by Cecil B DeMille, for one thing. Actually, DeMille co-helmed the 1914 one; actor Oscar Apfel is also credited. Young DeMille had no experience of movie-making (not that that dented his confidence) and his new partners Sam Goldfish (later Goldwyn) and Jesse Lasky put Apfel in as a more experienced hand. Apfel made films for Edison, Reliance and Pathé before working with Lasky.
DeMille was delighted at the success of the picture and would make quite a thing of this story, remaking it, though a reel shorter, in 1918, with Elliott Dexter as Jim Carston and Jack Holt as Cash Hawkins. Photoplay said it was “Cecil B DeMille at his best.” In 1931 DeMille made it yet again, as a twelve-reeler talkie, with a rather unEnglish and hoodlum-looking Warner Baxter (the first celluloid Cisco Kid) as Carston and an excellent Charles Bickford as a snarling Cash. This last version didn’t receive such positive critical acclaim, and DeMille suddenly lost his enthusiasm for remaking it.
The 1914 film, released in February ’14, is credited by some as being the first Hollywood movie, establishing the industry in California (in fact there had been others earlier). According to the website Movies Silently, the picture was to have been shot around Flagstaff, and DeMille and Apfel adapted the script accordingly while on the train there, but DeMille found the Azizona scenery and light all wrong, and they decided to shoot it near Los Angeles. As DeMille remembered: "When I got to Flagstaff there were high mountains, and I didn't want high mountains. I wanted plains with mountains in the distance... Dustin Farnum said to me, 'Well...I think we ought to go on to Los Angeles where the other picture companies are and have a look around.'"
So it has considerable historical significance. Which is lucky, really, because in all honesty purely as a film it is a bit weak, and at 80 minutes too long. Furthermore, as a Western it only barely qualifies. More than a quarter of the screen time is taken up with story set in England as aristos dine in country houses (the English scenes were filmed in the fashionable West Adams district of Los Angeles) and one of them, the rotter, the Earl of Kerhill (Monroe Salisbury) embezzles the funds of his regiment’s Orphan Fund because he has “plunged” too heavily on the Derby (the Epsom one, not Kentucky). The hero doesn’t even arrive in the USA till 21 minutes in and later the film goes back to Europe for the death scene of the cad, in a fall while mountaineering in the Alps. Hardly Western material.
Still, the Western scenes when they do appear are quite fun. They seem to be set in Wyoming and feature Utes. I didn’t know the Utes got that far north but perhaps they did.
The story had appeared in 1905 as a Broadway play by Edwin M Royle (1862 – 1942); he was a popular and successful American playwright, whose most famous work The Squaw Man was. Apfel and DeMille adapted it for the movie. The partners had slightly ‘literary’ pretensions, wanting to make pictures from quality novels and plays. It is perhaps worth noting that many will have seen this play and knew the plot, so that the film can be considered more as illustrative ‘scenes from the story’ than as a stand-alone film. The same would be true of The Virginian, later in the year (which DeMille helmed solo this time); that long novel was impossible to recount in five reels and so the motion picture is again ‘a few scenes from’ the book.
The hero is decent Brit Jim Carston, played by Dustin Farnum, who had played the role on stage, in only his second movie, though quite portly even then. He was to make the first version of The Virginian for DeMille later the same year. Jim is cousin of the embezzling bounder and he nobly assumes the blame for the Orphans Fund scandal and goes to America to escape the shame (as one does). He secretly loves his cousin’s wife Lady Diana (Winifred Kingston, later Farnum’s real-life wife) but of course cannot show his affection. Maybe that’s also partly why he left for Wyoming.
Jim buys a ranch and starts a feud with brutal Cash Hawkins (William Elmer, in those silly fuzzy chaps and a highly decorated vest which I covet), who mistreats an Indian girl, Nat-u-ritch (Red Wing, 1884 - 1974, born on the Winnebago Reservation, Nebraska. She had appeared in a 1909 picture, The Cowboy's Narrow Escape). Interestingly, villain Cash had been played on the stage back East by William S Hart. Jim saves Nat-u-ritch from Cash’s importunate aggression and she falls in love with Jim. Later, she saves Jim in her turn – twice, in fact, because she fires on Cash from hiding when he tries to shoot Jim in the back in the saloon, and later she rescues Jim when he is unhorsed in a blizzard, snowblind and near to death. Jim marries her. Jim and Nat-u-ritch have a son.
Red Wing remembered in 1935, "I remember going to the Van Nuys Hotel to meet Mr. DeMille. He said I was too short. But just then Dustin Farnum, who played the lead, came in and looked at me and said, 'Don't go any farther; she'll do.' That's how I got the part."
The acting is definitely hammy for our day and, because of the English scenes especially, resembles Edwardian melodrama. But that’s the way it generally was in early silent movies.
However, the photography (Alfred Gandolfi, an ex-Pathé cameraman who started his career at the Cines and Itala studios in his native Italy - Gandolfi claimed to have invented the lens shade and to be the first to shoot double-exposures in motion pictures) is rather advanced for the time. There are a couple of close-ups, and even some 1914 trick photography - for example as Jim reads a magazine and the illustration of a woman in it morphs into the lovely Lady Diana.
The reception was distinctly positive. Variety described a celebrity-studded première in New York “that looked like the first night of a legitimate show”. The reviewer opined that the picture was “one of the best told dramas with well-sustained interest, excellently played by an almost wholly competent acting organization.” The review also commented on the innovative side of the production: “The idea of introducing the characters is new and many of the lighting effects are a radical departure from the beaten path.” And it summed up by stating, “The Squaw Man as a feature film will most certainly do. There can be no question about it ranking with the best of them.”
It was a big hit at the box office too: it cost $45,000 to make (Movies Silently says $15,000) and grossed $245,000 in the first month. This helped producer Jesse Lasky and DeMille go in with Adolph Zukor and the Frohmans in the early days of the great Paramount.
Western fans will want to see this picture once but should probably view it as an historical document and not expect a William S Hart-style silent Western. Rather, I would place it as a companion piece to the 1914 version of The Spoilers. Reader Bob Madison sent me a very interesting article about the making of The Squaw Man and if you want to know more on that subject I recommend clicking here (external link). It underlines how little experience DeMille had in film making (one day observing shooting at Edison's in the Bronx), and there’s also an amusing story of attempted theft of the finished footage and someone taking a shot at DeMille. Whether this was the work of a disgruntled former employee (as DeMille believed), a competitor or, as Movies Silently suggests is possible, the work of “the nefarious Patents Trust”, is unclear.