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Silent Westerns
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6Page 7Page 8    by Peter Flynn -- page 7 of 8

Epic Mythmaking:
Cruze and Ford and the End of the Silent Era

If the Western conventions and mythoi had been established early on by such filmmakers as Porter and Anderson and then refined by Griffith, Ince, Hart and Mix, the full and proper scope of the genre was not arrived at until the dying days of the silent era. In 1923 the Western was declining in popularity. The production of a mere fifty genre entries (Fenin and Everson 132) marked a drastic decline from the several hundred Westerns that were being produced every year in the golden heyday of the early 1910s. But 1923 was also a significant year, for the silent period was now at its artistic height and the silent Western had fully matured. The film that marked that moment was Paramount’s The Covered Wagon, directed by James Cruze. Arguably not a great film -- in terms of drama and narrative-drive the film is somewhat plodding -- it nonetheless managed to harness the full mythic power of the genre and give to it the epic status that would forever define it in the eyes of the pubic and critics alike.

"The Blood of America is the blood of the Pioneers," the film’s opening credits boldly exclaimed before relating the story of a 2,000 mile wagon trek to the promised land of California. Grand-scale photography and panoramic settings conveyed the journey in such monumental terms as to make it seem a veritable Genesis of American culture. If Andre Bazin saw at the heart of the Western "the ethics of the epic and even of tragedy" (147) and an overriding style with a "predilection for vast horizons, all encompassing shots [and] virtually no use for the close-up" (147), he may simply have been referencing The Covered Wagon alone. The success of the film led to a direct and lasting rejuvenation of the genre. In the following year the number of Westerns produced had tripled (Fenin and Everson 132).

George O'Brien leads the workers in The Iron Horse.

Fox’s The Iron Horse (1924) directed by John Ford was one such film. Perhaps the greatest Western of the late-silent period -- and certainly the most expensive -- The Iron Horse told the tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad. Turning history into epic, the film was as legend-building as The Covered Wagon, with an equally fine pictorial sense and a greater grasp of drama and tension. As a John Ford film, it was to mark the culmination of the director’s early work at Universal and Fox, foreshadowing the successful blending of action, comedy, romance and myth that would characterize many of his later great films in the genre. Indeed, in the mid-'50s Ford would call it his personal favorite of all his films (Fenin and Everson 136).

The industry’s willingness to produce films such as The Iron Horse -- and also The Pony Express (1925) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1927) -- displayed a newfound security in the genre, which percolated down to even the most ragged productions. Working under the shadow of Universal, MGM, and First National, shoestring budget studios such as Artclass, Anchor, Sierra, and Sunset were surviving solely on the box-office draw of their Westerns. And with this flood of "A" and "B" Westerns there sprung a welter of new stars -- Harry Carey, Buck Jones, Fred Thompson, 12-year old Buzz Barton, Tom Mix’s daughter, Ruth, and a litter of K-9 stars, including Rinty, Peter the Great and, of course, Rin Tin Tin. Behind the rolling cameras directors such as William Wyler, William K. Howard, and Raoul Walsh served their apprenticeships, working their way up from two-reelers to feature films to international acclaim. On the cusp of a new era, the Western was fizzing over with energy and optimism.

In 1927 Warner Brothers scored a hit with The Jazz Singer, the screen’s first legit "talkie." By 1929, three-fourths of all the films produced were all-talking (Cook 249), and by the early 1930s, silent films were a distant memory. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers would become the new Western stars, as apt to break out in song as charge into a saloon brawl. The increasing maturing of John Ford and Howard Hawks -- alongside regular contributions from Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and later, Sam Peckinpah, combined with the "star quality" of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood -- provided the genre with the fuel it needed to reflect and inform America’s view of itself and its history.

page 7 of 8


Page 1 The Myth and Pre-History of the Silent Western

Page 2 Prospecting: The Edison Co. and Edwin S. Porter

Page 3 Trail-Blazing: Broncho Billy Anderson, the Genre's First Cowboy

Page 4 Pioneering: Griffith, Ince and the Western as Art and Commerce

Page 5 Frontiersman: William S. Hart and Western Realism

Page 6 Showmanship: Fairbanks, Mix and Jazz Age Cowboy

Page 7 Epic Mythmaking: Cruze and Ford and the End of the Silent Era

Page 8 Conclusion

[Works Cited]



Other Western articles in this issue:

The Western Menu Page

The Western: An Overview

The Silent Western as Mythmaker

Spaghetti Westerns

Western Web Links


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