|This interesting combination, covering a ten-year span, provides a unique opportunity to see examples of the first and last works of the greatest western star of them all, William S. Hart. For further background of Hart's work in between two extremes, as well as for data on Ince, C. Gardner Sullivan and Joseph August, we refer you to our notes on THE RETURN OF DRAW EGAN, shown by this society some two months ago.
His Royal Flush is a one-reel condensation of a two-reeler originally titled Mr. Silent Haskins. After Hart split with Ince, it was given yet another title - The Marked Deck - and was released through W-H Productions (S.A. Lynch Enterprises), the pirate outfit sponsored by Triangle in an effort to ruin Hart. (This they did by re-editing and re-titling older Hart films, and pushing them on to the market as "new" films in direct competition with Hart's own current, and more elaborate, productions). It is a very typical early Hart, with stress on an accurate reconstruction of atmosphere, on meticulous characterisation and on a slow building of tension, rather than on any straightforward western action. It was directed by Hart himself, and contains one of his most typical shots - where he and the heavy glare at each other silently, the camera panning slowly and deliberately from the villain's face to Hart's even sterner visage.
TUMBLEWEEDS (which was, incidentally, re-released in 1939 by Astor, with an added musical track and a new prologue with Hart addressing the audience) was made in 1925 as Hart's come-back picture. In it, he deviated not one iota from the formula he had established in his peak period, and therein perhaps lies the reason for its financial failure. During his temporary retirement from the screen, the western field had undergone considerable changes. The dour, authentic westerner exemplified by Hart had been replaced by the streamlined, breezy Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson species. And, thanks to The Covered Wagon, the epic-western cycle was in full sway - although for the most pert, in films like The Iron Horse, The Pony Express and North of '36, it was epic only in size and plot. In treatment, the formula paralleled the slick, speedy "B" oaters, as opposed to the rather ponderous Cruze film. Hart then, chose to disregard these new trends, and went ahead to make precisely the sort of film that had earlier been considered out-dated, and which had been responsible for his retirement. While one can certainly respect Hart for his loyalty to and love of the real Old West, one cannot have too much sympathy for his disappointment at the film's financial returns.
TUMBLEWEEDS was an epic of course, and the most expensive film Hart had ever made. Its budget was $312,000. But it was an epic not attuned to public taste at the time, and, alas, Bill showed his age only too clearly. Initially, the film seemed set for a prosperous career. Reviews were, on the whole, good, though many pointed out that it was "vintage" Hart and might have a tough time in current markets. United Artists, who have done this sort of thing many times since, opened the picture at New York's Strand during the worst week of the year (cinematically speaking) - the week before Christmas. Yet despite this handicap, the returns were quite staggering $36,300 for the first week, as opposed to $13,500 for Stella Dallas, $21,000 for The Big Parade, $25,900 for Phantom of the Opera, $8,600 for The Merry Widow and $16,000 for Siegfried. (These figures aren't quite as impressive as they seem, as presumably some and perhaps all of the others were hold-overs). But this early success was short-lived, and there seemed but few key first-run halls willing to duplicate the deal that the Strand had made - a $5000 guarantee, with a fifty-fifty split over $30,000. With most of the big first-run halls closed to the film, it was shunted into 2nd run houses, where it always did well above average business (and was sought out and reviewed by local critics who would normally shun product at the lesser houses). But 2nd run houses don't have the prestige or the seating capacity to ensure big returns, and Hart found that he could expect a loss of $50,000 rather than the estimated profit of twice that amount. Hart, enraged, took United Artists to court, claiming gross mishandling. At first defeated, he appealed and ultimately triumphed. Tired and disheartened, he retired from westerns - his legal triumph a minor one from a financial standpoint. He made one guest appearance in a film, in the mid-thirties worked on a script for a George O'Brien western, O'Malley of the Mounted a remake of one of his old starring vehicles), and was so disgusted by the outcome, which he claimed had removed all the meat from his story and seemed merely to want to use his name, that he swore to have nothing more to do with the industry. Other than for the reissue of Tumbleweeds in 1939, he kept that promise.
TUMBLEWEEDS then, is typical, vintage Hart - that same wonderful feeling of dust and vast open space, that same feeling of genuine western authenticity that only Hart was able to instill in the Hollywood western. Despite a slow pacing, it has many memorable moments - among them a moving little scene towards the beginning when Bill, astride his horse on the crest of a hill, surveys the invasion of the great cattle herds, turns to his comrades, removes his hat, and murmurs "Boys, it's the last of the West".
Staged on a large scale (the shots of the teeming crowds in the little cowtown are introduced so casually and so convincingly that thoughts of "staging" and thus of deliberate spectacle are apt to be overlooked) the film reserves its biggest thrill for the closing reels.
Here Hart and Baggott offer a tremendously exciting reconstruction of the famous Cherokee Strip land-rush, and make of it one of the greatest single action sequences in western cinema history - ranking with the similar sequence in Cimarron, the Indian attacks in The Covered Wagon & The Iron Horse, the night fighting scenes in Vidor's Billy the Kid, and the final chase in Stagecoach. Adding to the excitement of this sequence is the sudden free use of the camera, which, in the earlier portions of the film, had been held in rather austere check. In this one great land-rush sequence, one finds intelligent use of the travelling shot, the long pan, the running insert, the panoramic shot and others - including that old favorite for close-ups of hooves and wheels, the (for want of a better name) hole-in-the-ground shot! And one quick, unexpected scene - where the camera, below ground level, photographs a travelling close-up of Bill, riding hard, silhouetted against the sky in such a manner as to suggest flying rather than riding - is quite breathtakingly beautiful.
Worthy of note too, is the exceptional cutting prior to the land-rush. For a full reel, via tense cutting, one is prepared for this great event. Then, a few seconds before the rush commences the cutting accelerates to a tremendous tempo. A frame-by-frame breakdown reveals that between the title "READY FOR THE SIGNAL FOR THE MADDEST STAMPEDE IN AMERICAN HISTORY" and the first frame of the rush, there are 684 frames, broken down into 25 separate shots, the shortest of which runs for 4 frames. Nor is this rapid cutting a meaningless jumble or images; instead it follows a meticulous, mathematical pattern (i.e. long shots of waiting figures dissolve into close-ups of same figures; only about half as many frames are devoted to the casual, disinterested Cavalry observers as are given to the tense, anxious homesteaders waiting for the signal).
In passing, it is perhaps worth painting out that although the Cherokee Strip land-rush has figured prominently in many westerns, "A" and "B", these films usually cull their footage from one of four sources. Tumbleweeds is one of course. Another is Rko's Cimarron (footage used again in Badmen's Territory and others), and a third is an early John Ford silent for Universal, Hitchin' Posts (footage used in Oklahoma Frontier, Sutter's Gold and in endless westerns and serials ever since). The fourth is a silent Warner or First National western not yet identified, footage being used in such talkies as Cherokee Strip and James Cagney's Oklahoma Kid.