Saturday 23 May 2009

Big Stakes (1922)

Director: Clifford S Elfelt
Stars: J B Warner and Elinor Fair

The silent western would seem to be a pretty strange genre, for two reasons. Firstly it was a contemporary genre rather than the slice of history it soon became, so our cowboy hero is a cowboy in 1922 not a couple of generations before. It's simply a choice of lifestyle like perhaps biker is today. The other is that one of the most obvious facets of westerns is the sound: not just the drawl of the Duke but things like the hoofbeats of the horses that often dictate the pace of a sound western.

This one stars J B Warner, who apparently isn't the younger brother of more famous silent star H B Warner, contrary to many stories. He presumably ended up as J B instead of James B because of the benefits such similarities could bring, though he didn't last long enough to reap any rewards that may have come his way: he died at 29 of tuberculosis in 1924, two years after this film. He plays our hero, of course, Jim Gregory by name, who works as the tough but fair foreman of the Crazy Snake Rancho. He has the choice of not just one but two leading ladies, possibly because, as the title card describes him, he's a 'devil-may-care buckaroo'.

The first is a modern American girl called Mary Moore, a waitress at the White Star who's apparently the most popular girl in town, an epithet that means that she's merely desirable not a slut. She's a woman who works for a living and even drives a car; and while the boys all fight over here, she's plenty tough enough to tell the town bully to shut up. She's played by Wilamae Carson, better known as Willie Mae. She didn't have a long screen career even though she lived until 1976, but she certainly looked the part. She's very capable as a damsel in distress and also as the tough heroine, while remaining terminally cute throughout.

While there's an obvious attraction though, she's not the main focus of our cowboy hero's heart for most of the film. That would be lady number two, an aristocratic young Mexican from over the border called Senorita Mercedes Aloyez. She's played by Elinor Fair, who soon married her own cowboy in real life: William Boyd who was best known for a long string of westerns in which he played Hopalong Cassidy. Here she's promised to El Capitan Montoya, who she doesn't love at the beginning of the film but comes to loathe him even more as his jealousy runs rampant.

This love triangle provides our main story for much of the film: Jim woos the Senorita Mercedes while El Capitan pouts and plots with his Yaqui Indian slave and his deadly gila monster Diablo. But as this story comes to its end with a Mexican jumping bean contest, lady number one reenters the fray. She quietly loves our hero Jim, while the local pool hall owner, Bully Brand, has his eye very firmly on her. In fact, in the persona of the secret leader of the Night Riders, who look rather similar to the Klan, he has her kidnapped with the aim of forcible marriage.

Yes, this is very much a pulp story, but there's a heck of a lot going on in a mere 61 minutes of running time. It's also shot very nicely indeed, with all the thrills, spills and stunts of an action film and a few whole will she won't she plots of a romance. There's even enough space for character shaping subplots that bring characters to redemption and render clear the contents of their hearts. We even get awesome cowboy lines like one of his declarations of love to his Senorita: 'You little black-eyed lump of Paradise, you've got my heart roped, throwed, and double-half-hitched for keeps.' In fact Jim gets better lines than his sidekick, Skinny Fargo, who naturally isn't very skinny at all and who as you might expect is there purely as comic relief.

This is an interesting film. It plays far quicker and more packed with story than most silent movies of the era. It has decent performances from all concerned, though they're very much generic roles, and the camerawork is surprisingly able for the time. Perhaps this was a bigger budget and more high profile film than I'm thinking it was, but technically it's superb. The opening fight is an excellent montage of images that tell a clear story in snapshots and the second fight is a believable grapping brawl rather than the stereotypical clean punching battle we're used to seeing.

The racial interaction is interesting too, which is precisely why TCM just showed it in their series on Latino Images in Film. It's an anachronistic pulp fantasy type setup, mixing contemporary cowboys with new empowered American women and Spanish aristocracy. I've noticed that in these early films from Hollywood, nobody talks about Mexicans: anyone south of the border is Spanish. And while the ending is conspicuously clean and convenient from the point of view of race, our all American hero can happily woo a Spanish senorita over the Mexican/American border without any racial fanfare, the only issues tying to jealousy, which is a universal language.

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