Sunday 30 August 2009

The Silver Horde (1930)

Director: George Archainbaud
Stars: Evelyn Brent, Louis Wolheim, Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea

Even in 1930, not far into the sound era, Hollywood was remaking older films and people were retiring from the screen. The Silver Horde was first made in 1920, but the only name attached to it that I even recognise is its director, Frank Lloyd, who would go on to win two Oscars, though not one for his biggest achievement, Mutiny on the Bounty. The stars were people like Myrtle Stedman, Curtis Cooksey and Fred R Stanton, hardly names remembered today. Stedman, 'the girl with the pearly eyes', was something of a star in the late teens and early twenties, including a leading role in Hypocrites, an elusive silent film of legend, made by a female director, Lois Moran. This version, made with sound a decade later, was the last credit for Blanche Sweet, after 21 years in the business and 160 films to her name.

We're in Alaska, still a far flung land in 1930, where Boyd Emerson is struggling into Kalvik after a long trek with his companion Fraser, who he picked up a few days out. They find a pretty poor welcome though, nobody wanting to have anything to do with them so he's all ready for fighting when he gets to the last house, only to find that it belongs to Louis Wolheim, hardly anyone you'd want to face off against in a scrap. It turns out that Kalvik, which is a salmon fishing town, is fighting a sort of civil war between the salmon syndicate and the folks who want to stay free of it. Wolheim is George Balt, who's on the side of the free folks, led by a mysterious lady by the name of Cherry Malotte.

Malotte falls for Emerson, not that she tells him, but trusting him absolutely she sets an ambitious plan in motion. She sends Emerson to Seattle, to arrange a loan to finance a free fishing fleet to take on the syndicate head to head. She knows a bank manager there who will put up the money on her word, but if it were that simple we wouldn't have a story. While in Seattle, Emerson falls for Mildred Wayland, who provides a whole bunch of complexity. She's the daughter of Wayne Wayland, who owns the syndicate and who's trying to marry her off to Freddie March, who runs it.

The Silver Horde, named for the shoals of salmon that are the MacGuffin of the film, has its share of kludgy acting that at times turns it into pulp action melodrama. As Freddie Marsh, Gavin Gordon is a quintessentially pulp serial villain unable to escape that stereotype and apparently unwilling to even try. Wolheim is not much less of a stereotype himself, though his unmistakable ugly mug didn't ever help to avoid that, but he provides a lot of the colour in this film and embues his character with a lot more depth than a mere stereotype would have. Simply put, Balt belongs in Kalvik and nowhere else, while Emerson belongs in a lot of places but is trying to belong here.

Wolheim is unjustly forgotten today, mostly because he died a year after this film was made. He could overact on occasion but could also be magnificent, dominating no less a film than All Quiet on the Western Front and shining in other films like Two Arabian Knights and The Racket. His best scenes here are silent ones but he'd have succeeded as a sound actor had he lived. Raymond Hatton, who plays Fraser, was never forgotten but never really arrived either as a star, playing in over 350 films as a character actor, finding his way to B movie westerns where he played the hero's sidekick in dozens of them.

The two big names to posterity are Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. McCrea, one of the great western stars of the cinema started out at the end of the silent era, making this very early in his career. He's fine as Emerson, the tough romantic lead, because he's adroit both at romancing society girl Jean Arthur and literally fighting his own battles out in the Alaskan woods. There are scenes here that just don't seem right for him though, such as the one where he rains verbal abuse down on Cherry once he realises what class she is.

The Silver Horde was the first film to pair him with Jean Arthur, who he'd also play opposite in Adventure in Manhattan and The More the Merrier. Arthur was already well established in Hollywood, having debuted in 1923 in a John Ford/John Gilbert movie called Cameo Kirby, but she hadn't yet become a star, partly because the asset that truly made her unique was her memorable voice. As Mildred Mayland, she wasn't yet what she'd become but it's still fascinating to watch her talent this early.

And that leaves the star of the show, Evelyn Brent, playing the deep character of Cherry Malotte. We're never told precisely what Malotte is though it's unmistakeable from context that she's a prostitute who made it big. There's no way this could have been made once the code was being enforced, but it's a great part for the precode era. This prostitute gets to occupy the higher ground in this film, unashamed of what she has been and able to hold her own against a society girl who loves the same man. All the characters here have flaws and virtues, except Marsh who doesn't have that depth, but Cherry Malotte is the most real and decent of them all.

Brent, incidentally no relation to George Brent, had been acting on screen since 1915 and would continue on until 1950 but while she was a recognisable name throughout never really found the stardom that she deserved. She was at her best in the precode era because she shone at doing precisely what she does here: be at once the heroine and the most morally delinquent character. She reminds of a cross between Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck, in style more akin to the former but in the roles she played more like the latter.

As a film it plays out quickly, the story being solid but the direction occasionally weak. It feels like George Archinbaud didn't do a lot of retakes, because some scenes feel more like rehearsals. Some shots are wonderful though, including the one where the camera pans along the production line at Emerson's salmon factory neatly showing us the whole process from the fish coming in to the traps to the cans being moved on out. He was a prolific and capable director but not a great one. The only other films I've seen of his are other precodes, The Lost Squadron, Thirteen Women and Penguin Pool Murder, all as different from each other as they are from this film.

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