One of the things I love about film festivals is the way they encourage trying new things "blind," simply because you're there, and why not?
So it was Saturday at the Lone Pine Film Festival. I attended THE PRAIRIE PIRATE (1925) because it was a short 60-minute film which fit an open spot in my schedule. Live piano accompaniment for this silent film was another inducement, as was the fact I'd never before seen Harry Carey Sr. in a Western lead; I'd previously only seen him in supporting roles from later in his career.
Well, as it turned out I think it was my favorite film of the eight seen at this year's festival! It was an evocative ZORRO-like melodrama of "old California" which I found completely engaging.
The film begins with a disturbing sequence in which bandits break into the house where Ruth Delaney (Jean Dumas) is awaiting the arrival of her brother Brian (Carey), who's moving a herd of cattle.
Ruth valiantly blockades the house and shoots two of the bandits, but ultimately she commits suicide rather than let the men, led by Aguilar (Fred Kohler Sr.), take her alive. The violence of this scene, as the men stop at nothing to force their way into the house, is quite dramatic.
Brian arrives home to a terrible scene, after which he becomes a masked bandit, the "Yellow Seal," as he follows the few clues he has to uncover the identity of the bandits.
Meanwhile dastardly saloon owner Steele (Lloyd Whitlock), who works closely with Aguilar on nefarious schemes, is trying to force beautiful Teresa (Trilby Clark) to marry him in return for forgiveness of her father Don Esteban's (Robert Edeson) gambling debts. Otherwise Steele will take over their "Ranch of the Roses" and turn Teresa and her father out, penniless.
The "Yellow Seal" chances to meet Teresa and falls hard. On Teresa's wedding day to Steele, Brian finds the chance to simultaneously avenge his sister and rescue Teresa.
As may be apparent from the story synopsis, it's pure classic melodrama, and as such it may not be to every viewer's taste. Added to this, there are a couple of over-the-top moments of "silent movie emoting," and there are also some question marks storywise, starting with why Brian felt he had to become a bandit to discover the man who caused his sister's death.
That said, for the most part it's simply lovely, as well as highly entertaining. I watched much of the film with a smile on my face. I felt pure pleasure taking in the movie's spin on traditional melodrama themes and watching as the Yellow Seal gently courted Teresa.
Carey gives a restrained, moving performance, able to simultaneously convey a world of love and pain on his face, no dialogue needed. I'd previously had trouble imagining Carey as a leading man, but thanks to this film I feel I now "get" that aspect of his career.
There are some good action sequences, including the Yellow Seal jumping from a wall onto a horse. I assume that was carried out by Carey's stuntman.
The film is available on DVD from Alpha and other companies, but it would be sadly missing the Latin-inflected score played by Jay C. Munns at the festival screening, which added immeasurably to my enjoyment.
THE PRAIRIE PIRATE was directed by Edmund Mortimer and photographed by Georges Benoit.