Monday, October 10, 2016

Tonight's Movie: The Prairie Pirate (1925) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

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.

I also thought Trilby Clark was excellent. According to IMDb Clark was born in Australia, but she feels authentic here as a Spanish senorita.

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.

6 Comments:

Blogger Jerry E said...

Fantastic, and pretty unusual, choice for this year's festival. Harry Carey was, of course, John Wayne's personal hero, paying homage to him in that subtle final scene in "The Searchers" and Carey's widow Olive was of course in the film and a regular in John Ford films. As you said, I have not ever seen Carey in one of his younger starring roles either. This must have been quite a revelation.
Obviously, some very interesting films again this year to choose from!

11:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jerry!

It's interesting, I didn't realize until today that Carey was in his late 40s in this -- it didn't seem like he was quite that old, perhaps because I'm so used to seeing him in his films of the '30s and '40s! I love the way there is always more for a film fan to discover. This was a real treat for me.

What was quite moving was that the very next film I saw at the festival was 3 GODFATHERS (1948) which opens with that lovely tribute to the "bright star of the early Western sky," Harry Carey Sr., then "introduces" Harry Jr. Couldn't have been more perfect seeing those films back to back.

Having Harry Carey Jr.'s daughter Melinda in the audience for 3 GODFATHERS was the perfect capstone. Incidentally, I had seen her other grandfather, Paul Fix, in the large cast of TRAIL OF THE VIGILANTES (1940) the previous day. I plan to review both 3 GODFATHERS and TRAIL in the near future.

Best wishes,
Laura

12:01 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

It cannot be stressed enough that Harry Carey was key in the work of John Ford, his first male lead/first star at the beginning of Ford's career--and by Ford's own statements, he learned from Carey, while likely he also lifted Carey to being an even greater actor. I believe it is very evident that Ford recognized in Carey qualities that, each in his own way, male actors important to Ford later would also exhibit. He was attractive in a ruggedly masculine way, but sensitive rather than macho, above all unaffected and supremely real. Think of other Ford actors with whom the director clicked (some of whose careers owe to him) as diverse as Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson and especially John Wayne and it's very evident that what Ford saw in Carey is behind all that. And a lot of people, especially classic film fans (because we don't see these kinds of actors now) respond to them that way too, fortuitously for Ford's career and the world he created.

It's true we mostly know Carey from later years as a supporting actor--where he was supremely effective in good roles--and it's sad that of several dozen early Ford films with Carey, most are lost, including MARKED MEN--Ford's own favorite of these and his first version of 3 GODFATHERS, with Carey in the role later played by Wayne--but there are three that have survived. Most recent to be found is BUCKING BROADWAY which is on the Criterion edition of STAGECOACH. Harder to find are two others--STRAIGHT SHOOTING (1917; the first and IMO the best of the three)--and HELL BENT which I first saw in a print with Czech titles (a translator was present) in a print held by the Library of Congress; but they can be had, even the second which for a long time I despaired of ever seeing a second time. These are movies I recommend, for Carey but also for Ford--even though they are simply unpretentious Westerns of the period, there is every sign of the great artist he would become.

Haven't seen this movie you discuss here but sounds like I would enjoy it.

1:57 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake,

I think you probably would enjoy it! Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts on Carey and Ford's other actors. You describe him well, masculine and sensitive. I will definitely be open to seeing more of his early work, such as can be seen -- I'm glad you mentioned BUCKING BROADWAY, as I have that Criterion edition of STAGECOACH. Looking at my inventory just now also reminded me that Carey Sr. was in an early Tim Holt I've not seen -- I should make that my next one, especially given that I was just in a town which proudly boasts Tim Holt Street!

You mention Ben Johnson -- it was also wonderful for me to seem him in his small role in 3 GODFATHERS, working his way up the career ladder to SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON!

Best wishes,
Laura

2:40 PM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

I haven't seen many of Harry Carey's starring westerns, but they sound good, this one in particular. By the way, have you ever watched this lovely video tribute to Harry Carey, by Clyde Lucas? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGqwIuVopOk

12:07 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for the link, Maricatrin! I'm taking a quick work break to answer some comments and have opened that video link so I'll remember to watch it later in the day. I appreciate it!

Best wishes,
Laura

1:55 PM  

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