Saturday, October 13, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Big Trail (1930) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

There was a big crowd for THE BIG TRAIL (1930), the Friday evening "keynote film" at this year's Lone Pine Film Festival.

THE BIG TRAIL was directed by Raoul Walsh...

...and stars a very young John Wayne:

Wayne was 23 when this film was released in the fall of 1930.

THE BIG TRAIL is unique in that it was filmed in an early form of widescreen called Grandeur; add in that the film was made largely on location, in the early days of sound, and the movie is a technical marvel. The movie was filmed in several states including Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, and California.

Unfortunately the widescreen version, filmed by Arthur Edeson, had a very limited release, as most theaters in the Depression era weren't technically equipped to show it; instead most theaters screened a 35mm version filmed simultaneously by Lucien Andriot.

I was fortunate enough to see the movie in its widescreen format at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a teenager; a look into my "archives" provided the information that it was seen on my birthday in 1978, to be exact!

Some notes I made in 1978 indicated that while I was impressed with the movie from a technical perspective, I found the film creaky, especially the narrative cards, and wasn't impressed with Wayne's early performance.

Although I have the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD and have seen the featurettes, I hadn't ever rewatched the movie itself until last weekend, and what a difference 40 years makes! My perspective on the movie was entirely different, and I found it a major festival highlight.

This time around, having seen many more silent and early sound films in the intervening years, I was more used to the wording style for the narrative cards and found them "of the era" rather than hokey. What's more, Wayne's charisma jumped off the screen at me; he commands the eye in every scene he's in -- which, fortunately, is most of the movie.

Seeing it in 2018, my heart warmed to things like Ward Bond appearing onscreen in a small role as one of the pioneers, and I appreciated that leading lady Marguerite Churchill would in 1933 become the wife of an actor who's become a huge favorite of mine in recent years, George O'Brien. It was also great to have the opportunity to see Tyrone Power Sr.  playing a villain.

THE BIG TRAIL presents a very simple story in majestic fashion, told over the course of two hours and five minutes. Ruth Cameron (Churchill) and her younger siblings Dave (David Rollins) and "Honey Girl" (Helen Parrish) set out for Oregon in a large wagon train. Con artist Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith) tries to entice Ruth away from the wagon train by telling her he owns a large plantation, but fortunately she sticks to her plan to head west. Headstrong Ruth is frequently in conflict with equally determined guide Breck Coleman (Wayne), but their bickering hides a growing attraction for one another as they doggedly follow the trail west.

Watching the wagon train cross daunting locations, including rivers and cliffs, with massive numbers of extras and livestock, is as close as I suspect one could get to time traveling. Certainly, it's all staged for the cameras, but other than a couple of nicely done background plates, this is all very real and rugged, and one wonders if the cast and animals were in genuine danger at certain points; I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case.

Moreover, although 1930 was close to a century after the first pioneers on the Oregon Trail, it gives the modern viewer pause thinking how much closer in time this was made to the events depicted, as we inch toward being 200 years on from the early pioneers.

Individual scenes have great power, whether it's wagons being lowered down over cliffs by rope, while the pioneers slide down themselves; a river crossing which overturns wagons; or a simple scene with a dog lying down and not leaving a grave when the dead are buried after an Indian attack. (I found myself worrying that the dog never left and died there!)

Also in the cast: Tully Marshall, El Brendel, Frederick Burton, Charles Stevens, and a cast of hundreds!

Patrick Wayne had been scheduled to appear but was forced to withdraw due to illness. Hopefully he can appear at a future festival! In his place Westerns historian Rob Word (below at right) joined (left to right) Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, Wayne biographer Scott Eyman, and film historian Ed Hulse to discuss the movie's history and its place in Wayne's career.

THE BIG TRAIL did not do well at the box office, and between that and John Ford being displeased that his protege Wayne had taken the role, Wayne spent most of the '30s in what some jokingly call his "purgatory years," working at Poverty Row studios.

It was discussed that these years were actually a net benefit to Wayne's career, as he worked very hard, not only learning his craft but the ins and outs of the filmmaking process and studio system. He was constantly on the lookout for ways to improve a script and was not shy about approaching the director with ideas to beef up his roles. By the time Ford decided to cast Wayne in STAGECOACH (1939) he was more than ready, and a true star was born.

It was also shared that it's believed Wayne and Churchill had an on-set romance, and for the rest of her life she would be "girlish" when around the Duke.

After a great evening it was time to head back to the Dow Villa Motel and rest up for Saturday.

Coming soon: A look at the four films seen on Saturday, plus meeting Robert Wagner!


Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura, I am so envious of you being able to view THE BIG TRAIL on the big screen, because you really get to see the huge scope of this trail blazing masterpiece. All the grandiose of detail that was put into the movie is amazing and you were able to see it all. The movie is a true classic of early realistic movie making.

I first read about this movie in the early 1970's and first saw it on an old pan and scan VHS tape in the 1990's. I still get a kick out of viewing the 23-year-old John Wayne and he showed a natural raw talent, even then.

Yes, it does give the modern viewer pause thinking how much closer in time the movie was made to the events depicted. It was supposed to be 1843 or '44. Believe it or not, there were still wagon trains travelling in the South and West during the early 1900's. Not as many wagons in the train, but still "Wagons Ho!" According to the Oregon-California Trails Association, some people recalled making the trip to Oregon by wagon as late as 1912 because their families couldn’t afford to buy train tickets. Also, there is a sign in South Pass, Wyoming that says the last wagon train passed there in 1925. Whether they were going to Oregon, I don't know. I know of the Hinkle Family travelling, not West, but East by wagons. They left Oklahoma and returned to Mountain View, Arkansas in 1923. My paternal grandfather Charlie Severs, as an almost 2-year-old, moved from Missouri to Arkansas with his family by wagons in 1900.

Thank you for the reports from Lone Pine.

10:22 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I only got to finally see this epic piece of early sound film-making in relatively recent years. And after all I had read about its 'failure' I was almost shocked at how good it was and how much I enjoyed it!

I believe it was during Wayne's 'purgatory years' down on Poverty Row that he and stuntman Yak Canutt together worked out a more choreographed and impressive form of the 'fist fight' which became adopted generally as the standard in all films to follow. If true, then Wayne certainly did not waste his time building his craft in the 1930s.

So glad you loved this film this time around, Laura.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

This is a movie that I have thus far deliberately avoided, for exactly the reasons you stated in the beginning. Creaky, early silent to talkie transition movies can be difficult to watch.

But now I'd like to search it out. Is the DVD you mentioned good?

9:55 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I feel very fortunate, Walter! The way the widescreen was used, with every inch filled with those interesting details, is really marvelous. I loved "looking around" at all the pioneers' equipment and the activities they were doing which filled up the background.

And what marvelous historical detail you added re the pioneers, thank you! How fascinating covered wagons were still being used in the 20th century.

Glad to know you've seen the movie and found it as enjoyable as I did, Jerry! That's great additional detail about Wayne's years of, essentially, practice and study.

Margot, I would really encourage you to check it out and hope you'll find it as enjoyable as I did. Having seen a solid number of early sound films, I appreciated this film even more from a technical perspective.

I would recommend the 2008 DVD I linked, which has the two different versions of the film on two discs, plus several featurettes. There was a 2003 edition which is only the regular "Academy ratio" version, not the widescreen. It has also been released in at least one set but I don't know which version, so a word to the wise to be careful selecting what you watch. If you use the link from my post you should be OK.

Here's another positive review by a blogger which I just came across, in case you'd like more encouragement to try it:

So happy I can share my wonderful Lone Pine experiences here; thank you for reading and commenting!

Best wishes,

11:40 AM  

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