Friday, September 24, 2010

First westerns: Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford

Let's wrap up the survey of the earliest western filmmakers with a look at two directors - Cecil B. DeMille and the young John Ford - and the cowboy actors who starred in their pictures: Dustin Farnum, Harry Carey, and Hoot Gibson.

Cecil B. DeMille
Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille. These two partners made the first feature-length western, The Squaw Man (1914), based on the Broadway play of the same name. It was their first picture, and they shot it working out of a barn on Vine Street in Hollywood.

It starred New York actor Dustin Farnum, who had gained fame in the lead role of another Broadway play, adapted from Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Here is a clip that comes about 20 minutes into The Squaw Man. Farnum is Bill Carston, an upper-class Englishman believed wrongly to have stolen money from a fund for orphans.

He comes to America and eventually finds his way out West, where he buys a ranch. In the opening scene below, he stops a pickpocket from robbing a man in an upscale New York café. Together the two new friends leave town, and we are quickly in the land of cowboys, cattle, saloons, and Indians.

The success of this film was quickly followed by Lasky and DeMille's filming of The Virginian (1914), with Dustin Farnum again in the lead role. The film version follows the stage version of the play, which eliminates the novel’s narrator and focuses on the key scenes. It opens on a card game in the saloon where the Virginian says to Trampas, “Smile when you call me that.”

Dustin Farnum
Other key scenes include the rescue of Molly as the stagecoach founders while crossing the stream, the baby-switching scene, the hanging of the cattle thieves, the near-mortal wounding of the Virginian, Molly’s nursing him back to health, Molly’s refusal to marry the Virginian if he shoots Trampas, the gun duel between the Virginian and Trampas, and Molly’s relief and profession of love when the Virginian is not killed.

The gun duel is curiously shot in this film. Instead of building suspense by cross-cutting as the men stalk each other in the street, the scene is played out in extreme long shot. It’s unclear why DeMille wants to distance us from that fatal meeting. Visually, it’s also diminished against the backdrop of the store fronts and the hills beyond. Later versions of the film make it a real old-fashioned showdown.

John Ford, Harry Carey, and Hoot Gibson. Carl Laemmle was the head of Universal studios. After making one- and two-reelers since 1909 in New York and New Jersey, he officially opened the west coast division in 1915. In 1916, Universal launched the first western serial. Liberty, Daughter of the U.S.A. starred Jack Holt and Marie Walcamp and was created to compete with the hugely popular Pearl White serials.

After six years and 80 some films working for Edison’s Biograph company, cowboy actor Harry Carey was hired by Laemmle in 1915. Already 40 years old, he brought a warm, relaxed style of acting to his cowboy parts that, in Tuska’s opinion, helped lay to rest the sentimentality and melodrama of his predecessors.

Hoot Gibson, 1936
Another cowboy actor who came to fame at Universal was Hoot Gibson, who had been working as a wrangler for the studio. He started as a double for Harry Carey. John Ford was also directing his first pictures for Universal at the time and the three became close associates as they worked together.

In 1915, Gibson appeared for the first time as a featured player in Ford and Carey’s A Knight of the Range. The three were working together again in Ford’s first feature, Straight Shooting (1917). Returning from service during WWI, Gibson was cast in his own series of two-reelers. One of them, The Man With a Punch (1920), was based on a short story by W. C. Tuttle.

And so over the course of eleven years the western was born. It started with The Great Train Robbery in 1903 and after countless one- and two-reelers emerged as a full-fledged feature film in 1914. By 1920 the entire career of the first cowboy star, Broncho Billy, had come and gone. He’d been replaced by a whole new crop, including William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Harry Carey, and Hoot Gibson. And these were just the start of a tidal wave of men with six-shooters who would fill the screen for decades to come.

Source: Jon Tuska, The Filming of the West, New York: Doubleday, 1976.

Picture credits: DeMille, Farnum, and Gibson,

Coming up: Stewart Edward White's The Westerners (1901)


  1. I'm currently reading the Scott Eyman biography of DeMille, Empire of Dreams, which deals extensively with The Squaw Man. It was a great success and launched DeMille's film career.

  2. Now that was good! Harry Carey Junior, loved his parts, especially with Ben \Johnson, and that other chap when they take the horses over wooden jumps,"Roman Style!!!" For the life of me cant remember the films name?

  3. talk about them getting 'in on the ground floor."