Monday, August 25, 2014

The Luck of Roaring Camp (1917)

Bret Harte
Based on a story by Bret Harte, this short silent film tells of prospectors in a California mining settlement, who adopt the infant son of a woman who has died in childbirth. They take the boy’s arrival as a turn in their luck, which has not been good, and they welcome him with a shower of gifts.

Three years later, according to the film, a vengeful “half-breed” attempts to kidnap the boy but is stopped by a gambler, Oakhurst (Ivan Christy). Seeing the gambler being held at gunpoint, one of the miners shoots the villainous abductor. 

Rescuing the boy, they find him playing with gold nuggets he has discovered on the ground around him—the camp’s luck now unexpectedly improved. (Harte ends the story more melodramatically with a flood that takes the boy’s life—the camp’s luck turned instead for the worst.)

What to look for. The clip of the film below includes the gift-giving scene, as the prospectors comically drop items in a hat, including spurs and a pint of whiskey. The following scene is shot in snow-covered woods along a stream where the men are placer mining. 

Director Floyd France makes the most visually of the location, contrasting the vertical lines of the trees with the diagonal flow of the stream and his actors’ movements over and across downhill slopes.  A product of Thomas Edison’s film production company, the movie is striking for its use of snow, a notable difference from the sunbaked and dusty images coming from studios in California.

With quick cross-cutting, the story follows several threads of action: (1) Oakhurst’s walk through the woods, turning suspensefully at times when he seems to hear something, (2) the miners working in the stream, (2) the boy being stalked by the kidnapper. With intercutting from several different angles, the editing produces a good deal of tense excitement.

Wrapping up. The Luck of Roaring Camp had been produced once before by the Thomas Edison film company in 1910, directed by Edwin S. Porter, who is best remembered for his early film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), often considered the first western. For more Overlooked movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading/listening:
Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: TBD