Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wild Girl















WILD GIRL        B+              
USA  (78 mi)  1932  d:  Raoul Walsh

This is actually a remake of several earlier Silent film versions, all based on the 1898 Bret Harte novella Salomy Jane’s Kiss, from William Nigh and Lucius Henderson’s SALOMY JANE (1914) starring Beatriz Michelena, and George Melford’s SALOMY JANE (1923) starring Jacquelyn Logan, to this early 1932 Pre-Code Raoul Walsh version starring Joan Bennett, where all three versions are adapted from Paul Armstrong’s 1907 four-act stage version called Salomy Jane.  Set out West after the Civil War during the mid 19th century, it takes place entirely in the redwood forests of California’s Sequoia National Park, a supremely beautiful location that only adds a unique element to this film.  Walsh grew up in New York City as childhood friends with John Barrymore, becoming an actor for the stage and screen before being hired by D.W. Griffith, working as his assistant director while also playing John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s racially controversial but also highly influential epic film THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), the first film to ever be shown in the White House under Woodrow Wilson.  Walsh lost an eye in a car accident while making the film IN OLD ARIZONA (1928), where actor Warner Baxter went on to win the Best Supporting actor in the part Walsh intended to play, effectively ending Walsh’s acting career, but he wore an eye patch for the rest of his life while still directing well over 100 feature-length films.  Walsh discovered Marion Morrison, an unknown prop boy at the time working on THE BIG TRAIL (1930), turning him into the star of his film while also changing his name to John Wayne, after Revolutionary War General Mad Anthony Wayne, who happened to be the subject of a book the director was reading.  Walsh became known as one of the most competent craftsmen during the heyday of the studio system, specializing in adventure stories, a director who knew how to utilize outdoor locations and drive the action through pace, composition, and editing sequences, becoming a classical Hollywood filmmaker. 

This early talking film shows how effortlessly Walsh made the transition from Silent to talking pictures, using the opening credit sequence with photograph album photos introducing the cast, but the characters come to life on camera humorously introducing some little tidbit about their character, “I'm Salomy Jane, and I like trees better than men, because trees are straight,” a clever and charmingly amusing aural and visual cue that not only introduces sound, but enhances the audience’s appreciation for the cast even before the movie begins.  Another clever device is an optical page-turning effect, where each transitional dissolve into the next scene is a rarely used technique reinforcing the storybook aspect of the movie.  And the opening of this film is a true delight, somewhat dated with a black Mammy character, but there’s never the least inference of bias or mistreatment, as she becomes the mother figure, best friend, and playmate of Salomy Jane, Joan Bennett as a feisty young frontier woman who is something of a tomboy in perfect harmony with the natural world around her, at home among the trees, the creatures in the woods, and playing with little children.  When she sees the stagecoach arriving, she waves to the driver before running home through the woods, grabbing Louise Beavers as Mammy, where the two have to fend off a half a dozen or more live bears en route, which is a dazzlingly filmed sequence as they are all in the same frame together, no computer graphics, making this a most impressive opening.  Eugene Pallette as stagecoach driver Yuba Bill is another revelation, as he’s a hearty old soul who loves to tell stories, something of a Shakespearean Falstaff character with his rotund girth, his gift for gab, his embellishments of stories making him the true hero, and of course, his ultimate cowardliness.  Again, when making the transition to talking pictures, it helps to have such a natural born raconteur and scene stealer who is as thoroughly entertaining as Pallette, who eventually became too physically large for screen roles, building a secondary career just doing voice effects.  His best scene here is when he describes a conversation between horses, using hysterical voice inflections to describe the different animal’s sound as well as their intentions.  If that’s not inventive enough, Bennett, alone in her element, even goes skinny-dipping in the river showing her bare backside where of course she’s discovered by someone she knows only as Man, continually calling him that until the final frame of the film, turning out to be Billy, aka the Stranger (Charles Farrell), who in the opening credit sequence indicates he fought with Robert E. Lee.   

A stranger in the midst is enough to arouse people’s suspicions, as it matches the unusual occurrence of the stage getting robbed, so the sheriff rounds up a group of men folk to hang by a tree whoever the culprit is before the night is done.  That’s quick and efficient justice in this outland Western frontier.  And if that’s not enough trouble, Jane is constantly pursued by an assemblage of men competing for her affections, including card shark Jack Marbury (Ralph Bellamy), the man in black always seen curling his waxed moustache, or a contemptible swine Rufe Waters (Irving Pichel) who believes he has an early claim on her, or an overly pious man running for Mayor who secretly molests women, Phineas Baldwin (Morgan Wallace), none of whom really catch her interest.  But when she hears the handsome Stranger tracked down Baldwin and shoots him on the spot, settling an old score, apparently from Kentucky, where the two are seen running over rooftops, she develops a sudden attraction for the man.  So the sheriff adds another noose for his double lynching of a stage robber (the poorest man in town) and a murderer (a stranger), which sends Jane into a swooning depression, only to later find a renewed sense of optimism.  Walsh evidently witnessed an actual lynching as a child, adding some degree of authenticity to this sequence, beautifully shot with quick edits and offscreen sound, with the shadow of the hanged man all that’s seen on the ground, a chillingly effective moment in what is otherwise a rather humorous tale, told with a tongue-in-cheek style from the outset, using plenty of exaggeration and understatement mixed together, almost as if the audience is being told a bedtime story, as in subsequent tellings other aspects might be emphasized.  It’s all blended together with a deft hand and a unique mystique, where the simplest of stories is the least of our interest, but the embellishment of the redwoods, the calm and collected Stranger, a man with few words, the joyous energy of Jane, who is the picture of innocence, yet strong-willed and independent enough to stand up to any man, and the mystifyingly beautiful natural setting is an authentic natural treasure.  The enchanting tone gives this an upbeat feel throughout, even when real human issues are addressed like starving, poverty, vengeance as justice, or crime and punishment are ultimately addressed, giving this a mythical feel of living in Divine Eden, a perfect, picturesque world, where early signs of civilization are the purest forms of human expression, where sin is seen as violating the laws of nature, not God or the laws of man, making this something of a Pantheist western.

2 comments:

  1. What an intriguing analysis of this early Walsh. I've been very curious about this one ever since seeing Me and My Gal, another Walsh pre-code with Joan Bennett. Did you see it at a festival/retrospective or some similar venue?

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  2. In Chicago it played at Northwestern University Block Cinema in a beautiful 35 mm print, but has also been reviewed by Self Styled Siren (http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2012/10/to-save-and-project-moma-screens-wild.html) who saw the film in New York at Moma. Positively delightful. Did I mention there are friendly woodland creatures?

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