by Allan Fish
(USA 1928 101m) not on DVD
Judge and jury
p Jesse L.Lasky, Adolph Zukor d William A.Wellman w Benjamin Glazer, Jim Tully novel “Apache Rising” by Julian Johnson ph Henry Gerrard ed Alyson Schafter m Karl Hajos
Richard Arlen (Jim), Wallace Beery (Oklahoma Red), Louise Brooks (Nancy), Edgar Blue Washington (Black Mose), Roscoe Karns (Lame Hoppy), Robert Perry (The Arkansas Snake), Guinn Williams (driver),
Remember those epiphanal moments on screen, the moments where you see someone for the first time, or at least notice them for the first time, and a glow permeates the screen; the moment when you just find yourself murmuring inwardly “who is that?” Audiences must have felt it since the early days, but as we’re dealing with an actress here, let’s take in the female examples; Ingrid Bergman in the Swedish Intermezzo say, or Simone Simon in Lac aux Dames, Silvana Mangano in Riso Amaro, Brigitte Bardot in The Light Across the Street or Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Or among the child/adolescent moppets you know have that ‘it’ factor in spades, whether talent, looks, or just plain camera love; like when you saw Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Natalie Portman in Leon, or Scarlett Johansson in The Horse Whisperer. They leap out at you, and thus it seems unfathomable why one such moment wasn’t seen, or at least noticed.
A hobo walks up to an old house in the middle of nowhere. He’s looking for food, and is willing to work for it. He can see a man sat in a chair at a table, and he approaches him, but slowly he realises, when he doesn’t answer, that he’s slipped this mortal coil. He’s been done in, and realising he may be a suspect he looks about and tries to think how he can get out of here. At that moment he hears something upstairs. We see what he sees. Louise Brooks stood trying frantically to make a dash for it. She’s caught like a doe in car headlights, but those lights caress her. She is incandescent, her trademark bob hair already in evidence. You see a close up and right there, in that simple moment, the camera and the audience loves her.
So what happened? Louise Brooks didn’t become a star in the US, and soon after the film’s making she hopped it on a plane to Germany to achieve immortality in a G.W.Pabst diptych. Could it have been fear of sound, a putting off of the inevitable, or were the studio bosses blind? We’ll never know, and though no-one can regret Brooks’ high-tailing it to Berlin, or the enigma that built up around her in the later years, here’s a girl that should have been a Howard Hawks girl – indeed she’d appeared in A Girl in Every Port for him the same year.
She’s not the only presence who hogs the limelight. It gave Wallace Beery arguably his best silent part as the bullying yet sentimental Oklahoma Red, who makes the ultimate sacrifice to help Brooks and her young lover evade the law. It’s a very different film from the Borzage films made at the same time at Fox, for the romantic qualities of the film are subservient to social commentary, and the film seems more and more a precursor to the films made by Wellman himself and Mervyn le Roy at Warners in the early thirties (and it’s not without its share of controversy, with Brooks’ victim her foster father, who wanted to rape her). It influenced more than that, however. Brooks’ bob is hidden for much of the film as she perpetuates the flat cap and baggy pants look of film heroines dressed up as men, a direct influence on Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels. There are even similar sequences involving Brooks and Arlen getting on and off freight trains that must have influenced Sturges. Arlen himself may be a little bland, but Wellman had a rapport with him after working on Wings, and Wild Bill’s direction is as surefooted as ever. It may not be helped by the surviving prints, many of which are accompanied by random classics – Purcell, Holst, etc – and it did suffer slightly in reputation because it was originally released with talkie sequences which could not have done anything but date the film. Believe me, this is one of the forgotten silent classics.