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Thursday, June 01, 2017

A Desert Painted With Blood?

1930 Relic Reveals New Star and Forgotten Disaster

Few would know or care about The Painted Desert were if not for bold entrance by screen-talking-for-a-first-time Clark Gable. Fact that two men were killed making the film is largely lost to time, but more of that anon. What's noteworthy today is Gable as burly mop sweeping players mere specks on desert floor, up to/including William, billed as "Bill," Boyd, who'd later get immortality as Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd's got no chance vs. Gable, which is interesting because both had rich voices and presence. Bill was still adjusting to talkies. He and others read lines, then wait politely for a partner to finish, reminiscent of courtesy that kept titles up long enough for folks to absorb during silent days. That was when Boyd made initial splash as clean-cut action man for DeMille. What he's up against with Gable is aggression as it couldn't be expressed in an era of screen quiet. CG is abrupt and growls his words. He'd be tamed somewhat later on, especially after the Code, and never again so feral as here. Entrance to The Painted Desert has him demanding water of about-to-evaporate Helen Twelvetrees and prairie rat dad J. Farrell MacDonald, otherwise capable players fossilized beside this future of picture stardom. Later when Boyd comes to confront Gable, it's like Bambi trying to subdue Godzilla. The voice was what commended Gable. It's deep to a seeming core of then-recorders, him an aural threat all new to an art now heard as well as seen. Chaney Sr. had that resonance, and danger that went with it, in The Unholy Three, but that first talkie would also be his last.

It wasn't just the voice pitched low, but how Gable used it. He'll break up a line and put emphasis where not expected. That's stage training, no doubt, plus what coach and first wife Josephine Dillon taught him. Accounts say Gable's voice was a good deal higher before she had him yell off cliffs to pull it down. Does a deep tone command respect in life as in movies? I'd guess so. There were a few lead men out of silents who crashed for sounding "like Minnie Mouse" (a derisive phrase to describe more than one). That saloon showdown from The Painted Desert was used in 1968's NBC special, Dear Mr. Gable, to illustrate how he commanded the screen from onset, and it was funny then to see Boyd shrink at the verbal onslaught. The Painted Desert ran recent as part of TCM's Gable month, a curio to give glimpse of a star hatching. Coming away question is this: How many to-be legends started out so fully formed? Bogart and John Wayne took time, years in fact, to find footing. I'd say James Cagney came closest to meteor risen like Gable. Any casting person that saw The Painted Desert had to know CG was potential boon in plain sight. He was at Metro before Desert got out, so a series of impacts happened more/less at once. Communication was less instant in those days, so it took time even for overnight stars to register.

The Painted Desert has long been understood as a B western, which it wasn't, being sold as a special per these first-run ads and trade reports of Arizona locations and initial intent (not fulfilled) to shoot in two-color Technicolor. It was a Pathé release, that company folded into RKO, The Painted Desert circulating after as latter's property. Prints were habitually soft, to sit far back of screens a necessity when watching on 16mm. An action chunk got taken out in the late 30's to insert in a George O'Brien western, and was never put back. Who knows or objects when Gable is all of reason to watch? But there is other, and darker, locus of interest in otherwise obscure The Painted Desert. It was final curtain for a pair of Pathé crew workers too near a mine blast staged on location, an incident not generally reported at the time, and pretty much lost to historical record since. Details of filming disasters aren't easy to come by. For obvious reasons, they got minimal, if at all, coverage. Explosion mishap on The Painted Desert was mentioned in Film Daily, but not elsewhere in trades that I could find. Variety seems to have overlooked, or stayed off, it. Young Tay Garnett was an associate director on the film (credited was Howard Higgin).

A check of Garnett's 1973 memoir finds no mention of what happened on The Painted Desert. Garnett only recalls the film in terms of Gable's participation --- fact they paid the actor $150 a week, Pathé foolishly failing to sign him long-term, etc. Even after so many years, Garnett wasn't going to dredge up the Arizona incident. Neither, I expect, did Gable, in subsequent interviews or conversation. Hollywood's truest Cone Of Silence was draped over loss of lives when filming. One source that gave account, if superficial, was Silver Screen, a fan mag in days before studios clamped tighter on monthlies. This was January 1930 and an article called The Price Of Realism --- Human Life, which told in blood-curdle terms of "grim, icy-fingered, relentless" death that stalked movie crews. It had struck at previous shoots like Hell's Angels (three killed), Such Men Are Dangerous (ten down, including director Kenneth Hawks), and those two men lost when The Painted Desert's dynamite proved lethal. Each of incidents happened within three months, said Silver Screen, and "there may have been --- and probably were --- other casualties," amidst filmmaking elsewhere. The article admittedly muck-rakes --- who knows what truth lies in it? Too many years are past now to get an accurate, if grim, accounting. Suffice to say a lot of what took place went to graves, both with those who died, and ones that kept quiet about how they did.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

11:17 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Just rewatched The Secret Six last week for the first time in decades. As good as Wallace Beery is, Gable is the standout. He seems more contemporary in his earlier movies, perhaps because of his more rigid co-stars. By the time he became a star, others were starting to catch up to him. I don't watch his many of his movies, but when I do I'm always impressed by his talent and style.

11:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

He did have a modern technique starting out, unlike any of the others he worked alongside. Gable had a knowing style, as if he sensed realities way beyond anyone else's reach. He was the perfect pre-code man who always knew the score.

On an unrelated topic, I see where Flicker Alley is coming out with an ultimate "Lost World" on Blu-Ray, with newly found footage, color effects, the works. This sure promises to be a big event.

1:49 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

The British series "Hollywood" devoted an episode to silent-era stuntmen and included tales of fatalities. One elderly interviewee, still angry, described how a serial stunt was screwed up and a stuntman fell from a ladder dangling under an airplane. The next day, the stunt crew arrived to find the director had a shot set up for a guy to jump from a low height. The plan was to use the footage of the deceased stuntman falling most of the way down, then cut his actual fatal impact and replace it with the hero landing on his feet unharmed. The stuntmen were furious and refused to do the matching jump, so they had the actor jump from what looked a very low height (yes, they had the finished film).

5:19 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Didn't that "Hollywood" episode also explain how some stuntmen were killed filming a river rapids sequence in "Trail of '98"? I found that anecdote fascinating. I was a lot younger and more naïve at the time of viewing. Never realized people were being killed while filming those old movies.

8:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

With regard "The Trail Of '98," there is a post at Greenbriar Archives from 2010 that goes into detail on the film and deaths that occurred during production:

8:57 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

Kevin Brownlow's excellent book THE PARADE'S GONE BY has a section on stunts in the silent movies, and some of the stories are pretty harrowing.

12:24 PM  
Blogger PalaceTheatre said...

A great film about the hazards and tragedies of stunt-men also starring William Boyd is LUCKY DEVILS (1932), available on DVD from Warner Archive.

6:59 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I watched "Lucky Devils" not long ago. It's like you say, vivid in telling of dangers in the stunt game. One of the better early RKO's.

7:25 AM  

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