"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Narrow Trail (Lasky/Paramount, 1917)

Fritz is really the star

The Narrow Trail is a classic William S Hart Western about a badman redeemed by the love of a woman.

It dates from the year 1917 in which Hart accepted a lucrative offer from Adolph Zukor to join Famous-Players Lasky, which became Paramount Pictures. It was one of eight Westerns he made that year and it continued his collaboration with the great Thomas H Ince. Hart was by now firmly established as the leading Western actor, doing feature films rather than shorts, and his pinto Fritz, who is practically the star of The Narrow Trail, was almost as famous.
Hart with Fritz, later in life
The 68-minute picture was shot largely on location near San Francisco, with quite a large cast, so it was no low-budget affair. Hart starred in it as the outlaw chief Ice Harding but he also co-wrote it (with Harvey F Thew, who wrote screenplays, including six Westerns, from 1916 to 43) and co-directed it (with Lambert Hillyer, a Western specialist who teamed up with Hart and worked on a great number of his pictures).
A classic Wm S Hart Western
The story is a simple, if (by 1917) traditional one: we are in the Sierra Nevada. “A King of Evil,” is introduced to us, “Ice Harding, the daring chief of the most desperate outlaw band that ever outguessed ‘Judge Lynch’”. Ice sees a wild stallion, a pinto he admires (Fritz, of course), which is head of a herd, and he manages (in some rather good scenes) to rope it and tame it. He gives it the name King, and they become inseparable and famous – dangerously so, grumble the outlaws, for it makes the band far too recognizable. They even make threatening moves toward King but Ice holds ‘em off with his sixguns.
Masked and dangerous
Now, Ice holds up a stage, as presumably was his wont, and aboard this mudwagon are ‘Admiral’ Bates (Milton Ross) and his attractive niece Betty (Sylvia Breamer). While robbing them, Ice falls head-over-heels for Betty. Bates, we are told on a caption card, is “One of San Francisco’s Captains of Infamous Industry”, and infamous is underlined. He says he is a banker but he must be a crooked one. We are told that his niece Betty is also in on the schemes of her uncle but to Ice she is “The most wonderful being he had ever seen”. Hart looks rather splendid in his frock coat and mask. As he rides away, with the spoils looted from the stage passengers, one takes a shot at him and his rather Teddy Roosevelt-ish hat flies off. He wheels Fritz – sorry, I mean King - and rides back to say, “I don’t mind your shootin’ but be keerful of my hat”. Quite right. A man’s hat is sacrosanct, as countless Westerns have attested (see, for example, Wild Bill), and as Lyle Lovett sang, “You can have my girl but don’t touch my hat.”

The local vigilance committee has organized a posse and this posse is scouring the hills for the outlaw gang. Ice tells his compadres he will hold them off while they scatter, and he bravely does so, King easily outrunning the merely mortal horses of the pursuers. There is a rather obviously painted backdrop in a scene where Ice and King are the only ones daring enough to cross a gorge using a fallen tree, leaving the fuming posse behind.

Ice now doffs his mask and poses as an ordinary rancher in Saddle City, where he runs into banker Bates and his lovely niece again. She is having second thoughts about her part in her uncle’s disreputable profession and is sighing over the “big, honest mountains” and also, we feel, over the bold outlaw who held up her stagecoach. She feels a vague notion of recognition and attraction when the ‘rancher’ appears. Beautiful moon-faced Australian actress Sylvia Breamer was twenty at the time, to the unbeautiful Hart’s 53, so there’s a bit of cradle-snatching going on here but that was par for the Hollywood course, and anyway, a mature man can admire a comely young woman, cain’t he? Ice modestly woos the maid in a rather charming shy way, she equally modestly reciprocates, and Uncle Bates approves because he spots a fiscal opportunity in the rancher’s bank accounts.
He will be redeemed by the love of a good woman, or is it vice versa?
Well, Bates and his niece soon set off back to San Francisco, but not before Ice has persuaded Betty to give him her address there. And sure enough, Ice, lonely, decides to abandon his profession of outlawin’ and set off for Frisco to find redemption in the arms of a good woman, as all Western badmen are supposed to do.

Imagine, therefore, his disappointment when he presents himself at the handsome mansion on Nob Hill whose address he has been given, only to be told by a snooty maid that no such person resides there. He walks the streets of the city (no sign of King) and down on the waterfront falls into the clutches of Moose Holleran (Bob Kortman), a rough sailor who shanghais unsuspecting landlubbers who then wake up on the ocean wave, impressed into a crew. Moose invites Ice into a neighboring disreputable saloon to get him drunk (stern Hart takes only one drink) and blow me down, who should be running this honkey-tonk but ‘Admiral’ Bates and his niece Betty! He is no banker at all, but a scurrilous saloon owner, and she no angel but the boss of the dime-a-dance trollops! Poor Ice is shocked to find this out and flintily rebuffs Betty, who in vain pleads her desire to reform (“Don’t leave me to this!”)
There's quite a good saloon fight. Could that be Ince in the cap, on the right?
So quite a lot of this movie is a Barbary Coast shocker rather than a pure Western. The rest of the film concerns a San Francisco horse race that Ice enters King in (for the pinto has magically reappeared), to win a thousand dollars as a stake in his future with Betty. For yes, she has convinced him of her true desire to be good. And he has proposed (“I’m askin’ you to marry me, ma’am.”) Normally, of course, Western badmen are redeemed by the love of a ‘good’ woman (a saintly schoolma’am, usually) but here we have an outlaw and a lady of the night: two wrong ‘uns, therefore, both wishing to go straight with the help of the other, whom s/he believes to be ‘good’. So it’s a bit of a twist on the standard plot. Both desire now to follow the “narrow trail that leads to the light” (there was something slightly sanctimonious about Hart’s Westerns).

The horse race is exciting because the bad guys have recognized the pinto and have tumbled to who the rider really is (the daring chief of the most desperate outlaw band, you recall) but of course King wins by a nose, the villains are thwarted, Ice scoops up Betty and they bolt for the “big, honest mountains” where, in a final Zane Grey Purple Sage-ish scene (I wonder if Grey had seen the movie?) they live (and kiss) in romantic bliss having (presumably) wed.
Wm S Hart
All good stuff, no doubt about it. There are quite a lot of close-ups and some careful framing of shots and no wonder, for the cinematographer was Joe August, Ince’s right-hand man and quite an artist, who worked on Hart’s pictures more than forty times. When Hart retired he went to Fox and worked with John Ford.

I highly recommend this movie to you, dear e-pard, as an excellent example of a William S Hart Western.


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