Monday, April 25, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 11

Paramount Pictures went on to make 52 more films based on Zane Grey stories over the next 17 years, but To the Last Man, unlike The Vanishing American and the recently rediscovered The Call of the Canyon, is among the missing; however, some of its footage has survived. Paramount-Publix, another of the later manifestations of Famous Players-Lasky, saved a few dollars during the Great Depression by recycling some of its Payson location scenes as stock footage for its 1933 talkie remake with Randolph Scott. This version, filmed mostly at Big Bear Lake, Calif., is easy to find on DVD and was one of the early directorial efforts of Henry Hathaway, who’d worked as prop man in 1923 on both To the Last Man and The Call of  the Canyon; he would later direct John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in True Grit (1969). To the Last Man was remade one more time – so loosely that its plot was almost unrecognizable – by RKO Radio Pictures as Thunder Mountain. This 1947 B Western starred Tim Holt and Martha Hyer and was shot on location in Lone Pine, Calif.

Richard Dix (center) and Lois Wilson in Zane Grey's The Vanishing American.

Barring the discovery of a print someday (it’s still not known if  Gosfilmofond, the Russian film archive that surrendered the only existing copy of Call to the Library of Congress, has one), modern audiences will never get to see Victor Fleming’s original To the Last Man and its imagery of the virgin Mogollon Rim landscape. Lois Wilson may have summed up the loss best when she lamented to Filmograph that To the Last Man was “shot in northern Arizona, beautiful country and at that time quite wild. I am sorry to hear that, what with a railroad and new roads, it is no longer so wildly beautiful.”–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 10

Famous Players-Lasky PR claimed that while filming To the Last Man in Tonto Basin “Richard Dix hunted down a wildcat that had been harassing the camp for two weeks.” Here’s the photographic proof suplied by the studio.
To the Last Man was booked to open at Manhattan’s Rialto theater on Sept. 23, 1923, so Famous Players–Lasky applied for an exhibition license from the New York State Motion Picture Commission – a less ominous name for the state censorship board – which, as was usually the case, ordered cuts to make the picture suitable for delicate Big Apple sensibilities. Offending bits included banal lines of dialogue on subtitle cards, like “I’m a hussy” and “Since your kisses are so free,” and the scissoring of images of “forced kisses” and “scenes of stabbing with the knife after the subtitle: ‘This is for Isbel and this is for Tad, you dog.’” Famous Players-Lasky knew that resistance was futile and bowed to the demands of the state; it snipped the offending material and Last Man premiered on schedule.

Critics feuded over their opinions of the film. While The New York Times described it as “one of those pictures that give one a fit of yawning,” Hallett Abend of the Los Angeles Times raved deliriously, describing it as “the most Western ‘Western’ I have ever seen” but added the warning that it “lives up to the title. Every man is killed off on both sides except the hero, and even he is badly wounded. The mortality is really shocking in this play and those who are not shot or stabbed are ground to a pulp when a dynamited cliff topples over on to them. I started to keep count of the killings, but gave it up as a hopeless job when I found in my absorption in the plot that I had missed a few of the homicides.”

To the last of her days, Lois Wilson considered To the Last Man one of the most satisfying experiences of her movie career, proudly recalling to writer Murray Summers in a 1970 issue of Filmograph magazine, “I received a most flattering letter from one of my bosses, Mr. Jesse Lasky, on the completion of the picture.”–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 9

Richard Dix stands triumphant following a Last Man barroom brawl, as uncredited Charles Ogle (far right) looks on. Ogle was the first actor to play the Frankenstein monster on film (in Thomas Edison's 1910 Frankenstein) and starred in the forerunner to the first movie serial, What Happened to Mary? (1912).

In those early days of filmmaking, bulky electric generators were never lugged to remote locations, so scenes had to be lit with sunlight. In the 1986 book Film Lighting: Talks with Hollywood’s Cinematographers and Gaffers, cameraman James Wong Howe told how he had to improvise the lighting of one sequence in To the Last Man. “Victor Fleming wanted to go up the side of a mountain to get a full-figure shot of an actor on horseback looking down into the valley. He said to me, ‘Jimmy, leave the reflectors here; we will just get a long shot silhouetted against the sky. We will take only the camera and our lunches up there.’ So we did. We went with a reduced crew and we shot the silhouette of the rider. But the director said, ‘Oh, Jimmy, I am sorry, but I’ve got to have a close-up of him and a shot of the valley where he is looking. It wasn’t in the script but action dictates it.’ So I said, ‘Well, look, we left all the reflectors down there and I don’t have any lights.’ ‘Will it take long to get them up here?’ he asked. I said, ‘Yes, we have to send the men down and the reflectors are very heavy to carry up. Do you have to get this close-up?’ He said, ‘Yes, I have to have it.’ I suggested that he could shoot the close-up later somewhere else, but the director insisted on having it done up there.

“This was in the days before we had paper cups and there were a lot of tin cups in which we were drinking coffee. This gave me an idea. I asked [one of the crew], ‘Vic, how many tin cups can you pick up and hold in your hand?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I can hold maybe four or five.’ I said, ‘Fine, see if you can hold eight or 10 cups and reflect the sun on the face. And I need four or five fellows over here with cups doing the same thing.’

“They couldn’t hold the cups still but it was all right, and on the screen it looked like the sunlight was coming through the leaves and giving an unsteady broken pattern.”–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Total Pre-Call, Part 8

Last Man mountain girl Ellen Jorth (Lois Wilson) gets a kick out of store-bought footwear.

Working in the great outdoors can be hazardous to the health of city slickers, as Lois Wilson achingly discovered on To the Last Man. On one occasion a sturdy tree saved her from being thrown from her horse while riding to a location. The close call was the result of an unsecured saddle cinch. As Wilson felt the saddle slipping sideways, she grabbed a willow branch above her head, which broke her fall, and she escaped with just a few nicks and bruises. Later on, she received some minor scratches on her face and neck while playing with a bear cub in a scene.

Richard Dix suffered a bad case of bruised ego working on Last Man, dishing to Los Angeles Times columnist Grace Kingsley in 1928, “I got a spill off a horse for fair. I wasn’t much of a horseman but I wanted to make sure I made a good impression on the director, Victor Fleming. He gave me a half-broken horse off the range. He was a photographic horse, black and white spots. And what else, quoth he, mattered? I had to run the animal around in a circle and there was a ditch a foot deep. About the fourth time around the horse stuck a foot in a bush and I went with him. I had more than 8,000 thorns in me. I got up and laughed it off, because I wanted to impress the director.”

Besides the minor risks (which generated a steady stream of human interest items like the ones repeated above for Sunday newspapers), there were a few moments of real white-knuckle danger during the Last Man shoot. One brave crewman had to scale the dizzyingly high face of the Mogollon Rim to set explosive charges for the cliff dynamiting sequence. The mountain face was blown away by the force of the explosion and the blast dropped thousands of tons of rocks, trees and debris nearly 1,000 feet. Cameramen filmed the explosion from below before running for their lives away from flying rubble.–––Joe McNeill © 2011 Bar 225 Media Ltd.