Jeff Hillington is a bored young New York executive who works in his father's railroad company. His real passion is the old West - however, he mistakenly thinks the West of 1917 is the same as it was in the Wild West days of the 1800's. When three representatives of Bitter Creek, Arizona, arrive in New York to ask Jeff's father to consider a railroad line in their town, Mr. Hillington decides to send Jeff out to investigate. Jeff is excited beyond belief and talks to the three men about his anticipation at finally getting to see the Wild West in person. When the men realize what Jeff's expectations are, they go back to their town and convince everyone to play the part of a dangerous western town, dressing it up to look like the Old West complete with bad guys and a train holdup. At the center of all of this is dear Nell, the prettiest girl in town, whom Jeff must save from the bad guys. Unfortunately, some real bad guys decided to use the scenario as a means of staging a genuine robbery, complete with wild Indians. Now it's up to Jeff to save the town.
In Classics of the Silent Screen (Cadillac Publishing Co., Inc., 1959) author Joe Franklin says, "The real Doug was the fascinating character that emerged in his movies between 1916 and 1920. These were films that abounded in action and dizzy stunts, but which were essentially comedies rather than melodramas or adventures." Franklin is right on target in that the films from this period evoke the flavor of Douglas Fairbanks' personality so well. Unfortunately, these charming comedies tend to be neglected in favor of the heroic adventure films that made Fairbanks so popular in the 1920's such as "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), "The Three Musketeers" (1921), "Robin Hood" (1922), "The Black Pirate" (1926) and others.
One of the most neglected - and one of the best - is "Wild and Woolly" (1917), a film that offers Fairbanks at his bounciest, scenarist Anita Loos at her wittiest, and a story line at its finest. Added to this mix is the discerning direction of John Emerson, Loos' husband, who understood what it was about Fairbanks that the public liked and how to translate his wife's story into an effective photoplay for this newcomer who was winning over audiences - and critics - around the country.
Loos and Emerson set the stage and establish the character well at the outset. We first must understand that the West of the dime novels that Jeff loves so much is NOT the West of 1917. This is clarified for us with three comparison shots. First we see a wagon train (the past) and then a train speeding along the tracks (today -- that is, 1917). Then we are shown a stagecoach that is replaced by an electric trolley. Finally, a street with dilapidated wooden buildings is suddenly invaded by a rowdy bunch of cowboys on horseback shooting their guns in the air, sending the people in the streets scurrying for cover and stirring up a cloud of dust. This dissolves into a "modern" city street with brick buildings and automobiles gliding easily past one another in orderly fashion. The transitions were no doubt much more dramatic for audiences of 1917 who saw trains, trolleys and cars as very modern modes of transportation. Although these may not seem so modern to the viewer today, the tactic works just as well for us today in clarifying the difference between the West at the time of the story and the West of Jeff's imagination.
Loos and Emerson also had to make it clear just how obsessed Jeff is with the old West, or what follows in the story would not have been nearly as understandable. A close camera shot shows him in Western regalia sitting next to a teepee and campfire reading a book. It looks as if he is out in the "wide open space" until the camera pulls back. Then we see he has assembled this scene in his room. He jumps on a saddle bouncing around like a five-year-old kid. Then he displays his shooting skills for the butler which are masterful. Later we see him riding in Central Park - dressed up in Western attire so that the top hat and cane crowd look on incredulously - but his expert riding skills are evident. These things are also important for Loos and Emerson to point out to us, as Jeff's skill and agility in these areas are essential to the story as it progresses.
As with any good story, nothing is wasted, and these introductory scenes give us the insight necessary to accept the heroic deeds Jeff will perform later in the story. And his opportunity comes in the form of a delegation from Bitter Creek, Arizona, who are there to request that Jeff's father build a rail spur for a mine in their town. Before agreeing, Mr. Hillington decides to send Jeff to investigate and leaves him with the three men. Jeff can hardly contain his enthusiasm, and, before meeting the men, he puts a kerchief around his neck and musses his hair so they won't think he's too much of a "city slicker." Upon meeting them, he bites off a big plug of tobacco and then offers each man a "chew." All decline lighting up a cigar and cigarette, and pulling out a piece of gum instead. "I suppose you buckaroos feel as though you must wear store clothes in New York," he tells them. Suddenly, the three men begin to understand that this young man believes their town is straight out of the dime novels he's been reading. He shows them a painting of a cowboy breaking a wild horse. "I bet that makes you boys homesick," he tells them, and as he looks longingly at the painting, the three men elbow each other and wink knowingly.
Back in Bitter Creek, they bring the townspeople together and tell them they must "humor" this rich young executive from New York if they are to get their rail spur. Immediately, they begin putting up rustic signs to cover the modern ones on all of the storefronts. The entire town is disguised to look as it would have 40 years earlier complete with an old West saloon. Everyone puts on Western garb, and when Jeff arrives on the train, the fun begins.
His first introduction to the Old West is at the train station. As he is being greeted by the three men who were in New York - now in their cowboy outfits - one of the town's men portrays the drunk "Red Eye Dan" and begins to annoy pretty young Nell who is standing nearby. The brave and chivalrous Jeff walks over angrily and pulls his gun ordering the cowboy to leave, then firing at the ground. The three men realize they must substitute blanks for Jeff's real bullets before he hurts someone. This situation also serves as the beginning of the love interest between Jeff and Nell.
The townspeople have planned the highlight of Jeff's visit to be a train robbery that he, of course, will prevent. Steve Shelby, who is introduced to us as a "grafting Indian agent," works secretly with Pedro, a Mexican who is the hotel clerk, to sell government supplies that are stolen from the Indians. However, they know they are going to be caught when a representative of the Indian Service, who is soon to arrive, checks accounts. They decide to make one last "clean up" by turning the fake train robbery into a real one and escaping to Mexico.
Although the Fairbanks films from this period are pretty much straightforward comedies, Loos often built some sentiment into the story to give it more of a "human touch" and engage the viewer to a greater degree. This is done the night of the big dance - the time when the fake train robbery is also planned to take place. Shelby goes to rob the train of the real strongbox instead of the fake one. Pedro heads to the dance to kidnap Nell, and Shelby has arranged for a group of drunken Indians to hold all of the townspeople at gunpoint at the dance while he and Pedro make their getaway. When Pedro runs off with Nell, Jeff fires at the culprit but with no results. The three men then confess to Jeff that his bullets are blanks, and it has all been a ruse to give him "a good time." Although obviously hurt - or maybe ashamed at his own naiveté - he still must save Nell - and thus begins possibly the best finale of any of his early films.
Loaded with "tricks" and amazing feats, Fairbanks provides us with a rousing climax to this film. By holding on to one of the rafters, he kicks in the ceiling boards that are also the floor of his room. Back in his room, he loads up on real bullets and then shoots out of the upstairs window to clear out the Indians who are firing back from across the street. Leaping out of the window, he jumps from the top of the porch onto his horse and dashes off. He first rescues Nell from Pedro, then captures Steve and finally must rescue Nell from a group of wild, drunken Indians who have surrounded her out in the desert. He rides daringly into the middle of the Indians, and with the fluidity of a ballet scoops up Nell and dashes away with the Indians firing at him.
Back in town, he goes back into his room, looks down through the hole in the floor at the four Indians standing behind the bar who are continuing to drink while holding the townspeople at bay. With both guns drawn, Jeff drops through the floor right in front of the Indians and pushes the bar over on top of them before they have time to react. Providing the townspeople with ammunition, they ride out and round up the Indians before they can get to town to cause more trouble.
As noted, in spite of his films sometimes being caricatures of life, Fairbanks' films often inserted a little sentiment to engage the viewer. After returning to town, Jeff is hailed as a hero, but in spite of this, he is embarrassed and feels somewhat foolish at how naïve he was about the West. Of course, this is dealt with adequately as the story comes to a close and helps to make Jeff more of a real person in our eyes.
Franklin noted, "In these films, Doug created a unique screen character: the super-all-American boy - more resourceful and athletic than Charles Ray, less inept and dependent upon luck than Harold Lloyd. Doug was the super-athlete and super-optimist. He won through in the end because he was on the side of right, and because his philosophy was a cheerful, ebullient, optimistic one."
In his classic commentary on the movies, The Rise of the American Film (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939) Lewis Jacobs said, ". . . the Fairbanks-Loos-Emerson satires . . . ridiculed the reigning American fads with a sophistication unknown on the screen before. . . 'Wild and Woolly' was a western to end westerns."
Historian and film critic Richard Schickel (His Picture in the Papers, Charterhouse, 1973) said, "Rich or poor, the Fairbanks character was, in these early films, essentially an urban type, and it was important to show not only that he could handle the problems presented by modern cities and the inventions that made them functional, but that he could, with a little effort, master the traditional skills of the frontiersman, now rapidly receding to mythical status."
None of the 25-plus films that Fairbanks made between 1915 and 1920's "The Mark of Zorro" would be considered great films by anyone's standards, and the stories are very formulaic - but they provided the type of entertainment that kept audiences coming back film after film because they knew what to expect from Fairbanks. As Schickel observed, "The possibilities were always obvious to his audience, but not the sequence of their employment, nor the variations he could ring on a simple action (who else, for example, would have thought of, let alone dared, a handspring powered and supported by only one arm?). Lightning pragmatism, that was the heart of his style, and the combination of the national obsession with quickness and the nation's only major contribution to philosophy was no trivial invention. Its appeal abides - perhaps better than the relentless optimism of his nature."
Edward Wagenknecht (The Movies in the Age of Innocence, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), said, "Fairbanks was not really a good actor; in the proper sense he was hardly an actor at all . . . On the other hand, his feeling for rhythm and movement was flawless, and he was ideally adapted to the film medium."
Fairbanks was "ideally adapted to the film medium," because he knew what he liked and he knew what the public wanted. He was always an innovator - even when one considers his "swashbuckling" films of the twenties. However, in the teens when films tended to get bogged down in heavy dramatics or the other extreme - cartoonish exaggeration - Fairbanks saw how to make films real, relevant to the issues of the day and fast-paced. William K. Everson (American Silent Film, Oxford University Press, 1978) gives some insight into the technical side of Fairbanks' understanding of the medium and what appealed to the public. "Fairbanks' 1917 western spoof 'Wild and Woolly' moved at a fantastic pace, many shots running for no more than five frames. Even at the standard silent projection speed of 16 frames per second, his films raced and leaped, as was his intention. Shown today at the standard sound speed of 24 frames per second, they are frequently much too fast for detail to register."
Alistair Cooke (Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character, The Museum of Modern Art, 1940) believed Fairbanks' personal passions contributed to the quality of his films. "Fairbanks . . . must offer an antidote, a goal for the fretting city worker to aim at. Fairbanks did not have to invent it. It was present in his own excited belief. It was 'the West,' in quotes - a state of mind as well as a geographical area. I doubt if his early satires on this city-worker theme could have been so swift or so unlabored if Fairbanks had not truly believed, for a good many of his early years, in 'the West.' So he had for a time a perfect formula for comedy romance, for throwing off little satires which turned under the impact of the West into energetic sermons."
For his leading lady, Fairbanks chose Eileen Percy and liked her well enough to use her in three more of his films that same year. Percy was only 16 years old when making "Wild and Woolly" but provided an attractive and capable love interest for the ebullient Fairbanks. There were no physical demands on her in the film, and her role is very limited, but she registers well onscreen as disgusted with the (fake) drunk who accosts her, terror at being kidnapped by Pedro, and in a close-up of sadness marked by teary eyes as Jeff leaves on the train to return home. Percy appeared in over 60 films before her career ended in the early 1930's, with the Fairbanks films being the most memorable of her cinematic output.
Not to be overlooked is the always-superb acting of Sam De Grasse and Charles Stevens. De Grasse is excellently "bad" in the villain's role of Steve Shelby, and Stevens, who appeared in more than a half dozen of the early Fairbanks and almost every one of his 1920's films, is more than adequate as Shelby's compatriot in crime - and especially menacing when he kidnaps Nell.
"Wild and Woolly" is for anyone who likes a film that is "fun" - maybe a little touch of silliness mixed in - but nonetheless one that will keep you smiling for most of the film and cheering for the rest of it. As the reviewer for Variety (June 22, 1917) pointed out, "It is all so utterly absurd that you must laugh in spite of yourself."
Production note: "Wild and Woolly" was originally to be titled "A Regular Guy." The film was shot in Arizona, Burbank, CA., and the Lasky Hollywood studio. According to a production news item, Victor Fleming supervised all of the photography.
The print reviewed was provided by ReelClassicdvd.com - http://www.reelclassicdvd.com - and is a 16mm conversion from the now defunct Essex Films library. The print is slightly dark with average contrast but, overall, good viewing quality and includes a score by Stuart Oderman. The double feature DVD also includes Tom Mix's "Sky High" (1922), also with a score by Oderman.
Copyright 2007 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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