Even before the introduction of sound film, westerns were already a popular genre, but sound gave the genre a rather explosive leap, which in turn led to a number of extraordinarily successful series, like Hopalong Cassidy, which spanned 40+ films before star William (Bill) Boyd took the character and gave him another run during the early years of TV.
Prior to the first Hopalong Cassidy in 1935, Boyd had already appeared in many silent and early talkie films, but The Painted Desert (1931) isn't remembered today for Boyd's starring role, but rather Clark Gable's first role in a sound film.
The basic story is actually very classic: two feuding men eventually reconcile after years of venal hatred stemming from a singularly insulting incident tied to the discovery of an infant. There's collective guilt, a forbidden romance between the kids of the feuding dads, and a jealous suitor named Rance Brett (Gable) who initially figured by hanging around long enough, he'd get in like Flynn with the boss' daughter Mary Ellen (Helen Twelvetrees).
Like Fox' In Old Chicago (1929), the first talkie shot on location, once the title sequence is over, so disappears Francis Gromon's music score and any vivid camera movements. The actors deliver their lines in deadly slowness, and enunciate words with a leadened imperialness. Exchanges are often quite amusing because the actors repeat keywords just in case audiences might not understand exactly who's who even when it's a straight two-shot.
William Farnum, as Boyd's adoptive pop Cash Holbrook, is spectacularly theatrical, with wide eyes and gigantic forehead lines accentuating moments of sublime disappointment, or a sneaky idea guaranteed to deepen his feud with Jeff Cameron (J. Farrell MacDonald), and endanger the imminent nuptials between now grownup Bill (William Boyd) and Mary Ellen.
Howard Higgin's direction is pretty flat, and he rarely enlivens the film in spite of the location shoot in Flagstaff , Arizona . This is particularly evident during a cattle drive sequence, and his overall use of the natural rocky terrain.
Higgin does intercut some intriguing angles, POVs, and compositions during an extended convoy sequence that has Mary Ellen and later Bill transport valuable ore into town using huge wagons and a massive parade of mules, but the editing is sloppy, and some key moments – like Holbrook's assault – abruptly end with a fast fadeout and jump cut.
The sabotage of the mine is equally sedate in spite of the production blowing up an old mine behind the actors. Higgin's approach is to compact material into singular shots – probably to save on film and facilitate any location sound – but the explosive charges were never covered to impart a sense of scope; stuff blows up in the distance or off-screen, and a few reverse angles make it appear miners fleeing from a rocky cavern was shot at the old Bronson Cave in Griffith Park.
On the plus side, Painted Desert is short and simply structured, and Gable pops up regularly instead of disappearing after his much-touted debut scenes. He gets a fair chunk of dialogue, and one can already hear the vocal mannerisms that made women go bonkers, and sense the charisma that led to MGM exploiting the actor as the studio's reigning king of its star roster.
Early TV prints of Painted Desert were grainy and rather shopworn, and Westlake 's DVD uses what resembles a PAL to NTSC down-conversion source, or an older public domain transfer that's been cleansed with a fair amount of noise reduction. The sound is a stable standard mono, but until someone digs up a 35mm print from its original producer/distributor, RKO-Pathé Distributing Corp., Gable's formal debut will still look shopworn.
Basic extras include very rudimentary cast bios, and a stills gallery culled from the film. Note: do not let the main menu play too long, as the background footage somewhat spoils the ending!
The same year as Painted Desert, Gable appeared with Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance, and three years later the icon would win an Oscar for Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). Ellen Twelvetrees had some success co-starring in films like State's Attorney (1932) and A Bedtime Story (1933), but after Unmarried (1939) she disappeared from acting. After his 9-year run as Hopalong Cassidy, William Boyd reprised the character (unbilled) in Cecil B. DeMille's Greatest Show on Earth (1952) before taking the character to TV in 1954.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan