Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Squaw Man (1931)

The Squaw Man...where does one start?

Based on a 1905 play which had four Broadway revivals, the Squaw Man plot now seems archaic: an English aristocrat, Capt. James Wynnegate (Warner Baxter) flees England, honorably taking the blame for stealing funds he did not steal to save the reputation of the woman he loves (Eleanor Boardman) and her husband (right!).

He then does what any English aristocrat would do in that situation: becomes a cowboy in Montana, where he marries an Indian maiden, Naturich (Lupe Velez), he'd rescued from a local thug (Charles Bickford) - they have a son. Seven years later, the law shows up to arrest Naturich for the murder of the thug (she had shot him, to rescue Wynnegate). The very same day, Roland Young as a family friend and Eleanor Boardman show up to take Wynnegate home (her husband's now dead) and Wynnegate is convinced to send the son back back to England and, heartbroken, Naturich kills herself. The (abrupt) end.

Cecil B. DeMille's movies are often best enjoyed as surrealistic alternate versions of D. W. Griffith's movies. Griffith traded almost solely in Victorian-era melodrama. DeMille did, too, but with a sensational, bizarre bent that is best exemplified here by a cut from British high society to a hilarious desolate shot of the forlorn, wild west "Buzzard's Pass".

(Yep, I'm aware the transition is there in the 1905 source material, but DeMille finds a way to make it seem crazier. He was a master at creating absurd, only-in-Hollywood, leaps in logic. In Fool's Paradise (1921), he deliciously lets his hero pursue his dream girl from a Mexican border town to Siam, where she dances for a prince in front of a pit of alligators. Yes!! I wouldn't at all be surprised if David Lynch wasn't thinking of DeMille when he incongruously had his film director, Adam, meeting The Cowboy at a stereotypical ranch in Beechwood Canyon in Mulholland Drive - itself a critique of Hollywood's absurdities.)

The Squaw Man is certainly watchable for those who just want an involving story. DeMille knows how to tell a story that people want to see, even creaky, predictable stories, and he must have loved this one - this is the third time he filmed it. Even when the ending is telegraphed, you want to see what happens next. Lupe Velez gives a genuinely sympathetic performance here, and the ending is sad no matter how you look at it.

All the actors have given better, more expressive performances in other films and the reason is the dialogue is stilted here, old-fashioned for 1931, requiring stilted mannerisms, especially in the beginning scenes in England. The scenes with Velez and Baxter fare better, and Dickie Moore as their son acts with an ease the others aren't allowed. He doesn't care about the lofty source material - he's just havin' a good time!

The Squaw Man has been released on a Warner Archives DVD-R, along with the 1914 version.

No comments: