Here's where a lot of those Western clichés first appeared
In recent weeks I've seen two well-known silent Westerns, John Ford's 1924 epic The Iron Horse and the first version of The Spoilers, released in the spring of 1914, and the contrast between the two is striking. Ford's film holds up quite well for the most part and would likely be perfectly accessible and entertaining for most viewers accustomed to Hollywood Westerns of the sound era, while The Spoilers, made only ten years earlier, looks like an artifact from an ancient civilization, and requires considerable patience from modern viewers. Certain conventions of silent cinema that were well established by the mid-'20s were still in flux when this early feature was made, so while it is an interesting film in its own right it nevertheless has the inescapable feel of a museum piece. I would call The Spoilers must-see viewing only for dedicated silent film buffs, especially Western fans, but not for general audiences looking for undemanding entertainment.
The first thing a viewer must make allowances for here is the histrionic performance style, which hearkens back to the Victorian stage. In this film a player indicates sadness not simply with the appropriate facial expression but by dropping his arms to his sides and bobbing his head downward several times; another might indicate surprise by popping her eyes and abruptly throwing her arms across her face. In short, these actors are emoting to the rear balcony for filmmakers who have not yet recognized that the camera, parked only a few feet away, obviates the need for large-scale gestures. In addition to the acting, the titling technique is primitive. The dialog titles in this film identify each speaker by name and attach the name to that character's line of dialog, an obtrusive device that takes some getting used to. Also, sorry to say, the descriptive titles generally tell us what is going to happen before it happens, eliminating any suspense. (The low point where this technique is concerned occurs when we see the Broncho Kid riding his horse and a title informs us that he will injure himself in a fall; moments later, of course, he does just that.) At times the blocking of the actors is inept: during a dramatic scene in a bank a key player's face is obscured by an extra's hat, while in another sequence, a violent shoot-out, the editing makes it appear that actress Bessie Eyton is standing in two places at once. Other problems include an obviously painted backdrop of the ocean during a shipboard sequence, and an obviously Caucasian actor wearing black-face during a saloon scene. Within a few years even run-of-the-mill Hollywood films would boast better production values, subtler performances and smoother editing, but it's important to remember that when The Spoilers was made the standards were still being established.
Whatever its drawbacks, the film has a number of factors in its favor. The bulk of the story is set in an Alaskan mining town (which I guess makes it a "Northern" rather than a Western) and the town looks very authentic indeed: the buildings are ramshackle, the streets are muddy, and the store signs look as roughly lettered as they do in 19th century photographs. Later on, after genre films had been systematized, Hollywood tended to prettify its Western towns and give them fancy saloons with floor shows that look like they were choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Here, however, the saloon looks appropriately cruddy and the stage performers are about as clumsy as, one imagines, they actually were. Like the town itself the lead performers look rougher than we might expect, and certainly not as handsome as their successors in the saga's many remakes over the years, when the likes of Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, etc., took these roles. In this first version we find chunky, middle-aged William Farnum in the lead, playing opposite a similarly weathered-looking Kathlyn Williams as saloon gal Cherry Malotte. Once we adjust to their dated acting styles these actors come off well, both charismatic and refreshingly "real" in appearance. Bessie Eyton and Tom Santschi are also notable in roles that call for rather less nuance. Santschi is a most despicable villain, taking a well-earned beating in the movie's most famous sequence, a no-holds-barred fight with Farnum that created a sensation when the film was released and is still rousing to watch.
I can see why The Spoilers was such a great popular success when it was first released, but I can also see why it isn't shown much outside museums, nowadays. For sheer entertainment value Ford's The Iron Horse is one of the best silent Westerns there is, but Ford didn't invent the genre. Historically-minded viewers determined to trace the genre's conventions back to the early days should see this film, which, allowing for its age, is an interesting and worthwhile experience.
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