Rex Beach was an extremely popular novelist early in the 20th century: his novels of two-fisted he-man adventurers in rough isolated outposts were filmed frequently. Beach's novel "The Spoilers" was especially popular, and has been filmed several times (including a version starring John Wayne). "Laughing Bill Hyde", adapted by Rex Beach from his novel of the same name, is notable as Will Rogers's screen debut ... and Rogers gives an excellent dramatic performance in a semi-romantic role.
Despite its title and the presence of comedian Rogers, "Laughing Bill Hyde" is not a comedy. Bill Hyde (Rogers's character) is nicknamed "Laughing Bill" because he laughs constantly whenever he's in danger. His enemies assume that Bill's laughter is proof of his courage, but in fact his habit is a nervous reaction to mortal terror.
Bill Hyde has spent most of his adult life in prison, mostly for his habit of "borrowing" things without asking the owners' permission. Breaking out of prison in Montana, he heads west and stows away aboard a freighter bound for the Alaska goldfields. In Alaska, Bill meets Ponotah, a Red Indian maiden who has been cheated out of her gold stake by Black Jack Burg and his henchmen. Bill Hyde "salts" a worthless gold mine, using a few gold nuggets to make the worthless mine appear valuable. Then he tricks Black Jack into trading Ponotah's mine for the salted mine. She gets her mine back, and Bill Hyde gets Ponotah.
Anna Lehr (mother of actress Ann Dvorak) is extremely attractive as Ponotah, although (apart from wearing her long black hair in plaits) she doesn't look especially Indian. Her scenes with Rogers are touchingly romantic: surprisingly so, given Rogers's natural shyness. With no previous experience of screen acting, and without being able to use his distinctive voice in this silent film, Will Rogers easily proved himself a natural screen presence in "Laughing Bill Hyde".
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