One of the major motion picture releases of 1923 was Paramount's The Covered Wagon, directed by James Cruze, which ultimately proved to be among the biggest box office hits of the silent era. Based on a best-selling novel, it told the story of an arduous wagon trek across the plains in the 1840s, from Westport Landing (now Kansas City) across the mountains to what is now Oregon. Along the way the pioneers struggle with illness and hunger, hunt buffalo, face a prairie fire, encounter hostile Indians, etc. It's no surprise that so many people flocked to see this epic Western, especially in the U.S., for there were many older Americans at the time who had had similar experiences, and plenty more who had heard about the covered wagon days from parents and grandparents. The film's great success inspired imitations, as well as parodies. Two Wagons Both Covered is a two-reel comedy starring Will Rogers that pokes fun at the popular epic with a fair degree of success, although, like so many parodies, it may not be quite so amusing to viewers who haven't seen the original. However, silent era buffs familiar with the target of satire should get some chuckles out of it.
Our leading comedian plays two roles: grizzled scout Joe Jackson, based on the character portrayed by Ernest Torrence in the original, and dandified Palm Beach cowboy Bill Bunian, based on J. Warren Kerrigan's Will Banion. Both roles allow for broad comedy, but the Bunian part is showier. He's quite the dude, well dressed and neatly groomed compared to the others. Asked why he's a year late for the trip, he replies "When one shaves every day, it takes up time." He immediately makes a play for our leading lady Molly Wingate (Marie Mosquini), who is also inordinately dolled up for someone traveling across country in this manner. Some of the short's humor grows out of their courtship, but the filmmakers also managed to come up with gags on other topics, whether related to The Covered Wagon or not: saxophones, booze, Brigham Young and his wives, those newfangled bicycles, and whatever else struck their fancy. The film ends with an extended routine involving Los Angeles real estate developers that's a take-off of the contemporary land boom in Southern California, and was thus something of an inside joke, although it's still amusing when viewed today.
Speaking of inside jokes, Will's portrayal of Bill Bunion could be viewed as a rather harsh attack on J. Warren Kerrigan. He's such a fop, so heavily made upfar more so than the actor himself in The Covered Wagonthat one has to wonder what was intended. Kerrigan was a huge star in the mid-1910s, but was allegedly not so popular with some of his colleagues. He was considered arrogant, and this impression was underscored in 1917 when he made insensitive comments about the war. (Amazingly, he told a reporter from the Denver Times that he believed artists, actors, musicians, writers, and other creative types should not be drafted until America had first conscripted "the great mass of men who aren't good for anything." Overnight his popularity plummeted.) Kerrigan's homosexuality was not public knowledge, but his predilections were an open secret in Hollywood. In light of this, Rogers's heavily rouged Bill Bunion comes off as more pointed, satirically speaking, and certainly more caustic, than might otherwise be the case. In another possible dig at Kerrigan, there's a scene where an ignorant pioneer expresses his intention to raise chickens once he gets to California, unaware that all of the chickens in his crate are roosters, and can't breed. Well, okay, that one may be a bit of a stretch where attacks on Kerrigan are concerned, but hey, you never know.
In any case, this two-reel comedy will definitely be of interest to silent film buffs, even if it mystifies everyone else. I'd say the only shortcoming of Two Wagons Both Covered where comedy is concerned is that a little too much of the humor is conveyed by title cards, rather than visual gags. Even so, those title cards are generally witty enough to carry the day.
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