Hunt Stromberg, who had begun as a publicist for producer Thomas Ince in 1921, was involved in finishing two movies that had were in progress by Ince at the time of his death in November 1924: THE LAST FRONTIER and OFF THE HIGHWAY. With Ince's death, there was initial uncertainty as to the best course of action; his will barred his wife from investing in motion pictures, to prevent the loss of the fortune they had accumulated and was held in trust for their young sons. Moreover, much work remained to be done on THE LAST FRONTIER.
THE LAST FRONTIER had originated as a novel, by Courtney Ryley Cooper, partly written while on the Ince payroll, and published in 1923 by Little Brown, with Ince also officially purchasing rights for a film version. Initially THE LAST FRONTIER was part of a larger plan for a multi-film saga of American history; only SCARS OF JEALOUSY (1923) and BARBARA FRIETCHIE (1924) were completed. An earlier western had been planned, set in the 1830s, written by Talbot Mundy in the James Fenimore Cooper style; it was to be entitled When Trails Were New. Ultimately Ince decided that rather than two, only one western would be produced, the one using the more traditional post-Civil War setting.
The plot of THE LAST FRONTIER would relate, according to the trades, "the laying of the first great trans-continental railroad, and the fight made by the pioneer men and women of the sixties as they pushed that road through the heart of the vast buffalo lands. Many historical characters, including 'Buffalo Bill' Cody and General Custer, are woven into the central theme; which with the tender and intimate love story of Tom Kirby and his sweetheart, offers a thrilling romance of adventure and action." Cody and Custer of course had also figured in CUSTER'S LAST FIGHT, Ince's 1912 movie that was released in expanded form in 1925.
The footage of the buffalo stampede which was to form the climax of THE LAST FRONTIER had already been filmed in 1923 at the Wainwright National Park in Alberta. The Canadian government was thinning its herd on their plains, killing 2,000 tubercular bison, allowing filming of the rapidly growing herd of 10,000 "under conditions which never again will be available for picture production...." Publicity would further explain that 12 cameras and their operators were hidden at great peril in steel underground pits with small openings, and behind stout barricades camouflaged with brush, as the buffalo were stampeded, to get the most remarkable scenes possible. Cree Indians from the Hobbema reservation also provided a contrast.
John Ince and B. Reeves Eason directed, but the results had proved so disjointed that, when Lambert Hillyer was asked to take over, he did not think he could salvage the project. Nonetheless, in September 1924, Moving Picture World announced that principal photography would soon begin, with Ince himself perhaps taking the megaphone. There was abundant evidence of industry and exhibitor interest in what would have been Ince's biggest production in years. Already $84,000 had been spent, as I note in my Ince biography.
Stromberg contracted to sell what had been completed of THE LAST FRONTIER (along with the studio's stock footage library), with advertising noting it as begun by Ince, finished by Stromberg as Ince's personal choice, with publicity to be approved by Mrs. Ince. $5,000 was to be paid upon signing and $10,000 upon beginning principal photography, not later than August 1. That $15,000 was to be an advance against 7% of the total gross receipts, increasing to 10% after expenses had been paid. No further sale of the footage could be made until one year after the release of THE LAST FRONTIER. Stromberg shared a half interest with Metropolitan Pictures Corp., ultimately selling out to them. THE LAST FRONTIER was ultimately produced in 1926, following the traditional formula of a trader who has been selling to Indians. Only the presence of Jack Hoxie as Cody provides a hint of the original intentions. The agreed balance due to the Ince Corp. by 1927 was only $8,642.
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