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Richard Barthelmess stars as Joe Thunderhorse, a Sioux Indian who has
grown up in white schools and is the star of a traveling "Old West"
show. He goes back to "the reservation" when he gets a telegram that
his father is dying. Once there he runs up against a trio of crooked
white men, Dudley Digges as the Indian Agaent, Arthur Hohl as the
incompetent doctor, and Sidney Toler as the henchman. He also meets
Lydia (Ann Dvorak) who knows the realities of life on the reservation.
The whites treat Joe like any other Indian, but Joe has lived in the white world for 30 years and fights back. After he he convicted of attempted murder in an amazingly crooked court run by Digges, Joe breaks from the reservation and heads to Washington, where the case turns into a national event with a national network of graft and corruption exposed.
This is an highly entertaining film that publicizes the Indians' plight and (as of 1934) lack of civil rights.
Barthelmess is excellent as the crusading Joe. Dvorak is solid as the heroine. Digges, Hohl, and Toler are appropriately slimy. Co-stars include Claire Dodd, Tully Marshall, Clarence Muse, Henry O'Neill, Charles Middleton, and Robert Barrat.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Massacre" was a brave attempt to show the problems faced by American
Indians on reservations and especially how those bought up in a white
man's world coped. Richard Barthelmess excelled at playing oppressed
men who slowly find a way to stand up for their beliefs - "Tol'able
David" and "The Cabin in the Cotton" - and he was great in this movie
about a cynical, educated Native American, who is wise to the white
man's world but all at sea in the reservation.
College educated Joe "Thunder Horse" is the chief attraction of the Wild West exhibition at the World's Fair. He is being romanced by Norma (played to perfection by Claire Dodd), she parades him around as her latest fad and he is cynical enough to play along with her ("my Red Skin" - "my Red Lips"). He hasn't been on the reservation since he was a child but is summoned back because his father is dying. Once he arrives he is appalled at the way his people are treated - worse than third class citizens. There are the usual characterizations - Quissenberry, corrupt manager of the reservation, hiding his hate under a "kindly uncle" veneer (Dudly Digges, who also played the evil prison warden in "The Mayor of Hell"(1933)), an unfeeling doctor (Arthur Hohl) whose jittery behaviour seems to mask other problems and the merciless undertaker, Shanks (Sidney Toler) whose rape of Joe's fifteen year old sister, brings the movie to a thrilling climax.
Joe captures Shanks and ties him to the car where he takes him for a bumpy ride - unfortunately (or fortunately) Shanks dies and Joe is held in prison, knowing whatever the verdict he will be lynched. Joe is helped to escape by Lydia (Ann Dvorak), a feisty, educated Indian ("Don't call me Girlie"!!!) who works at the manager's office. She is under no illusion about the corruption which is rife on the reservation and helps Joe escape so he can bring their plight to the attention of Washington. Once there he finds sympathetic ears (Henry O'Neil etc) and eventually the evil doers are bought to justice. This was one of Warner's "social conscience" movies and it worked very well.
Ann Dvorak was now at a point in her career where she was being thrown into supporting roles in what Warners considered "any old movies". She was serving out her Warners contract and they had not forgiven her for taking an "extended" vacation in 1933. When she returned she found she had missed out on a role in "Cynara" but her performances in films like "Massacre" and "Housewife" have since gained respect.
Highly, Highly Recommended.
There's nothing jaw-droppingly brilliant about this film. In fact, it
has moments that look like a very low-budget Western. Joe wears one of
those Tom Mix hats so big it looks like a joke. Why does he put his hat
on before roaring off down the road in his convertible? The punches Joe
throws miss their mark by two feet (swish!) while the punchees
dutifully drop to the ground. Joe's black assistant sometimes seems
smart and individualized, and other times plays the dumb blackie.
People in the court scene get on a soapbox and speechify shamelessly.
In the closing shot, Joe and his gal embrace, turn, look into the
distance, freeze, and you can almost hear the director saying, "Hold it
just like while I count to thirty." But for all its clumsiness, it
holds your attention because of the importance of the theme, the
victimization of native Americans under the reservation system and one
man's effort to get justice. It's amazing to realize that this was
produced in 1934, with several decades to come of standard Hollywood
westerns, many based on the idea that the only good Indian is a dead
Indian. I enjoyed this movie very much and wish it were more widely
Many shots seem to have been taken on location with real natives on real reservations, and the burial ceremony seems authentic.
On a much lighter note, I adored Joe's car, some swanky roadster of the thirties. I'd be happy to drive a car like that today.
"Massacre" finally made it to TCM at 2:15 PM on August 9, 2011 as part
of an all-day salute to Ann Dvorak. It may be that "Massacre" was on
TCM before I started receiving the cable station in 1996, but I doubt
it. As Joe Thunderhorse, a traveling show star who knows the score,
Richard Barthelmess does a great job. Part of the reason for that has
to the movie's director, Alan Crosland, whose career was on a downward
slide at Warner Bros. For that matter, co-star Ann Dvorak was also in
the Warner Bros. doghouse, in part for going on an unauthorized
vacation in 1933.
On the screen, all you see are great talents making a fast moving movie that has a cynical view on life. The storyline involves a cabal of crooked Indian reservation officials who think nothing of robbing Indians of their land and covering up crimes like rape, while Indian Affairs Commissioner Dickinson in Washington, D.C. can only wring his hands until Joe Thunderhorse comes along. In my opinion, I think that director Alan Crosland is responsible for the jaded attitude towards authority you see in this movie. You see that same attitude in Crosland's great "Don Juan," a movie that also moves along at a rapid pace. So, while pabulum like "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" shows up on TCM ad nauseam, "Massacre" was MIA until this week.
Out of curiosity, I looked up movie posters for "Massacre." One of the posters I found on the Internet has in big block letters the name BARTHELMESS at the top, above a color picture of the actor wearing an Indian headdress and, running across the picture. the title "Massacre" in smaller script type letters. Within the B of Barthelmess, in very small letters, is his first name Richard. From a distance, the poster reads BARTHELMESS in Massacre. A very modern approach, everyone knew who Richard Barthelmess was in 1934, a big star, no need to advertise his first name much. Yet in a few months, after he got his walking papers from Warner Bros., his movie career went downhill fast and now, unlike actors like James Cagney and Betty Davis, almost no one remembers him.
On one of the last TCM Preservation Showcase shows he presented, Roddy McDowell (looking very pale) mentioned before the start of the movie coming on, "Midnight Alibi," that the star was the great Richard Barthelmess. To me, Barthelmess in the early 30s movies I saw him in seemed to be too serious and sometimes too much like a punching bag. That is not the case in "Massacre," where he plays his character consistently as a slick dude who won't let anyone push him around. When Harry Warner tried to cut Barthemess' contract pay in 1933, just as the studio had cut the salaries of the non-union studio workers, Barthelmess did not go along. Warner Bros. issued a press release that Barthelmess had agreed to make three movies a year instead of two for the same yearly salary, but that was window dressing. Once Darryl Zanuck handed in his resignation to protest Warner Bros. reneging on an agreement to restore studio workers' cut salaries to their former level, Barthelmess' career at Warner Bros. was kaput. His last movie at Warners, "Midnight Alibi," directed by Alan Crosland, was only 58 minutes long and looked to be filmed on a shoestring budget with Barthelmess playing out the string.
Thanks to TCM, viewers like me got a chance to see the real Richard Barthelmess in action in "Massacre."
Rodeo stunt rider Richard Barthelmess (as Joe "Chief" Thunder-Horse)
thrills crowds at the Chicago "World's Fair" celebrating a century of
progress in Native American Indian affairs. An assimilated Sioux, Mr.
Barthelmess receives word that back on the Reservation his father is
dying. Barthelmess takes time out to fulfill a sexual fantasy with
shapely blonde Claire Dodd (as Norma), then drives to the Reservation
with his happy-go-lucky manservant. On the way, he is attracted to
red-skinned Ann Dvorak (as Lydia). Barthelmess discovers his forgotten
brethren are being mistreated, and need help...
He reveals himself in great physical shape when he strips after his opening stunts, but the camera shows Barthelmess modestly keeps his underwear on in the shower. The make-up and hairstyle the actor used to compliment his regrettable facial surgery works for the "Indian" character. Female figure watchers should be alerted to Ms. Dodd's early scenes, as she fills her dress exceptionally well. Also watch for the car chase wherein future "Charlie Chan" star Sidney Toler (as Shanks) gets his comeuppance.
***** Massacre (1/18/34) Alan Crosland ~ Richard Barthelmess, Ann Dvorak, Dudley Digges, Claire Dodd
Although Richard Barthelmess was on the downside of his career which
began in silent films with Massacre you couldn't judge by the quality
of this film. I am really surprised that this film is not better known.
It is a remarkable portrayal of the American Indian in the New Deal
years and the entrenched powers arrayed against them as a conquered
The story begins as Barthelmess is summoned to the Sioux reservation because his father is ill. He finds when he gets there that his father is dying mainly because of the lack of medical attention. After that he learns of other injustices suffered and he's determined to do something about it.
The villains in Massacre are Dudley Digges as the Indian agent and Arthur Hohl as a missionary. You know this film was made before the Code was in place because after this you could never show a man of the cloth as a villain. In fact Barthelmess after his father dies is determined to bury him with the traditional Indian ceremonial rites. That totally drives Digges and Hohl up a wall as they do not want this Indian Bolshevik which is what Digges calls Barthelmess to be bringing these Indians back to paganism and against what the missionaries have been trying to instill in the Sioux. When you think about it, this film is decades ahead of its time.
Ann Dvorak plays the Indian maid who falls for Barthelmess and Sidney Toler plays the man that Barthelmess kills forcing him to flee the reservation and seek redress from Washington, DC. What happens, well the Sioux nearly go on the warpath as they are in a take no prisoners mood.
Sad to say in a film so sensitive about Indian rights and stereotypes, black people come in for a bit of racial stereotyping in this film. It is probably what keeps the film from getting a higher rating or from being a classic on the subject like Devil's Doorway or Fort Apache. Still Massacre is a great film that too few people know about.
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