My thanks to Hugh Munro Neely of the Mary Pickford Institute and to NYC's Museum of Modern Art for enabling me to view MoMA's print of this silent movie. The MoMA print is incomplete. I'll assume that any gaps in the plot are down to the incomplete print, rather than flaws in the script.
'High Pockets' is a bog-standard cowboy movie, made by the obscure Betzwood Film Company. Of their 26 known movies, 19 were comedies based on the 'Toonerville Folks' comic panels by Fontaine Fox (hugely popular in their day, they have not remained popular for modern nostalgists).
I expected 'High Pockets' to be a no-budget oater; I was pleasantly surprised otherwise. The exterior shots of this cowboy town reveal well-carpentered knotty-pine buildings, clearly long-term structures rather than quickie sets. Unfortunately, the terrain (actually southeastern Pennsylvania) doesn't resemble cowboy country. And a ridiculous amount of money appears to have been splashed out on the costume of the hero. He's nicknamed 'High Pockets', though he's not notably taller (nor more marsupial) than anyone else in this movie. He's played by a handsome non-entity named Louis Bennison. If he's a benison, he should change his name to Mal Ediction.
'High Pockets' apparently pre-dates the cowboy-movie tradition that the hero wears a white hat. The villains here wear black titfers, but Bennison sports a Stetson that photographs (in orthochromatic film stock) as grey. The hat's chinstrap features an elaborate woggle that would get Bennison laughed out of any real cowpoke gathering. (He should take it to Japan, and claim it's a netsuke.) He wears a fancy bead-work cowboy vest with what appear to be authentic Amerindian patterns. He also wears leather gauntlets with elaborate studwork. In one sequence, rushing to mount his horse so he can gallop off to help the heroine, he pauses to don an elaborate set of furry chaps, even though the terrain hereabouts doesn't seem to require them. Even more spectacular than his dude-ranch duds are Louis Bennison's teeth: he has the brightest whitest straightest greatest sweetest neatest keenest cleanest set of choppers (real? fake?) that I've ever seen in any cowboy movie, and he makes a point of flashing them repeatedly throughout this movie. I'm annoyed that America movies set before the 20th century usually avoid concealing the modern actors' orthodontia, but Bennison makes a point of flaunting his supernatural bicuspids. Based on this one film, he seems to have been extremely vain of his appearance. I simply couldn't believe that the grizzled westerners in this story would tolerate such a pretty-boy cowpoke, much less his anachronistic teeth.
The leading lady is played by Katherine MacDonald, who gave subtle performances in some later silent films but isn't impressive here. Dressed more credibly than Bennison, she wears a simple black frock with elaborate lace cuffs and collar that can be discarded as necessary. (Very plausible for a frontier setting, when people sometimes wanted to dress up but couldn't afford a special-purpose fancy outfit.) She also wears a tartan shawl. Since it's not any of the MacDonald tartans, I assumed that the shawl was not a reference to her Scottish ancestry. Now I think otherwise, having seen MacDonald in her later film 'Shark Monroe' in which she wears several tartans.
Eastern gal Joy Blythe (MacDonald) has come west to meet her brother, unaware that he's been murdered. 'High Pockets' Henderson agrees to help her, but he gets tossed into a calaboose with wooden bars on the window. (I found this plausible, though I wondered where these cowpokes were hiding the machine lathe for tooling those bars.)
The performances throughout this movie are deepest silent-movie cliché, especially one sequence in which a dance-hall girl reacts when Joy's brother apparently returns from the dead. The title cards are written in faux-folksy dialogue from Cowboy Movie Hell, with characters behaving "peaceable like" instead of "peacefully", and "slickin' up" instead of cleaning. Speaking of hell: a villain's dialogue card renders "Whereinhell" as one word: I assume that this was less offensive to movie audiences in 1919 than "hell" as a stand-alone. One of the villains is pressured into writing a cheque for $5,000 (apparently good), and pressured into covering another villain's cheque ditto. Whoa, thar! $10,000 was a fortune in the 19th century, and I couldn't believe that this grizzly galoot had that much loot, even from criminal activities.
One actor named Francis Joyner gives a performance of some subtlety. The interior of Mike Flynn's frontier emporium is impressive in the early scenes, with many different wares jumbled convincingly on the shelves. It's less impressive after Joy does her "slickin' up", with dozens of tinned vegetables stacked into high pyramids that are just begging to get knocked over in a fistfight that never arrives. She also puts the tinned produce next to the jewellery display, as a set-up for the fade-out when our aw-shucks hero buys a ring to put on her middle finger, and she promotes it to a different digit.
There's an impressive scene when Bennison tosses a throwing-knife at a villain, impaling his hand. I was also intrigued by a flashback sequence that's smoothly integrated into the narrative. Flashbacks weren't yet standard film grammar in 1919, so audiences didn't always understand that the action had shifted backward in time. There are enough merits here to make me wish that 'High Pockets' had possessed deeper pockets, so that this film's producer could have engaged some better actors, and told pretty-boy Louis Bennison to mosey along elsewhere. Oh, wait: Bennison was the producer. So this movie's just a vanity vehicle, then.
I'm not usually keen on westerns, and I want to be sure that I'm not being unfair or prejudiced here: maybe there was something brilliant in the sequences that were missing from MoMA's print. I'll rate 'High Pockets' 4 in 10, though I'm tempted to go a bit lower.
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