Monday, September 1, 2008

“Nomads of the North”


I love silent films. Fortunately for me, so does Eberle. We’ve spent many pleasant hours watching them, & we’ve also spent many pleasant, exasperating, exhilarating, & grueling hours composing music for two of them—Nell Shipman’s Back to God’s Country & The Grub Stake. When the stars align just so, we actually perform these scores as The Bijou Orchestrette; & thanks in large part to Idaho Film Collection director Tom Trusky, our score for Shipman’s The Grub Stake is available on dvd through the Boise State University bookstore.

But what does our work on Ship
man have to do with a 1920 action thriller starring just about our favorite actor of all time, Lon Chaney? (here using “actor” in the definitely masculine sense to differentiate Lon from the indefatigable Nell). The connection is a little-known adventure writer from the early twentieth century, James Oliver Curwood.

Although Curwood isn’t well known today, he was a very successful writer in his time; he amassed a sufficient fortune from his wilderness tales to build a replica of an 18th century French chateau in Owosso, Michigan; he na
med this “Curwood Castle.” The castle is open to the public—you can see a pic of the castle, & get a bit more info here.

Anyhoo, Curwood & Shipman collaborated on a few film adaptations of his stories: God’s Country & The Woman (1916), Baree, Son of Kazan (1918); & Back to God’s Country (1919). The latter was a huge success, grossing over a million and a half dollars in its runit was made for $67,000. Unfortunately, Shipman & Curwood had a falling out over her adaptation of his short story—called "Wapi the Walrus"—Shipman, who typically wrote the screenplay for her movies, added much to the original. In fact, the Curwood story is only 12 pages long, and approximately the first two-thirds of the 73-minute movie are all her writing. The pic below is a still from Back to God's Country.Nomads of the North was released almost exactly a year later, in the fall of 1920. One wonders if Nell might have replaced Betty Blythe in the role of Nanette Roland had she & Curwood not fallen out. That would have been a dream pairing—Chaney & Shipman, though it’s possible that two such charismatic figures players simply might not have worked playing opposite each other.

Chaney is endearing in Nomads of the North, & plays a different character from the more familiar deformed roles (both physically & emotionally) for which he’s famous. The character of Raoul Challoner is not The Phantom of the Opera or Tito Beppi from Laugh, Clown, Laugh, or the eponymous “He” from He Who Gets Slapped; he's a sentimental backwoods hero, in love with life & with the heroine. & the film itself doesn’t have the depth one associates with the later Chaney films (it is amazing to think that by the time he starred in Nomads of the North Chaney had appeared in well over 100 films in the course of seven or eight years—there’s some question whether his first film appearance was in 1912 or 1913).

The film centers on a love quadrangle (!). Three men are in love with the beautiful wilderness gal, Nanette Roland (who comes complete with an invalid father—the role would have been perfect for Nell). Her suitors include Chaney’s character, of course, as well as the evil Duncan McDougall (played by Melbourne MacDowell) & the hard-bitten Mountie with a heart of gold, Corporal O'Connor, played by Lewis Stone—yes, that Lewis Stone, Judge Hardy from the Andy Rooney movies. Won’t tell you how it all shakes out—no spoilers here!

However, along the way, you do have a bear cub & a puppy (leashed together), who get considerable hugs & fondling from Chaney—you see foxes, a mountain lion, a porcupine—hey, you Shipmaniacs out there, sound familiar? You even have the bear cub sticking its head in a teapot in a way that’s very reminiscent of the bear cub & honey pot in Back to God’s Country. Does make you wonder if Curwood & director David Hartford were trying to parlay the success of the Shipman film into another big hit…. Blythe also gets to interact with both bear & dog quite a bit, & while her portrayal overall is engaging, she doesn’t seem as comfortable with the critters as Chaney, & certainly not as comfortable as Nell would have been.

On the other hand, while there is some gorgeous location shooting, there’s a very fake forest fire, which apparently was filmed “on the Universal lot, with fake trees, trimmed with natural foliage, planted in the ground, barked and painted.” (note: that link goes to IMDB, which has a major spoiler). This is very “unShipman,” though I can’t imagine Nell setting a real forest fire, even for the sake of a film.

The score to the version we saw was by Robert Israel, a well-known contemporary silent film composer. Both Eberle & I thought the score was a bit heavy-handed, & that it didn’t always interact with the film in a satisfying way. But chacun à son goût….

Silent films are either an acquired taste, or just perhaps a temperamental one; the first time I saw one as an adult I was hooked. & to compare them to talkies is sort of like comparing prose poems with short stories. Anyhoo, if you’re a Chaney fan, this is worth a look-see. If you’re not familiar with Chaney, you’re probably better served starting with one of the big films mentioned earlier, or with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).

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