Directed by King Baggot
Written by C. Gardner Sullivan
This marathon will certainly feature plenty of John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Clint Eastwood, so it may be a little bit of a shame that Tumbleweeds is the only film to feature William S. Hart, or that Cimarron will be the only one to feature Richard Dix. These two actors are legendary in the Western genre, being featured in a number of popular silent classics that, to be frank, just weren’t popular enough to make my list at the end of the day. This does not mean I can’t try to appreciate what they did which came before much of this marathon, though I will say that if this is my only impression of William S. Hart in the marathon, then I am sorely disappointed by his performance and on screen persona. Still, the film also explores interesting historical story lines and uncovers a few more standard Western details we haven’t seen yet.
Tumbleweeds is another name for a cowboy, or a Western loner who travels through the country like a tumbleweed, going wherever the wind takes him, not tied down to anything or anyone. Don Carver (William S. Hart) is one such “tumbleweed”, working the Box K Ranch on the Cherokee Strip. But when the US Government announces that the Strip will be opened up for homesteaders to stake their claim, Carver is offended. But he soon meets an eligible lady named Molly, with whom he sees a future life on the Box K Ranch. Her double-crossing half-brother Noll (J. Gordon Russell), however, has plans of his own for Don and the Box K Ranch. Framing Don as a “Sooner”, Noll hopes to cash in on this choice piece of land before any of the other homesteaders can. But the noble loner Don will certainly have something to say before Noll can execute his sinister plan.
The DVD version of the film I saw features a brief introduction from an older William S. Hart, speaking lovingly about the last film he ever made and how important it was. Unfortunately for my experience, this was a detriment. Hart speaks of the travesty the US Government placed on the ranchers, who had worked the land for so long only to lose it to the homesteaders. Hart’s statements, and subsequently my perception of the film, seems to ignore altogether the fact the land belong to Native Americans long before the ranchers. The introductory statement also gave me a brief look into the overly dramatic and yet stale as a board acting style of Hart, which persisted throughout the film. Hart may be as stiff an actor as I’ve seen, and his hero/moralist persona becomes very off-putting when considering the “tragic” angle this film plays toward.
There are many positives about the film as well. For instance, the film opens with a bit of slick horse riding from Hart, the likes of which has not yet been featured in this marathon. Some of the town design is also unique to this point, but depicts a style I will become all too familiar with as this marathon progresses, as we even see swinging saloon doors for the first time. Even the story chosen, that of the “Sooners”, now the moniker for University of Oklahoma athletics, is a unique choice, which explores a topic in Western history ripe for a good Western tale. The rather contrived love triangle/rivalry angle played between Don, Molly and Bill Freel may only feel contrived now, being familiar with so many other Western stories, but in 1925, even after The Iron Horse and The Covered Wagon covering much the same ground, it is a little fresh still, even if more poorly executed than those two examples.
Ultimately what doomed this film for me was the opening statement from Hart, which swayed my opinion not just of him as an actor, but the film’s intentions as well. The “Sooner” movement is an interesting episode of American West history, but I could not get behind the perspective of Tumbleweeds. It certainly did not help matters that I found little charisma or acting chops in the film’s lead/hero Don, played by William S. Hart. The elements are here to develop a decent Western, and as such it is at times enjoyable and entertaining, but Director Baggot and star Hart drop the ball on too many occasions, crafting a rather bland and uninspired version of this history. There are no signature moments, meaning Tumbleweeds fails to be a signature Western.