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REDISCOVERING THE FIRST EPIC WESTERN

Before John Ford’s The Iron Horse, before William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds or Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail there was The Covered Wagon in 1923. It was a bona fide blockbuster, in terms of its budget and its enormous box-office success. What’s more, it introduced audiences to a new genre: the epic Western. I’m happy to report that the new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber does right by this silent-movie milestone.

 

One of three sheet-music pieces published as tie-ins with the movie in 1923

The opening titles are revealed as a theater curtain is drawn aside, announcing a film of importance, which this was. Toby Roan does a good job of providing context for every facet of the picture in his commentary track, with background on the actors, Utah-born director James Cruze, and Emerson Hough, whose novel inspired this story of pioneers heading West in 1848. One cast member I didn’t recognize is Charles Ogle, playing a an older man who is leading the wagon train bound for Oregon. Roan had to remind me that this was the same actor who played the misshapen monster in the 1910 Thomas Edison production of Frankenstein!

Alan Hale and Ernest Torrence square off: two formidable opponents

Warren Kerrigan is a virile, good-looking leading man and an ideal match for lovely Lois Wilson, Ogle’s daughter who has somehow agreed to marry a rotter played by Alan Hale. Ernest Torrence, usually cast as a villain, provides lusty comedy relief (and occasional menace) as Kerrigan’s colorful pal who knows the Western territory better than anyone. Another familiar character actor, Tully Marshall, portrays a trader who links with the settlers along the trail.

Leading lady Lois Wilson, whom I met at the 1972 Cinecon in Washington, D.C., where she spoke after a screening of James Cruze’s Old Ironsides

The narrative is unremarkable, a straightforward story of pioneers, heroes and villains. It is completely predictable, although one might euphemistically describe it as traditional. What makes it compelling is the conviction of its actors and the reality it portrays. Those are real Conestoga wagons snaking across the landscape in Utah and Nevada and risking everything to ford a river. There are no camera tricks here: what you see is what you get.

Don’t look for political correctness or, for that matter, an ASPCA seal of approval. The Covered Wagon was made 95 years ago but still offers considerable entertainment value, enhanced by a pipe-organ score played by the late, great Gaylord Carter, who recorded tracks for a half-dozen Paramount silents when they were released on vhs during the 1980s. 

The Covered Wagon was a rousing success. At first-run showings one could purchase a program book for 25 cents. There were no fewer than three pieces of sheet music tied into the movie’s release, including a theme called Westward Ho! composed by the leading name in silent-film music, Hugo Riesenfeld.

The real west

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray looks remarkably good. The print seems to derive from more than one source: some scenes are razor-sharp, others less so. The disc includes a silly comedy short called The Pie Covered Wagon (1932) which is mainly notable for the appearance of young Shirley Temple. The package features a booklet with an essay by Matt Hauske, who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago, and sums up the significance of the movie quite well. The Covered Wagon is a welcome addition to the home video arena.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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