This is the 5th in a series.
“Man and beast – both blissfully unaware that their reign is over”
– The opening title card of Tumbleweeds
Growing up, my Uncle John showed me the silent William S. Hart western Wagon Tracks from 1915. Unfortunately, as of this writing, Wagon Tracks is not available on DVD, so I went with his final film, 1925’s Tumbleweeds. I fondly remembered Wagon Tracks, primarily for the presence of Hart, who in appearance resembles a cross between Clint Eastwood and John Wooden, with Wooden’s pointed features accompanied by Eastwood’s Squint of Doom. Hart’s charisma is that of a Quaker version of Eastwood. He protects the innocent (including puppies) without so much as smiling.
The wonderful thing about watching silents is seeing how many storytelling tropes have been there from the beginning. For example, in Westerns, we’re used to the hero having a grizzled doofus sidekick, a la Gabby Hayes, who has a five o’ clock shadow and a crumpled-up hat. Tumbleweeds features the pre-Gabby: Lucien Littlefield, who plays Hart’s comic sidekick. Hart’s hero is so good and righteous that it’s up to Littlefield to crack jokes every now and then. FYI, my personal favorite grizzled sidekick? Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (Coming soon!)
The DVD version of Tumbleweeds opens with the clip that accompanied the 1939 reissue of the film, in which Hart himself delivers a bizarre, overwrought sound monologue detailing the times that the film is set in. The solemn hamminess of this clip makes me happy that the film itself is silent.
The opening title card neatly sums up the worldview of the film, in which the country’s expansion was leading to the end of a certain way of life. After the last cattle drive, Hart bows and says “Boys – This is the last of the West.” Even 85 years ago, films used Westerns, and the West itself, to serve as elegies to the past a tone that persists in films like The Searchers, Unforgiven and No Country For Old Men.
Make no mistake, Hart himself (who produced the film) felt that the West as he knew it was dying; that odd monologue an older Hart delivers pre-film is more than a farewell to movie audiences, it’s a eulogy to the past:
My friends, I loved the art of making motion pictures. It is as the breath of life to me … the rush of the wind that cuts your face, the pounding hooves of the pursuing posse, and then the clouds of dust! Through the cloud of dust comes the faint voice of the director, “Now, Bill, OK! Glad you made it! Great stuff, Bill, great stuff! And, say, Bill! Give old Fritz a pat on the nose for me, will ya?” The saddle is empty, the boys up ahead are calling, they’re waiting for you and me to help drive this last great round-up into eternity.
While Tumbleweeds isn’t available at the Nashville Public Library, you can find another Hart western, “Hell’s Hinges” from 1916, as part of the “Treasures from the Film Archives” DVD anthology, a great collection you can rent by clicking here.