Classic Movies

Grey Market Cinema: Nevada (1927)


Gunslinger Jim “Nevada” Lacy (Gary Cooper) successfully springs his sidekick Cash Burridge (Ernie Adams) from the Lineville hoosegow, and the two men decide to emulate the heroes of TV’s Alias Smith and Jones by taking the straight-and-narrow for a change.  They find their salvation in the tiny hamlet of Winthrop, “a quiet, calm, peaceful place”—but no sooner have they dismounted when they must step in to help Ben Ide (Philip Strange), an English rancher who’s being tormented by a local bully named Cawthorne (Ivan Christy).

Grateful for the assist, Ide hires Nevada and Cash to work his ranch…and he needs all the support he can get, because a gang of cattle rustlers has been terrorizing not only his spread but all of the other ranches in the immediate area.  While Ben and the sheriff (Christian J. Frank) round up every available man to trail the gang, Ide asks Nevada to keep an eye on his sister Hettie (Thelma Todd), newly arrived from across the pond.  Nevada’s assignment does not set well with Clan Dillon (William Powell), a wealthy cattle baron who is kind of sweet on Miss Hettie…but the more time she spends with Nevada, the fonder of him she becomes.  Nevada’s romance with Het is threatened by the Long Arm of the Law: Lineville’s sheriff (Guy Oliver) has trailed him to Winthrop, determined to take Nevada back to face the music.

Gary Cooper and Thelma Todd in Nevada (1927)

I apologize for the blog entries being a little heavy on the sagebrush action this week; Wednesdays are generally reserved for those movies, of course, but I promised to tackle Frontier Gal (1945) once I pried it loose from the black hole that is my bedroom (and it just seemed right for Overlooked Films on Tuesdays) …and I picked Nevada (1927) as TDOY’s silent feature simply through the luck of the draw.  (If it’s any consolation, tomorrow’s Forgotten Noir Fridays has no Western content whatsoever.)

Nevada, directed by John Waters (no, not the Baltimore guy) and scripted by Gordon Rigby, John Stone, and John W. “Jack” Conway, was based on the Zane Grey novel of the same name (a sequel to a 1927 literary effort from the author, Forlorn River).  I sort of did a double take when I researched the film because the publication date on Zane’s Nevada was 1928—which is a little tricky when your movie was produced by Paramount/Famous Players-Lasky the year before.  (A little more searching revealed that Nevada was originally serialized in The American Magazine in 1926-27.  Forlorn River was serialized in The Ladies Home Journal in 1926, which is how it was able to reach movie screens that same year in another Paramount release, starring Jack Holt and Raymond Hatton.)

Thel, Coop, and Ernie Adams

Nevada spotlights an early starring role for future Oscar winner Gary Cooper, who had been appearing mostly in bit roles in films in the mid-1920s until his breakthrough turn in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926).  The following year found Coop gracing a number of Clara Bow features (ItWings), one of which—Children of Divorce (1927)—is scheduled to make its DVD/Blu-ray debut this December from Flicker Alley.  (It’s available for pre-order at a 25% discount…and I have made plans to add it to the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.)  I’m certain I’m not the first person to say this…but Gary Cooper was one of the most curious of motion picture stars.  He wasn’t a particular great actor (I’ve listened to Coop on a number of old-time radio broadcasts in the past, and was amazed at how wooden he came across) but he had an undefinable charisma that just seemed to light up a movie screen.  His silent picture work attests to this, and in fact he may have been even more effective as a performer in the era before talkies.

Gary’s co-star—and I’ll come clean, the reason I took a flutter in buying a copy of the film—is the lovely Thelma Todd…but I’ll also be honest and admit she didn’t really impress me a great deal in this one (this might be because the part is kind of underwritten).  Classic movie aficionados will get a chuckle out of the fact that the actor who would later define cinematic urbanity, William Powell, plays Nevada’s bad guy…and before the shrieks of “Thanks for the spoiler warning!” start, let me point out it’s not too hard to determine Powell’s no-goodity through simple Socratic reasoning:

1) William Powell often played bad guys in silent films.
2) William Powell is in this silent film.
3) Therefore, William Powell is the bad guy.

William Powell? You’re busted! (With Gary Cooper and Thelma Todd.)

Even though he’s a genuine rotter, Powell exudes that suavity for which he would be fondly remembered later in his career in vehicles like The Thin Man series.  Captured by the law and revealed to be the mastermind of the gang, Powell reaches for something in his pocket…and pulls out a cigar, which he bites the tip off of and places in his mouth, lighting it in a “well-whaddya-gonna-do?” fashion.  (His character of Clan Dillon plugs Cawthorne, his second-in-command, to make sure no one knows he’s the Big Cheese…but when Cawthorne is revealed to be alive, well, and spilling his guts to the gendarmes, Dillon drily remarks that his eyesight is getting bad—he usually hits his mark successfully on the first try.)

Paramount would remake Nevada in 1935 with Larry (Buster) Crabbe in the Cooper role, and then R-K-O had a go with the material in 1944 with Robert Mitchum as star (this one even works in Tim Holt sidekick Richard Martin as “Chito Rafferty”!).  My overall assessment of the Gary Cooper-Thelma Todd version is that while it’s not particularly remarkable it is an entertaining watch, giving classic movie fans a chance to see these stars on the cusp of their impressive film careers.  (Did I mention Bill Powell plays the bad guy?)

Todd, Cooper, and Philip Strange

The Wikipedia entry for Nevada reads thusly: “Nevada still survives in a complete copy, but the film’s appearance is not the best, due probably to poor preservation.  It is possible to make out scenes, but not as well as other highly restored silent films.”  This is a major understatement.  I purchased this from Finders Keepers, and there’s severe nitrate decomposition in both the first six minutes of the film and the last reel (about 11 minutes).  To add insult to injury, it’s a very dark print; I couldn’t read half of the title cards.  (That’s why I didn’t even bother with screen captures; the photos in this essay are stills from the film.)  There’s a “The End” credit that reveals this was at one time a Grapevine Video release from 1996 (I refrained from calling it “On the Grapevine” because I didn’t want to give folks the impression it’s still in their catalog).  It’s not unwatchable, but it stands as a clear example as to the importance of film preservation and restoration (nitrate won’t wait).

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