A small town in the Cumberland Mountains has fallen behind the times and descended into lawlessness. Salvation seems possible when the railroad company send a surveyor to the area, but he is brutally attacked by one of the local gangs…
Six-reel silent melodrama that was thought lost for many years until an incomplete print surfaced, with Dutch intertitles, via a private collection in 1996. As it is, we do have most of the film with only the 1st and part of the 2nd reel missing and what remains runs almost an hour in length. Why is this film of particular interest to aficionados today? Because it stars cinema icon Lon Chaney in one of his last ‘straight’ roles before stardom beckoned.
The setup here should be very familiar to anyone who’s spent a rainy afternoon watching an old Hollywood Western from cinema’s Golden Age. We have the ‘wide-open’ town run by local gangs, the ‘bought and paid for’ sheriff turning a blind eye and the local, upright citizens desperate to install some kind of law and order. One of these miscreants is local rabble-rouser Turner ‘Bearcat’ Stacy (Bernard J Durning) who likes to mix it up with the best of them but has a softer side thanks to the influence of pretty gal Blossom (Vangie Valentine). She returns his love but her father is local preacher Joel Fulkerson (Walt Whitman – no, not the poet!), and so she persuades Durning to clean up his act. This involves staying off the booze, hence the film’s title. But the course of true love doesn’t run smooth…
What shakes things up is the arrival of railroad man Jerry Henderson (M K Wilson). The town elders are all for him, as the iron horse will bring prosperity, schools and tougher laws, but the gangs aren’t so keen, particular the roughnecks led by local saloon keeper Kindard Powers (Chaney). On the run from their somewhat enthusiastic attentions, Wilson takes shelter overnight in the Fulkerson house. Unfortunately – gasp! – Valentine is there alone and, as they are unchaperoned, obviously they have to get married afterwards. lt’s the law of the mountains, or something! Durning’s rather put out about this, but when Wilson is badly injured in a gunfight, he vows to put an end to Chaney’s reign of terror forever.
This is a fairly typical frontier tale of good against evil. Chaney isn’t called to do anything more than snarl, look menacing and be nasty, which he manages effortlessly, of course. Technically, the camera is fairly static, but there is a decent mixture of long and medium shots (no real closeups) and there’s a lot of good location work, the film being shot in the mountains of Kentucky.
Durning’s solution to the problem of driving out Chaney’s gang is to form a band of vigilantes, who are effective, if not popular with the state authorities. My biggest concern about them, though, is more to do with their appearance. Hoods and burning torches bare rather too close a resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan, who had reformed as recently as 1915. Also timely was Durning’s sobriety pledge; the misguided Wartime Prohibition Act had come into force earlier that year and led shortly to the full-blown Volstead Act and the subsequent rise of bootlegging and organised crime.
This film was released barely two months after Chaney’s breakthrough performance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), a film which is now sadly lost. He starred in seven films released in 1919, and it’s interesting to speculate as to whether Chaney was aware of the sudden change in his fortunes while he was making this one. It was pretty much the last generic villain role he ever got to play.
One for Chaney enthusiasts and film historians only.