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The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert(1931)

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The Western The Painted Desert (1931) has two Clark Gable myths connected with it that need to be dispelled. The first is that it was Gable's first movie. Actually, he spent a period as an extra for the silent screen from 1924-1926, playing a soldier in What Price Glory (1924) and in The Merry Widow (1925) as well as several other films. The Painted Desert was, however, both Gable's first talkie and his first role near the top of the cast list.

The other myth is that when Gable's agent at the time, Minna Wallis (sister of producer Hal Wallis), got Gable the job as the villain in The Painted Desert, she neglected to tell the producer that Gable could not ride a horse. Gable had ridden horses since his boyhood. Nevertheless, he did go out to Griffith Park for four weeks training in stunt riding with an old, one-eyed stuntman, preparing for whatever action the director had in mind.

He needn't have bothered. This was still that period of early talkies when speech was deemed far more important than visuals and the script by director Howard Higgin and co-author Tom Buckingham gave Gable and the rest of the cast ample opportunity to exercise their vocal chords. The plot had William Boyd as a foundling that sparked a decades-long feud between two cowboys. He comes back from the East to settle the feud but romantic rival Clark Gable tries every dirty trick he can think of to keep the feud going.

William Boyd is, of course, the actor that would later gain a permanent place in the saddle as Hop-Along Cassidy. At the time he was a dependable character actor having come to Path Pictures after it purchased Cecil B. DeMille's independent outfit. Path, which had been around since the Path Brothers introduced cinema to France in 1896, was at the time being absorbed into the new RKO Radio Pictures conglomerate. Boyd would be laid off two years later, floundering until he discovered his white-hatted alter ego.

The love interest, Helen Twelvetrees, was a popular actress in 1931 although she was better known for her performances in "fallen women" pictures. When the vogue for those movies passed, so did Twelvetrees' career. She, too, was laid off in 1936 and never returned to movies and is, unfortunately, best known for a Johnny Carson gag ("Who was Rin Tin Tin's favorite actress?")

William Farnum, who plays Cash Holbrook, one of the feuding cowboys, was another huge star at one point in Hollywood history, having starred in one of the earliest and most popular Westerns, the 1914 version of The Spoilers. His days as a lead cowboy ended after he was seriously injured during the making of The Man Who Fights Alone (1924). He came back four years later, but only as a character actor, working on until his death in 1953.

The Painted Desert was shot on location in Arizona although Edward Snyder's black-and-white photography wasn't able to effectively exploit the colorful landscape. RKO released the movie and did well enough with it to revive the story in 1938 for a George O'Brien programmer. Unfortunately there are reports that during the making of that film, scenes were chopped out of the 1931 movie's original negative for use as action shots, which probably accounts for existing prints of the The Painted Desert running four minutes shorter than the original stated running time.

Gable, having gained exposure, snagged a contract with MGM, becoming a huge star later that year in the racy pre-Code Norma Shearer movie A Free Soul (1931). He forgot all about this entry into talking pictures probably never knowing how close he had come to working with someone with whom he would later become intimately involved. Immediately before making The Painted Desert, the director and co-screenwriter had just completed a series of films featuring the young actress, Carole Lombard.

Director: Howard Higgin
Producer: E.B. Derr
Writers: Howard Higgin, Tom Buckingham
Cinematographer: Edward Snyder
Editor: Clarence Kolster
Art Designer: Carroll Clark
Cast: William Boyd (Bill Holbrook), Helen Twelvetrees (Mary Ellen Cameron), William Farnum (Cash Holbrook), J. Farrell MacDonald (Jeff Cameron), Clark Gable (Rance Brett), Charles Sellon (Tonopah).

by Brian Cady

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