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The Vanishing American (1925) stands out not only as one of Paramount/Famous Players-Lasky's most ambitious productions of the Twenties, but also as an early, compromised, cinematic attempt to address the mistreatment of Native Americans by white settlers and the U.S. government. Zane Grey's original serialized novel, published in Ladies' Home Journal in 1922-1923, offered a harsh portrayal of government agents and missionaries who preyed upon Native Americans. According to Zane Grey biographer Thomas Pauly, afterwards "the magazine was deluged with angry letters from religious groups, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs vehemently denounced his depiction of their efforts." As a result the producer Jesse Lasky persuaded Grey to allow these critiques to be toned down in the film. Instead, the film's script places most of the blame on the corrupt individual character of Booker. When Harper published the novel in book, the editor similarly asked Grey to tone down the depictions.
According to biographer Frank Gruber, Grey modeled the hero Nophaie in part after the Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. Kidnapped as a young boy and raised and educated among whites, Nophaie experiences an identity crisis which is lacking in the film. Grey further challenged social mores of the period by depicting a romantic relationship between Nophaie, the hero, and the white missionary Marion Warner. In that regard, the serialized version ends with Nophaie surviving and the two remaining as a couple. In contrast, Nophaie dies both in the film and the 1925 edition of the novel published by Harper. Still, Gruber considers The Vanishing American "one of Zane Grey's very best novels." Interestingly, in the 1955 adaptation directed by Joe Kane for Republic Pictures, the hero (renamed "Blandy") survives his gunshot wound and stays with Marion, making its ending closer to the original serialized version.
The Vanishing American was in fact one of several Zane Grey adaptations produced by Paramount and adapted by Lucien Hubbard with Grey's approval. If it seems odd that a large scale production like this could be completed the same year as the source novel was published, planning for the film in fact began a couple of years earlier, just after the serialized version was published in Ladies' Home Journal. In a September 1925 interview for The New York Times, Lasky claimed that the idea for adapting this particular story arose during a trip to Navaho Mountain and Rainbow Bridge in Arizona, at the invitation of Hubbard and Grey. Lasky also claimed that he had Richard Dix in mind for the lead role from the very start.
Initially William K. Howard was slated to direct the film. No stranger to Zane Grey's work, he had adapted The Border Legion (1924), Code of the West (1925) and The Light of the Western Stars (1925) and The Thundering Herd (1925) within the space of two years. Describing The Vanishing American as "one of the biggest assignments in the history of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation," Lasky cited Howard's success with The Thundering Herd and Howard's "real genius for spectacles." However, Lasky ended up assigning the film to the veteran director George B. Seitz instead.
The filming of The Vanishing American began in June 1925 and finished that September. Most of it was filmed within the vast Navaho Nation reservation; locations included Monument Valley, Rainbow Bridge and Tsegi (or Sagi) Canyon. Newspaper publicity at the time cited 10,000 Native American extras, in addition to the 500 member cast and crew brought from Hollywood. Hay for the horses had to be shipped by train to Flagstaff--165 miles from the main shooting location--then driven the rest of the way by truck. For the cliff dwellings depicted in the film, cement, lumber and other construction materials had to be carried by pack mule into Tsegi Canyon.
Beyond the basic logistics of shooting in such a remote location, the crew encountered a wide range of difficulties. Lasky recalled that the crew's trucks frequently blew tires due to rough road conditions. After all-too-frequent sandstorms, the crew had to take apart and clean the six film cameras used during the production. Furthermore, shooting halted almost daily due to summer rainstorms, even if these storms lasted only briefly. At the same time, Richard Dix, writing a letter to reporter Grace Kingsley, insisted that the production was enjoyable in an adventurous way: "We're really having a great time, even if we are in the most isolated spot in the United States. [...] We have lots of fun, eat breakfast at 5 in the morning, gallop over the hot sands all day, return at night to eat an 8:30 or 9 o'clock dinner, and then just squander half an hour before rolling into bed and sleeping like the dead until the siren wakes us at 4:30 a.m."
The Vanishing American opened in New York on October 15, 1925 to mostly positive reviews. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times had some reservations about the performances, but he admired the film's "matchless photography" and the "great artistry" of the cliff dwelling and World War I battle sequences. He also praised Hugo Riesenfeld's score, which the composer himself conducted for the film's premiere at the Criterion Theatre. The Variety reviewer's response was more mixed. He complained that the first half was "draggy" and made a condescending remark about the film's "tear [sic] effect on the women." At the same time, he admitted that "Dix gives a corking performance" and that "Louis Wilson was a sincere and altogether charming heroine." Although today The Vanishing American is remembered mainly for its early, sympathetic portrayal of the plight of Native Americans, it also serves as a vivid reminder of how during the Twenties, Westerns were not just low-budget genre quickies, but in many cases were major productions behind which the studios invested considerable talent and resources.
Producers: Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky
Director George B. Seitz
Screenplay: Ethel Doherty and Lucien Hubbard, adapted from the novel The Vanishing American (1925) by Zane Grey
Photography: C. Edgar Schoenbaum and Harry Perry
Technical Advisor: Louisa Wetherill
Cast: Richard Dix (Nophaie), Lois Wilson (Marion Warner), Noah Beery (Booker), Malcolm McGregor (Earl Ramsdale), Nocki (Indian boy), Shannon Day (Gekin Yashi), Charles Crockett (Amos Halliday), Bert Woodruff (Bart Wilson), Bernard Siegel (Do Etin), Guy Oliver (Kit Carson), Joe Ryan (Jay Lord), Charles Stevens (Shoie), Bruce Gordon (Rhur), Richard Howard (Glendon), John Webb Dillon (Naylor).
by James Steffen
"Howard Given Real Chance in Zane Grey Play" Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1925, p.34.
"Producing Indian Film Was a Stupendous Task." New York Times, September 20, 1925, p.X5.
"Shows Early Horses." Los Angeles Times, August 2, 1925, p.19.
"The Vanishing American." Variety, October 21, 1925.
"To Play Indian Role in Epic of Red Man" Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1925, p.A15.
Grey, Zane. The Vanishing American. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1925.
Gruber, Frank. Zane Grey. New York and Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1970.
Hall, Mordaunt. "The American Indian." [Review of The Vanishing American] New York Times, October 16, 1925, p.18.
Kingsley, Grace. "Richard Writes." Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1925, p.7.
Pauly, Thomas H. Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.