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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

The Outcasts of Poker Flat(1937)


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Emmett Evan Heflin, Jr., a dentist's son from Oklahoma, dropped his first name and the E from his middle name and as Van Heflin (1910-1971) enjoyed a career that went from character actor to leading man and back to character actor. Without the chiseled features of the usual leading man, his lived-in face made him easy to identify with, especially when playing solid citizens with both feet on the ground, whether as a returning WW II veteran eluding the clutches of a mad Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a beleaguered homesteader rescued from a ruthless cattle baron by Alan Ladd's Shane (1953), or a rancher trying to herd Glenn Ford's outlaw onto a train and keep him there in 3:10 to Yuma (1957). He didn't get there overnight, though, even with a boost from Katharine Hepburn, who cast him on Broadway in the role Jimmy Stewart played in the film version of The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Hepburn and Heflin acted on the Broadway stage in the late 1920s and first half of the 1930s, never in the same play, but she saw and admired his work and got him his first film role opposite her in A Woman Rebels (1936). He played a man of weak character who in the late 19th century impregnates Hepburn's fierce feminist, but doesn't slow her down a bit. His second role was even more problematical. He played one of two characters added to an adaptation of Bret Harte's 1869 short story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937). His frontier preacher and the role of a schoolteacher played by Jean Muir, representing civilizing influences brought to a rough California Gold Rush settlement, not only seem at odds with the thrust and texture of Harte's classic tale, they subvert and even partially betray it. This story along with Hart's The Luck of Roaring Camp (1868), brought the frontier West to the rest of America and made Harte a literary phenomenon who for a time rivaled his contemporaries, Mark Twain and O. Henry.

With Harte's knack for combining warmth, sentimentality and keenly observed regional detail (born in Albany, N.Y., Harte heeded Horace Greeley's advice and went West as a journalist), his popularity soared on his renderings of the rugged life of the frontier, where climate and geography killed more men than bullets. The Outcasts of Poker Flat has been filmed four times -- five if you count a 1975 spaghetti Western, Four of the Apocalypse. It also inspired operas by Samuel Adler, Jaromir Weinberger and Stanworth Beckler. It first was filmed in 1919 by 25-year-old John Ford, with longtime Ford regular-to-be Harry Carey as lead. Dale Robertson and Anne Baxter top-lined a 1952 version. A 1958 60-minute TV version was notable for the presences of George C. Scott and Larry Hagman. Harte purists will recoil from the 1937 Outcasts of Poker Flat. It takes substantial liberties with Harte's story, blending it with elements from The Luck of Roaring Camp, omitting an innocent young eloping couple the outcasts encounter at the end, substituting for them the stuffy preacher and teacher. That the film starring Preston Foster as a gambler who works hard to conceal a noble soul retains any of Harte's impassioned moral indignation, is despite rather than because of these two add-ons.

While his boss was away and left Harte to run his northern California paper in 1860, the author unflinchingly reported the slaughter of the indigenous Wiyot people near Eureka, who had lived there for thousands of years, at the hands of killers hired by local white businessmen too impatient to cheat the Indians out of their land and resources the usual way. The stories were circulated widely, questioning just how civilized and Christian the settlers were. It also inspired in Harte an abhorrence of mob and vigilante rule, especially by self-appointed, self-righteous guardians of public morality. (The year before, Fritz Lang's Fury took on the same theme, doubtless fueled by Lang's witnessing of events in Nazi Germany before he fled it.) In any case, the 1937 Outcasts of Poker Flat, for all its slicing and dicing of Harte, allows the spine of the film to remain mob injustice, especially when the mob assumes it's doing God's will. Or, as Harte puts its still balefully relevant anti-hypocrisy theme in the third paragraph of his story: "a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as the acts that had provoked it."

The film is held together by Foster's suavely assured gambler and secret humanitarian, John Oakhurst, who navigates life with cool deliberateness while hiding his tender heart. Mustached and manly, he's a sort of pre-Rhett Butler Rhett Butler, an unflappable man of the world who presides over the local gambling hall and saloon in partnership with Margaret Irving. Her character, The Duchess, combines the duties of hostess, bookkeeper and, to judge by the frisky women decorating the bar and the upright piano, brothel-keeper. Oakhurst, as sturdy and solid-looking as the name implies, was just the sort of he-man role Foster handled with aplomb for three decades. Before he came out West, we're told, Oakhurst was a doctor. This allows him to be the agent of the film's biggest borrowing from The Luck of Roaring Camp.

The Luck of that story was a baby boy born to a Cherokee mother who died in childbirth. The campers keep the kid around because he's a good luck charm. The prospectors strike more gold than ever. In The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Luck is a girl (Virginia Weidler) whose ability to project brightness and liveliness snagged her the role of Katharine Hepburn's kid sister in The Philadelphia Story. Delivered by Oakhurst in 1850, she helps Poker Flat prosper until 1859. That's when the town's respectable element decides it's time for an image upgrade, importing Heflin's preacher and Muir's schoolteacher. From that point, the film turns into a pitched battle between Foster and Weidler, all but performing heroics to keep the film afloat, and the cardboard goody-goods played by Muir and Heflin suffocating it.

At first, Oakhurst trumps the moralists by offering the use of his gambling hall on Sundays until the religiously inclined element can build a church. But if Foster anticipates Clark Gable, Oakhurst anticipates Oscar Wilde's observation that no good deed goes unpunished. As little Luck, who can outdeal and outplay any gambler in the house, protests violently, Oakhurst, in loco parentis, sends her to school and promptly gets a crush on Muir, to the little girl's dismay (she has a crush on him too, as does The Duchess). Muir barely avoids lifelessness, but her schoolmarm can't avoid an off-putting smugness. Heflin, as the preacher, has even less luck. Although he comes out on the winning end of a saloon punch-up, he nevertheless finds himself on the side of Poker Flat's vicious, self-styled worthies.

When a drunken Indian shooting up the saloon is gunned down by Oakhurst's sidekick, Si Jenks's Kentuck (another character borrowed from The Luck of Roaring Camp), the respectable element reaches for its nooses. Heflin's reverend persuades them to drive the offenders away instead. Off they slog, putting up for the night at a dilapidated cabin. A blizzard socks them in. Worse, Al St. John, as the town reprobate driven off with the others, steals the horses and makes off with them in the night, really stranding them. It doesn't look good - one reason being that RKO was not a studio of big-budgeted films. The snow seems pretty sparse, never wind-driven and hardly life-threatening. On the other hand, the pared-down production values better approximate the primitive living conditions of the real West, their basic roughhewn construction conveying an authentic flavor a more lavish budget may have missed. We look at these outcasts and shiver. Harte's sympathy for the people he's writing about makes it into the film, even if you do wince when director Christy Cabanne has Heflin's cleric roll his eyes to the heavens in the film's final closeup. It could have been worse. At least RKO didn't add a chorus of angels to the soundtrack. And Heflin more than survived his initially unmemorable beginnings at RKO. Five years later, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his role as the wise-cracking alcoholic sidekick to gangster Robert Taylor's Johnny Eager (1941).

Producer: Robert Sisk
Director: Christy Cabanne
Screenplay: John Twist, Harry Segall (screenplay); Bret Harte (stories)
Cinematography: Robert DeGrasse
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb (uncredited)
Film Editing: Ted Cheesman
Cast: Preston Foster (John Oakhurst), Jean Muir (Miss Helen Colby), Van Heflin (Reverend Samuel 'Sam' Woods), Virginia Weidler (Luck), Margaret Irving (The Duchess), Frank M. Thomas (Mr. Bedford), Si Jenks (Kentuck), Dick Elliott (Stumpy Carter), Al St. John (Uncle Billy), Bradley Page (Sonoma).

by Jay Carr

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The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937)

Bret Harte's spare but stinging frontier tale "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" - first published in January 1869 in Harte's Overland Monthly - has been adapted for motion pictures several times, from John Ford's 1919 silent starring Harry Carey to Lucio Fulci's gory 1975 spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse. RKO Radio Pictures dusted off the material in 1936 as a vehicle for star Preston Sturges, whom the studio cast as John Oakhurst, a casino proprietor during California's Gold Rush who becomes an unlikely Moses to The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937). The screenplay by John Twist and Harry Segall feathers in elements from Harte's 1892 tale "The Luck of the Roaring Camp," which saddles Oakhurst with an orphan charge (child actress Virginia Weidler), a schoolmarm (Jean Muir) with designs on making an honest man of him, and a reform-minded parson (Van Heflin, in his second film role), whose best intentions bring out the worst in frontier society. Director Christy Cabanne's long career included scutwork for D.W. Griffith on Birth of a Nation (1914) and Intolerance (1916), a documentary about Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, a slew of pre-Code crime films, and the Universal chiller The Mummy's Hand (1940). Harte's story was again mounted for films in 1952 by 20th Century Fox, with Dale Robertson and Anne Baxter in the leads, and for television by Kraft Theatre in a live 1958 broadcast starring George C. Scott.

By Richard Harland Smith

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