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A Western with the darkness of a film noir, The Squaw Man (1931) hits few happy notes as its story travels from an aristocratic England of fox hunts and charity balls to an American West of racial tension between Indians and white settlers.
James Wynnegate (Warner Baxter) is a British captain whose love for Diana Kerhill (Eleanor Boardman), a woman married to his cousin Henry (Paul Cavanagh), creates a potentially volatile situation between the three. Determined to do the noble thing, James flees to America, where he starts a new life as Jim Carston and falls in love with a "primitive," beautiful Indian squaw Naturich (Lupe Velez) after he saves her from the abusive clutches of local cattle rustler Cash Hawkins (Charles Bickford). The couple set up a Wyoming ranch and raise their half-breed child (Dickie Moore). Jim appears to be content, until former flame Diana travels to America to tell him the news of Henry's death and calls his new life into question.The Squaw Man was a sound remake of Cecil DeMille's 1914 debut feature, which became a box-office smash upon its release. The first Squaw Man launched DeMille's movie career as a director making him as famous a box office draw as D.W. Griffith as well as a consummate symbol of Hollywood's Golden Age. It also launched the career of his producer Jesse L. Lasky and the Famous Players-Lasky Co., which went on to become Paramount Studios. The 1914 Squaw Man was also the first feature-length picture to be made in Hollywood. Prior to the 1931 version, the film had already been remade by DeMille in 1918, making him the only film director in film history to make the same film three times. All three film versions were based on a Broadway play of 1907 which starred cowboy actor William S. Hart as Jim's nemesis, Cash Hawkins.
DeMille's lead actress from the 1914 Squaw Man, Winifred Kingston, was even featured in a bit part in this 1931 remake, of which DeMille claimed, "I love this story so much that as long as I live I will make it every 10 years." In actuality, DeMille was said to be tremendously depressed at the prospect of making the film again, and working with the difficult Velez, reportedly as tempestuous off screen as she was in her many onscreen roles as the "Mexican spitfire." But he was anxious to quickly get out of his contract to MGM by completing this final film for the studio.
The 1931 Squaw Man is often considered the weakest of the three DeMille productions, with its rather lethargic pacing and creaky dawn-of-sound technology. Early scenes in England are especially plodding, but the film quickly changes tone and becomes more engaging when Capt. James Wynnegate/Jim Carston travels to America and a feud develops between the cosmopolitan Englishman still tragically in love with Diana and the villainous Hawkins.
The original two Squaw Man productions had been cast with Native American actors, according to DeMille's wishes, to generate authenticity. But by the time of the third remake's release in 1931 the more standard Hollywood practice was to use non-Native Americans to play such roles, including Mexican actress Velez as Naturich. The film also shows signs of its outmoded views, laced with casual racism that equates Native-Americans with "primitivism" and suggests Naturich's race gives her a limited understanding of the modern world.
Producer/Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Lucien Hubbard, Lenore Coffee, Elsie Janis (based on the play by Edwin Milton Royle)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Production Design: Mitchell Leisen
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Warner Baxter (Capt. James Wynnegate/Jim Carston), Lupe Velez (Naturich), Eleanor Boardman (Diana Kerhill), Charles Bickford (Cash Hawkins), Roland Young (Sir John Applegate), Paul Cavanagh (Henry), Raymond Hatton (Shorty).
by Felicia Feaster