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Story of Film - September 2013
Remind Me

The Squaw Man (1914)

The Squaw Man (1914) is the first film by director Cecil B. DeMille, and reputedly, the first feature film ever made in Hollywood (though some film scholars dispute this claim) . These noteworthy "firsts" began when would-be stage producer Jesse Lasky approached Cecil's brother, William C. de Mille (a celebrated Broadway playwright) to collaborate on an operetta. William was managed by his mother, Mrs. H.C. de Mille, who ran a theatrical agency. Since William was committed to another project, she recommended her younger son Cecil, who also had dramatic aspirations, and was not without experience both as a writer and actor. A skeptical Lasky agreed to meet, and he and Cecil quickly forged a bond and decided to work together -- not on a play, but a film. Short films were the norm, but it was becoming evident that feature-length films would soon dominate the marketplace. DeMille and Lasky decided to wager on the future of cinema, and with an investment of $26,500, they formed the Lasky Feature Play Company.

As their first property, they chose a story that appeared to be an easily exploitable property: The Squaw Man, written by Edwin Milton Royle. It had begun as a successful stage play in 1905 (featuring future cowboy star William S. Hart), and had been revived in 1907, 1908 and 1911. At a price of $5,000, the filmmakers recruited the star of the 1911 run, Dustin Farnum. Because DeMille had no experience as a filmmaker (his apprenticeship consisted of a single day at the Edison Studios), Oscar Apfel was brought along to co-direct, and to help initiate the producers into the world of filmmaking.

In 1913 (when The Squaw Man began filming), plenty of motion pictures were being filmed outdoors, but generally within driving distance to the studios in New York and New Jersey. DeMille recognized the power of exotic scenery and intended to use sweeping plains and imposing mountains as the key visual component of his film, so he boarded a train west, bound for the picturesque-sounding Flagstaff, Arizona. Unfortunately, Flagstaff failed to deliver such awesome vistas. Discouraged but not broken, De Mille, Farnum & Co. remained on the train until it reached the end of the line: the junction city of Los Angeles. They drifted into the sleepy community of Hollywood and rented a large barn at Vine and Selma Streets for $200 per month. The barn was the seed from which Paramount Pictures would eventually grow, and still stands today, preserved as a museum of early Hollywood filmmaking. On December 29, 1913, the cameras began to turn.

The melodrama concerns itself with the honor of Captain James Wynnegate (Farnum), a peer of England. When his cousin, Sir Henry (Monroe Salisbury) embezzles money from an orphans' fund to pay his gambling debts, James accepts the blame and is banished from high society. When the ship upon which he is traveling burns and sinks, James is rescued and taken to America. Disgusted by the crime and chicanery of the big city, he accepts a Westerner's invitation to travel with him back to the plains. The sophisticated Britisher is at first mocked, but quickly earns the respect of the rangehands, with the exception of the villainous rustler, Cash Hawkins (William Elmer). When Nat-U-Rich (Red Wing), a native American woman, saves his life, they fall in love and are married. Suffering financial hardship, James's future seems grim, until a dying confession, an unexpected reunion with an old flame (Winifred Kingston) and a fateful shoot-out bring the film (already bursting at the seams with narrative) to a surprising and elaborately plotted resolution.

Cecil B. DeMille would later become synonymous with grandiose spectacle, and even in The Squaw Man, one detects his strong visual sense. To add scale and drama to scenes in a small western town, he constructed a set for the depot/general store within a few feet of a roalroad track, so that scenes filmed there are punctuated by a roaring steam enging passing almost through the set.

Even in his first film, DeMille displayed a keen eye for lighting (influenced by the stage plays of David Belasco). Using rudimentary techniques, DeMille and cinematographer Alfred Gandolfi managed to the effects of firelight and candlelight so that the visual impact of their western was not limited to the quantity of actors on screen, but the quality of the compositions in which they are presented.

Upon the completion of The Squaw Man, the producers (and any exhibitors who screened the film) were shocked to find the film periodically shifting up and down on the screen. The inexperienced DeMille and Lasky prepared to file a lawsuit against the Eastman Kodak Company. They consulted film pioneer Sigmund Lubin, who explained that the defect was not the film. "You used two different cameras, didn't you?" asked Lubin, according to Terry Ramsaye's book A Million and One Nights. "That's why...two different frame lines -- that makes the picture jump." DeMille made sure the cameras were properly calibrated after that, and Lubin secured a lucrative contracted to "fix" the negative and process all the distribution prints of the film.

Producer: Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky
Director: Cecil B. DeMille, Oscar Apfel
Screenplay: Cecil B. DeMille, Oscar Apfel
Cinematography: Alfred Gandolfi
Film Editing: Mamie Wagner
Art Direction: Wilfred Buckland
Music: Scott Salinas
Cast: Dustin Farnum (Capt. James Wyngate), Monroe Salisbury (Sir Henry), Winifred Kingston (Lady Diana), William Elmer (Cash Hawkins), Foster Knox (Sir John), Joseph Singleton (Tabywana).

by Bret Wood


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