Rep Diary: Shark Monroe & To the Last Man
Every film contains its own private history: of career trajectories, artistic temperaments, and the texture of its landscapes. When the film is lost or unseen, that history goes dark with it. The To Save and Project film preservation series at the Museum of Modern Art is an annual attempt to preserve and illuminate some of what has disappeared from view. On a single evening during the 12th edition, I discovered William S. Hart putting his persona to the test in the high-seas adventure Shark Monroe (1918), slotting his phenomenally popular Western stoicism into different kinds of action; and Henry Hathaway shepherding nascent stars Randolph Scott and Shirley Temple in the pre-code B-Western To the Last Man (33), a sprightly Romeo and Juliet–Zane Grey mash-up shot in the California mountains.
By 1918, Hart was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. His “good-bad man” persona was defined in Hell’s Hinges (1916) in a shot where his outlaw Blaze Tracy reads the Bible with a bottle of booze at his side. Though born in Newburgh, New York, Hart had grown up in the West for parts of his childhood, and revered the mythology of Westward expansion and the self-made man. He had a long, stone face, and audiences reacted to his sincerity, and his brutality. But though the fans still loved him, the critics began to agitate for something new.
In a 1918 issue of Picture Play magazine, Peter Milne reported the thoughts of one theater manager: “Someone ought to steal Hart’s guns and sombrero, and then maybe he’d give us a change.” That same year The New York Times wrote: “There is no doubt that Hart can do well the part he almost invariably plays, but one would think that artistic ambition, if nothing else, would prompt him to try something different.”
Producer Thomas Ince and his distributor Artcraft Pictures planned eight Hart films for the 1918-19 season, and Shark Monroe was a test that stretched the Hart persona into a different genre. The story, written by Hart’s frequent collaborator C. Gardner Sullivan and directed by Hart himself, concerned a rough-hewn sea captain who falls in love with the self-reliant Marjorie (Katherine MacDonald), who cares for her alcoholic brother Webster (George McDaniel). Shark quits life at sea to follow Marjorie to the Yukon gold rush, where he battles a smarmy saloon owner (and possible white slaver) for her affections.
The Hart persona remains intact—a violent outsider domesticated for civilization by a warm-hearted woman—but he’s thrown into a new kind of wilderness. Shark’s schooner, the Indiana, makes a white-knuckle journey up the California coast; then comes his trek to the Pacific Northwest, actually shot against the snow-capped mountains of the Sierras. DP Joseph August would later work with John Ford on The Informer and They Were Expendable, and here he pulls off some extraordinary nighttime photography aboard the Indiana, capturing a glowing, fairy-tale kind of twilight. In the Yukon sections, Hart is dwarfed by the landscape, no longer master of his domain. But the movie’s arc is about how Shark gets pleasure out of this loss of power. He falls in love with Marjorie after she whips him with a rope, the so-called “breaker of men” getting happily broken.
The adventure was profitable, earning more than $125,000 on a budget of $63,289. Hart stretched his character even further the same year in Branding Broadway, a knockabout comedy in the Douglas Fairbanks vein. But he never really intended to stray that far from what made him famous. The shoot had to be rushed because he was barnstorming the country promoting the purchase of Liberty Bonds to support the war effort. When asking for cash from his audience in person, he wore his cowboy garb. He became increasingly unwilling to change his style to suit the modernizing 1920s audience, and after making more than 70 shorts and features, he made his final Western, Tumbleweeds, in 1925.
To the Last Man
As Hart’s career was fading out, Henry Hathaway’s was just beginning. Hathaway cut his teeth as an assistant to Victor Fleming, and one of the features they worked on was the 1923 prestige picture To The Last Man, starring Richard Dix. A decade later Hathaway was tasked to direct a series of low-budget Zane Grey Westerns for Paramount, intended to be the top half of double bills. One of them was the 1933 remake of To the Last Man, which incorporated effects shots from the 1923 version to save money. These cheap programmers were proving grounds for both cast and crew, and Hathaway’s To the Last Man bursts with youthful energy.
Previously mired in public domain hell, To the Last Man was restored by MoMA after an article by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick advocating for its rediscovery. Luckily Paramount had donated the negative (though missing a reel) to MoMA in 1990, so the majority of the material is in spectacular condition. The missing reel was patched in from a 16mm print. Shot at Bear Valley and Pine Knot, California (now a ski resort and campground, respectively) by Erich von Stroheim’s frequent cinematographer Ben F. Reynolds (Greed, Foolish Wives), this little movie about a family feud looks like an epic.
The Haydens and the Colbys have been feuding for generations, their war traveling from Kentucky to California. Jed Colby (Noah Beery, reprising his role from the ’23 version) gunned down the Haydens’ Grandpa Spelvin, but instead of escalating the violence, the new, mild-mannered patriarch turns Jed into the police. When he’s released from the clink, Jed tracks down the Hayden family to their ranch in California, and wants to pick up their hatred from where it left off. But young Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott) falls in love with Ellen Colby (Esther Ralston), and the families might kill each other off before they have a chance to get married.
Made before the production code was enforced in 1934, To the Last Man is rich with ribaldry, the Lynn-Ellen courtship rippling with erotic tensions. They are equally objectified. First it is Ellen, cliff-diving nude as Lynn spies her from a distance. Later that evening, Ellen sneaks into Lynn’s campground as he is shirtless, shaving. Disapproving of his smooth cheeks, she says: “I’d think you were soft, if I didn’t see the strength in your arms.” They devour each other with their glances before she invites herself to sleep over. Lynn can only marvel that she’s “a disturbing sort of girl.” They are both flush with first lust, and Hathaway has them burn off their energies in shockingly physical brawls. In the finale, while Scott is sitting wounded and limp, Ralston manhandles the villainous Jack LaRue, treating him like a rag doll. This was the last leading role for Ralston, a star of the silents, and it is one of indomitable strength.
To the Last Man
Even little Shirley Temple, uncredited and all of five years old, gets a bit violent. In one scene, she has a tea party outside with her pony, but the little horse gets too nosy with the sugar. In a DGA oral history Hathaway recalled: “So she stood up and pushed him, and he did something and she kicked him, and he looked at her turned around, went on two feet, and with the two feet he kicked at her and missed her about that far. Oh jeez, I was scared to death. And she stood there and she said, ‘You ever do that to me again, I’ll kick you.’” Hathaway kept that impulsive improvisation in the film, and tried to get Paramount to sign her to a long-term deal, but Temple became a star at Fox. Hathaway would go on to direct over 50 more features.*
The path from William S. Hart to Randolph Scott, and from Shark Monroe to To the Last Man, spans an enormous gulf in the possibilities of the Western. Hart is almost Victorian in his morality, with love a spiritual more than a physical ideal. For the lantern-jawed Scott, the physical is all there is, as plain as the muscles in his arms that Esther Ralston eyed so hungrily. Both men filmed in the California mountains, maybe within a few miles of each other, 15 years apart. That distance is etched in their films, and can only be excavated through the preservation efforts supported by MoMA and archives around the world.
* To the Last Man would have been Hathaway’s last feature if The Hollywood Reporter had its way. The paper’s editor, Billy Wilkerson, would rent out space for reviews, essentially accepting kickbacks for positive notices, but Hathaway refused to pay. After the rejection, the following pithy review was filed in the back pages: “Too low to even be a Western.” Hathaway never forgot that line.