Out West

Featured image

A parody of the conventions of Wild West movies - clearly a slapdash attempt to capitalize on the box-office success of 1974's Blazing Saddles.

Online: Internet Archive

Comedy, cowboys, thrills, and drama...

The pre-release hype of Out West, published in the trade journal Moving Picture World, suggests that it was intended to be an upscale parody of cowboy films - where the film style is comically, yet authentically, imitated. As the screenshots show, at times it indeed looks like a better-than-average early cowboy film:

The new comedy photography will rival the scenes in the best Western features.
“Out  West” photography
"Out West" is a two-reel laugh which emanates from the wildest and wooliest portions of the west. There is nothing faked about it and the property man was never called upon to build any life-like reproductions of the California desert within studio walls. The settings for "Out West" are the genuine article.
Settings  for  “Out  West”
The picture is described as a travesty on the Western thriller and, in fact, is said to be one of the most thrilling of all dramas of the mountains and plains and the gambling dens of the frontier, that has ever been devised...The scenes are said to be excellently simulated, and a whole Western village with its gambling "hells," saloons, stores, etc., was built for the picture.
Western  village shootout

Taking on Big Bad Bill

Outlaw's Salvation title card from Hell's Hinges

But Out West is not just a parody of the cowboy film in general, but particularly a parody of the William S. Hart films that were so popular at that time (as pointed out in the review at Movies Silently).

Hart's films typically were about the salvation of a Good Bad Man: an outlaw is saved from evil by one of “The Gentle Sex”. That story formula was an ice-cold killer cash cow for Hart, who milked it so often that in 1917 this critic called him out for it: "The Gun-Fighter," by Monte M. Katterjohn, is well constructed and consistent in both development and direction, but it is too obviously a vehicle for Mr. Hart and therefore lacking in that first value of a play, originality...This story reverts to a role Mr. Hart ought to be thoroughly tired of, that of a Western tough whose soft spot is found by a woman of refinement. He has played it so often that one might get the impression that he would not be effective in any other part...Mr. Hart, to use a newspaper expression, "follows copy." He is the same man he was in other plays of the same kind, the same exponent of brute strength, modified in some sudden and almost unaccountable conversion when a young lady comes on the scene, as if he had never seen one before in his whole life... --– The Moving Picture World, February 10, 1917 So, by 1918, this trademark moneymaker of Hart's was more than ripe for parody by former fellow Triangle employee Arbuckle, whose Keystone shorts were shown as part of a Hart feature-film bill. And other stock bits of Hart films were also thrown in: rolling a mean smoke, sleazy saloon owner, crooked card game, and trick shooting.

Stock bits of Hart films

Making of a Good Bad Man

The Good Bad Man character presented Hart film screenwriters with a dilemma: how to portray an offender inoffensively, so that his wrongdoing can be forgiven by the audience (and censors!) when he is reformed?

The Bargain (1914), an early Hart film, showed the outlaw robbing a stagecoach and shooting a guard. Yet, he only needed to get married and return the money to be forgiven. This questionable approach seemed to have been later ditched. Only one of the subsequent 8 Hart films in this collection show Hart robbing a coach: The Silent Man. But in that story, he was taking back what was stolen from him (although again he was not held accountable for shooting a guard during the robbery).

The most common approach, used in 5 films, is to simply tell but not show - via a wanted poster or even a long-winded title card, as in Hell's Hinges.

Wolf Lowry is more creative. In that film, Hart's bad cowboy is not an outlaw but a meanspirited wealthy rancher. He is shown bullying poor squatters off the ranch. But the film shows other bullying on his ranch happening at the same time: his white workers laughingly torture a boy of color caught taking chickens. The workers, mirroring the ways of their boss, are shown in the background, with the boy's tortured facial expressions in the foreground so the audience is forced to deal with his pain.

So how does the Hart parody Out West resolve the dilemma of making the hero offensive but redeemable? After all, he comes to the town as merely an outcast good with a gun - not an outlaw in need of salvation. It uses the Wolf Lowry method: Fatty laughingly tortures a boy of color, with the boy's tortured facial expressions in the foreground.

Hero's dark side

Salvation By One Of “The Gentle Sex”

On the other side of the gender coin, the requirement for the role of Saviour from The Gentle Sex is brain-dead simple: Hart's Cowboy is the archetypal Sucker For A Pretty Face. One look at a face with the delicate features prized in films of the day, and Big Bad Bill becomes Sweet Little Willy. Only in The Aryan, where Cowboy is balls-deep in No-More-Mister-Nice-Guy, did "Just Mary Jane" have to vamp hard to reach Big Bill's little willy.

Out West doesn't ride that easier trail, but instead looks back to two Biograph films by D.W. Griffith to establish the Saviour.

In Out West, the rogue and his saviour meet as in the saved-from-sin story of The Salvation Army Lass (1909), where an outlaw is saved by a Salvation Army worker after she finds him in a saloon.

The Saviour in Out West proves herself worthy of the role by demonstrating fearless compassion, in a bullet-dancing scene that follows a pattern used in That Chink At Golden Gulch (1910):

  1. An underdog, the saloon's bootblack, is attacked by bullying cowboys.
  2. When he seeks protection by running over to the bartender and owner, he is forsaken when they join in the shooting.
  3. He is rescued by one Of "The Gentle Sex".
  4. He shows her he is grateful while kneeling beside her.

Voila! One large rogue ready for salvation by one Of "The Gentle Sex"- with a side order of Keaton-style darky humor.


The Salvation Army Lass

Despite being burdened with the stale saved-from-sin storyline that was already cliche in 1909, this film holds interest with performances that skillfully evoke viewer empathy without going over the top in the usual melodramatic style. In addition, background characters also come across strong:

  • bar patron who nonchalantly spits a wad on the floor - twice
  • workers who witness The Lass being bum-rushed from her job and respond by jeering her, then walking away
  • woman who comforts The Lass with a tender kiss, before pulling up her own dress to reveal her Harpo-style underwear

That Chink At Golden Gulch

Who could pass up a title like that? After all, over a century later ESPN was still relying on chink power to grab eyeballs with its “Chink in the Armor” headline for a Jeremy Lin story. Here, reknown Massa of ethnology D.W. Griffith spins a tale of a Noble Pagan who “though a saffron-skinned Pagan, his soul is white and real red blood pulsates his heart” the Moving Picture World synopsis tells us. The Moving Picture World review however was a bit less sentimental: “Perhaps if everyone could see such heroic self-sacrifice in a Chinaman as this one displayed, the aversion which most men feel toward them would disappear. It is doubtful, however, if such unselfishness and generosity abide in more than an occasional individual. The picture is not up to the Biograph standard...” - which already sets the bar quite low.