Friday, January 30, 2009

Celluloid Pulp: Max Brand's and Tom Mix's Alcatraz

I became interested in translations of Max Brand's stories to film after purchasing a VHS tape at a local flea market. I bought a tape that included two Tom Mix silent westerns: Just Tony and Sky High! I'd never seen a Tom Mix movie before, and I thought it was time to mend that gap in my pop culture knowledge. I liked the dynamic line art illustrating the package, and these two movies were the oldest the dealer had on hand (Just Tony: 1922; Sky High!: 1922).

While watching, I noticed that the credits for Just Tony attributed Max Brand's novel Alcatraze (sic) as the basis for the film. So I thought a comparison was in order.

Before continuing, please let me express my thanks to the Interlibrary Loan departments of the Louisville Free Public Library and of the Berea College Library. Through their efforts, I was able to get hold of some photocopies of covers and sample pages from the novel's magazine publication. Also, thanks to Mike Ashley, Brian Earl Brown, Mike Chomko, Tom Roberts, and Ray Skirsky for info on The Country Gentleman magazine.

I. The Serial
Frederick Faust's novel Alcatraz first appeared under his Max Brand pseudonym as a serial in The Country Gentleman magazine. At this time its frequency was weekly. According to Tom Roberts, it was considered a second-tier slick, comparable to Liberty, with lower circulation than magazines like Colliers or its sister slick, The Saturday Evening Post.

Seeing that TCG's subtitle was "For the American Farmer and His Family," I thought this weekly periodical might be similar to a magazine my family used to receive when I was a boy, Progressive Farmer. After seeing a few cover illustrations and learning that fiction was a regular part of this magazine, my thought changed. Apparently top writers and artists appeared there, among them Erle Stanley Gardner, Hugh Cave, Ben Ames Williams, Zane Grey, John Howitt and N.C. Wyeth.

And the magazine's subtitle might suggest that this magazine would not fall strictly within the parameters normally defining "pulp." But Brand has been called the King of the Pulps often enough that the appearance of his work anywhere deserves consideration by the pulp community. Besides, at least one other writer familiar to pulp readers appeared in TCG's pages during the run of Alcatraz: William MacLeod Raine's story Iron Heart began in the same issue that wrapped up Brand's serial.

Curtis Publishing owned TCG, and the editor at this time was John Pickett. The serial ran in five issues, from that dated June 17, 1922, to July 15, 1922. For its first installment, the novel was featured on the magazine's cover with a painting by Harvey Dunn. (I have only a photocopy of the illustration, but just from the looks of that poor reproduction, I'm sure the actual painting is quite striking.) The story was accompanied by three illustrations drawn by John S. Curry in each issue except for the first installment, which featured four illustrations.

The cover by Dunn shows that his work is clearly aligned with the American school of rugged illustration founded by Howard Pyle and carried on most famously by N.C. Wyeth and others who came out of the Brandywine Valley school. Dunn took classes there with Pyle. The other cover illustrations during the serial's run in TCG are more poster-graphics styled, capturing Americana tableaux -- two farm wives listening in to a party line telephone conversation; boys at play; a stand of hollyhocks. These latter scenes are executed by Harold Brett (June 24, 1922), Frederick Lowenheim (July 1), Herbert Brown (July 8), and E.M. Jackson (July 15). Don't get me wrong, these paintings show off the skills of the artists just as much as Dunn's work. But because of the differences in style and subject matter, Dunn's painting seems superior to the others' works. But that's definitely a subjective response and probably just my illustration snobbery speaking out.

Snobbery or not, Dunn captures perfectly the sense Brand imparts in his initial paragraphs -- with the eagles soaring behind the horse standing atop a mountain (Brand names the ever-present mountains in this story the Eagles), the artist expresses the royalty that the author invests in his equine creation.

A quick scan of the few magazine pages available to me shows evidence that the serialized novel differs from the book version. (I received only a few photocopied pages of the serial thanks to Interlibrary Loan. I compared these to the large print edition of the novel published by Thorndike Press in 1991. [The first book publication was in 1923 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.]) The magazine version appears to be shorter than the book version. Whether an editor at The Country Gentleman abridged Brand's novel or Brand added to the story for book publication is unclear from the limited comparison I can make with these materials. Jon Tuska's "A Frederick Faust Bibliography" doesn't note an abridgment for the book publication, and Faust rarely worked on a story after its completion, so the likely answer is that a TCG editor made the changes, or both a TCG editor and a Putnam's editor tinkered with the manuscript for their own publishing purposes.

An in-depth textual comparison between the magazine and book editions is not the purpose of this article. But a quick look at the story's first three paragraphs will provide a good notion of the differences that exist in the serial and novel forms.

Paragraph One: The phrase "Arab explanation" in the serial appears as "Arab belief" in the book. "Says the sheik:" appears at the end of Paragraph One in the serial.

Paragraph Two: "Says the sheik:" appears at the beginning of Paragraph Two in the book.

Paragraph Three: The third paragraph of the book starts out with this passage:

Marianne had known thoroughbreds since she was a child and after coming West she had become acquainted with mere "hoss-flesh," but today for the first time she felt that the horse is not meant by nature to be the servant of man but that its speed is meant to ensure it sacred freedom. A moment later

The third paragraph in the serial begins with the sentence starting "A moment later"

The differences within this paragraph continue between the second and third sentences that appear in the serial: "That glimpse of equine perfection had been an illusion built of spirit and attitude; when the head of the stallion fell she saw the daylight truth; this was either the wreck of a young horse or the sad ruin of a fine animal now grown old. It was once a rich red chestnut, no doubt;"

In the book, between the two sentences just quoted, this passage appears:

He was a ragged creature with dull eyes and pendulous lip. No comb had been among the tangles of mane and tail for an unknown period; no brush had smoothed his coat.

Further differences continue to appear in just this paragraph alone. But the examples I've listed should give you a good idea of the sort of changes made either before the original serial publication or between that appearance and the book publication.

The novel appeared in this fashion in The Country Gentleman (some pages are unnumbered, and I don't have complete installments):

June 17, 1922: pp. 9 - 11
June 24: pp. ?? - 16
July 1: pp. 8 - 14
July 8: pp. ?? - 14
July 15: pp. ?? - 26

II. The Novel

Brand begins this story, as he does many, with a mythic tone: Marianne Jordan is caught up by the sight of Alcatraz, a horse whose physical form manifests the concepts of freedom and speed. Alcatraz is the epitome of Horse: majestic, fast, untamed and untamable. But he is controlled by a petty and vicious owner, Manuel Cordova, who nearly starves the horse, beats and mistreats him, and races him for the money he wins from those betting against such a worn-looking beast.

Marianne Jordan has come to the Glosterville fair to purchase a string of thoroughbreds in the hope of reviving the bloodlines of her ranch stock. Marianne is running the ranch in place of her father, who -- following a debilitating injury -- has lost any will to take a leading hand at the ranch. When Marianne returned from the East to take over management, she earned the scorn and resentment of Lou Hervey, ranch foreman, who had been running the spread after Jordan's collapse. Marianne hopes to prove her mettle to Hervey by purchasing the string of blood horses. However, she knows she's pinning a lot on this action: The ranch's fortunes will be ruined if her gamble doesn't work.

Brand introduces his hero in the second chapter: "Red" Jim Perris. He displays typical Brand-hero traits -- he's free and easy, with a desire to roam, untied to any geographical or emotional anchors; he's fair to all men; he's not shy about battling an injustice or anything else he sees as being counter to fair play; like some manifestation of wild nature itself, Perris has an easy rapport with animals, and even those beasts that seem untamable will surrender to his strength, intelligence, and goodness; and by golly he can handle a gun like nobody's business.

Marianne sees Perris in action, and she is both taken and repelled by his cowboy brashness. A sure sign that these two are doomed to romance.

Marianne buys her horses; Alcatraz stomps Cordova seemingly to death and escapes into the wild; Perris displays his natural man/hero traits and continues on the trail of a man who, in a drunken rage, shot Perris during a card game and ran off. Unknown to both Perris and Marianne, the assailant was the girl's father. Old Jordan regrets his actions, but Hervey -- who was with Jordan at the time and who encouraged him to vamoose after the shooting -- manages to use this event to his advantage in retaking control of the ranch and its finances.

Alcatraz takes over leadership of a band of wild horses that have been plaguing the Jordan ranch. Hervey and his crew shoot down as many of the horses as possible, but Alcatraz escapes. The crew begins building a legend that Alcatraz is a devil immune to bullets.

Marianne hires Perris to kill the wild horse. This move further galls Hervey. Once Perris sees the majesty of Alcatraz in the wild, he vows not to kill the horse but to capture it.

Alcatraz seemingly meets his match when Perris traps him and manages to climb aboard. A myth-sized battle follows, and Alcatraz seems ready to submit when Perris is knocked unconscious from his mount by a tree limb.

Later Perris saves Alcatraz from drowning, and the horse saves the man when Hervey's crew tries to kill the two. In the end, Perris and Marianne acknowledge their love, the elder Jordan admits his wrongdoing and he and Perris reach a peaceable agreement; Hervey's mischief is discovered and he is banished from the ranch, and Alcatraz and Perris -- neither able to surrender to the other -- become partners.

III. The Movie
The William Fox Film Corp. released the silent film JUST TONY, directed by Lynn Reynolds, in 1922. This was just one of nine Tom Mix movies released that year, and one of five movies directed by Reynolds for that year -- all five starred Mix. Reynolds adapted the script from Max Brand's novel Alcatraz.

This 70-minute film was shot in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California. The Alabama Hills have been a popular location for shooting movies and TV shows -- particularly westerns -- since the filming of The Roundup in 1920. It remains in use today. Part of the appeal is their Sierra Nevada backdrop, which includes Mt. Whitney, one of the highest points in the continental U.S. Movies shot here include Gunga Din, The Three Godfathers, Broken Arrow, The Four Feathers, Gladiator, Hi-Yo Silver, Hopalong Rides Again, and Joe Kidd.

While the secondary characters in the movie retain their names from Brand's novel, Tom Mix's character gets a slight name modification from Perris to Ferris.

Tom Mix was the top cowboy in moving pictures at this time. As a result, Tom's horse, Tony, was the top equine star in Hollywood. So marketing-wise, a movie named for Tony would surely pull in more viewers than a film titled Alcatraz. Thus Tony got the starring role AND the picture title.

Mix is perfect to play the part of Ferris, one of Brand's bigger-than-life cowboy heroes. Mix's background is not that of an actual working cowboy. Instead, he came from the world of the rodeo, wild west show, and circus-styled cowboy -- the sort who specialized in shooting tricks, riding stunts, and fancy-dress clothes (the type of wardrobe that we associate with William Boyd's Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers). Unlike William Hart, Mix's contemporary who supposedly worked to make his western films look authentic, Mix was a true Hollywood cowboy, whose behavior on and off screen was based on spectacle and entertainment.

The square-jawed and hawk-nosed Mix made sure his public image was larger than real life, the hero of movie-watching boys everywhere; he was well suited to portray a myth-sized character who could have stepped out of folklore as easily as he strode through a Brand-penned novel.

The film opens with a panorama shot of majestic mountains in Nevada, the Eagles. Next we see a wild horse herd. Jim Perris, a cowboy from Utah, admires these fine, free animals. They are led by a four-year-old colt, "a mimic of the desert whirlwinds," according to the title card. Jim marvels at the horse. It could be his dream horse.

But foremost in his thoughts is an account he wants to square: The movie flashes back to a saloon scene. Jim is playing a banjo; a drunk gets tired of hearing it and shoots Jim, then leaves.

The man who shot Jim, Oliver Jordan, later bought a ranch at the foot of the lofty Nevada mountains. Since then, Jordan has suffered an injury to his legs, and the ranch has fallen on hard times. His daughter, Marianne, comes home from the East to run the ranch. Hervey, the ranch boss, is unhappy about that. Since Jordan's injury, Hervey has replaced the older ranch hands with hard characters.

A bad winter kills much of Jordan and other ranchers' stock. A lot of wild horses are captured as they seek food. One of the captured horses is Tony. Manuel Cordova owns this one-time herd leader. He whips and mistreats the animal.

Marianne, at the local rodeo for stock, sees Manuel abuse Tony. Jim also sees, and he whips Manuel in a fight. Jim recognizes Tony as the horse he saw on the desert plains. He gives Tony "the first caress he has ever known."

At the rodeo, Marianne watches the race that features Tony and the eastern mares that she's come to buy. Only if Tony wins will the mares' price be low enough for Marianne to afford them. Jim learns that Manuel has bet heavily against Tony and plans to lose. Jim enters the race so "Tony will get a fair deal." Sure enough, Manuel holds Tony back, but Jim races up and cuts the reins. Tony wins the race!

Marianne offers Jim a foreman's job, for she doubts Hervey's motivations. But Jim explains he has two other jobs that take priority: finding the man who shot him, and somehow claiming Tony as his own.

When Manuel starts to beat Tony again, the horse breaks free, stomps Manuel, and escapes to the Eagle Mountains. He takes over another herd of horses, and lures domestic stock from the Jordan ranch, including the newly purchased mares.

Marianne sends for Jim, telling him he can have Tony if he can capture the horse.

Hervey warns Jordan away, telling the old man that Jim is gunning for him, and that Hervey will take care of everything. Meanwhile, Hervey and his crew raid Jordan's stock and blame the disappearances on Tony. But Jim figures out what's going on.

Jim captures Tony and manages to ride him until the saddle cinch breaks and Jim hits the ground, unconscious. Tony is tempted to stomp Jim just as he trampled Manuel, but he remembers that first caress. He sees Jim as a man to be trusted, "his new master!" He trails Jim to his line cabin after the man awakes.

There, Hervey ambushes the cowboy. Marianne overhears Hervey tell Jim that Jordan was the man who shot him. She gets the lowdown on the crooked ranch boss just as he's about to murder Jim. She runs him off, and Hervey leaves to clean out the stock from the Jordan ranch.

Jim and Marianne follow, and Tony follows them. But some of Hervey's men hang back to chase the hero and his gal. When they shoot Jim's horse out from under him, Tony arrives to carry him to safety. Then Jim and Marianne hurry to Jordan's hideaway, where Jim and Jordan bury the hatchet.

After affairs with Hervey are settled (off screen), Jim and Marianne lead Tony to the desert to release him. The horse wanders off, but returns to Jim. Marianne says, "He loves you more than -- freedom!' Fadeout.

IV. Sum Up
The film differs from the novel in some ways, but captures the heart of the story -- the untamed spirits of both Jim and Tony calling to one another. Most of Brand's novels contain more action or incident than would have fit into a movie of this sort; so some condensing for a film version works just fine. The romance between Jim and Marianne becomes a secondary issue, and young viewers were far more interested in knowing that Tom Mix would survive Hervey's crooked scheming and end up with such a swell horse, not whether he got to kiss the girl. The filmic Jim sees Alcatraz/Tony first instead of Marianne. Hervey is perhaps more despicable in the movie, although he's more of a secondary character there than in the book. In the novel, Jim is shot while playing cards; in the film, he's playing an apparently obnoxious tune on a banjo. (See the lobby card photo accompanying this article.)

What I find interesting is that the film viewer never sees justice catch up to the bad guy, Hervey. Jim and Jordan shake hands and agree to fight no more, but no mention is made of Hervey after Tony rescues Jim. Odd. But I suppose providing thrills and chills was uppermost in the minds of the people making these movies; providing complete closure to all plot lines before the final reel ended was a secondary consideration. On the whole, though, Just Tony does good by the main concepts and action in Brand's novel, Alcatraz.



Those old films are great. I've got a load of zane grey silents

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...