The western landscape is full of emptiness, vast stretches of drab land, interrupted by deep canyons or sheer mountains, and infrequent water. My reasons for recently watching The Painted Desert was largely because it was set in an area close to where I live. I had it queued on Amazon Prime; a lesser quality version is available on YouTube.

It’s hardly a great movie, and in many ways left me puzzled (or more “Meh”), a lot to things that seemed missing or inconsistent. But that said, if you cannot find something of interest to write about, well…

I’ll leave the summary to IMDb

Western pardners Jeff and Cash find a baby boy in an otherwise deserted emigrants’ camp, and clash over which is to be “father.” They are still bitterly feuding years later when they own adjacent ranches. Bill, the foundling whom Cash has raised to young manhood, wants to end the feud and extends an olive branch toward Jeff, who now has a lovely daughter. But during a mining venture, the bitterness escalates. Is Bill to be set against his own adoptive father?

Sound (and not)

I noted it was an old movie (1931) and frankly in the first few minutes, I was wondering if it was a silent movie. Nothing is said as Jeff and Cash come across an abandoned wagon. I almost expect Chaplin gesticulations and cue cards.

Actually the only sound seems to be the spoken lines and what was recorded on the set. There is no music. There are parts where between dialogue is a ghostly static, no wind blowing, or ambient sounds.

One might chalk this up to being an old movie, but somewhere I read someone mentioning earlier movies that did much better with audio.

Two Notes and Thats It?

The movie opens (1:05) and I think there is one more scene (9:05) where a notebook with handwriting is used to fill in the plot.

The notebook is used t indicate the passage of time at 9:05
The notebook is used t indicate the passage of time at 9:05

It feels like it was an idea that just got dropped. Or maybe after the gap in time as brought to the present, it was not necessary? It feels like a rickety bridge built over a plot gap.

Gaps in Character Development

Since this is the part of #western106 that we think about characters, I found most of the ones in this movie stiff, thin, or just not built enough for me to care or be interested in.

The movie is built on this conflict between Jeff and Cash, apparently they traveled together to the West, apparently with a joint plan to work together (never hinted at). The whole scene where they find the baby feels fill of gaps too.

They come up to a wagon, hear a baby crying, they take him, and are riding off in like 4 minutes. It’s left to wonder what happened at that site, they did not even investigate. The timing feels wrong. This is a hinge for the characters in the movie, their fighting over Bill in their lives (the grown man from the baby).

They have some comedic moments with the baby, and then there seems to be no comedy in the rest of the movie.

Then they have this big blow up near the water hole, that just seems to come out of nowhere. Up to this point there was nothing to indicate these were not best buddies, and now they are viscously bickering (over whether to stay at the water hole?, and Cash rides off with the baby as a shield.

Then we get a note, and a return to the water hole. Because the lighting is exactly the same, there’s not much sense of time passage except for there are a lot fo buildings around the watering hole, and Jeff is there with a young lady. Somehow we have to figure out it is her daughter. The mother? maybe I was not paying full attention, but how these two people came to live there? We just jumped 20 years.

In her first scene, Mary Ellen Cameron (played by Helen Twelvetrees seems like a rootin’ tootin’ wester gal, she pulls out her shotgun ready to defend her Dad’s land, but a few minutes later she is more or less pushed aside from the action by Brett, and the rest of the movie, she’s more of a eyelash bashing bimbo. Brett makes a big move on her, for some reason she takes up with Bill; there is no lead up to that as a romance. It just sort of happens out of the blue).

The Gable Effect and Boy oh Boyd

Clark Gable as Rance Brett
Clark Gable as Rance Brett

This movie seems to be most well known for being the first talking movie role for Clark Gable, and is said to be the role that rocketed his career. His is the character that seems to have the most oomph and feel to it, and the most western grizzled cowboy type. Jeff and Cash seem to speak more flatly.

I lost track of where I read it, Gable had no horse riding experience before this movie.

The Brett character does work for being a man of mystery, he’s “from Montana” on his way to New Mexico, but for what? He’s got this affection for Jeff’s daughter Mary Ellen. He makes a strong flirting move early, but then he is never that bold later. This is important because it creates the tension with Bill (the grown found baby)

I was not even sure who the actor was til I looked it up, but Gable does have a strong screen presence.

The bigger role in the movie was William Boyd playing Bill Holbrook (wondering if Holbrook as chosen for the name of the town closest to the Painted Desert?). His character is potentially the most interesting, because he turns agains Cash you raise him and made efforts to try and broker piece with Cash’s old nemesis, Jeff. Why Bill wants this is not clear.

Boyd had a hugely successful career in Westerns playing Hopalong Cassidy starting in the mid 1930s.

The Landscape

The Arizona landscape gets only a few glances at scene changes
The Arizona landscape gets only a few glances at scene changes

The movie is named, set in, and filmed in the Painted Desert of north central Arizona and adjacent areas. It’s interesting to see the pastel colored land rendered in black and white, which might add a bit of starkness to it.

The precious watering hole
The precious watering hole

The mystical watering hole (made up I think) is a key element, as well as the presence of mine-able minerals. There are a few scenes out in the landscape, but it does not feel as much of a presence as the films of John Ford.

They seem to be in a really remote location; Jeff’s refusal to let Cash water his cattle a the watering hole requires a 27 mile re-route, but for being remote, they sure seem to be very close to a populated town (which I do not think is named).

There is the complete mine set build and destroyed. Apparently some crew were injured during the blasts done for that scene. Oops.

The Unexpected

For a western this movie is missing the tropes of Really Bad Guys, bank robberies, gunfights, fistfights, jumping from trains, and dealings with Indians.

In the scene where Jeff and daughter get ready, they do the classic putting their ear to the ground. This is where it should turn to a marauding band of Indians, but surprise! It’s cattle.

Then we have this rising tension of Cash bringing his cattle in, but as a suprirse there is a whooping band of horsemen who drive the cattle away. The sounds they are making sound like Indian war cries, but ti turns out tis just Bill and (??) we have no idea who else helped him.

No Indians appear in this movie. No Mexicans either. It’s a White and White movie.

Really the movie is just this long lived (and little explained) animosity between the men in the beginning who found a baby. It’s almost more of a family drama, just set in the Painted Desert.

There’s Probably More

I lost some interest and attention over the last 1/3 of the movie, and maybe even noticed the credits rolling before I knew it was over.

The gaps and things that feel missing from this movie seem to have more to do with the behind the scenes actions of the movie studios and production companies. From one of the reviewers on IMDb, titled “It’s Not All There”

The Painted Desert was one of the last features to be produced by Pathé in 1930 before being taken over by RKO, and one of the first to be released by the emerging RKO-Pathé Distributing Corporation. After its initial release it was put back on the shelf, supposedly never to be seen again. During this time four key action sequences were removed to be used as stock footage in later RKO films, among them the 1938 re-make also titled The Painted Desert. In 1955 the RKO library was sold to C&C Television Corporation for TV syndication, primarily on CBS affiliated stations, and both versions of The Painted Desert were in the package. 35MM source material for these 16mm television prints was missing all of the deleted footage, so that what remained, and all that viewers have been able to see for the last fifty years, was a lot of talk, and practically no action. The sequences which are missing are most of the cattle stampede at the beginning of the film, a wagon hi-jacking and subsequent stampede into the canyon mid-way into the film, an attempted, but unsuccessful wagon hi-jacking soon afterwards, and the big mine explosion and resultant landslide that destroys the mining camp further on. (Two very impressive shots from this last sequence can be found in Republic’s Red River Valley (1936).) Frustratingly, the results of these events are shown, and much talked about, but the events themselves are nowhere to be seen. The version shown on Turner Classic Movies, though of superior visual quality, having been derived from the surviving original 35MM material, is still missing these key sequences, though no mention is made of it on the air.

It makes sense now that it’s not even clear what the “movie” is as it can get picked over and re-arranged by movie studios. It even gives some pause to think all that happens to get that movie on the screen, and it has as much to do with the business as the writing, directing, etc.

Not a great western, but still found a few things worth looking into.

I am just all the time appreciating IMDb more and more. It looks like any other web site, but when you peek under the corners, there is a whole raft of things it is doing with data. Like the Connections section where I note that The Road to Perdition makes a reference to this movie.

I remember IMDb being around from my early days on the web in 1993. I was thinking of it reading Adam Croom’s post on something about blockchains and data, but he makes an interesting metaphor from IMDb:

Let’s start first with credits. Specifically movie credits. Arguably, the website my wife, Katie, goes to most often is the International Movie Database (IMDB) website. When we watch a movie, 20 minutes into the film, without fail, she will whip out her phone and pull up the IMDB page for the movie.

Most recently, we were at the movie watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens (I promise, no spoilers). A scene comes on with the General Hux character. She thinks she’s seen him somewhere so she’s searching on IMDB. A-ha! Domhnail Gleeson. He was in a Black Mirror episode, she tells me. My facial-name recognition is about as good as a goldfish, so I have no idea what she’s talking about, but she goes on to explain the exact episode that he was in.

And suddenly we have pulled this information together as network; something in which we can relate to and empathize with based off of our previous relationship with other texts. Arguably, the number one value to the user in the social network is this: a way to organize and interact with their network which is made up of these disparate connections that have taken place over time.

So those in the film industry, including actors, gather credits and over time these credits start to build up a collective body of work. I can interact with these credits and try to put together my own interpretation of who this actor is and how they have developed over time based on different variables. Box office smasher or flop? Lead role or supporting? Who was the producer? Was it an independent film? Is this actor more dramatic or comedic? These are all a bit of judgements on my part, as the interpreter, because, ultimately a credit is a credit is a credit. The credit is fairly neutral.

It got me nostalgic because I remember an interesting bit of history sitting on the IMDb site, that it actually pre-dated the web starting within a newsgroup. I found the note on IMDb, but the current page is truncated, it seems. This is where I open my multi-tool and open the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find the version of the page I recall.

It’s like being a web archeologist. I am gently dusting off the fine dust on this page with a soft brush, and there it is- the first time this great site went on the web, it was on a server at Cardiff University in Wales:

The first web version of the database went live on the servers at Cardiff University in Wales. There is a fun bit of e-mail dating back to those days between web interface author, Rob Hartill, and Col Needham, both impressed when the web interface got 100 accesses in a single day. In recent years, the IMDb website has been serving over 2.5 billion accesses from over 57 million visitors every month.

Imagine that, another huge internet innovation birthed in higher education. Back when it really was an internet frontier, the Wild Wild Web.

Yep, there’s gold again, bags, pans of it…

wild web

though the site that pretty picture came from seems more web snake oil sales than driving herds of packets across the plains.

Oh well.

Top / Featured Image: Screen capture from The Painted Desert (1931) found on YouTube – this is the early scene where Rance Brett (right, Clark Gable) meets Jeff Cameron (left, J. Farrell MacDonald)

The post "Gaps, and Open Space in the West: “The Painted Desert” (1931)" was originally squeezed out of the bottom of an old rusted tube of toothpaste at CogDogBlog ( on January 25, 2016.

1 Comment

  • Sandy Brown Jensen Jensen

    This is character week? How did I not know that? Must review.

    I liked your story about the man and wife weaving a cultural web of movie references around their marriage by way of the constant making of connections–looking data up and connecting it to their shared memories and winding that helix into the hundreds of others twining invisibly around and between them.

    Peter and I do that–not with movies so much as with the Norton Anthologies of literature we both have memorized and are constantly both forgetting and remembering and augmenting through web reference.

    I love the way Google-at-the-table has moved dinner hour away from speculation and supposition and replaced it with instant fact checking.

    It keeps the conversation on some kind of more rational track less likely to be derailed by references to poorly recalled history and data.

    Even Mom is likely now to yell down the table, “I don’t believe that! Ask Siri!”

    Good mining of flash from an unlikely gravel pit, by the way!

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