Monday, March 21, 2011

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks as Jeff Hillington in his New York City apartment.

In Wild and Woolly, Douglas Fairbanks plays Jeff Hillington, the son of a New York railroad magnate. He is obsessed with the Old West. Certifiably obsessed. His home and office have been turned into vast playgrounds for his hobby. He has tee-pees, six-shooters, model horses, and enough campy wild west paraphernalia to fill the Fort Worth stockyards twice over. Everyone around him simply accepts that he's a bit of a nut, and they humor his fantasies enough to get by (he is the boss's son, and those six-shooters are loaded, after all).

Sick of putting up with his childish games, Jeff's father decides to send him on a business trip to Arizona, hoping that seeing what the West is really like will help him to face reality--the reality of business, one can only presume. Come to think of it, I'm not sure Fairbanks ever does a lick of work in any of his films, unless you count robbing the rich to feed the poor. His films uniformly celebrate play, freedom and imagination over the more humdrum ideals of discipline and industry. Would it be stretching things to call this character quixotic? Probably. He's not out to right all the injustices of the world, after all, he's just found the world of his imagination more satisfying than the reality around him. (Come to think of it, I know the feeling.) Of course as it turns out, reality is more like Jeff's fantasies than anyone else realized.

Fairbanks with Eileen Percy as Nell Larabee
When he gets to Arizona, Jeff finds the West to be exactly what he expected. You see, the people of the town of Bitter Creek, Arizona have decided that the best way to get Jeff's father to build the railroad spur they want is to make his son happy. The whole town teams up to put on a show: a rootin', tootin' wild west extravaganza complete with a train robbery, a dance at the saloon, and a raid by hostile Indians.. Things get out of hand, however, when life imitates art, and a group of local ne'er-do-wells uses the cover of Jeff's visit to make some very real mischief, and it is up to Jeff and his trusty six-shooters to save the day.

The detail in this film rewards a careful eye. There is a sign at the inn, put there for Jeff's benefit no doubt, that reads "All guests must bury their own dead." As usual, though, the only real reason to watch this movie today is simply to watch Fairbanks move. I suspect that was already the case in 1917. Otherwise I'm at a bit of a loss. Fairbanks was making ridiculous amounts of money--his salary grew from $2,000 to $10,000 a week between 1916 and 1919--making comedies that just aren't funny. Silly, zany, and embarrassing, yes, but seldom actually funny. However, stories like Wild and Woolly do provide a reasonable excuse for Fairbanks to leap, climb, and kick everything in sight, and that in itself is more than enough to justify the 65 minute time investment this picture requires.

Fairbanks kicking a hole in the ceiling.
In fact, this film contains one of my personal favorites of Fairbanks' stunts. In order to access the room directly above, Fairbanks hangs from the floor joists above him and kicks up at the floor boards until he is able to break through and climb up. Actually, I'm kind of in awe of this stunt. How do you hang from a floor joist, anyway? There's nothing to hold onto, unless you just grip it with your fingers, and I simply can't imagine holding on with that kind of pressure. Not to mention the amount of force required to kick up enough to break the floor. Have you ever tried to hammer a nail from underneath? Because that's pretty much what he's doing. I'm sure the floor is made of balsa wood or cardboard or something, but it still takes several solid hits to break all the way through. And, as always, the look on his face says he's having the time of his life.

Wild and Woolly is not going to be anybody's new favorite movie, but you could do a lot worse. So put a pot of beans on the campfire and gather round, happy in the knowledge that if it isn't really very good, at least it's short. And hey, it's better than going to the office.

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