The Painted Desert (1931)

  • Year: 1931
  • Released: 07 Mar 1931
  • Country: United States
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  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: English
  • MPA Rating: Passed
  • Genre: Drama, Western
  • Runtime: 79 min
  • Writer: Tom Buckingham, Howard Higgin
  • Director: Howard Higgin, Tom Buckingham
  • Cast: William Boyd, Helen Twelvetrees, William Farnum
  • Keywords: baby, mining, feud, foundling,
false% – Audience

The Painted Desert Storyline

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?—Rod Crawford

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The Painted Desert Movie Reviews

Gable grumbles as the tumbleweeds tumble with Bill Boyd as Gandhi

The star of this film is William Boyd, who made a bunch of westerns for Pathe in his time. As a matter of fact, on the opening credits,Clark Gable isn’t even listed. Later, when they name the entire cast he is mentioned, but he comes way behind top rated Boyd and even now largely forgotten Helen Twelvetrees.

Two pioneers, Cash Holbrook and Jeff Cameron, are trekking across the desert when they find a deserted encampment with one survivor, a baby boy. The two fight over where to go next. Jeff Cameron wants to stay at the waterhole because “it is a grub stake” – all people driving cattle through will need this waterhole. Cash Holbrook wants to continue on to grazing land so he can raise cattle. He calls Jeff stubborn, and takes the baby too, daring Jeff to shoot because if he does, the baby will fall from Cash’s arms and break his neck.

About twenty years pass and Cash has become a wealthy cattleman. Not being ambitious in the old west has cost Jeff. He married, but his wife died in this harsh environment, and all he has left is his daughter, Mary Ellen (Helen Twelvetrees). In all of this time Cash and Jeff have agitated one another – Jeff is still angry at Cash for stealing the baby boy that is now a man, refusing to let Cash’s herd use his watering hold for any price and makes him go 27 miles around. One night it is coming to a showdown. Cash is going to stampede his cattle to Jeff’s watering hole and show him who is boss. Jeff and his daughter are prepared to shoot it out to stop him. Along comes a stranger – Gable as Rance Brent, and with him instantly taken with Mary Ellen, Rance decides to back them up in the shootout.

Cash’s adopted son comes out and stampedes the cattle away from the watering hole to prevent the deadly shootout. Cash is angry, and throws Bill (Bill Boyd) out. Bill went to mining school, discovers tungsten on Jeff’s land, and enters into a mining partnership with his dad’s sworn enemy.

Now this is where the movie is weird. Bill is acting Gandhi-like saying that he takes neither side, he just wants Cash and Jeff to be friends again and that neither is bad or wrong. I beg to disagree, because to me Cash IS a bad man up to this point. First he uses Bill the infant as a human shield, and when Bill keeps something from escalating into bloodshed, Cash throws that son out of his life.

In the meantime, Jeff and Bill’s mine is yielding lots of ore, and out of nowhere – certainly not out of any dialogue that I could perceive – Bill and Mary Ellen are in love. Meanwhile somebody is sniping at the drivers who are taking the ore into town to the railroad, and then some dynamite disappears and the mine is blown to smithereens. Everybody on Jeff’s place blames Cash, and it is up to Bill to stop another potential showdown and shootout. I’ll let you watch and find out what happens.

This film has absolutely no background music, which was common in early films, and much of the dialogue is very pedestrian. However, it is a good chance to see Gable in his first sound film, and although he hardly utters a word, you can see the beginning of “that Gable style”.

Keep This One In A Glass Case — It’s A Museum Piece

The Painted Desert is best remembered as Clark Gable’s first substantial role for good reason. The future King of Hollywood’s natural, dynamic style of acting stands out in this extremely creaky early talkie Western. In an unrewarding heavy role Gable speaks in his trademark relaxed, cocky manner, while other, more experienced actors such as J. Farrell MacDonald, early silent era star William Farnum, and a stiff-as-a-board Bill Boyd deliver their lines one distinctly enunciated word at a time as if speaking toward a microphone hidden in a cactus. Admittedly Boyd wasn’t much of an actor in spite of his good looks and sunny disposition, but MacDonald and Farnum were. Blame an under-financed sound department and uninspired direction by Howard Higgins, who also co-wrote the murky script for this lumbering oater. Those who would excuse the stiff direction and acting as caused by unavoidable problems with early sound equipment should first take a look at Joseph Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930), released the year before The Painted Desert, but showing a marvelously sophisticated and artistically pleasing use of sound. Other than Gable, the only other actors who managed to rise above the restraints of the over-compensating sound technicians and Higgin’s stodgy direction were gorgeous leading lady Helen Twelvetrees and Boyd’s beautiful white horse.

That’s not to say that The Painted Desert doesn’t have some good points — especially for die-hard Western fans. Most of the low, low budget must have been spent carting the actors, crew, and equipment around several scenic Arizona locations, including the sure-enough Painted Desert. Sets by art director Carrol Clark and costumes by Gwen Wakeling were well turned out and authentic looking. Oldblackandwhite, who is one of the vanishing breed of Texans still preferring the Stetson style to the ubiquitous Beaver Cleaver ball cap, wishes he could find the hatter Ms. Wakeling used for this picture. The sets and costumes, along with a folksy, real-to-life dialog, as plodding as the delivery was, gave the movie an authentically quaint, rustic 19th century ambiance missing in many a better produced Western.

Best of all, and almost worth the price of a DVD — a cheap one anyway — was having a tense, climactic, sixgun showdown between two elderly gentlemen! But there wasn’t much else to get excited about in The Painted Desert. Mainly for curiosity seekers, dedicated Clark Gable fans, fanatical Western aficionados, and the usual desperate insomniacs. Neither the best nor the worst from Old Hollywood’s Classic Era.

More Valuable Than Tungsten

The Painted Desert is a less than average western in which Clark Gable made his first film with any billing. Previously he had been a bit player in several silent features, but this his first role of any substance. It’s the only reason The Painted Desert has any significance in Hollywood history.

Made for Pathe Pictures just before they merged with RKO, The Painted Desert is the story of two old desert rats, William Farnum and J. Farrell MacDonald who find an infant alive in a covered wagon on the desert.

For reasons I don’t understand, a disagreement about whether to lay claim to a waterhole or to push on further and find enough land for a cattle ranch turns these friends into blood enemies. Farnum takes the infant and raises him as his own.

The infant grows up to be William Boyd in his pre-Hopalong Cassidy days and he becomes a mining engineer and discovers tungsten ore on the MacDonald property. He also takes a shine to MacDonald’s daughter Helen Twelvetrees. Also in the race for her hand is Clark Gable.

Gable’s performance as the roughneck rival to Boyd caught some attention at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and he became within a year, the studio’s biggest star ever in its existence.

Possibly due to bad editing, possibly to bad writing, but The Painted Desert is far from the greatest western I’ve ever seen. But it yielded something far more valuable than tungsten.