Friday, August 11, 2017

The comedy and tragedy of life in “Phantom of the Range” 1928

Long considered to be inaccessible in the United States although existing in several formats in Spain and South America (including an original 35mm print at Instituto Valenciano De Cinematografia in Valencia, Spain), “Phantom of the Range” 1928 is one of those Tom Tyler silent films that entertains, combining an American western landscape along with Keatonesque, Greek theatre, and Shakespearean elements into a smooth, cohesive plot. The provenance of this FBO silent film on Youtube is from 16mm and VHS copy elements combined together. Uploaded to Youtube on August 2, 2017, one week before what would be Tom's 114th birthday, “Phantom of the Range” takes both a dramatic and comical look at the life of a cowboy would-be actor would-be cowboy stranded in a small western town.

“Phantom of the Range” opens with a dramatic scene: Duke Carlton (Tom Tyler), the woman who loves him (Marjorie Zier), and her father. A verbal fight takes place, and the older man shoots Duke dead. The woman is distraught, and in turn, turns a gun on herself, literally dying in Duke's arms. No intertitle card is necessary for this part: the father's facial expression and lip movements clearly convey what has he done to lose his only living family member. As the scene closes out, the viewer observes this to be taking place on a theatre stage, a piano player providing music, and the curtain coming down. The actors come out and take a bow. Sitting in the front row of the audience is a starstruck young lady by the name of Patsy O'Brien (Duane Thompson), her little brother Danny (Frankie Darro), and her grandfather Tim (Charles McHugh), owner of a milk cow ranch. The close proximity of Patsy and her family, not to mention their frequent attendance to Duke's performances, suggest there will be a relationship between the two of them, perhaps sooner than expected, which will be very beneficial to Duke throughout the film.

The viewer is next taken to the town center of Prattsville, where Duke's acting troupe is temporarily stranded due to financial reasons. Duke is standing on the front porch of the Grand Hotel in this small western town, dressed in his best suit and looking around, when his fellow acting troupe member Vera Van Swank (Mitzi Morgan in the Spanish version of this film) (Marjorie Zier) comes out and has a few words with Duke, asking why they have been working as actors in small towns instead of larger cities. In return Duke tells her that once she can act in the “comedy of life” she will be considered a great actor, worthy of being able to make it to big city acting jobs. Vera/Mitzi touches Duke's arm, which he gently removes, one of her many advances that he rebuffs throughout the film. Being stranded in what seems an out-of-the-way place to the couple, Duke can resort to cowpunching if he has to, even though he finds it a step backward in his life, after working so hard to move up in life to a more socially mobile career, acting. Temporarily distracted, Duke happens to see Patsy with her family pull up their horse-drawn wagon to the general store after they unload heavy milk cans full of their product. Once the task is done, Tim and Danny go inside the store, while Patsy's eye catches Tom on the porch of the hotel. She walks over to him, staring, totally star struck, pleased to be able to finally meet her hero. She gestures towards him by raising her arms, placing her clasped hands beneath her chin, with a demure smile. Duke engages her in casual talk. Patsy thinks Duke's performance was marvelous, but Duke says his most recent stage act as a cowboy is nothing compared to his performance as Hamlet – here, he is trying to impress her, acting in a common social situation. Then he tells Patsy his acting troupe is next headed for Chicago, then New York, London, and Paris. Just like he told Vera/Mitzi, he is indeed acting in real life here, engaging with a fan who is a pretty girl, and clearly enamored of him.

Meanwhile, Patsy's grandfather is speaking with another man by the name of Walter Corbin (James Pierce) who has made an offer to purchase the O'Brien milk cow ranch. Corbin becomes irate when Tim O'Brien tells him his ranch is not for sale, and in turn pushes the elderly man hard enough so that he falls onto the ground. The event transpires right in front of Duke, and even though he is dressed in his best suit, complete with a fashionable cane in hand, proceeds to take on Corbin in a fistfight. The two men brawl on the street while a crowd gathers, with Patsy and her family egging Duke on. The crowd dissipates, and Patsy is proud of the way Duke handled Corbin. For Duke, this is the right moment of opportunity when Patsy offers him a job working on their ranch, once he tells her that he is retiring from acting. A career on the road and being stranded has taken its toll on Duke, and he longs for something different, not to mention needing money to pay a debt. Tim immediately makes Duke an offer up front in cash to pay for the acting troupe's hotel and costume trunk bills. The O'Briens are happy to make Duke a temporary part of the family, with Patsy being especially happy since she has fallen in love with him. More importantly, Duke and Danny instantly become buddies, the little boy having a role model that he could look up to.

Duke Carlton arrives at the O'Brien ranch dressed as a cowboy, a button-down shirt, scarf, jeans and boots, arriving upon his famous horse, Flashlight. Not only does he look the part well – it was after all his previous career – but he is enthusiastic with his new job, with part of the enthusiasm coming from his new found relationship with one of his devoted fans. What can possibly be a better motivator for Duke, than being in love with his new boss? Unfortunately for him, the road is rocky from the beginning: as soon as Duke learns he was hired to help milk cows and tend to all tasks in the production of milk products including churning butter, he balks at the idea of working with milk cows. Duke even tells Patsy that he is a cow puncher, not a milking machine. He is apologetic, even walks away, although grateful that she offered him a job on her ranch. At this point Duke is hoping that he might be able to get another job as a cow puncher in Prattsville. But all of a sudden, Duke changes his mind again, possibly to save face with Patsy, but really out of his love for her. He is willing to give this job a chance, milking cows, after all, what does he have to lose?

It is not long before Duke soon discovers that milking cows, as with anything else, he must act the part. For one thing, he cannot seem to sit on a stool next to a cow without having its tail whack him in his face. Then there is the problem of his actually milking the cow; no milk is coming, and he does not have a clue how to manipulate the udders, even after Patsy does a demonstration for him. On the verge of giving up, Patsy instead has him clean the stables. But that too proves to have its challenges: Duke cannot stand the smell of the stables, so he grabs a clothespin and attaches it to his nose before he starts pitching hay. Danny comes out of the house, sees Duke and starts to laugh, for the sight of his hero with a clothespin on his nose is nothing short of hilarious. None of this is funny to Duke, who considers everything that has happened to him so far to be a tragedy. Duke is not speaking in the modern sense of the word tragedy, but in the Aristotelian sense; furthermore, he is aware that trying to milk cows – something he has never done before – was in fact a humbling experience. Duke appears dejected, but summons enough positive energy to exlain to Danny that he is probably better off being onstage in a theatre, instead of acting through life. As Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet”:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

While speaking to Danny, Duke finally removes the clothespin from his nose, sucks it up, and continues pitching hay in order to get at least an honest day's work done. The viewer next sees Duke sitting in front of a butter churn, all by himself, Keatonesque in expression and trying to be fully involved with the task but once again, as with milking the cows, is emotionally divorced from what he is doing. Patsy appreciates Duke's efforts to some degree, and her encouragement of him is more out of love than anything else. He did not permit his pride from taking the job on the O'Brien ranch to begin with, and as he fell in love with Patsy, the lady of the ranch, still wanted to make good with her family, repaying their kindness and generosity in his time of need.

Corbin however still has his eye on acquiring the O'Brien ranch and shows up at their front door, thinking that he could at least get elderly Tim to sign the papers simply by talking to him, and not have him spend too much time reading the document. Patsy sees Corbin and asks him why the interest in her family's property. Duke joins Patsy, and they get Corbin to leave, which he does, only to rendezvous with Vera/Mitzi since she is in on the ranch deal. Being smart, Duke catches on, and seeks her out himself, only to be shown a letter regarding the $100,000.00 offer for the O'Brien ranch. Duke and Corbin engage in a major fistfight in Corbin's office. Corbin is knocked out cold, and Duke leaves on horseback headed for the O'Brien ranch to prevent its sale. Vera/Mitzi follows Duke all the way back to the O'Brien ranch with ulterior motives on her mind: to procure the sale of the ranch. She heads over to the ranch, opens the front door, and makes a beeline for him in the living room, draping her arms around his shoulders. But Duke rebuffs her, and Vera/Mitzi tells Patsy that she and Duke are married and have children. Just as Duke told her on the porch of the Grand Hotel in the center of town, Vera/Mitzi is acting in the comedy of life, and pulls it off too well, well enough for Duke to be angry with her. Patsy is horrified at hearing this news and demands to know the truth about Duke's marital status, for she loves him very much, hoping to eventually marry him. Duke denies being married to Vera/Mitzi, is asked to leave the house, and heads out the front door, beckoning to Danny to follow him. Soon Duke is hot on the trail of Corbin's henchmen, getting involved in a few more brawling fistfights, rescuing a man tied to a tree, and wraps up the final chapter of the film in high speed pursuit, preventing Tim O'Brien from selling the ranch to Corbin.

“Phantom of the Ranch” is divided into five parts, or acts, as a theatre performance might be, from the very beginning of the film; there is no separation of Tom Tyler as actor playing an actor between his final stage performance which unexpectedly ended his acting career, and the plot of the film. What seems unusual is the fact that the opening scenes are identical to the last scene in the movie with one exception: instead of being shot, and his lover committing suicide, Tom as Duke Carlton ends up living happily ever after with Patsy O'Brien. Duke's acting at real life in “Phantom of the Range” is pulled off so well, he could have well been a real-life Hamlet in the making, a hero borne out of a tragic figure, someone who was playing a fool acting in the comedy of life. Duane Thompson is Tom's love interest, and the couple previously teamed up in FBO's “The Desert Pirate” (1927). What “Phantom of the Range” explores are one of the many unlimited possibilities of what roles one plays when meeting with a favorite actor. This theme was to be recycled in Tom's silent film “Terror Mountain” (1928) where he played himself, although in a different setting, the snowy mountains of California.

Since he portrays a small-town theatre actor in “Phantom of the Range”, someone who dreamed of making it big, Tom Tyler comes across as the type of actor who could just as well have shared the stage with big names from earlier centuries, such as David Garrick (18th century) or William Grattan Tyrone Power (early 19th century). Tom was not RADA trained although his acting could certainly pass for it. When he was in his teens, Tom's desire was to be a dramatic actor like Hobart Bosworth or Eddie Polo, according to the article “The Sucker Who Succeeded”, by Dorothy Calhoun, in the July 1928 issue of Motion Picture Classics magazine. Oddly enough, Polo was known as “Hercules of the Screen” during his silent film years, having made a series of western film shorts, exhibiting his physically demanding stunts. If Tom Tyler's desire was to be an actor like Eddie, he sure came close to it, possibly even one better; with the advent of sound film, Polo's career ended, relegating him to bit roles where he was usually uncredited.

Tom Tyler's physical stunts are nothing short of spectacular, when he mounts Flashlight from the rear with extreme ease, the handful of fighting scenes, most notably the one where he is fully dressed in his best suit. Directed by James Dugan and written by Frank Howard Clark and Oliver Drake, “Phantom of the Range” remains an important find despite its lack of professional restoration, music accompaniment, and English intertitles. “Phantom of the Range” is just one of Tom Tyler's many silent films which holds a special legacy in Hollywood history, and is of interest to the wider hero/superhero archetype film community due to the upcoming “Shazam!” movie and the frequent reference to his portrayal of Captain Marvel in recent news stories. For these reasons, “Phantom of the Range” is a silent film that shows the depth of Tom Tyler's acting ability, and is enjoyable and entertaining at the same time.

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