This expensive epic focuses on a little-told historical subject. While the initial California Gold Rush of 1849 has often been used as a background for films and stories, this screenplay by Warren Duff and Robert Buckner (from Clements Ripley’s novel) focuses on the Sacramento Valley rush of 1877, specifically on the use of hydraulic mining to wash away tons of mud onto the farmland below, leading to environmental and legal conflict between farmers and miners. The latter aren’t rugged individualists but employees of fatcat syndicates in San Francisco, who are depicted as shallow and greedy while the farmers are the salt of the earth. Real issues and philosophies are discussed before the destructive climactic action literally washes everything away when everyone disregards the law.
George Brent plays engineer Jared Whitney, whose loyalties are torn between his job for the mines and his involvement with the Ferris family, whose wheat farm is being hurt by the run-off. Claude Rains plays the righteous paterfamilias, cowboy star Tim Holt is his callow son, and Olivia De Havilland is the plucky daughter who dreams of growing fruit in California and is shown personally plowing her small orchard with a radiant smile and perfect hair. Sidney Toler, a future Charlie Chan, is Whitney’s calmly rapacious mine owner. Ferris’ brother (John Litel) and his daughter (Margaret Lindsay) sell their birthright of the farmland (bought cheap from the Indians, as someone points out) to join the high-living Frisco set. These personal entanglements illustrate the larger issues.
George “Gabby” Hayes and Willie Best ply their standard comic-relief acts as workers on the Ferris farm. At one point, Hayes’ character refers to fighting at “Chickamaugee” in the Civil War, and when he is asked if they were successful, he replies that if they hadn’t been, “you wouldn’t be running around loose”. This supposedly comic exchange isn’t exactly enlightened repartee, but it’s typical of the film in that it least it’s referring to something real.
TCM’s website teases out the ironies of the William Randolph Hearst connection. This film was produced by his Cosmopolitan Pictures from a novel in one of his magazines. His father made a fortune in California goldmines and appears as a character who mentions that his son Willie wants to go into newspapers. (This is a high-society sequence where characters gossip of plans for the Panama Canal and ex-President Grant mentions Thomas Edison.) One antagonistic character is called Minton (Barton MacLane), which happens to be the name of a Senator who denounced Hearst, whose anti-labor positions earned him a bad rep from the type of farmers valorized in the picture.
Michael Curtiz directs with professional vigor. The most impressive part of the movie is the climactic model work supervised by special effects artist Byron Haskins, the future director of sci-fi projects. The film was above all a technical accomplishment. The trailer, included as the only extra, stresses that it’s in “the New Technicolor”, the recently developed three-strip process. Also stressed is a sense of epic filming in the Sacramento Valley. While promoted as a big deal, the film has languished since. The on-demand print from Warner Archive shows fluctuating color values and a somewhat thick soundtrack, but restoration doesn’t seem likely despite the historical importance.