What a Man’s Gotta Do?: ‘The Virginian’, ‘The New School Teacher’ and ‘Feel My Pulse’

The Virginian, The New School Teacher and Feel My Pulse are good examples of the art of silent film from worthwhile filmmakers.

A classic western and two sparkling farces are the latest Blu-rays from the silent film specialists at Grapevine Video, a small Arizona company.

The Virginian

The Virginian (1923) is a handsome movie about a handsome cowpoke. Owen Wister’s 1902 novel became a classic template for the mythology of the simple, stand-up, square-dealing cowboy who does what a man’s gotta do, even if means delaying his marriage to the schoolmarm so he can present himself for a gun duel in the street with a lowdown polecat. Among the classic situations is a confrontation over poker in which the hero says, “When you call me that, smile!” It’s entered popular culture through many a cartoon, usually rewritten as “Smile when you say that!”

Wister’s book is commonly credited as the first real western novel, and it’s still very much worth reading, uniting its anecdotes of the Virginian’s life into a coherent tone of admiration punctuated with action and incident. One curious detail is that it’s narrated by an unnamed tenderfoot who’s clearly as much in love with the equally unnamed Virginian as the schoolmarm. This essentially extraneous character is omitted from the film, which is based more directly on the play adapted by Wister and Kirke La Shelle, and which had previously been filmed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1914.

The hero’s developing romance with the reluctant Molly Wood (Florence Vidor) is paralleled with a series of incidents caused by trouble-making Trampas (Russell Simpson). The primary conflict in the Virginian’s heart involves his friend Steve (Pat O’Malley), who has been led into rustling by Trampas and who must forthrightly accept his own summary lynching under the Virginian’s supervision. This remains an unusual and remarkable plot point, handled with suppressed manly emotion.

Molly Wood, for her part, must learn to unbend her righteous New England notions for the rough justice of the West. She symbolizes a still-distant civilization that can’t quite tame it yet, for civilizing has something to do with feminizing, and the codes of the West all clearly have something to do with relations between men.

Stephen Crane’s 1898 story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” argued that the arrival of women and marriage means the end of gunfights, and this is seen as anti-climactic without being a bad thing. Wister and other exponents resisted this message. A variant of this dynamic would be played out in Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952), where the pacifist bride must again bend her rules. An excellent, less heralded, unusual film is James Edward Grant’s Angel and the Badman (1947), in which John Wayne’s character chooses to abide by his Quaker bride’s rules and is thereby redeemed.

Tom Forman directs a movie as big as all outdoors with an eye for the cozy and picturesque, and his oddest decision is to stage the standard shoot-out entirely in one distant longshot, so that the audience is farther from the action than anyone else. He extracts subtle and measured performances from the cast, including a classic he-man turn from Kenneth Harlan, who was channeling Dustin Farnum of 1914 (reprising his stage role) and would in turn inspire Gary Cooper’s 1929 interpretation, Joel McCrea in 1946, and James Drury in the long-running TV series. Vidor was a much bigger silent star than Harlan, but she didn’t survive the transition to talkies whereas he continued as a minor character player.

The Virginian was probably Forman’s biggest success as a director. Three years later, he killed himself and served as an inspiration for the suicidal husband in What Price Hollywood (1932) and its unofficial remakes as several versions of A Star Is Born, with another apparently on the way. There’s an unfortunate legacy.

Gregory La Cava

The two farces directed by former animator Gregory La Cava are The New School Teacher (1924) and Feel My Pulse (1928).

Like La Cava’s first feature, His Nibs (1921), The New School Teacher is a vehicle for popular “hick” comedian Charles “Chic” Sale based on stories by equally popular rural humorist Irvin S. Cobb. The excellent Sale is both credible and buffoonish as the idealistic young teacher who becomes the butt of numerous pranks by his students — childish pranks were also part of Cobb’s stock in trade and the era generally — while having his affections played with by pretty Diana (Doris Kenyon), who’s only trying to arouse the jealousy of her obnoxious boyfriend (Robert Bentley).

“He has an exquisite understanding of the Einstein theory and keeps up with all the dead languages,” says a local matron of hapless Professor Timmons. Initially a pantywaist, Timmons proves his manliness and therefore commands the respect of his pupils and the love of Diana by a climactic act of bravery, without which he’d apparently know nothing worth teaching. The opening card proclaims “This picture is dedicated to the school teacher, the doormat upon which the passing generation wipes its feet, as it moves on through the door of opportunity.”

Feel My Pulse is a vehicle for comedienne Bebe Daniels, although most of the slapstick parts are probably performed by a stunt double. She plays Barbara Manning, an heiress whose eccentric bequest has required her to live germ-free or “antiseptically” until age 21. Now, to escape a rambunctious Texas uncle, she flees to an island sanitarium that happens to be a cover for rum-runners.

The alleged hypochondriac meets the boss “doctor” (William Powell), who has eyes on her fortune, and a supposed gang member (Richard Arlen) who develops romantic feelings for her. Most of the comedy is based on misunderstanding and double meaning, such as confusion between medicine and the inebriating concoctions around her, until an exciting climactic battle between gangs gives Barbara the unusual chance to play the heroine who saves the day instead of having to be saved. She’s the one who does the rescuing, thus proving her sound health.

Ironically, the latest film here, Feel My Pulse, is the one whose print is in the worst shape. It’s tolerable at best, while the earlier La Cava item is an excellent tinted print of great clarity, the better to study the actors’ reactions. The western falls in between them, being very watchable with mild signs of darkness and nitrate deterioration. All have organ scores by David Knudtson. Feel My Pulse has a bonus short called Don’t Be Foolish (1922) with Billy West, a Chaplin impersonator who comes across as a dapper little squirt running from cops and wooing the wrong woman — played by a man in drag.

RATING 6 / 10