Friday, March 24, 2023

To the Last Man

Another recent watch off the Watch TCM app was To the Last Man. The print TCM ran said that it had been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art; supposedly there's a public domain print out there under the title Law of Vengeance.

The first thing about the movie that's interesting is how it introduces each of the main cast members, putting up the actor's name and character at the bottom of the screen the first time they appear. Now, some early talkies used a convention of showing the main characters with a shot from the movie right at the beginning. And there are also some silent films that would put the name of the actor in an intertitle when introducing a new character. But I hadn't seen it done quite like this before. Randolph Scott is the star here, and it's a bit odd to see his name show up on screen only when he first appears 20 minutes or more into the proceedings.

Anyhow, the plot itself starts off just after the end of the Civil War, with a newspaper etching informing us of Lee's surrender -- I don't think the technology to print photographs in newspapers was around in the 1860s. We then move to Kentucky, where Mark Hayden (Egon Brecher) is returning from the war. Mark's son Lynn (Jay Ward, but not the one who would go on to create Bullwinkle) witnesses Grandpa getting murdered, by one of the Colby gang, patriarch Jed (Noah Beery Sr.). The Colbys and Haydens have been feuding, but Mark doesn't want the violence to go on, having seen too much in the war. So instead of taking blood revenge, Mark gets Jed sent to prison for 15 years. The Haydens go west to Nevada to escape the feud, with Grandma taking care of young Lynn, she refusing to go west.

Those 15 years pass, and Jed is just about to get out of prison. During his time there, he made friends with fellow prisoner Jim Daggs (Jack La Rue), who got out a few months before Jed. Jim has raised a stake for him and the Colbys to go to Nevada to follow the Haydens, as Jed wants revenge for having lost 15 years of his life, not realizing it was his own damn fault. Jed also has an adult daughter, Ellen (Esther Ralston), who follows Dad and Jim out to Nevada.

Jed certainly attempts revenge, but things get complicated thanks to the presence of Ellen. Jim expects that Ellen is going to marry him, but who should show up from back east but a now grown up Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott, but of course you'll figure that out from the credits). He first runs into Ellen as she's swimming and being menaced by Jim, and he saves Ellen, the two not realizing who each other are. When Ellen finds out this is another Hayden, she's pissed and wants nothing to do with Lynn. But Lynn doesn't want the feuding either even though it's unavoidable, and you can probably guess that Ellen is ging to fall in love with Lynn by the last reel.

What surprised me about To the Last Man was the sort of violence. The climax took an unexpectedly dark turn, and I found that this raised the level of an otherwise standard-issue 1930s western quite a bit. To the Last Man is interesting for a whole bunch of reasons, and definitely worth a watch if you can find it.

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