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Thursday, February 18, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #3: The Covered Wagon, 1923

I knew sooner or later a Western would pop up onto my list and I would not be able to resist it. Well, it's already happened on Week 3 of my quest to watch a new film every week from successive years.

The Covered Wagon (1923)
Director: James Cruze
Writer: Jack Cunningham, adapted from a novel by Emerson Hough
Cinematographer: Karl Brown
Producer: Jesse Lasky for Paramount Pictures
Starring: J.Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson, Alan Hale, Ernest Torrence

Why I chose it
Essentially, I couldn't resist a Western, and I had read (The Story of Film, by Mark Cousins) that it was an early masterpiece.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
In 1948, two groups of would-be settlers of the Oregon territory unite their wagon trains in Kansas City to make the trek westward through harsh terrain and hostile Indian lands. Young Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson), while engaged to the shifty opportunist Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale), becomes intrigued by the mysterious but heroic leader of the other group, Will Banion (J.Warren Kerrigan).  Banion is cast out of the combined group when it's revealed he was tried and dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Army for stealing cattle. Yet before that, he manages to use his wits and experience to get the group out of a few challenging moments, like crossing the Platte River. Once the majority of the travelers reach their destination, the three protagonists must confront their differences.

Production Background and 1923 in Film History
According to his son, producer Jesse Lasky was drawn to the story because his grandfather arrived in California in a wagon train; he wanted to "lift the western from a low-budget potboiler film into an epic," as quoted in Kevin Brownlow's 1980 documentary miniseries “Hollywood." And he arranged for the film to be shot in Utah. Director James Cruze grew up in Utah as a Mormon and observed wagons pass his family ranch. In the design, great pains were taken toward realism, including commandeering local old Conestoga heirloom wagons and hiring hundreds of Plains Native Americans hired to play their ancestors. The film cost $800,000 but made $4 million at the box office, a huge hit. It greatly influenced John Ford and ushered in a wave of epic and romantic Westerns that lasted well into the sound era.

Some other notable film-related events in 1923*:
  • Comedian Harold Lloyd wowed audiences with his best-remembered film Safety Last.
  • Star Wallace Reid died of an overdose after dealing with a years-long addiction to painkillers.
  • The iconic 'Hollywoodland' sign, later shorted to 'Hollywood', was built by a real estate developer in the hills above the burgeoning film town.
  • Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. was established, and would soon become a pioneer in developing sound films.
    *Thanks to
My Random Observations 
  • The real stars of this film are the natural beauty of the Utah landscape and the stunning cinematography by Karl Brown. I stopped the film several times just to admire the work. 
  • Despite expert pacing, the story itself made me yawn. And despite looking good and acquitting themselves well, leads Kerrigan and Wilson could not overcome the unidimensional nature of their characters.
  • As in many films, the supporting actors pretty much stole the picture. One of my favorites, Alan Hale, was the villain here -- one day I want to see him play the romantic lead in something, as he was endowed with charisma. (Not sure that's possible). Ernest Torrence as the sidekick Jackson disappeared into his goofy character, the hayseed type he often played in silent cinema (I remember him fondly as Steamboat Bill Sr. to Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr.) I was impressed to read he was a highly educated man and once an operatic baritone.
  • I bit my nails whenever I saw animals in danger here, partly because I knew animal welfare standards in films were years away. And there were hundreds of horses and cattle and bison in peril here. Lois Wilson said in an interview that two horses drowned during filming of the scene crossing the Platte River, and she was so upset she couldn't continue her scenes for a day or two.
  • Overall, recommended. If you're a fan of the Western, you need to see this one; clearly a major early achievement in the genre.

'Boy with Banjo' sets the mood of the picture.

Sweet, domestic Molly (Lois Wilson)

Molly charmed by Will fixing a doll for a little girl.

Ernest Torrence (r) is the king of goofy expressions
Poor Alan Hale, the villain in this one.

The scenery and breathtaking, realistic cinematography are the real stars here:

Read More
Some interesting film memorabilia and history of the making of the film, and information about the cast and crew can be found here

Where to watch

It's currently on YouTube, here, although this version does not have musical accompaniment, and as part of a compilation video of 1923 films. Kino Lorber released the film on Blu-Ray in 2018.


  1. I caught this a while back and found it a combination of awesome and boring. The underwritten characters accounting for the latter. Nonetheless, I feel it is due another look.

    For the opportunity to hear Ernest Torrence singing, keep your eyes peeled for Sweet Kitty Bellairs, 1930. The operetta is also one of the few times Walter Pidgeon sang on screen.

    1. I love "a combination of awesome and boring." Unusual description for a film, but very apt here, I believe! We've been somewhat spoiled by so many layered, compelling Westerns.

      And thank you for the heads up on Sweet Kitty Bellairs. I searched for it on YouTube, but the entire movie isn't there, only clips that don't include Mr. Torrence. I will keep my eyes out; perhaps TCM will air it sometime.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  2. Oh wow, I should see this! I'm so used to Alan Hale being Errol Flynn's good-natured sidekick that I'm having trouble imaging him as a shifty villain. Definitely going to have to try it at some point.

    1. Right - he was great as Errol Flynn's sidekick. And of course Mr. Flynn would never be a sidekick to anyone! Alan Hale was quite versatile, except that he never got the girl (I don't think). He deserved better! :-) Thanks for stopping by, H.