Saturday, December 3, 2016
Pre-Code Parade: MASSACRE (1934)
Alan Crosland's modern-day western describes a slow-motion massacre: the systematic exploitation and swindling of Native Americans by corrupt Indian agents. It may not be as violent as what you saw in period westerns, but as the protagonist says, "It's a massacre any way you take it." He's an intriguingly ambiguous figure. Joe "Chief" Thunder Horse (Richard Barthelmess) is a riding, roping star of a wild west show playing, ironically enough, at Chicago's "Century of Progress" exposition. Joe plays the stereotyped bare-chested taciturn savage for the audience, but in reality he's as nearly deracinated as an Indian could be, admitting to his white girlfriend of the moment (Claire Dodd), who embarrasses him by redecorating one of her rooms into a mini museum of native artifacts, that "I wouldn't know a medicine man from a bootlegger" after using an old mortar and pestle as an ashtray. Barthelmess often seems the slow learner of the Warner Bros. stock company, but performing alongside people playing taciturn Indians all the time, he seems as much a glib, fast-talking smartass Warners hero as he ever would be. Joe has to go back on the rez when he learns that his father is gravely ill. Driving with his personal servant Sam (Clarence Muse) in his deluxe roadster -- his name is on the door, his face on the spare-tire case -- Joe rediscovers a dusty wasteland ruled over by the federal agent, Elihu B. Quissenberry (a reliably repulsive Dudley Digges) with his ally in swindling, the undertaker Shanks (Sidney Toler) and his minions, an alcoholic doctor (Arthur Hohl) and a puppet sheriff (Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton). They have a nice racket going on in which Shanks makes a mint on overpriced caskets and burials while Quissenberry enriches himself by administering estates. You can tell that Joe's dad isn't going to get proper medical attention from this lot, but Joe's been off the rez long enough to be shocked by it all, despite the efforts of agency secretary Lydia -- like himself, a college-educated Indian (Ann Dvorak) -- to wise him up. Joe may be seeing the world, but Lydia tells him there's a lot about the world they don't teach you at the old alma mater. Joe's old man was still a traditional man and Joe decides he should have a traditional funeral, which enrages Quissenberry more because it skips Shanks's funeral racket than because it represents some "pagan" revival.
Joe clearly has become a disruptive element whom the agency people should like to see leave as soon as possible to make $400 a week back in Chicago. But when Shanks rapes Joe's 15 year old sister -- they don't say the r-word of course, but it could not be more obvious within Pre-Code bounds -- it looks like they'll be stuck with him for a while. In a brutal modernization of the typical western chase, Joe in his car pursues Shanks in his until, cowboy style, he ropes the rapist. Slamming his brakes, he snaps Shanks out of his car and into the dirt, and drags him awhile before leaving him in a ditch. He'd already roughed up the agency doctor, so inevitably Joe gets arrested. Since Shanks is still alive it's only an assault charge that sends Joe to jail for 90 days after a kangaroo trial and leaves him a few hundred dollars poorer. He can afford that, but if Shanks dies he'll face a murder charge. Before that happens, Lydia arranges to break him out of jail so he can go to Washington D.C. and take his case directly to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Since Joe has the most conspicuous getaway vehicle imaginable, Sam sacrifices himself by driving the Thunderhorse-mobile into an obvious trap while Joe hops a freight for the nation's capital. There, in keeping with Warners' favorable attitude toward the FDR presidency, our hero finds a sympathetic bureaucrat (Henry O'Neill) who's been trying to expose agency corruption but hasn't found anyone willing to testify about it. He sends Joe back to the rez with a federal attorney to investigate things, but Shanks has died in the interim and there's a murder warrant out for Joe. If it hadn't been plain before what Shanks had done to Joe's sister, the understanding that Joe will use the "unwritten law" defense to justify his killing should have left things clear even to the dimmest viewer. For that defense to work, however, the girl has to testify, but Quissenberry's minions have abducted her. That finally takes the tribe to the breaking point. They propose to raid the town to liberate Joe and burn the courthouse. Again, Massacre resists the temptation to portray this as a reversion to savagery. Just as Joe never reverts to the native address he identifies with wild west show hokum, the Indians look like your typical American lynch mob in modern dress, arriving by car as well as wagon or horseback, except that they're riding to the rescue. However, Joe joins those appealing to the rule of law as the courthouse burns, determined to stand trial like a good citizen until he learns that his sister has been kidnapped. That sets up one more ride to the rescue, one more horrifying revelation of the mistreatment of Indians, and a final dangerous showdown with a desperate Quissenberry.
While the climax teases a tragic finish, Massacre ends happily with Joe giving up show business for a new career as a conscientious representative of the U.S. government and a new life with Lydia. Compared to other movie exposes of reservation oppresses, Massacre is relatively unpatronizing toward Indians and is admirable in its commitment to modernity. The traditional funeral for Joe's father might not seem consistent with that commitment, but as Joe says, no one bothers Christians when they practice their religion, so why not let Indians worship their way? Maybe it's me, but I doubt Joe himself is very religious either way. Joe is one of Barthelmess's best talkie performances, along with the same year's A Modern Hero, and it's sad that Warner's dropped him just as he seemed to be getting the hang of talkie stardom. You can still see that the once-boyish Barthelmess, going on 39 when Massacre came out, was losing his movie-star looks. The bags under his eyes undermine Joe's alleged magnetism, but the actor puts enough charisma into his performance to make up for his fading beauty. Apart from Barthelmess, Massacre has obvious historic interest (if not continued relevance) for its portrayal of Native Americans' plight at a time when Calvin Coolidge's grant of citizenship to reservation Indians (as noted in the film) may have made some believe all problems were solved. Crosland's direction is solid, but special credit goes to whoever chose the desolate location where much of the film takes place. If anything, Massacre's story is too good to be true, but it's fun to see a western with a successful Indian uprising and the U.S. government cheering the Indians on.