The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.
On the surface, William Christy Cabanne’s The Last Outlaw is another in a long series of B-Westerns. One need not dig deeply, however, to realize its significance. Cabanne’s film triumphs over B-movie mundanity thanks to a unique combination of its roots in silent films, along with its unique post-Western setting. Harry Carey stars as Dean Payton, a former outlaw who has just been released from prison after 25 years. Once a bank robber, Payton finds himself to be a relic of the Old West. He soon finds, though, that there are others like him—notably his former nemesis, Cal Yates. With Yates now demoted from Sheriff, new scientific methods of crime solving have been put in place. Along with Chuck Wilson (Hoot Gibson), the two cowboys find that their old ways still have some use when it becomes up to them to put a stop to villain Al Goss.
While the setting may have been post-Western, where singing cowboys are heard on the radio and the hero must dodge passing cars, the genre itself had yet to reveal its biggest star, John Wayne, whose first film, Stagecoach, would come out three years later. However, by this point famous Westerns of the silent era had long since passed. But the film’s creators were superstars of that era who had yet to cease working and wouldn’t let the advent of sound diminish their status. In fact, the film itself is a remake of John Ford’s 1919 silent western of the same name.
While John Wayne may not yet have risen to stardom, Harry Carey was certainly his predecessor in the silent age. In fact, Carey had worked with Ford in 25 silent pictures. John Wayne’s entire persona was based around Carey’s plain-spoken “authentic” cowboy. Wayne’s gait and style of speech were directly taken from Carey. Along with other stars such as Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson, Carey carved out a name for himself in the silent era as a leading man. In the late 1920s, however, Carey’s stardom began to fade, and by the sound era Carey was working Poverty Row as a character actor in B-Westerns.
Gibson’s career was not unlike Carey’s. Before starting his film career, Gibson was a real-life cowboy rounding up wild horses. His skills in riding and falling from horseback led to his career as one of the first stuntmen of Hollywood. With the help of lifelong friend Ford, he would become a western superstar of the 1920s Western era. Gibson’s career peaked, though, in the early 1930s just as Carey’s was fading.
Cabanne is the last of these stars from another era, and is considered one of the pioneering motion picture directors. Originally an actor, Cabanne became one of the most prolific, if forgotten, directors of Hollywood’s silent era. Cabanne started directing in the Biograph company after being introduced to D.W. Griffith. Cabanne learned from the great, but notorious, director and began a career of his own that would last through 1948. With over 100 directing credits to his name, Cabanne worked with Hollywood’s biggest silent and sound figures, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Raoul Walsh.
The Last Outlaw shows how aware Cabanne, Carey, and Gibson all are of their status as stars of the silent era. However, rather than seeming like washed-up stars of yesteryear, they create an unique combination of melodrama and comedy. The bittersweet image of an old-school cowboy being thrust into the twentieth century is juxtaposed with their satiric reactions to this new world. In one instance, Chuck Wilson fails to impress his girlfriend with his attempt to sing like the cowboys she hears on the radio. Later on, seeing Chuck shoot a radio featuring a cowboy belting out tunes is, in its own way, both comedic and cathartic. The clever depiction of old cowboys in a new world, itself made by old cowboys in a new age of filmmaking, led to positive reception of the film. Both critics and scholars consider it charming and droll in its performances and direction while never failing to mention its place in the history of the Western genre. It is, indeed, a unique experience to view these aging stars still playing the heroes on the big screen.
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.