3 October 2007 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Another 'lost' film comes home.
I saw "Broncho Billy's Adventure" -- an allegedly 'lost' film -- in October 2006 at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile, Italy. This movie proves my point about so-called 'lost' films: namely, that many film archives don't know precisely what they've got, and therefore nobody should claim definitively that a particular film no longer exists. (Unless every print of the film has been aggressively tracked and monitored throughout its distribution, as was very occasionally the case.) The wonderful Eastman House archive in Rochester, NY, holds hundreds of reels of nitrate film which they've not been able to restore, archive and catalogue, simply because they lack the funds and staff to do this job properly: as a result, they can't be certain of what 'lost' treasures are in their possession.
Sadly, many early films which were safely stored someplace have vanished anyway, because the highly unstable nitrate emulsion in their film stock has deteriorated. The staff at Eastman House (and other film archives) are desperately racing against time to transfer these images to acetate stock before it deteriorates beyond retrieval. I've received some correspondence from people asking me to give them (or sometimes even demanding) access to some private film collections known to me, containing films which I've occasionally been permitted to view before writing my IMDb reviews. To all you people who want 'lost' films to become available, the remedy is simple: make a donation to Eastman House or another archive, and help save an old movie!
"Broncho Billy's Adventure" was one more film 'lost forever' until late 2006, when a staffer at Eastman House opened a film canister that had no label, having genuinely no notion of what was inside. It turned out to be 961 feet of movie film starring one of America's earliest cowboy stars. Miraculously, the film was discovered just on the brink of deterioration. Thank you, Eastman House!
Several different cowboy actors each claimed to be the 'first' Western star. One of the more valid claims for that honour was made by Gilbert Anderson, who appears to have been the first cowboy actor consistently to portray the same recurring character in a series of films, thus building audience familiarity and appeal. His screen role was named Broncho Billy (for some reason he spelt this with an 'h', as in 'bronchitis') and the character was an instant hit with audiences.
Anderson also had the bright idea of producing his own films and keeping the profits. He teamed with money-man George K Spoor to found the Essanay Film Company. (Essanay = S&A = Spoor and Anderson, geddit?) Anderson lured Chaplin away from Mack Sennett's Keystone to make slightly more expensive films at Essanay. After Chaplin left Essanay for more money at Mutual, he remained good friends with Anderson; this had not been the case at Keystone when Chaplin parted company with Sennett.
In this instalment of his series, Broncho Billy rides into an unfamiliar town and stays at an hotel run by publican Arthur Mackley. His daughter (Edna Fisher) is the local beauty, and she has attracted quite an array of suitors: we see them -- tall, short, lanky, hefty -- queued up at the kitchen door. Eventually, Mackley gets into a fistfight with one swain (Fred Church) which enrages all the others, causing Mackley to become unpopular. Naturally, Broncho Billy saves the day before riding off into the sagebrush.
Although Anderson is playing his usual role as Broncho Billy here, the outing is somewhat of a change of pace for him because this time Broncho Billy plays Cupid, arranging a rendezvous for fair Edna and her favoured swain while holding off all his rivals. We never expect Billy to get the girl in this one, and indeed he doesn't. However, Broncho Billy's regular fans, who expect to see him do some rootin'-tootin' shootin' and some fisticuffs, won't be disappointed either: Broncho Billy gets into quite a bit of action here, and saves a couple of lives.
Beanpole-thin Victor Potel (another Keystone alumnus) is funny here as one of the unsuccessful Sagebrush Johnnies. Augustus Carney impressed me briefly in this movie, portraying a frontier sawbones. When this film was made, Carney was Essanay's biggest comedy star, appearing in a series of hugely successful 'Snakeville' comedies as a character cried Alkali Ike. He was eventually lured away from Essanay by Universal's Carl Laemmle, who insisted on renaming Carney's screen character Universal Ike. At both studios, Carney's performances were generally broad and overacted, so I was intrigued to see him in "Broncho Billy's Adventure" playing a comparatively realistic character (for once) and proving himself to be an actor capable of some restraint and subtlety.
I'm always delighted when any 'lost' film returns from the dead, but Westerns are hardly my favourite film fare. I'll rate this oater just 6 out of 10, giving Broncho Billy some credit for varying his formula slightly.