The Painted Desert was one of the last features to be produced by Pathé in 1930 before being taken over by RKO, and one of the first to be released by the emerging RKO-Pathé Distributing Corporation. After its initial release it was put back on the shelf, supposedly never to be seen again. During this time four key action sequences were removed to be used as stock footage in later RKO films, among them the 1938 re-make also titled The Painted Desert. In 1955 the RKO library was sold to C&C Television Corporation for TV syndication, primarily on CBS affiliated stations, and both versions of The Painted Desert were in the package. 35MM source material for these 16mm television prints was missing all of the deleted footage, so that what remained, and all that viewers have been able to see for the last fifty years, was a lot of talk, and practically no action. The sequences which are missing are most of the cattle stampede at the beginning of the film, a wagon hi-jacking and subsequent stampede into the canyon mid-way into the film, an attempted, but unsuccessful wagon hi-jacking soon afterwards, and the big mine explosion and resultant landslide that destroys the mining camp further on. (Two very impressive shots from this last sequence can be found in Republic's Red River Valley (1936).) Frustratingly, the results of these events are shown, and much talked about, but the events themselves are nowhere to be seen. The version shown on Turner Classic Movies, though of superior visual quality, having been derived from the surviving original 35MM material, is still missing these key sequences, though no mention is made of it on the air.
Even with what must have been some well executed and nicely photographed action sequences, The Painted Desert would still suffer from many of the same problems that make it so hard to take today, only less so. The direction by Howard Higgin is of the burdensome, slow moving style that typifies so many early sound films, best and most often described as "creaky." But William (billed as Bill) Boyd displays all the positive and natural characteristics that made him popular with audiences five years later as Hopalong Cassidy. We hear too often about the handful of silent players who did not make the transition into sound; Boyd was one of the greater number who did. As for Gable, in his first speaking role, it's all there. When he's on the screen, you know you've got something, and, as they say, the rest was history. Helen Twelvetrees was a competent actress who found her niche in big city melodramas, often as the victim of her environment, or the bad, bad people inhabiting it. She suffered a lot, but she suffered well. The only conceivable reason why she was so badly mis-cast in this film must have been that she was under contract to Pathé, and owed them a picture, or was being punished for not playing ball with the front office, or something like that. Charles Sellon as a tipsy miner is just plain tiresome. Farnum and MacDonald give just exactly what we've learned to expect from them, on target performances of the old school.
Under ordinary circumstances, such a film would be of little value today, and probably rarely, if ever shown. But The Painted Desert is Clark Gable's first prominent role, and his first sound film, granting it a permanent place in film history, as well as an object of interest. Copyrighted by the soon-to-be-defunct Pathé Exchange in January 1931, this film fell into public domain when the copyright was not renewed in 1958, and during the ensuing years has become a staple of videotape distributors who specialize in titles over which there are no longer any legal restrictions, but which have some modicum of popular appeal. Promoting Clark Gable's presence, usually with latter day publicity photos in which he appears older, and hence, the film younger, a lot of usually inferior copies of the truncated version have found their way into a lot of videotape collections and/or thrift shops.
It would be nice to think that the film might be restored to its original length by re-inserting the missing sequences, if and when they could be identified and found, but this is highly unlikely. If a complete, original print could be located somewhere, at least Turner Classic Movies could be alerted to upgrade their version; in the meantime, at least an awareness of what we've got, and what's missing, might make The Painted Desert a little more tolerable for Clark Gable completests if no one else.
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