Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Wolf Lowry (1917)

November, 2023

Kay-Bee/Triangle, 1917. Director: William S. Hart. Scenario: Lambert Hillyer, based on a story by Charles Turner Dazey. Camera: Joe August. Cast: William S. Hart, Margery Wilson, Aaron Edwards, Carl Ullman.
            I swear I didn’t see this coming. Recently I had occasion to comment in this space on Tom Mix, one of the most celebrated cowboy stars of the silent screen. Now, only three months later, there’s exciting news concerning the other top Western star of the silents: William S. Hart. I’m happy to report that our good friends at Film Preservation Society have just completed work on another of their lavishly produced Blu-Ray discs, offering Hart’s previously unavailable 1917 feature Wolf Lowry. This is good news for more than one reason, starting with the relative scarcity of any of Hart’s films for home viewing. According to plan, the new disc should be released at just about the time this column appears online.
            Released in five reels in May 1917, Wolf Lowry stars Hart in the title role: a hard-hearted, hard-fisted ranch owner, a no-nonsense boss to his ranch hands, and fiercely intolerant of squatters on his land. Alerted that an unwelcome tenant has taken up residence in a cabin on his property, a furious Hart goes to oust the intruder—and finds himself in the presence of a refined young lady from the East, an innocent who has been duped by an unscrupulous real-estate agent. Utterly unprepared for this, the formidable Hart becomes suddenly tongue-tied, clumsy, and shy. The new arrival is not only allowed to remain in the cabin; she soon begins to effect a change in the boss’ manner, bringing out previously unsuspected gentle qualities. This device—a bad man reformed by the love of a good woman—appeared often enough in Hart’s films that it could reasonably be considered a formula. But here, as elsewhere, it’s only the beginning of a more extended narrative which I will not give away here.
            In the larger picture, what saves this and other Hart films from coming across as routine exercises is the presence of Hart himself. Unlike Tom Mix, Hart had no actual experience as a cowhand; but he had fallen in love with the traditions of the Old West at an early age, and found an outlet for that lifelong passion in his movie career. His devotion to the beauty and lore of the West seems sincere because it is sincere. Infused with this sentiment, Hart’s films, like the outstanding Westerns of every generation, exude a rugged visual poetry.
            They also benefit from the circumstances of production. Wolf Lowry was one of a series of Hart vehicles produced by Thomas H. Ince, and filmed at “Inceville,” a spread of thousands of acres near Santa Monica, encompassing a spectacular array of scenery in and around Santa Ynez Canyon. Boasting complete ranch accommodations as well as production and editing facilities, supplied with abundant livestock and with a resident staff of authentic cowhands, Inceville provided a tailor-made environment for production of Western films. Hart’s pictures were photographed by a talented young cameraman named Joe August, who captured the beauty of these natural surroundings on film. August would go on to a long and distinguished career behind the camera; his scores of credits would include some of the most memorable films of John Ford.
            Hart’s leading lady in this picture, Margery Wilson, is also worthy of note. She’s well known to today’s film enthusiast as Brown Eyes, the female lead in the French Story of Griffith’s Intolerance, but perhaps unknown otherwise. In fact, however, Wilson was a busy actress during her relatively brief screen career, appearing in more than 50 films in the space of less than a decade. In fact, her ambitions went beyond acting; she dabbled briefly in direction, and even organized her own short-lived production company, before retiring from the screen in the early 1920s. Her fragile beauty, combined with a sense of inner strength, made her an ideal romantic complement to Hart in this and other films.
            In short, Wolf Lowry is one more precious gem of film history, rescued and made available to us on disc. The restoration of the film, assembled from disparate elements at the Library of Congress, was a more comprehensive job than may be immediately apparent; the primary element was a reissue version, distributed some years after the film’s original release, which eliminated the ending sequence from the original version! Fortunately, the Library’s collections also included a fragment that contained those missing shots. Now those shots have been reconstituted in this version of the film, and we can see the ending as audiences saw it in 1917. Film Preservation Society has done its usual painstaking job with presentation; the film is presented here with its rich original tinting, and accompanied by a rollicking, evocative piano score by Donald Sosin. As if that were not enough, FPS has followed its previous practice of packing the disc with generous bonus features. Here we’re treated to an additional Hart picture, the two-reel short Bad Buck of Santa Ynez (1915), also produced by Ince. On top of that there’s a third film, a choice addition to this package, with a special historical resonance all its own. More about that in a future column!

J.B. Kaufman