Monday, June 30, 2008

To the Last Man

“To the Last Man” (1933), a western about two feuding families and based on a Zane Grey novel, has one of the most unusual opening credit sequences I’ve ever seen.

The technical credits come up, but there’s no cast listed. The movie begins, and lo and behold, there’s a credit. Each time a major character is introduced in a scene, the actor’s name and the character he or she plays shows up at the bottom of the scene.

Randolph Scott appears in the 20-minute mark, which means we’re still reading credits 20 minutes into the movie. It’s odd, and it’s no wonder that this never became a favored practice.

This approach, though, heightens the fun of seeing who shows up in the cast. I didn’t look at the back of the DVD box, so didn’t know who was in it save for Randolph Scott and Esther Ralston. Imagine my surprise at what a rich cast the movie offers.

The Hayden and Colby families have been feuding and killing each other for years, with no let up. The meanest of the Colbys (Noah Berry) kills one of the Haydens in cold blood, and is sentenced to 15 years in jail.

His daughter Ellen (Esther Ralston) hates all the Haydens as well. That is, until she meets Lynn Hayden (Randolph Scott), not knowing he’s a Hayden. Their feelings for each other grow stronger, to the chagrin of the Colby family. The Haydens are more accepting of her and want the feud to be over.

On the Colby side is Noah Berry and Jack LaRue. Nasty, nasty men.

On the Hayden side is Barton MacLane, Buster Crabbe, Gail Patrick and Fuzzy Knight. They all get a credit card as they are introduced. At the 34-minute mark the youngest of the Colbys has her first scene, five-year-old Shirley Temple. She doesn’t get a credit card, but in only a few years she would be one of the biggest stars of the 1930s. Why the Colbys are so mean, they even take a pot shot at Temple while she’s outside playing!

This was filmed one year before the Production Code was enforced, so there’s some scenes that would not have been approved a year later. Randolph Scott first spies Esther Ralston as she’s taking a nude swim. The camera is kept at a discreet distance when he first spots her, but he rides closer to get a better look. Way to go, Randy!

When Noah Berry finds out his daughter is in love with a Colby he takes a whip to her and his face transforms into an ugly visage of hatred. That scene no doubt gave some 1933 youngsters a few nightmares.

Director Henry Hathaway was a master at outdoor adventure movies, and “To the Last Man” is no exception. No backlots here, this was filmed entirely on location at Big Bear Lake, California. Beautiful countryside, and a fitting backdrop to this engaging tale of feuding families.

Randolph Scott was born for these kinds of western roles. Esther Ralston makes a most fetching barefoot heroine. She was the leading lady in one of my favorite silent films, “Old Ironsides” (1926), a thrilling tale of the U.S. Constitution and its campaign against the Barbary Pirates. Anyone who thinks silent movies are dull should see “Old Ironsides.”

“To the Last Man” is exceptionally well photographed, has a splendid supporting cast and a pair of very likeable lead performances. There are far worst ways to spend 70 minutes.

Rating for “To the Last Man”: Three stars.

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