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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

MASSACRE (1934)

Toward the end of his twentysomething film run @ Warners, Richard Barthelmess hit another issue-conscious button in this muckraking meller on the plight of the American Indian. Star of a Wild West Act playing the Chicago World’s Fair, his Indian identity is all show, skin-deep at best. Long off the reservation, he goes back to see his dying father and finds a corrupt federal system robbing his people of their remaining possessions, land & customs. Awakened to a new calling, a reckless act of revenge gets him arrested. But he escapes with help from fellow Sioux Ann Dvorak (only the supporting players are real Native American) and flees to the Indian Affairs Commission in Washington to make his case. Cue third act complications. Barthelmess and director Alan Crosland, both in decline @ Warners, work a little too earnestly to put this over in spite of careless story development & limited budget. But the unusual subject matter keeps interest up. And there’s much needed help from Clarence Muse, a superb black actor doing his darndest to avoid ‘colored’ stereotypes as pal & valet to Barthelmess, setting up racial prejudice parallels & cultural vibrations just by sharing the frame. Watch for a tiny scene that speaks volumes as Muse waits at night off the reservation for Barthelmess to drive by & pick him up.

DOUBLE-BILL: William Wellman’s far better produced HEROES FOR SALE/’33, a sort of modern Job story, shows just how fast studio confidence in Barthelmess had slipped. OR: Another modern Indian torn between old & new cultures in Richard Dix’s REDSKIN/’29. Fine location atmosphere & stunning 2-strip TechniColor lensing.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Mick LaSalle examines Barthelmess as actor & social provocateur in his fascinating, if overstated, DANGEROUS MEN: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man.

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