The Half-Breed (1916)

Film Review

THE HALF-BREED

Release Date: 30 July, 1916

Studio: Fine Arts Film Company

Director: Allan Dwan

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Alma Rubens, Jewel Carmen, Sam De Grasse

Writer: Anita Loos, story by Bret Harte

Cinematographer: Victor Fleming

Synopsis

An introductory section recounts the story of the half-breed Lo Dorman's (Fairbanks) parents. His Indian mother, who has been betrayed by his white father, leaves her baby with a sympathetic white man and goes off to a shamed suicide. Years pass, and after the death of his foster father, the townsmen force the grown-up Lo Dorman out of the dead man’s house. Lo moves into the forest where he makes his home inside the trunk of a giant redwood tree.

Visiting the town, he attracts the attention of Nellie (Carmen), a beautiful young white woman, who, fancying him, flirts with him and allows him to embrace her. This enrages Nelle's admirers, especially Sheriff Dunn (De Grasse).

Teresa (Rubens), a wild young Mexican woman, has arrived in the town with a patent medicine man. Seeing the medicine man kissing and embracing a prostitute, the jealous Teresa stabs him. Sheriff Dunn tries to arrest her; Teresa stabs him too and flees into the woods. She hides with the tolerant Lo, sharing his living space inside the redwood tree.

Nellie, pretending she is leaving to visit friends but actually searching for Lo, enters the woods. Lo meets her, and they exchange affectionate greetings, but Nellie cannot become involved with a half-breed and leaves him. Dejected, he wanders alone into the woods. Nellie’s suitors, Dunn and the Wells Fargo agent, have followed her. The agent takes Nellie back to the town, and Dunn searches for Lo. He finds Teresa inside the tree. Going through Lo’s possessions, Dunn come upon a letter he had written to Lo’s mother. Stunned, Dunn realizes that he is Lo’s father. A fire in the woods is approaching rapidly, and Teresa attempts to help Dunn escape. Lo returns and although he rescues Teresa, he cannot save Dunn.

Unhappy with his experiences in the area, Lo departs to find another home. Teresa follows him.

Discussion

The scenario, based on In the Carquinez Woods (1883) by Bret Harte (1836-1902), the chronicler of life in Gold Rush California, stays close to the events in the novel, except for the film’s hopeful ending. The novel and the film adaptation are uncommon in having a half-breed as the hero. Harte was disturbed by the way the white population mistreated minorities and took advantage of the Indians. In 1860, while he was living in a small town near Humboldt Bay in Northern California, where the giant redwoods grow, a semi-official militia of local white men massacred a group of Wiyot Indians. His outraged editorial in the local paper was answered by death threats, and he had to leave the area for his own protection. The novel and its setting reflect Harte’s lingering perturbation about this incident and other outrages committed against Indians and other minorities. Harte’s story contrasts the honest, educated, and trustworthy half-breed to the deceitful, prejudiced and ignorant white population of the town. The town’s population is incapable of appreciating the exceptional qualities of Lo Dorman simply because he is a half-breed.

For many years, societal opinion held that only socially and morally corrupt behavior by white men with Indian women produced half-breeds who, consequently, were looked down upon as low status individuals. In stories, books and films, even outlaws regard the half-breeds among them as inferiors.

In the film, the fickle white woman recognizes the half-breed’s superior qualities, finds him attractive and leads him on, but she is shallow and ultimately rejects him. He, sincere and forthright, misunderstands her flirting. Socially, it was unthinkable for her to be seriously interested in a half-breed. Marriage, or any type of personal contact, between white and Indian were taboo. The pairing of the Mexican woman and the half-breed was more socially acceptable, since Mexicans also had lower social status. The possibility of the union of these characters exists at the end of the film. In the book, the half-breed and the Mexican woman die in the forest fire, without any passages of love, at least on the man’s part. Death resolves their conflicts, releases their spirits, and brings tranquility. The film ends without resolution, Fairbanks and Rubens do not die tragically as in the novel, but they depart to uncertain futures.

Contemporary reviewers in Variety and The New York Times ignored the theme of social prejudice emphasized by the plot and focused their reviews on Fairbanks and the magnificent forest setting. The anonymous reviewer of The New York Times (article dated July 10, 1916) notes that “California was just made and put aside for the coming of motion pictures,” calls Fairbanks “a half-breed who looks more like Peter Pan than not,” and states that Fairbanks has “infrequent opportunities for his talented smile, but his muscles are starred.” The Lo character enabled Fairbanks to reveal more of his physique then was ever seen on screen before or after.

Variety's review (published July 14, 1916), written by “Fred”, outlines the plot, notes that “Douglas Fairbanks has another of those sympathy-compelling roles that he played in The Good Bad Man,” states that “the story is well told in film form…the wonderful forest locations make it seem most impressive”, and concludes that “Mr. Fairbanks will add a number of new admirers to those who hold him as their own particular screen favorite.”

For The Half-Breed, his eighth feature film of 1916, Fairbanks dropped his light-hearted, all American boy persona and played a stern, socially inferior character. The half-breed is probably the least socially accepted character Fairbanks ever played. His outlaw in The Good-Bad Man (1916), not as socially outcast, only fears that his parents were unmarried. After The Half-Breed, Fairbanks stayed with the "light-hearted-Doug" image and avoided dark story lines, at least until his final silent films, The Gaucho (1928) and The Iron Mask (1929).

In April 1915, Fairbanks, a twelve-year Broadway veteran, was starring in a stage vehicle tailor-made to his personality and athletic skills. Promised that D.W. Griffith would direct his productions (he never did), Fairbanks accepted a three-year contract with Harry Aitken, head of the Fine Arts Film Company. His first film, The Lamb (1915, directed by W. Christy Cabanne) was well received by critics and audiences. Fairbanks’ personality registered strongly on film, and pictures provided expanded story lines, a far greater range of stunting opportunities, and scenic locations impossible to achieve on the stage, plus a good deal more money. During his first year in films, Fairbanks became a public favorite and one of the biggest draws in the movies. By late 1915, Fairbanks had left the stage permanently.

The Half-Breed features two beautiful 19-year-old actresses, Jewel Carmen and Alma Rubens. The studio was building up their popularity and showcased each actress with Fairbanks. Sadly, both actresses had shortened careers. In 1918, Jewel Carmen attempted to break her contract with Fox Films and the ensuing legal wrangling derailed her career. After leaving Fox she made only three more films between 1918 and 1926. After eleven years of stardom (1916-1926), Alma Rubens' life and career shattered in physical and mental breakdown resulting from drug addiction. She was struggling with her addiction when she died of pneumonia at age 33 in January, 1931.

Director Allan Dwan's career lasted 50 years, starting with dozens of one-reelers from 1911 to 1914, including many westerns for Flying A (The American Film Manufacturing Co.) with early film star J. Warren Kerrigan. In 1916 while at Fine Arts Film Company, Dwan directed Fairbanks (The Good Bad Man, The Half-Breed, Manhattan Madness), Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and Norma Talmadge. During the 1920s, he directed Gloria Swanson, Jack Holt, Madge Bellamy, Fairbanks (Robin Hood, 1922, Iron Mask, 1929), and many more stars. Dwan’s career continued unabated into the talking era, directing films starring Shirley Temple, the Ritz Brothers, Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis O'Keefe, John Wayne, Nelson Eddy and many others. His extensive filmography (more than 60 silent features and 70 talkies) includes comedies, dramas, musicals, and numerous westerns. He also produced and/or wrote stories for some of his films. Dwan did not turn out classics (some of his work with Fairbanks excepted), but his films are well-made, briskly paced, and enjoyable.

REFERENCES

Variety Archives

Kindergarten of the Movies, A History of The Fine Arts Company, Anthony Slide, 1980