by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The growth of aviation during the 1920s was an epic story, including the epoch-making solo trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in spring 1927, but also less exciting but still critical achievements as the inauguration of regular passenger and air mail transport, which took place around that period.
As noted in one of the highlighted posts above, Western Air Express was an early aviation firm in Los Angeles, which began in 1925 with air mail service before expanding very shortly afterward into passenger ferrying. Within a year or so, the company made arrangements with film studio head Samuel Goldwyn to use Western’s air mail planes to ferry actors and crew from Los Angeles to a film shoot in a remote corner of Nevada.
This leads to another epic tale—this one concerning the growing trend in the motion picture industry towards making large-scale films on locations that were becoming bigger and more complex in their layout. Whether it was James Cruze’s 1923 blockbuster, The Covered Wagon, John Ford’s The Iron Road from 1924, or Cecil B. DeMille’s 1925 spectacle Ben-Hur, as just a few prominent examples, the expansion of these types of films spurred Goldwyn with his The Winning of Barbara Worth.
The film was adapted from a 1908 historical novel from Harold Bell Wright that had the massive flood from the Colorado River the created the modern Salton Sea as a background for its love story involving the titular character and her two rivals, a cowboy she treats as a brother and a water engineer who is the hero opening the Imperial Valley (where Wright lived when he wrote the book) into an agricultural region.
Goldwyn had three major stars in mind for these main roles, including Hungarian-born Vilma Bánky, fresh from making The Son of the Sheik, the final picture of heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, who died a few months later. Bánky, who married actor Rod LaRocque not long after making this picture and retired shortly after her wedding, was also paired with the second marquee actor for Barbara Worth, Ronald Colman.
Born in England, Colman not only enjoyed a very successful silent career, but, with his theatrical training and experience, went on to become a major star during the 1930s and 1940s. His first major movie role was 1923’s The White Sister with Lillian Gish and whose director was Henry King, at the helm for Barbara Worth. He and Bánky were the stars of The Dark Angel in 1925 and their screen chemistry led to their pairing for Barbara Worth.
Monte Blue was the first choice for the other main male role, but he elected to workwith Ernst Lubitsch in Warner Brothers’ release, So This Is Paris, so an unknown was cast to replace Blue. Gary Cooper made the most of his role, as well as 1927’s World War I epic, Wings, to launch a career that made him one of Hollywood’s most durable leading men until his death some thirty-five years.
King was well-versed in shooting in difficult and spectacular locations which, for Barbara Worth, included the Imperial Valley, but much of the shooting was handled in an isolated area of northwestern Nevada in the Black Rock Desert. Potions of The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse were shot in the Silver State and Goldwyn reportedly said that his film was, more or less, a continuation of the overland migration epic.
King and two others traversed thousands of miles in California, Arizona and Nevada before finding their location in the latter near Gerlach, roughly 100 miles northeast of Reno. With a three-month shooting schedule, relatively little time was given for the immense work of building three towns, known as Kingston, Rubio and San Felipe, for the film and the conglomerate was even formally named Barbara Worth. Added in the ad-hoc community, which was to contains some 2,000 persons associated with the making of the movie, was a Western Union telegraph office, a post office, and a newspaper, the Barbara Worth Times (Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times was an investor in the film), which was tied to the United Press news syndicate.
Grace Kingsley of the Times (one wonders how she got the access?) noted that such epics were “proving more fascinating that [than] all the sex dramas and milk-and-water romances” that had long been in vogue in Hollywood. While averring that the film wasn’t just historical, she claimed that “the whole world is interested in water development processes, even inthe sleepy Orient . . . and especially in China and Java, where dams are being built (China has literally just opened the new Baihetan dam, second largest after its Three Gorges, with more mega-dams for hydroelectric power planned.)
The “realism of background” through more complex sets along with “various techniques of commercialism,” Kingsley continued, were “giving zest to their [viewers] appreciation of the pictures.” After telling the reporter of his belief that Barbara Worth was a continuation of The Covered Wagon, Goldwyn added that “people are for something educational if it is made entertaining” and that his picture “will be a great epic.” This was because the desert without water and water uncontrolled by dams were great menaces and “in this picture will be shown an entire town swept away because of faulty dam construction”. The St. Francis Dam disaster was a little under two years away to show just how devastating this could be in real life.
With a mixture of romance, comedy and drama in this “edutational” fashion, the producer told Kingsley, patrons “feel as though they have read three novels in one night.” He praised the little towns of Gerlach and, to the east, Winnemucca, for building water pipelines to the location site and claimed that it was cooler in the Nevada locale than in the Imperial Valley, while the latter was then too developed so that the former looked more like it did twenty or so years before.
Yet, daytime temperatures did get well into the century mark, so that shooting began at 5 a.m. and a strict curfew of 9 p.m. was instituted to make sure everyone was up an hour before the cameras rolled. Men and women had their separate sleeping tent areas and a common mess hall, while there was also a theater with a radio set for entertainment.
It was said, however, that Colman usually stayed in his tent listening to records, whle Bánky was ensconced in hers listening to the radio, though she was given a few days off to attend the Son of the Sheik premiere. As to why he selected a Hungarian to play an American, Goldwyn related that she looked more American than those born in the country and scoffed that “the trouble with most American girls is that they want to look like foreigners!”
In mid-July, there was a move of some 2,000 people about 70 miles east toward Winnemucca accomplished in one day so that sand dunes could be employed in the next stage of shooting and a second town of “Barbara Worth” constructed in another county. Included in the migration was a supply department, commissary, food, linens, some 100,000 feet of lumber and “everything to feed and care for a city of this size.”
Edwin Schallert, the long-time Times arts critic, was the next from that sheet to get exclusive access to the Barbara Worth phenomenon, writing that “judged by the screen results as shown in some rushes” (how many in the media got that opportunity?), “the quest for something extraordinary in natural settings is going to be pretty well justified.” Vast panoramas, impressive cloud patterns, and the alkali desert’s “smooth and slightly glazed surface,” definitely were striking to the critic, who felt the commonplace story would be enhanced “with such natural embellishments.”
As for the stars, they were not the type associated with rugged characters in Westerns, though Schallert felt that both acclimated themselves well to the genre. While it was stated that “the Goldwyn plan is to make an epic of desert reclamation,” there was a spate of epic films, so “it will be a happy circumstance to know that, if nothing else, ‘The Winning of Barbara Worth’ will be a production surpassing in many ways the possibilities as suggested” in the novel, which was such that its excellence “assures its [the film’s] wide popularity.”
With respect to the use of Western Air Express air mail planes, the Times reported, in its 27 June edition, that, such an endeavor was a first in motion picture history. The idea was that “the cast . . . will maintain communications between its base in Hollywood and the location in Nevada via the Los Angels and Salt Lake airway” and that daily flights to the Utah capital would link to “fast trains to the Nevada location.”
Among the important elements of the method of transportation was that “all negative films of the production will be dispatched by air mail for development and printing at the studio” saving a day’s travel one way and several thousand dollars in sending those rushes back to Hollywood. Naturally, it was pointed out that another key feature was “the advantage which will given members of the cast, including Vilma Banky, Ronald Colman and Henry King by providing aerial passage for brief vacation periods during the long location trip of three months.”
The featured artifact from the museum’s holdings for this post is a press photo from the News Enterprise Association (N.E.A.) showing Bánky and Colman with Western president Harris Hanshue and pilot Joe Kelley at the front of the biplace parked at the open hangar marked “U.S. Air Mail Contract Route No. 4.” The image accompanying the Times article shows the two stars with Corliss C. Moseley, the company’s vice-president of operations, as he demonstrated the use of an emergency parachute.
In late July, it was announced that the film’s premiere would be at the Forum Theatre, completed in 1924 (the structure still stands and has most recently been a Korean church) and located on Pico Boulevard in the Mid-City area, far from the Broadway theater district downtown. In a Times piece about the agreement, the Forum’s managing director, John Goring, proclaimed that never had he seen “a picture with such a magnificent sweep and such wonderful photography.” Goldwyn offered that the film “is my greatest picture and I feel that it is the finest thing that Henry King has ever done. It will be a great credit to the entire West and of ointerest to the entire world.”
Shooting wrapped up by 8 August and the director, stars and others finally returned, though by a special Southern Pacific train, to Los Angeles and it was noted that the “Barbara Worth” temporary town consituted, in its brief existence, the fourth-largest community in Nevada, which had all of 60,000 inhabitants at the time! The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News joked that veteran actor Charles Lane could seek out roles as an Indian without needing makeup because, after the long shoot, “his face and neck are burned by the desert sun to a hue that would make grease paint unnecessary in depicting an Indian chief.” At the end of August, it was reported, Bánky was chosen rodeo queen in Winnemucca and that she intended to attend at least one day, if her schedule so allowed.
An interesting marketing opporunity for the film came through the auspices of a multi-state water development and conservation conference held at the Biltmore Hotel involving proposals for tapping the Colorado River. Known informally as the “Winning the West Conference,” it was said the confab resulted from a suggestion by Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover for a national water program.
Moreover, The Winning of Barbara Worth, which debuted at the Forum the prior evening, was shown to the delegates of the convention as guests of Goldwyn. Apparently, the theme of desert reclamation through irrigation was to be presented as both educational and entertaining as the producer hoped.
Within a few years, the Colorado River Aqueduct project was put into development to bring, though the Metropolitan Water District, copious water to areas of greater Los Angeles, though, as we approach a century later, we are finding climate change-induced drought to be an enormous challenge to the viability of this system as the Southwest has so largely developed.
For a wealth of detail on the Black Rock desert shoot for the film, check out this post.