Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Louise Brooks and Redskin part one

On Saturday, December 7, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen the 1929 Paramount film, Redskin. This blog explores the little known connection Louise Brooks had with the film. More about the 2019 SFSFF "Day of Silents" may be found HERE.

Redskin tells the story of a Navajo man named Wing Foot who was taken as a child to a US government boarding school and forced to assimilate. The film explores the damage done by prejudice as it explores issues of racial identity and cultural insensitivity in telling Wing Foot’s story, the story of  a Native American navigating between his western education and the traditions passed down by the tribal elders. Today, the film’s title is considered a racial slur; in the 1920s when Redskin was made, it was used against the film's protagonist to illustrate intolerance, not endorse it.

The film, directed by Victor Schertzinger, was produced and released by Paramount Famous Lasky Corp. The story and screenplay is by Elizabeth Pickett. Julian Johnson, who penned the titles for Redskin, had also written the titles for a couple of Louise Brooks' films, including Beggars of Life (1928). Shot in two-color Technicolor at locations in New Mexico and Arizona (including Acoma Pueblo and Canyon de Chelly) — the film changes from color to black-and-white (sepia-toned in the original projection prints) when it leaves Navajo and Pueblo lands. And like Beggars of Life (1928), the film was originally released with a synchronized score and sound effects.

Louise Brooks' connection to Redskin goes beyond these few coincidences. After completing work on Beggars of Life, Brooks was next assigned to The Canary Murder Case. However, according to numerous press reports, before work would begin on the celebrated detective story, Brooks was suddenly reassigned to Redskin, another important Paramount film also set to go into production. Eventually, Brooks was withdrawn from Redskin and reassigned once again to The Canary Murder Case.

Harkening back to the studio’s earlier big-budget films set in the West, Redskin was an ambitious film focusing on Native Americans. The film was directed by Victor Schertzinger, a noted film-score composer who later helmed the Oscar-winning Grace Moore vehicle, One Night of Love (1934). Shot on location and largely in Technicolor, Redskin has been described by critics as one of the most visually beautiful films of the late 1920’s.

Typical for the time, the leads in Redskin are played by non-Native Americans, with Navajo and Pueblo acting only as bit players and extras. In what would have been one of the more unusual roles of her career, Brooks was set to play a Pueblo named Corn Blossom, a Native American character described in the Los Angeles Times as an “Indian flapper.” One Hollywood columnist thought the role Brooks’ “greatest opportunity to date.” Another reported Brooks’ screen test revealed a “striking resemblance to our conception of Romantic Indian heroines.”

This spectacularly photographed film — shot in the American southwest on historic tribal lands — centers on Wing Foot, Corn Blossom’s love interest and a Navajo caught between two tribes and two cultures. Wing Foot is played by Richard Dix, a major star of the time. Pueblo Jim, the rival suitor for Corn Blossom, is played by Noble Johnson, the pioneering African American film producer and longtime character actor.

Brooks’ role went beyond merely being cast. Paramount records show the actress was paid for three weeks' work on Redskin. She was photographed in costume, though without the make-up used on her successor (Gladys Belmont) to affect a Native American appearance. According to press reports from the time, Brooks reported to Gallup, New Mexico at the end of August, 1928, where the cast and crew gathered before heading out to camps near the location shoot.

Gladys Belmont (left, in the arms of Richard Dix) replaced Louise Brooks
in Redskin. The film was Belmont’s first and only starring role.

In early September of 1928, Brooks was called back to Hollywood, where she replaced Ruth Taylor in The Canary Murder Case. The reason given for the switch was that Taylor was ill. Reportage of the time stated, "No one knows why Louise Brooks, a perfect Indian type, was taken out of the picture after working for two weeks, but the rumor is it was another case of temperament — a dangerous experiment for stars these days when so many potential rivals are hanging around in the extra ranks! All the studio gave 'gave out' was that Miss Brooks' thorough knowledge of Broadway and its life suited her so perfectly for the role of Canary in The Canary Murder Case, that she had been selected. Ruth Taylor, formerly cast, fell ill."

However, despite rumors of temperament, studio executives may well have felt Brooks was miscast in the Native American drama. Brooks had been a well known NYC showgirl, and her “thorough knowledge of Broadway and its life” indeed “suited her perfectly to the role” of the feathered showgirl in The Canary Murder Case.

The original score for Redskin was composed by J.S. Zamecnik. The December 7th presentation of the film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will feature live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (longtime interpreters and champions of Zamecnik's scores).

More on Louise Brooks and Redskin follows in the next post.

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