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5 Reels or 50 Minutes: The Return of Draw Egan

The Reality that Movies embellished
The Reality that Movies embellished

Ever wonder how long a movie should be? For a while, as a general rule of thumb, movies were approximately ninety minutes, give or take. It was relatively early in the short history of film that Erich von Stroheim broke with tradition and presented an eight hour movie -- the length of an entire work day. Not surprisingly, Greed (1924) was hacked to death by the front office into a more conventional film. There has always been a conflict in movies between money and artistic aspiration, though many happy compromises have been accomplished. The movies have a massive audience. They might not be taken too seriously as a whole, but they are influential. There was a time when a fair amount of ticket-buyers could be counted on to watch almost every movie. Those were the days of block booking. Even today, in a time when screens, big and small, are inundated with product, the industry can still shunt viewers into a finite, manageable amount of theaters, with only a handful of releases per week. It is hard not to admire the business, no matter what the titles, their form, or content. But once the audience is seated, how long should he or she be kept in that seat?

The short answer is that it does not matter. In the 1950s, long, prestigious films with intermissions and entr'actes evoked the notion that a presentation of great worth and merit was being attended. Then, on the opposite side of the coin, old films like The Return of Draw Egan (1916) were barely fifty minutes in length. True enough, silent film is more the domain of film historians and connoisseurs. I prefer Hell's Hinges as the quintessential W. S. Hart Western. Nevertheless, Egan is also a thrill. It could easily have been padded with an extra forty-five minutes of filler. Still, it is another example of an early, star-driven movie, albeit directed by same. Audiences could rely upon Hart to deliver the goods. In this case, they concern Draw Egan, an outlaw, posing as a marshal, who stumbles upon young Myrtle (Margery Wilson), who fills him with regret and penitential sorrow for not having followed the straight and narrow. What is more precious than gold? Well, now he knows.

Of course there are inter-titles. But they are supplemented by a theatrical form of film acting that almost makes them superfluous. Witnessing arguments without hearing words was as much a loss for film after the addition of sound as a gain. Check it out. Then there are facial expressions and various postures or poses that speak volumes. Not long ago, mostly in action films, dialogue was held to a minimum without adverse consequences. Of course, no films are absolutely silent. Without dialogue there was always music, sometimes accompanied by a live pianist. Today, filmmakers have to be very careful with music. It has the potential to totally distract the viewer/listener. It has to be good, but not that good.

Other early Westerns, such as Arizona Wooing (1915) with Tom Mix, are incredibly brief. It does have the distinction, however, of helping to introduce a standard theme in Westerns -- the unwanted sheepherder in cattle country. The Great Train Robbery (1903) is noteworthy probably only because it, too, was a first. It was also produced by Thomas A. Edison, who did not think too highly of movies. Naturally, his harsh judgment was somewhat premature. The Great Train Robbery was filmed in New Jersey. Perhaps its success inspired movie mavericks who followed the sun to California to re-locate the industry as a whole, then based in the East.