The Sunday Intertitle: Riders of the Purple Prose

Having missed Henry King’s film THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH in Bologna by rushing to the wrong cinema, I was happy to discover I own a good DVD copy of it, so we ran that.

Frances Marion adapts the script, a bit stodgily I’m afraid, and gets rather carried away with her desert similes and metaphors right at the start.

The desert, then, is a molten bowl AND an unconquered empress AND a tawny siren (more dangerous than the smaller barn siren) AND the End of the Rainbow. The desert, too, is sunk into the earth, whispers promises, and crushes out the lives of men with her poisonous embrace (?).

I recall John Huston being very dismissive of Frances Marion’s writing ability in An Open Book, which rather shocked me because I’d been taught to admire her as a powerful woman of early Hollywood. It’s true that she’s not actually great at words. Her gift was structuring the crowd-pleasing narrative.

Actually — IMDb lists Rupert Hughes as uncredited writer of the titles, which makes sense: HE was a commercial hack. It also adds Lenore Coffee, another powerful woman of early Hollywood and part of DeMille’s stable, or harem, of female writers, as another unlisted contributor.

It’s in the story structure that TWOBW adds support for Henry King’s claim to an artistic identity, since the shape Marion has hewn from “the famous novel by Harold Bell Wright” mirrors that of the later IN OLD CHICAGO to an uncanny degree.

Both films open with a fatality in covered wagon times. The child who loses a father will become protagonist (in IOC there are three children, and the child in TWOBW will lose both parents and get adopted). And both films end with a giant disaster movie climax which purges the undesirable elements (but is a bit hard on the innocent citizenry) and resolves the romantic plot (will Tyrone Power be noble enough to win Alice Faye? Will Vilma Banky chose Ronald Colman or Gary Cooper?)

Colman goggles
Cooper mans the theodolite

Both the flood in TWOBW and the great fire of IOC are extremely gratifying spectacles of mass destruction and group jeopardy. My point, however, is that probably only Henry King was thinking about the earlier film when he came to make the 1938 super-production. Therefore King deserves credit as auteur — for ripping off Marion’s structure.

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