'TUMBLEWEEDS': HART'S 'FAREWELL'

Times Staff Writer

In 1939, the great pioneer cowboy star William S. Hart rereleased his classic 1925 Western "Tumbleweeds" with music, sound effects and a prologue in which he appears. Fortunately, it is this version that film editor and historian Robert Birchard is presenting Thursday at 7:30 p.m. as part of the third and final program in "L.A.: Mecca of the Movies" at the Workman and Temple Homestead, 15415 E. Don Julian Road, City of Industry.

Ostensibly, this prologue is an introduction to what proved to be Hart's final film, a melodrama set against the 1893 opening to settlers of the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma. But Hart, at 69, cannot resist turning it into his throbbing farewell to the screen, as sad as it is shamelessly hammy. It's hard to keep from laughing, even though you know you're supposed to be shedding a tear.

The lean, heretofore laconic Hart had been one of the movies' great stone faces, so it is astonishing to hear him declaim in the grandiloquent Victorian style of acting. But then he had been a stage actor--he was Messala in the 1899 stage version of "Ben-Hur"--after spending his youth in the Dakota territories, which accounted for his abiding concern for historical accuracy in his Westerns.

Alas, "Tumbleweeds," which was directed by Hart and King Baggot from a Hal Evarts story in the Saturday Evening Post, has a hard time generating the impact of that jarring introduction. The film is a great-looking, heartfelt salute to the closing of the frontier, but it's also a rambling affair with the vintage Western's typical heavy-handed humor coupled with a black-and-white morality; unsurprisingly, good guy Hart eventually defeats the pretty heroine's land-grabbing, bad-guy half-brother.

What's enduringly exciting is the climactic land-rush sequence, involving, according to Photoplay, 1,000 men and horses, 300 wagons, much livestock and 19 cameras. Film historian Kevin Brownlow doesn't hesitate to rank it "among the finest sequences of pure action in film history."

Birchard chose "Tumbleweeds," which was shot in Newhall, in his program for the same reason he included the two-reelers "Haunted Spooks" (1920), with Harold Lloyd, and "Vacation Waves" (1928), with Edward Everett Horton: for their use of Los Angeles locales, which look tantalizingly familiar but are hard to pin down.

The first is a silly business about Lloyd's true love, a Southern belle (Mildred Davis, later Mrs. Lloyd), having to live in her grandfather's haunted plantation house in order to secure her inheritance. The elaborate Victorian interiors may well have been shot in Bunker Hill's Bradbury mansion, where the film's co-director, Hal Roach, once had offices, and the exteriors apparently were filmed in and around Culver City, where Roach, now 96, established his studio in 1919.

The second is pure slapstick involving a family on a Southern California vacation. Horton et al. are seen riding on a double-deck bus on what looks to be Rampart Blvd., and that's probably Newport Harbor where the family is having all sorts of trouble aboard a rented yacht. Ernie (Sunshine Sammy) Morrison, who appeared in "Haunted Spooks" as a child, will be present. (818) 968-8492.

West German experimental film maker Alfred Behrens will present his striking celebrations of Los Angeles' sister city, West Berlin, at the Goethe Institute, 8501 Wilshire Blvd., on Friday at 7 p.m.

His 60-minute "Images From the Berlin S-Bahn" (1982) takes us on a journey into the past as well as on a tour of the present city, for Behrens pauses at scores of elegant but near-derelict train stations, many of them ravaged by World War II or made obsolete by the Berlin Wall.

Behrens' confidence in the compelling power of his images passes an even more challenging test in his first feature, "Walkman Blues" (1985), in which we discover the exciting, fragmented and richly varied city that West Berlin is today through the impressions of a young Hamburg musician (Heikko Deutschman) and his new lover, a beautiful photographer from London, who loves to photograph the city as much as Deutschman loves to tape its sounds.

In their distinctive, captivating way, Behrens' films complement Walter Ruttmann's landmark 1927 "Berlin, Symphony of a City." (213) 854-0993.

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