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Chicago theaters rustle up a pair of historic Westerns

 Richard Barthelmess “Massacre.” | George Eastman House MotiPicture Department Collection

Richard Barthelmess in “Massacre.” | George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection

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Cheyenne Harry Harry Carey

Joan Molly Malone

Universal Film Manufacturing Co. presents a film directed by John Ford. Running time: 65 minutes. No MPAA rating. Screening at noon Saturday at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: October 15, 2013 6:44AM

Revisit the Western — John Ford’s first feature and a New Deal diatribe — for surprising insights into this historic genre.

By chance, two series at separate theaters are screening archival 35mm prints from the Library of Congress. “Straight Shooting” (1917) and “Massacre” (1934) deliver uneven narratives, yet both reward with bold strokes.

“Straight Shooting” kicks off the Second Saturday Silent Cinema series at the Music Box, accompanied by organist Dennis Scott. Harry Carey plays Cheyenne Harry, a bandit with a $1,000 bounty on his handsome head. To protect open range land, a nefarious cattleman hires Harry to displace homesteaders.

But our hero takes the other side. To defend the farming “nesters” from the marauders, he enlists Black-Eyed Pete and his posse in Devil’s Valley: “We have to meet killers with killers.”

Ford directed Carey in six other films in 1917. Over the next two years they made 16 more that shaped Carey’s dashing persona.

“Straight Shooting” introduces Ford’s visual style with striking landscapes framed by horses, trees and doorways. Eyes-into-the-lens shots at a shootout offer an atypical point of view.

“Massacre”— presented by the Northwest Chicago Film Society at the Patio Theater — opens with gunfire at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress. Richard Barthelmess plays a Sioux entertainer shooting freestyle from his horse. Back at his reservation, he finds white officials despoiling Indians. From his deluxe coupe he lassos the rapist of his 15-year-old sister. Enraged Indians torch the local court house. Branded a “Bolshevik,” he is also saluted as an “American Dreyfus” by a Chicago newspaper.

Alan Crosland of “The Jazz Singer” fame directs this provocative Western. The title comes from a red-bound 1931 book titled “Massacre: A Survey of Today’s American Indian” by Robert Gessner, who would later head the Department of Motion Pictures at New York University. Chapters include “Robbing the Robbed,” “Kidnapping Children for Epidemics” and “Killing Us for Sport.”

“Massacre” details a roster of crimes by federal officials against Indians. “The Indian problem is the white man,” argued Gessner. His reporting supplied scandalous details for the screenwriters. Oglala Lakota Sioux Chieftain Luther Standing Bear was a technical advisor.

More risque than reformist is the lust Joe triggers in his Chicago high-society flame and other fans. The film’s trailer teases: “The story of America’s red slaves! Only he could save his people from Massacre. But could he break away from the white arms of this enchantress?”

Bill Stamets is a Chicago freelance writer.

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