DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
VANISHING AMERICAN, THE (director: George B. Seitz; screenwriters: from a Zane Grey novel/Ethel Doherty; cinematographers: Harry Perry/Charles Edgar Schoenbaum; music: Dr. Hugo Riesenfeld; cast: Richard Dix (Nophaie), Lois Wilson (Marion Warner), Noah Beery (Booker), Malcolm McGregor (Earl Ramsdale), Charles Stevens (Shoie), George Magrill (The First Nophaie during the prologue), Shannon Day (Gekin Yashi), Charles Crokett (Amos Halliday); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; Paramount; 1925-silent)

 
"It was the first feature film to sympathetically tell of the contemporary plight of American Indians."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

The title tells it all. George B. Seitz ("Kit Carson"/"Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble"/"Mama Steps Out") directs with workmanlike efficiency this socially conscious overlooked silent Western, that ambitiously traces the history of the American Indian in an extended prologue (which turns out to be a boring and risible effort, that was a big detraction to the overall production). Its melodrama is set in the early 20th century, and it sides with the Indians in their battle against the evil white men. It's best remembered for its historical value, that it was the first feature film to sympathetically tell of the contemporary plight of American Indians, and its star Richard Dix (a white man playing an Indian) gives a memorable performance as the sympathetic Indian hero. Though the melodrama is conventional and the overall acting is stilted, it gets kudos for at least getting away from stereotyping the Indians as the “noble savage” and pointing out the obvious that the Indians are the first Americans, a race who should be respected for their culture and humanity, and the Indians deserve like any other American protection under the law (the obvious wasn't always obvious to Americans). Writer Ethel Doherty bases it on a novel by Zane Grey. It was shot in Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. It was remade in 1955, in a more routine and less controversial manner.

The Vanishing American is set on a Navajo reservation in Mesa at the beginning of America's entry into World War I. Crooked Indian agent Booker (Noah Beery) works with local cowboys to steal Indian horses and sell them at a big profit. Nophaie (Richard Dix) is a college-educated Navajo who returned to the reservation and peacefully protests the stolen horses with hostile Indian agent Booker, but only meets with racial intolerance. The progressive white schoolmarm on the reservation for the Indians, Marion Warner (Lois Wilson), is the only white in the town where the Indian agency is located who speaks the tribe's language, and is the only non-Indian that the tribe feels comfortable with.

During the war, the Indians sell their valuable horses to the army and enlist in the service, and bravely fight in the front. Upon the return of Nophaie and the other survivors, they find conditions worse than ever on the reservation and the government offers them no help. Frustration grows among the tribe, who chose to go on the warpath. Nophalie, who has fallen in love with Marion and has thwarted Booker's forceful attempts to seduce Marion, goes to warn the whites. The Indian learns that Marion is in love with the white soldier, Captain  Ramsdale (Malcolm McGregor), and only admires him. It ends tragically as both Nophaie and Booker die in the fighting, but at least Nophaie dies in Marion's arms.

Though it leaves a lot to be desired in understanding the Indian genocide and in a patronizing way presents the good Indian as a benign figure seen through paternalistic white eyes, this well-intentioned sentimental film at least humanized the Indians and tried to tell the story from the Indian point of view--which too many Hollywood films back then didn't do.

REVIEWED ON 5/19/2010       GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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