Genre Review: Sky High (1922), a Silent Western


On my “About this Blog” page I promised I’d give some attention to silent films, so here goes (and with a “Works Cited” and everything). Sky High (1922) was part of what became known as the “Alaskan Cache,” a set of four nitrate film prints recovered from an Alaskan warehouse in 1972; as the story goes, a university student, Laura Bland, travelled by dogsled to acquire the films from an antique collector. That’s determination. Other films recovered included lost films by John Ford and Howard Hawks. For more on the preservation of Sky High and other films in the twentieth century, see Lawrence F. Karr’s article “The American Film Institute and the Library of Congress: A Twelve-Year Perspective.” (See Works Cited below.)

Sky High (1922), written and directed by Lynn Reynolds, is an historically important film for two reasons: it was one of the first films to use aerial photography, which was achieved by cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline; and it solidified Tom Mix’s position as the most popular western movie star of his era. As was typical for silent movies of the day, the dialogue is set in a frame, and we’re required to fill in the rest of the story by watching the characters gesture and emote. One dialogue frame early in the film established the unapologetic prejudice of the period: “Two hundred chop suey eating Chinamen will try to cross the border near Calexico without bothering to ask Uncle Sam.” (But have things really changed that much as far as border politics goes? I’m talking to you, Donald T.)

First, a bit about the plot. (A helluva lot happens in a film with only 48 minutes running time. It helps that the speed of the film is at break-neck.) Mix plays Grant Newbury, a border agent currently maintaining order for Uncle Sam in Calexico, California, which is right on the US/Mexico dividing line. It turns out that, near the Grand Canyon, there’s a Chinese smuggling ring, and Newbury is commissioned to expose it. He goes undercover in the employ of the ring leader, Jim Frazer (J. Farrell MacDonald), who remains ensconced in his Calexico headquarters. The ringleader’s ward, Estelle Halloway (Eva Novak), has travelled to the Grand Canyon to meet him, but loses her way on a mountain pass. After becoming disoriented, she falls into a ravine, but Newbury, who has camped nearby with Frazer’s gang of rough cowboys, rescues her. Though Estella’s eventually kidnapped by the smugglers, Newbury rescues her again and brings Frazer and his operation to justice.

I feel bound to be a little sympathetic towards Sky High, given the limitations placed on film quality in the 1920s and the difficulty of lugging all that cumbersome camera equipment around.

There’s some pretty decent action, though some of it is unintentionally funny, due in part to the varying projection speed: it was only in the later 1920s that film companies were able to maintain a camera speed of 24 frames per second (fps), which was the speed required to accurately represent the action being shot. In Sky High, things speed up to a comical degree at times. But there are some genuinely exciting moments, including Newbury scaling down the side of a cliff to scare up some grub for Estelle, and—the big moment that audiences would have clamoured about—jumping out of his plane into a river in order to save the day. (As biographer Richard D. Jensen notes, Mix did his all of his own stunts between 1910 and 1933.)

I suppose the comedy in the film might be considered a bit cheesy by today’s standards, but I thought that Mix had some decent comic timing (I’m not joking here). Case #1: Newbury advises the recently rescued Estelle, who is resting in the alcove of a ledge in the Canyon, “You’ll be safe here—if you don’t walk in your sleep!” Case #2: when he returns from his search for food, scaling back up the cliff and carrying a big sack over his shoulder, he announces proudly, “How’s this for Santa Claus?” Or when, right after this, as he’s serving up the meal, he jokes (perhaps in a self-deprecating manner?), “I shot a few wild crackers and hooked a couple of sardines!”

On the other hand, Sky High does have the melodrama symptomatic of a form that requires an actor to emote in an exaggerated way: lots hands put up to foreheads, eyebrows wiggling, and plenty of gesticulation. In addition, the poor lighting makes it hard to see the actors’ noses when they’re looking straight at the camera. And then there’s the racism: the “Chinamen” that make their appearance from time to time (accompanied by music intended to be vaguely “oriental”) are more or less bogeymen, dark and mysterious figures that, as “Indians” did in most westerns of the same period, represented the anxiety of keeping traditional borders clearly defined.

Despite these flaws, the film still deserves a passing grade for its impressive camera work: there are many good shots of the Grand Canyon, the awe-inspiring and dangerous terrain Newbury must traverse to accomplish his mission. (And we have a brave dogsledder from 1972 to thank for preserving a representative example of the silent movie western—prejudices and all.)

Works Cited

Jensen, Richard D. The Amazing Tom Mix: The Most Famous Cowboy of the Movies. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005. Web. 20 September 2015. [Partial view available in Google Books.]

Karr, Lawrence F. “The American Film Institute and the Library of Congress: A Twelve-Year Perspective.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 37.3-4 (Summer/Fall 1980): 355-69. Web. 20 September 2015. [Available through JSTOR.]


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