the REEL WORLD: 1926

The Desert's Toll

I'm a little foggy on this film (also known as The Devil's Toll, because unfortunately the print I saw at the George Eastman House was badly muddled, with the reels so out of order that I'm sure the poor projectionist must have been having a fit. The film is a Western, something of a silent precursor to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in its depiction of how greedy people get when gold is involved. The plot involves an old man prospecting for gold in the desert; some villains discover that he has quite a stash of gold and a treasure map to lots more, and deliberately let him die of thirst so they can come back and claim the gold and the map. Enter Francis McDonald as Frank Darwin, a broken-hearted man who has come to the desert to forget a woman, and who finds the gold and map wrapped in instructions to get them to the prospector's brother in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Muriel Cooper (played by a gorgeous Kathleen Key), niece of the dead prospector, has decided to go from Chicago to the desert to visit her uncle and find some adventure. For a while, the villains have her convinced that Darwin is the bad guy, in hopes that she will befriend and then betray him for them. When she is hurt, an Indian named Red Eagle (Chief John Big Tree) looks after her. There is much running around in the mountains of the desert, and much emoting by our hero after the villains tie him to a stake in the blazing sun and torment him by pouring water in front of him to try to get him to reveal the location of the map. Eventually all is resolved to the satisfaction of the good guys.

All the film buffs who were in Rochester that weekend referred to this as "the Anna May Wong film." Wong had become famous two years before for her role as a Mongol slave girl in the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks version of The Thief of Baghdad. In this film, she plays Oneta, a young American Indian woman who also lives in the desert mountains. Her role is fairly small, but she is so beautiful (even if she doesn't look the least bit Native American) that one can easily understand why she was so famous during the 1920s and 1930s.

Francis McDonald isn't very convincing as a macho Western hero -- he looks a bit too foppish -- but an article in a contemporary issue of Variety notes that he "puts over a much more creditable performance than the usual run of western heroes" even if he is "quite unconvincing in the strength display scenes."

All in all, not a bad film, but not particularly notable, either. Philip Carli did an admirable job of piano accompaniment to this projectionist's nightmare.


Another Mary Pickford film, and another one about poverty and social standing. Pickford plays "Mama Mollie," the oldest of a group of dirt-poor orphans kept in a barn in the middle of a swamp by evil old Mr. Grimes. Mollie looks after the rest of the children, who are badly abused by Mr. Grimes. When he takes in Doris, a beautiful little toddler from a wealthy family, it becomes obvious that Doris has been kidnapped for ransom, and Mollie organizes a daring escape through the murky, alligator-infested swamp.

This movie sounds like a melodrama, and it is, a bit. But Pickford's performance is feisty and compassionate, and the interplay among the children is very believable. It's just about heartbreaking to watch one of the dirty-faced little kids complain about his hunger by announcing that he's "all empty." The bad guys are suitably evil, and the chase scene through the swamp raises the hair on the back of one's neck, even though the strings on the alligators are obvious. This one's worth watching.

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Emily Way (
Last updated October 2, 1998