The Trail of the Lonesome Pine


For a brief period of time, The George Eastman House in Rochester N.Y. had the good will to swing wide their vaults. The archive made available over their website many silent features and short films it would’ve been impossible for most people to see under normal circumstances. And though the company copyright was branded into the lower corner of every frame, even at the expense of obscuring certain title cards at times, posting these movies online constituted an admirable attempt to make long unseen treasures available again to the general public they were originally intended for.


The 1916 version of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was one of the movies Eastman House chose to dust off, restore and upload. Coupled with the television airing and video release of several other obscure DeMille titles from the teens and twenties (The Squaw Man, The Virginian, Carmen, The Cheat, The Golden Chance, Joan the Woman, The Little American, The Whispering Chorus, Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband, Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife?, The Affairs of Anatol, Manslaughter, The Ten Commandments, The Volga Boatman, The King of Kings and The Godless Girl), it provided another fascinating link for film historians in assessing the legendary director’s early career.  


In comparison to his later work, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine seems  a surprisingly slight trifle, the competent work of a talented journeyman director, but giving little indication of the legend to come. Made at a time when DeMille was still in his formative phase, learning his craft and honing his talents (his initial feature, The Squaw Man had just been released two years prior), it still constituted nearabout his twentieth release. Though DeMille’s contributions to many early Paramount features went uncredited, the movies officially attributed to him during this prolific creative period, were all over the place in regards to theme and content, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine likewise seems a fascinatingly eclectic little curio. It seems so uncharacteristic of the director in fact that the movie is given short shrift in most of the standard DeMille filmographies. Picture112aIt’s decidedly out of step with the campy historical spectacles and swank, modern comedies set amidst plush, palatial surroundings that the director would later be renowned for. Like Kindling, which had also featured stars Thomas Meighan and Charlotte Walker, there’s only drab, ramshackle cabins and shanties and scenes of direst poverty for DeMille’s cameraman Alvin Wycoff to shoot. This is a film made by a director still struggling to find his signature style, which he would manage to do with Joan the Woman, his first modern epic with historic flashbacks, later in the year. “Produced by the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Co. Inc. and distributed by Paramount Pictures Corporation,” The Trail of the Lonesome Pine claims to be adapted from “The Famous Novel by John Fox Jr.” which had been a bestseller in 1908-09. Fox was also author of such rural idylls as The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, but this movie version was undoubtedly inspired more by Eugene Walter’s successful 1911 stage play adaptation of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine which featured star Charlotte Walker and William S. Hart in the leads.

Original stage production of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine with Charlotte Walker, Berton Churchill, WIlliam S. Hart & Willard Robertson

Neither Fox nor Walter were thought to be happy with the changes made for the film version. As Simon Louvish anecdotally relates in his Cecil B. Demille: A Life in Art, “According to legend, the playwright and novelist watched the film and one commiserated to the other that ‘at least they kept the lonesome pine.’ ‘No,’ said the other, ‘it was a redwood’.” Like Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Co., whose releases were likewise distributed by Paramount, the Lasky Feature Play Co. was still attempting to live up to the motto ‘famous players in famous plays,’ by luring big name theatrical luminaries before the cameras for the prestige of their established name. Picture150aRecreating her most famous stage role for posterity, Charlotte Walker’s is the sole name accorded above the title billing, though of the three principals she’s the least remembered now. While The Trail of the Lonesome Pine would remain Walker’s most famous part, it was her brief association with the DeMille name that accorded her whatever lasting posterity she enjoys today (she was also the mother of actress Sara Haden). Walker had appeared onstage opposite director Cecil, Frank Keenan and a young Mary Pickford in William C. deMille’s The Warrens of Virginia for David Belasco, which had been adapted to film the previous year with Blanche Sweet in Walker’s old part. By the time DeMille brought The Trail of the Lonesome Pine to the screen, however, Walker was a screen veteran, having already appeared for him in Kindling earlier. Though she was too old at this point for the part she’d made famous, she still possessed lustrous, streaming hair, which Wycoff backlit to soften her features; at times, she distantly resembles Billie Burke.


The Trail of the Lonesome Pine deals with the subject of hillbilly moonshining, a premise almost as old as the movies themselves. The story is so archetypal in fact, DeMille only bothers outlining it in broadest terms, and the actual backwoods operation is treated in such an offhand manner that it’s clear his interest in this material lay elsewhere. The fact that these hillbillies moonshine because it’s the only way for them to support themselves in such a remote, poverty stricken area of the country hardly registers at the conscious level. Instead, the storyline focuses on the government’s imposition of a revenue tax that threatens to deprive them of even this small monetary compensation, and which motivates all the fighting and feuding.


In the years before Prohibition, it wasn’t the fact that these moonshiners were distilling alcohol illegally (co-star Thomas Meighan’s heroic revenue officer, John Hale, even takes a satisfying swig of the hooch), but the simple fact that they refused to pay tax to operate their business legally under America’s free enterprise system. The opening title briefs us on “The fact that a heavy tax  – levied during the Civil War – on all whiskey distilleries has never been lifted, has led to an endless warfare between our Government and the “moonshiners”. The latter maintain their ancient right to operate without a license – and defend this belief to the death.”


But why such a heavy tax was instituted during the Civil War and whether we’re meant to consider that tax just or not is never clarified. Certainly the title seems slanted to make it sound unfair, putting us on the side of the moonshiners rather than the revenuers. Yet the melodrama clearly means to depict their lawless behavior as outright villainy, if with some of the same moral shades of  grey Demille had already brought to his Japanese money lender in The Cheat. Picture145aAs far as we’re concerned we might be watching another hillbilly family feud, the subject of Fox’s original novel, which were just as popular with picturegoers at that point in time as the moonshining mellers. Only in this instance, it’s the moonshiners and the revenuers who comprise the clans with bad blood between them, rather than members of opposing families. Western star William S. Hart, who had appeared with Walker in the theatrical cast of Trail of the Lonesome Pine, forsook his cowboy guise long enough to appear in a lost film which focused on just such a mountain feud, The Apostle of Vengeance. And even French director Maurice Tourneur had made a movie based on The Hatfields and McCoys called The Cub, released the year before. Though The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is not about a family feud, as “Devil” Judd Tolliver, patriarch of the moonshiners, Theodore Roberts, one of the finest character actors Picture58aof the teens and early twenties and a frequent collaborator with DeMille’s stock company, has for some reason still been made up to resemble the real life “Bad” Anse Hatfield, patriarch of the Hatfield clan. So, despite their actual subject, the family feud iconography remains much the same as far as moonshine movies like these are concerned. The director, however, is concerned with ‘family feuding’ of an entirely different sort. DeMille is more preoccupied with the oedipal conflict between June’s love and devotion to the ‘pappy’ whose name she bears and the revenue outsider who threatens to displace him in her affections, taking her out of the hills and away from her guarded, inbred clan. It’s June’s love and conflicted loyalty for her father and the revenuer that serves as primary motivation for the major actions of the movie. Disloyalty and betrayal by children who fail to honor thy parents, is a theme DeMille would treat again the following year.


In his The Woman God Forgot, the daughter of Montezuma calls his curse down upon her head after helping the Spanish conquistador she loves bring about the downfall of the Aztec empire. As June similarly states of revenuer Hale, “I love him more than home – more than my people – more than – God!” To which declaration, her father gestures to himself as if to ask ‘more than me?’ though suely by this point he must know he’s been replaced in her heart as well. To visually establish this conflict  between Judd and John, the two rivals for June’s love, both are introduced identically, peeping out from the clump of bushes in which they’re concealed.


With nothing attractively material to photograph in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, DeMille instead opens up the play by having cameraman Alvin Wycoff draw beauty from nature itself, with a long shot of John carrying June through the pines to her cabin, and later when he’s ambushed along the trail by Judd’s men, the snipers are shown emerging from hollowed out trunks and framed against slanting pines with diagonal lines that create dynamic emphasis.


Pine or redwood, the titular tree gets its own star intro, standing out starkly from the surrounding foliage. So much vital action is staged around it, the lonesome pine becomes another character in proceedings. It’s easily the most important setting in the movie, the location even serving at the drop off point for the moonshine suppliers and the local buyers. June is introduced standing against the tree, lounging and stretching in such a sensuous fashion that the poor pine seems forced to stand in as phallic prop, making it clear that this mountain girl is ready for sexual awakening.


Not coincidentally, this clandestine spot is where she’ll subsequently choose to waylay the revenue agent who will come to serve as her romantic interest. Feigning an ankle injury to lure him from his duties so that her clan can move their moonshine off the mountain, she’s effectively performing the same function as Carmen had in the DeMille version released the year before. That siren had saved her people by vamping Don Jose into letting her gypsy band pass their smuggled goods into the city. Picture52aSince June is introduced in such a way to make her seem like an innocently guileless child of nature, it’s a tad disconcerting to see her behaving like a typical DeMille femme fatale, a role he usually reserved for his secondary leads. She even turns down her father’s offer of a gun, knowing the weapons in her arsenal are far more deadly. However, her betrayal of the revenuer for her father’s sake is necessary for us to understand the fully rounded irony when she subsequently betrays her father to save John Hale. Held captive in the moonshiner’s mountain cabin, June and the trussed up John fall in love as she tries to make amends for her perfidy by spoon feeding him, lighting his pipe, and slipping him a blanket when he’s confined in the cowshed. Wyckoff includes so many softly sensuous, intimate close-ups of the two, later framed by his famous Rembrandt lighting as June tends John’s wounds, using a mirror to make sure he’s still breathing, one almost feels indecent watching. Picture98aThough he appears to be a good sport about being duped, we can’t tell how deeply John’s anger and resentment at having been made a sap by a woman actually goes. So we initially think the betrayed revenuer may be attempting to return the favor by seducing June, simply in order to affect his escape, lulling her into believing him helpless enough to be trustworthy. Trying to work her spinning wheel and keep him covered at the same time, June lets her guard down by laying the shotgun on the table… Meighan would go on to star in Male and Female, his finest film for DeMille, which was all about sexual power dynamics and gender role reversal, so it’s interesting here watching this earlier character regressed to a state of helplessness and falling in love with the woman who holds his fate in her hands, first by having his wrists tied together and later completely incapacitated, with several Picture30agunshot wounds. When the two meet up again in the abandoned moonshine hideout, after he’s affected his escape and reclaimed his confiscated pistol, she still brandishes a gun bigger than his, even if she can’t quite bring herself to shoot it. Their romance is sparked by the cat and mouse games these lovers indulge in from opposite sides of the law. June is not a passive heroine but impacts events directly, if in a less than positive manner. When DeMille dips into stereotyping for instance, indulging in a moment of condescending hillbilly humor by showing illiterate Judd trying to decipher the secret directive purloined from John, then passing it around the room only to find none of the other men can read either, June is revealed as being elevated above them intellectually (“She can read – and rote too!”). However, when trying to lead John out of danger by reversing the coordinates listed, not knowing that he had already coded them to be read backward, June ironically serves to place him directly in harm’s way.


The title cards in the movie are employed inventively in this way, directly coming into play within the story itself, and even attempt to preserve the dialect and speech patterns of the southern mountaineers (the setting is Virginia) with samples like “They do say I make the eatin’est hoe-cake – – if yo’ all care for it!” But using them to ridicule characters lack of education, in order to make the literate viewer reading them feel Picture2asuperior, is a dangerous game to play when the writers composing the cards oftentimes come across as only half literate themselves. And while she takes part in the physical action as well, taking up arms, her heart overwhelms her will when she can’t bring herself to shoot the man she loves. And the moonshiners allow her to join their ranks not because they respect her as a woman but because they can hide behind her skirts. June can volunteer to stay behind and hold off the revenuers while the men make their escape through the underground tunnel because they know chivalry will prevent the law from shooting a woman. So we’re offered a problematic picture of a female who proves capable of playing amid the big boys while still slyly exploiting all the special privileges and advantages of her sex. Having enjoyed his excellent playing in numerous comedy parts under the DeMille aegis (Old Wives for New, Male and Female, The Affairs of Anatol), I was looking forward to seeing Theodore Picture93aRoberts in a straight dramatic role as the heavy of this film. He has some fine moments, such as that scene where he puzzles over the words in Hale’s letter as if he were pouring over hieroglyphics, rubbing his grizzled chin in consternation. The story is structured to provide a spectacular fall for this autocratic mountain patriarch, who has both his livelihood and his daughter taken by his arch nemesis. He’s been so humiliatingly emasculated, we don’t blame Judd for refusing to shake Hale’s hand at the end, even if this dismissive gesture, indicating his lack of respect, is lifted from The Little Colonel’s similar affront in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. We can’t help but feel for him with his wounded pride and sense of betrayal when he realizes everyone has effectively turned against him (“I guess there ain’t much use when your own people sell you out.”), and when he shoots Dave, who he loves like a son, wrongly believing him to have turned informer.


The movie’s supporting honors are shared by Theodore Roberts and Earle Fox, who plays Dave Tolliver. While the movie revolves around Judd and John’s tug of war over June, it’s Dave whose unrequited love is the real tragic heart and soul of the drama. As June’s cousin, Dave’s love serves as counterpoint to that of her father, makes it clear why it’s so imperative for her to seek romance further outside of her own gene pool. Picture138aThough initially jealous of June’s burgeoning feelings for the stranger in their midst (his slow burn reaction to the flirtatious courtship he’s captive audience to while guarding the prisoner in the cabin is quite amusing), the possessive Dave, while fully aware of the rich irony of her request, is willing to prove his devotion by saving the life of the man she loves, risking his own neck by betraying Judd himself in order to secure a doctor for John. When Judd shoots Dave at the end, ostensibly for his betrayal, it’s directly in the heart and that’s likely no coincidence. In effect Judd is eliminating the manifestation of that part of himself that likewise harbors incestuous feelings toward June and must prove his own love by letting his motherless daughter go, freeing her to marry another man.


When June betrays her father, by sending his clan into the hands of the posse to save the life of her lover, who they intended to ambush, her decision to break from her father and devote herself to the revenuer is definitively and dramatically settled. Yet curiously, June still ends up in her pappy’s arms at fadeout. The final scene of parting is also set at the base of the towering, lonesome pine as June and Judd wave goodbye to winged revenuer John as he vows to return for her hand someday soon. It’s intended as a sop at the fadeout to leave June in the arms of the bereaved father who’s destined to give away his only daughter to a man he disproves of. It’s also intended as a sort of reconciliatory gesture between the moonshiners and the law.


The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was released the year after Griffith’s landmark, The Birth of a Nation, and like most other movies of that time period, the thematic structure owes a profound debt of inspiration to it. In his Civil War film, Griffith has thematically reunited North and South through intermarriage, and DeMille has attempted something similarly reconciliatory with the romantic alliance of the Tolliver daughter and the revenuer. Their love is meant to negate the longstanding hostilities between their two warring clans, the moonshiners and the officers of the law, so we might as well be watching a mountain feud melodrama after all. The effect is much the same.


In The Cub, Maurice Tourneur had wrapped his story’s family feud with a shootout modeled after the standoff at that besieged cabin at the end of The Birth of a Nation. Here, DeMille has his federal officers stand in place of the cavalry, who arrive not to ambush the beseiged party (that scene was staged earlier at the moonshine hideout), but bearing a flag of truce and a doctor for the dying John, who the Tollivers hold Picture54aprisoner. It’s June’s love for John that has inspired this cessation of hostilities, a strangely pacifistic ending for the usually jingoistic director to be promoting on the eve of Americas entry into World War I. The flow of events make it seem as though the entire course of the film transpires in a day and a night and certain plot points, such as the placement of Lem, a Tolliver spy, in the sheriff’s office, fail to go anywhere. Nor is it quite clear what exactly the Tolliver’s intentions were toward John after moving the moonshine off the mountain. They couldn’t possibly have let him live knowing he could identify them. The encampment of the sheriff’s posse at the base of the mountain confuses us. Since they’re dressed exactly like the moonshiners themselves, it’s not initially clear which side they’re meant to represent. Judd shoots Dave, but he’s not taken to jail for it, anymore than he’s punished for his moonshining activities (pre-Code Hollywood).


And there’s no emotional resolution attached to Judd’s discovery that it was his own daughter who betrayed him, rather than the man he killed. Things we should be shown remain hidden from view, such as that underground tunnel the moonshiners use to beat a hasty retreat, blockading it with debris so the authorities can’t follow. It’s entirely possible that the tunnel is meant to serve as more than a simple function of melodrama, that by blocking it off, with June left on the other side in John’s hands, her father is forever barred entry to the secret passage her lover’s newly discovered and now laid claim to. It’s her lonesome gap that needs filled with his lonesome pine.


The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

Paramount (1916) 50 min. NR

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Screenplay: Jeanie MacPherson; based on novel by John Fox, Jr.

Cinematography: Alvin Wycoff; Editing: Cecil B. DeMille

Production Design: Wilfred Buckland

Stars: Charlotte Walker (June Tolliver), Thomas Meighan (John Hale), Theodore Roberts (Judd Tolliver), Earle Foxe (Dave Tolliver), Dick Le Strange (Sheriff Heaton)

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