Judge Bill Gibron has nightmares about his mother's classic recipe of salmon patties. Yet he'd gladly choke down a couple of those fishy fried hockey pucks to avoid watching this dull adventure film about the cutthroat world of commercial angling.
Something's Fishy Here
After an unsuccessful attempt at mining, a dejected Boyd Emerson (Joel McRae, Sullivan's Travels) wanders into an Alaskan fishing village. Oddly enough, he gets a chillier-than-normal reception. Seems local salmon magnate Fred March (Gavin Gordon, The Bride of Frankenstein) wants no competition, and even the innocent traveler is considered a major threat. Thankfully, a friendly face named Cherry Malotte (Evelyn Brent) finds it in her heart to take Boyd in. Within a few days, she's fallen madly in love with the determined dreamer. Certain he can also make a go of the fishing game, Boyd partners up with Cherry's buddy and travels to Seattle to secure financing. He also hopes to patch things up with his rich fiancée Mildred (Jean Arthur, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Seems her industrialist father would rather she marry March. Boyd eventually gets his money and begins his business. It's not long before he has March on the run. Not content to lose, the crocked cad sets out to undermine his competitor in any way he can—including telling everyone of Cherry's checkered hooker past. Of course, this information embarrasses Boyd and gets him in trouble with Mildred. Yet love conquers all in the end and Boyd learns there's more to life than personal pride, a sullied reputation, and The Silver Horde.
An early talkie and one of the first Hollywood productions to use Alaska as a real location backdrop, The Silver Horde (a colloquialism for the annual spawning of the salmon) is nothing very special. In fact, the previous elements of interest listed are about the only thing this middling melodrama has going for it. Unless you think a set-piece sequence of fish being beheaded, gutted, and crammed into cans is the height of cinematic excellence, you'll be bored by this inert slice of entertainment entropy. Granted, the central story does stir some minor interest—after all, it deals with a society debutante and an ex-hooker vying for the affections of a naïve nice guy—and with a little help from the ancillary aspects of subplot and characterization, we'd have a decent if derivative diversion. Instead, under the awkward auspices of journeyman director George Archainbaud (who helmed many of the Hopalong Cassidy films) this is a confusing, almost incoherent, mess. Initially we think we're in for action and adventure. Our hero and his snide sidekick start out in the frozen tundra, but it's not long before we're out of the Yukon and smack dab in the middle of Seattle society. Another few scenes and it's back to the initial fishing town. All the while, leading lady Cherry Malotte (now there's a name with class!) is traversing the scenery, working deals and pining away for a man who doesn't know her love-for-sale history.
Perhaps Archainbaud reached too far in trying to adapt Rex Beach's famous novel into a 75-minute narrative. There was already a 1920 silent version of the story and several sequences in the film feel like truncated chapters from a much longer work. Indeed, the last-act denouement that throws the villainous Fred March for a loop seems to arrive out of thin air. We are never prepared for the revelation nor the reaction by actor Gavin Gordon. There was nary a hint of such a seedy past in March's persona. Similarly, when Joel McCrae's Boyd Emerson learns the truth about Cherry, he goes through a series of instant mood swings that suggest days, not minutes, of having to adjust. Yet it's interesting to note that, even with this cut-to-the-chase approach to the plot, The Silver Horde just drags and drags. Sequences don't draw us in and completely fail to force us to the next moment. During a nightclub scene, Boyd and his betrothed enjoy a dance while Cherry looks on in dour despair. Instead of building on that moment in the following frames, however, we cut to some surreal sequence where Boyd's business partners can't figure out how to use the telephone. It's a jarring juxtaposition, one that requires an audience member to reboot and re-approach the film every time it happens.
Then there is the acting. McRae is fine, if a little flat, as the boyish businessman brave enough to take on local tyrant March. On the other hand, in the role of antagonist, Gordon is mere grimaces and squints. An incredibly young Jean Arthur is all platinum hair and fancy gowns as the minx-ish Mildred. Yet she never comes across as anything other than a whiny harpy. As for the ancillary actors, their parts seem poured out of a typecasting mold (angry bruiser, cynical smart ass) and add only minor atmosphere. It is therefore up to Evelyn Brent to hold it all together as the jaded Cherry. While she's good, she's not given much of a role. Basically, she's viewed as a doormat to all the men, capable of delivering devastating monologues about the stain of loose virtue, but otherwise an unlit candle on a moonless night. She radiates zero sex appeal, barely registers as a beauty even when she decked out to the nines, and is so beaten down and ridden hard that she seems like a somnambulist. When you add this to the choppy plot, inconsistent tone, and overall ineffectiveness, The Silver Horde is a very problematic movie. Some may see the Alaskan landscape with all its wilderness wanderlust and immediately forgive all the flaws, but for anyone looking for a coherent motion picture production, this is not the place to cast your line.
That discount Criterion, otherwise known as The Roan Group (a Troma subsidiary), truly believes it is an archivist of Hollywood's Golden Age. Frankly, there's a lot of tarnish on many of the movies they uncover. As for the transfer here, The Silver Horde looks pretty good, especially for a film made nearly 76 years ago. The 1.33:1 full-frame print has a nice monochrome mellowness, meaning that the black and white is not as sharp as it could be. Still, there is a nice level of detail in the picture, resulting in a good technical presentation. The sound is equally first-rate. The Dolby Digital Mono is clean and crisp and we have no difficulty understanding the dialogue. As for extras, Roan offers an interesting intro by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick, a scene from Roan's release of The Last Frontier, Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman discussing business as a backdrop to another title, Rod Serling's Patterns, and an odd featurette on child star Bobby…Winckler. That's right, instead of focusing on The Silver Horde, Winckler's son Bill offers his hearsay stories about the life of a young child star in Hollywood. It's interesting, but has nothing to do with the movie at hand.
Had it found a way to smooth out the substantial rough spots and enliven its narrative with a spark of action and adventure, The Silver Horde would be an above average Tinseltown treasure. As it stands, it's the kind of shoddy distraction that deserves to be thrown back into the seas of stories.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
• Introduction from New York Post Film Critic Lou Lumenick
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