Painted Desert, The (1931): Pre-Code Western Featuring Clark Gable in First Sound Film

Produced by E. B. Derr, and directed by Howard Higgin, who co-wrote the script with Tom Buckingham, The Painted Desert was a Pre-Code Western starring William Boyd and Helen Twelvetrees.

It is best known today for featuring the film sound debut of Clark Gable, who had previously appeared in some silent films.

Two cowboy friends, Jeff (J. Farrell MacDonald) and Cash (William Farnum), are traveling through the desert in the southwest U.S., when they discover an abandoned baby.

Thy take the baby with them, but argue over who would be better suited to raising the child.  Cash wins, creating a rift between the two friends.

Years later the baby is now a man named Bill Holbrook (William Boyd), who works with his adoptive father on the cattle ranch. Jeff lives with his grown daughter, Mary Ellen (Helen Twelvetrees). The feud escalates when Cash wants to use the water hole on Jeff’s property to water his cattle.

Gable plays Rance Brett, an itinerant cowboy who helps Jeff, who’s smitten with Mary Ellen. The clash is avoided when Cash’s herd unexpectedly stampedes.

Bill and Jeff’s partnership causes tension with Rance, since Mary Ellen now shows an interest in Bill.

However, when Bill celebrates the success of the mine and impending nuptials with Mary Ellen, the mine is sabotaged by explosions. It turns out to have been an act of jealousy by Rance, who confesses to his crime.

In the happy resolution, the two old friends reconcile, and their two children  marry.

The film’s release was delayed several times.¬† Some problems derived from changes in the cast (a baby assigned a role died, some actors were injured, including director Howard Higgin, and two crew members died) In November the cast and crew returned from location in Arizona to finish the interior scenes in Hollywood.

Most of the film was shot in Arizona, between the Painted Desert in Dinosaur Canyon, and Tuba City, Arizona, as well as a nearby Indian reservation. Higgin was familiar with the region, having worked around Flagstaff as a lumberjack prior to his screen career.

End Note:
TCM showed this film on March 20, 2019 and April 27, 2019, allowing me to take detailed notes.