|Released by RKO | Directed by George Archainbaud
Run time: 75 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- Our suffering heroine, Cherry, is a former prostitute who is known up and down the coast.
- “You’re nothing but a–“
- “Don’t call me madam!”
The Silver Horde: Something Fishy in the State of Alaska
“I still think it’s a lot of trouble to go through for canned salmon.”
I didn’t think it’d be about fish. When pal Marya told me The Silver Horde was “so strange”, I knew I had to watch it. I’d assumed it was a western with Joel McCrea being a rugged cowboy or at the very least a very tall prospector. Well, it’s not.
We begin with pals Boyd Emerson (McCrea) and Fraser (Raymond Hatton) having been lost in the Alaskan snow for several days. They enter a town that refuses them entry or food until they reach the house of Cherry Malotte (Brent), who lives with her pugilistic friend George (Louis Wolheim). It turns out they’ve arrived in a company town, where George’s cannery has been shuttered by an unscrupulous rival. Boyd is seeking a big payday to get himself in good with fiance Mildred (Arthur), and sees this as his opportunity. However, he and Malotte quickly develop a rapport. Malotte reminds Boyd that, “there’s something bigger than finding a gold mine. And that’s finding yourself.” And the movie means it, I guess.
Boyd returns home to set up financing and to see Mildred. Mildred’s father, however, has other thoughts, and wants her to marry a fellow tycoon Fred Mars (Gavin Gordon)h. It soon turns out that Marsh is actually in charge of that fishing monopoly in that small Alaskan town, further pushing the rivalry between him and Boyd. (Personally, I would be more than a little surprised if someone I knew was running a criminal fishing syndicate, but not so much here.)
When Mildred’s father swoops in to stop Boyd, Cherry journeys down from Alaska and gets him the money by sleeping with a banker. This sets up Boyd and Marsh for a fight over who truly gets to dominate the salmon fishing trade, while Mildred and Cherry simultaneously battle over Boyd’s heart.
The crux of the movie comes down to how Mildred and Cherry both love Boyd, and whose love is more real. Boyd must make a decision about what he really desires, a woman who will give her body up to make his dreams come true or one who will look pretty and be the gateway to a steady financial future. Cherry frames it as, “When I love a man, I don’t need any rules.” Mildred shrinks from it, unwilling to challenge her own class or preconceived notions. Her vision of love is narrow.
That speaks to how the rich characters here are thoroughly immoral when it comes to lives and money. They don’t care a whit about how they treat people, only about how carefully those of their breeding respect the rituals of marriage. It’s deeply cynical.
The Silver Horde was filmed in Alaska, which gives the movie a nice sense of sprawling wilderness. There are a few action sequences, with one extended one being Joel McCrea, hater of shirts, getting into a fistfight. The most impressive of the sequences is a brawl on several fishing boats in the middle of the lake, which is shot with different planes of action and frenzied in execution. It looks tough and dynamic, which is pretty great for a release of this time.
The presence of these sequences and the extensive comic relief with Hatton and Wolheim makes the movie a weird mix of the manly, rugged frontiersman tropes where he succeeds and makes his way in the world, a fish-out-of-water comedy, and the woman’s picture where Cherry must sacrifice her love in order to make Boyd happy. The latter is much more compelling, if only because Raymond Hatton’s Marsh is so mustache-twirling that he never gets a chance to seem real, let alone human. (Like who just owns a criminal fishing syndicate and that’s it. Diversify, man!)
Louis Wolheim’s character, George, is also stuck in the movie, switching from mindless brute to sappy comic relief often. Wolheim sells it, especially in his final scene, but with such a large cast in such an expansive enterprise, everyone, him included, gets lost once in a while.
And, I’ll be honest, this movie is like twelve years long. The Silver Horde juggles so many balls that it kills the pacing and works against all of its varying plot arcs. there’s a lot of quality in this one, it’s just dispersed. But, seriously, I still can’t believe it was all about fish.
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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links
- TCMDB‘s article is… well, not their best. (They call The More the Merrier Arthur’s breakout role eight years after this– and that’s a ‘no’ on so many levels). But here are some tidbits, on this bit of film:
The film, based on the Rex Beach novel, is a remake of a 1920 silent also entitled The Silver Horde; the title refers to the abundance of shimmering salmon that fills the fishermen’s nets.
The film was a significant one for 25-year-old McCrea, who then had only one other lead to his credit. RKO soon signed him to a contract, and it was at that studio that the plainspoken actor built his reputation as a solid leading man in the Gary Cooper mold with such films as Born to Love (1931) and The Richest Girl in the World (1934).
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film appeared in the List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is in the public domain. I caught it on TCM, but you can see it on YouTube: