The Covered Wagon (1923)

98 mins | Western | 16 March 1923

Director:

James Cruze

Writer:

Jack Cunningham

Producer:

James Cruze

Cinematographer:

Karl Brown

Editor:

Dorothy Arzner

Production Company:

Famous Players-Lasky Corp.
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HISTORY

Two title cards introduce the story: “The blood of America is the blood of pioneers—the blood of lion-hearted men and women who carved a splendid civilization out of an uncharted wilderness. With dauntless courage, facing unknown perils, the men and women of the ’forties flung the boundaries of the nation westward, and still westward, beyond the Mississippi, beyond the prairies, beyond the Rockies,--until they bounded the United States of America with two Oceans.” After a title card introduces “Westport Landing—1848—since called Kansas City,” another cards reads: “In May of that year a great covered wagon caravan gathered there from every section of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, eager to brave the two thousand miles of hardship that lay between Westport and Oregon.”
       The Stephen Foster song “Oh, Susanna” runs through the story, and was played by whoever musically accompanied the film in theaters.
       According to an article in the 31 Mar 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review, Paramount Pictures President Jesse L. Lasky got the idea to make The Covered Wagon from Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). During an early 1922 conference in Hollywood, CA, Hays suggested that “it would be a splendid thing for the [movie] industry,” which had been having public relations problems because of scandals, if a studio made “a picture with a tremendous theme of Americanism.”
       The 28 Oct 1922 Exhibitors Trade Review announced that the cast had been chosen for The Covered Wagon, and that filming would take place in Utah and Nevada. A studio chart in the supplement of the 14 Oct 1922 Camera noted ... More Less

Two title cards introduce the story: “The blood of America is the blood of pioneers—the blood of lion-hearted men and women who carved a splendid civilization out of an uncharted wilderness. With dauntless courage, facing unknown perils, the men and women of the ’forties flung the boundaries of the nation westward, and still westward, beyond the Mississippi, beyond the prairies, beyond the Rockies,--until they bounded the United States of America with two Oceans.” After a title card introduces “Westport Landing—1848—since called Kansas City,” another cards reads: “In May of that year a great covered wagon caravan gathered there from every section of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, eager to brave the two thousand miles of hardship that lay between Westport and Oregon.”
       The Stephen Foster song “Oh, Susanna” runs through the story, and was played by whoever musically accompanied the film in theaters.
       According to an article in the 31 Mar 1923 Exhibitors Trade Review, Paramount Pictures President Jesse L. Lasky got the idea to make The Covered Wagon from Will H. Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). During an early 1922 conference in Hollywood, CA, Hays suggested that “it would be a splendid thing for the [movie] industry,” which had been having public relations problems because of scandals, if a studio made “a picture with a tremendous theme of Americanism.”
       The 28 Oct 1922 Exhibitors Trade Review announced that the cast had been chosen for The Covered Wagon, and that filming would take place in Utah and Nevada. A studio chart in the supplement of the 14 Oct 1922 Camera noted that production was set to begin in Baker, NV, with Vernon Keays assisting director James Cruze. The 14 Oct 1922 Motion Picture News announced: “Five hundred covered wagons are now being built and one hundred and fifty yoke-untamed steers being trained.” Additionally, the 23 Dec 1922 Moving Picture World reported that Paramount combed the country for personal “prairie schooners still in existence,” and procured nearly 200, along with their drivers, who were collectors or preservers of family heirlooms. The production planned to shoot mostly at the 200,000-acre Baker Ranch in Snake Valley, NV. The town of Westport, MO, was being built there. Among the thousands of participants, one thousand were Indians from the Shoshone, Sioux, Kaws, and Pawnee reservations. Another item in the 11 Nov 1922 Motion Picture News mentioned that T. J. McCoy of Wyoming, better known as Tim McCoy, was in charge of recruiting Indian actors, and that “a half dozen train loads of Bannock, Crow, Shoshone and Arapahoe Indians” had passed through Salt Lake City, UT, on their way to Milford, NV. Mammoth Lakes in Mono County, CA, near the state border, provided water for many of the river scenes. Location manager Walter Reed and production supervisor Tom White were busy building two Indian ferry landings and a reproduction of Fort Bridger, the real-life Jim Bridger’s famous trading post. The production also secured permission from the U.S. government to use a herd of 5,000 (other sources said 500) wild buffalo on Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, UT, where the first scenes would be filmed. According to the 21 Oct 1922 Motion Picture News, the company left Hollywood for Baker the previous day and planned to be gone “a month or six weeks.”
       An item in the 21 Oct 1922 Camera mentioned that filming was being done near Milford, NV. Another studio chart in the 2 Dec 1922 Camera, along with an item in the 2 Dec 1922 Motion Picture News, reported that the production would return to Hollywood “this week” and finish at the studio. In a monthly “Letters from Location” column in the Apr 1923 Picture-Play, actress Lois Wilson wrote from what she called “the heart of Snake Valley” in Utah, eighty-five miles from the nearest railroad in a lake-side tent city they called “Camp Cruze.” She related that the cast and crew had already endured a snowstorm and a flood that threatened their encampment. She numbered the Indians in the cast at 500, and said they were from the Bannock, Arapaho, and Navajo tribes. None spoke English, so an interpreter passed along James Cruze’s instructions in sign language. Dailies had to be rushed to Hollywood and returned in time for the cast and crew to watch them in the mess tent in order to “see our work and make necessary retakes.” Lois Wilson shared a tent with her eighteen-year-old sister, Constance Wilson, who made her screen debut as an uncredited extra. Jesse Lasky was apparently so impressed with the young actress that he starred her in Fair Week (1924, see entry), but it was her only film.
       Paramount Pictures ran a full-page advertisement in several trade magazines, including the 25 Nov 1922 Camera, proclaiming ”The Covered Wagon is on the way!” Calling the production “the most gigantic motion picture undertaking ever attempted,” the advertisement printed a letter from one Lou Marcus, who had spent two days on location: “I saw things which I scarcely believed possible to be set up in a desert: a wagon train two miles long; a thousand people, including two hundred and fifty Indians; a camp of over two hundred tents; a complete electric lighting system; a commissary department as efficient as a hotel…. There will never be another picture like this. No one else would go to the expense of $12,000 a day for two or three months to make it. The company is ninety miles from the railroad, and we had to travel over the worst roads I ever saw to get there. The temperature at night is about 3 above zero, but nobody complains.”
       A full-page Paramount Pictures advertisement that ran in several publications, including the 3 Feb 1923 Exhibitors Herald, listed the following “facts” about The Covered Wagon: “3,000 actors spent three months on location…; 1,000 Indians were brought from reservations hundreds of miles away, with their horses, tepees, and complete equipment; eight truckloads of supplies a day had to be taken over the rough desert roads; three hundred wagons were built [using] 40,000 square feet of canvas…to cover them; 100 oxen [were] broken to the yoke; 3,000 costumes of the period [were] made; water [was] backed up three miles for [a] river scene; dam broke and flooded camp, tearing down tents; 500 horses brought from Oregon for buffalo hunt scenes, which required particularly strong animals; 500 ordinary horses also used; 500 buffalos used in the hunt, the only large herd in existence; nine square miles of territory burned up for prairie fire scene; seventy trees felled and transported eighty miles for building of ferries; sixty wagons hauled material daily for six weeks to build replica of Fort Bridger; mile-wide river forded by 300 wagons.”
       One of the characters in the original novel was real-life scout “Kit Carson,” but in contemporary film reviews of The Covered Wagon he was alternately referred to as Kit Carson or “Joe Dunstan,” which suggests that film prints had different title cards indentifying him. He was Joe Dunstan in the copy viewed by AFI Catalog. Guy Oliver, the actor who played him, went on to portray Kit Carson (again) in the 1926 film The Vanishing American (see entry).
       In a photograph in the 6 Jan 1923 Exhibitors Herald, James Cruze posed with three Bannock Indian chiefs who appeared with their tribes in the film. They were named Strong Man, Big Ear Ring, and Big Elk.
       The 10 Mar 1922 Motion Picture News reported that a “world premiere” screening was scheduled for the following evening at a major charity event in the ballroom of the Hotel Plaza in New York City. The film opened five days later on 16 Mar 1923 at the Criterion Theatre, where huge electric signs displayed a covered wagon fording a stream on both the Broadway and 44th Street sides of the building. The film opened in Hollywood, CA, at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on 10 Apr 1923. Two weeks later, The Covered Wagon was screened for President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. Also in attendance were members of the U.S. Supreme Court, ranking military leaders, and various U.S. Senators and Congressmen. The twenty-five-member orchestra from the Criterion Theatre provided accompaniment. President Harding dedicated the film to former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had died four years earlier.
       The Covered Wagon was a critical success and the number-one box office hit of 1923. The 1929 Film Daily Year Book voted it one of the “Top Best Features” of 1923, as reported in the 7 Feb 1930 FD. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Camera
14 Oct 1922
p. 13.
Camera
21 Oct 1922
p. 17.
Camera
25 Nov 1922
p. 48.
Camera
2 Dec 1922
p. 10.
Exhibitors Herald
11 Nov 1922
p. 32.
Exhibitors Herald
6 Jan 1923
p. 41.
Exhibitors Herald
3 Feb 1923
p. 4.
Exhibitors Herald
31 Mar 1923
p. 30.
Exhibitors Trade Review
28 Oct 1922
p. 1412.
Exhibitors Trade Review
25 Nov 1922
p. 1622.
Exhibitors Trade Review
31 Mar 1923
p. 880, 913.
Film Daily
25 Mar 1923
p. 8.
Film Daily
7 Feb 1930
p. 8.
Motion Picture News
14 Oct 1922
p. 1883.
Motion Picture News
21 Oct 1922
p. 2066.
Motion Picture News
11 Nov 1922
p. 2448.
Motion Picture News
2 Dec 1922
p. 2834.
Motion Picture News
24 Mar 1923
p. 1472.
Motion Picture News
31 Mar 1923
p. 1572.
Moving Picture World
23 Dec 1922
p. 749.
New York Times
17 Mar 1923
p. 9.
Photoplay
1 May 1923
p. 64.
Picture-Play
Apr 1923
p. 32, 92.
Variety
22 Mar 1923
p. 28.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky Present
a James Cruze production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Loc mgr
PRODUCERS
Also pres by
Prod adv ed
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Photog
ART DIRECTOR
Prod supv
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
MUSIC
Mus arr
PRODUCTION MISC
West Coast pub dir
Indian adv
STAND INS
Stunt double for J. Warren Kerrigan
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The Covered Wagon by Emerson Hough (New York, 1922).
AUTHOR
SONGS
"Oh, Susanna," by Stephen Foster
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Release Date:
16 March 1923
Premiere Information:
New York premiere: 11 March 1923
New York opening: 16 March 1923
Los Angeles opening: 10 April 1923
Production Date:
October--early December 1922
Copyright Claimant:
Famous Players-Lasky Corp.
Copyright Date:
14 March 1923
Copyright Number:
LP18770
Physical Properties:
Silent
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
98
Length(in feet):
9,407
Length(in reels):
10
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In May 1848, two wagon trains join together at Westport Landing (Kansas City) in Missouri to prepare for the long journey west over the Oregon Trail. Jesse Wingate leads the main caravan, while Mexican War veteran Will Banion heads the smaller wagon train from Liberty. The settlers are anxious to sink their plows into Oregon soil, but far ahead in the Great Plains, an Indian chief warns his braves that the “Pale Face” is bringing “this monster weapon,” the plow, to uproot the forests and destroy the buffalo, and therefore must be killed. At Westport Landing, it is agreed that Wingate will be the “captain” of the joined wagon groups, and his second-in-command, Sam Woodhull, will lead the Liberty wagons. Wingate puts Banion in charge of herding the wagon train’s considerable livestock. Sam Woodhull, a longtime admirer of Jesse’s daughter, Molly Wingate, asks her to marry him before they leave Westport Landing, but Molly puts him off. Later that day, Sam Woodhull notices Molly’s fascination with Will Banion fashioning a primitive doll for a little girl, and resents her interest in the stranger. On 24 May, Jesse Wingate’s young son, Jed Wingate, cracks the whip that sets the wagon train into motion. A bugler on horseback sounds the call of “Westward Ho!” The caravan begins its crawl of twelve miles a day across the Valley of the Platte River. Two weeks and two hundred miles later, however, hardship and homesickness break the spirit of many pioneers, and they turn back. As the others press on, a woman dies and is buried, and ashes are dumped on her grave to hide her scent from animals. A baby is born. Personality ... +


In May 1848, two wagon trains join together at Westport Landing (Kansas City) in Missouri to prepare for the long journey west over the Oregon Trail. Jesse Wingate leads the main caravan, while Mexican War veteran Will Banion heads the smaller wagon train from Liberty. The settlers are anxious to sink their plows into Oregon soil, but far ahead in the Great Plains, an Indian chief warns his braves that the “Pale Face” is bringing “this monster weapon,” the plow, to uproot the forests and destroy the buffalo, and therefore must be killed. At Westport Landing, it is agreed that Wingate will be the “captain” of the joined wagon groups, and his second-in-command, Sam Woodhull, will lead the Liberty wagons. Wingate puts Banion in charge of herding the wagon train’s considerable livestock. Sam Woodhull, a longtime admirer of Jesse’s daughter, Molly Wingate, asks her to marry him before they leave Westport Landing, but Molly puts him off. Later that day, Sam Woodhull notices Molly’s fascination with Will Banion fashioning a primitive doll for a little girl, and resents her interest in the stranger. On 24 May, Jesse Wingate’s young son, Jed Wingate, cracks the whip that sets the wagon train into motion. A bugler on horseback sounds the call of “Westward Ho!” The caravan begins its crawl of twelve miles a day across the Valley of the Platte River. Two weeks and two hundred miles later, however, hardship and homesickness break the spirit of many pioneers, and they turn back. As the others press on, a woman dies and is buried, and ashes are dumped on her grave to hide her scent from animals. A baby is born. Personality conflicts wear on the leaders. William “Bill” Jackson, a grizzled scout and veteran of the Oregon Trail, believes Will Banion should captain the wagon train, but Will assures him that the older Wingate is the rightful leader. When Molly playfully climbs on Will’s horse to display her horsemanship, the animal bucks and runs away with her. Acting on instinct, Will leaps on Sam Woodhull’s horse and rescues her. As Molly momentarily faints in Will’s arms, Sam accuses his rival of stealing his horse before he had a chance to save Molly himself, and wonders if Will is a horse thief by nature. Will knocks him down, and when Sam pulls a shotgun from his saddle, Bill Jackson threatens to shoot him. The wagon train presses on. One night, as settlers gloomily sit around their campfires, several of Banion’s “Liberty boys,” including Bill Jackson, start a dance to lift everyone’s spirits, and Banion pulls Molly into a joyous Virginia Reel. Jealous, Sam Woodhull tells Molly’s father that Will Banion was kicked out of the U.S. Army for stealing cattle. Jesse Wingate orders Will to stay away from his daughter, but Molly refuses to believe the story is true. When the wagon train reaches the North Fork of the Platte River, a small log ferry run by Indians is the only safe passage across, but they charge too much money, and transporting hundreds of wagons would take days. When Sam Woodhull suggests they ford the river, Bill Jackson informs him the water is too deep, and Banion rides his horse into the river to prove it. Humiliated, Sam calls for a no-holds-barred fight to settle the enmity between him and Will Banion, but Will wins without using the option to seriously harm or kill his opponent. To maintain peace, Wingate suggests the two wagon trains split up as soon as they reach the other riverbank. Sam Woodhull uses the ferry to take his two wagons across the river, ostensibly so he can scout for grass and buffalo, but he also plans to ambush Will. Reaching the other side, he refuses to pay the Indian ferryman and shoots him. Meanwhile, settlers caulk their wagons, strap logs to the sides to provide flotation, and slowly wade the river. Many wagons and animals are lost in the current. Riding ahead of the others, Will Banion and Bill Jackson find Sam’s two wagons burned, his men killed, and Sam himself wounded. Bill recognizes the signs of a Pawnee attack, but knows they had a good reason. Later, riding ahead of the Liberty wagons, Will and Bill join trader Jim Bridger, an old friend of Bill’s who is carrying goods to his fort in Wyoming. By early autumn, as the two wagon trains, one in front of the other, cross the Great Plains, the settlers avoid starvation by killing buffalo. In early October, the Banion train reaches Fort Bridger, where Joe Dunstan, a scout and messenger for the U.S. Army, announces that gold has been discovered in California. When Joe and Bill Jackson get drunk together, the courier mentions that Will Banion has been reinstated as an officer because an army investigation found that he commandeered cattle to save his detachment from starvation. Although Bill is anxious to tell his friend the good news, he forgets the details when he wakes up sober the next morning. As the Wingate wagons arrive at the fort, gold fever spreads among the pioneers. Molly relents and agrees to marry Sam Woodhull. The wagons press on. On the day of the wedding, Bill Jackson slips into her wagon to tell her he has good news about Will Banion, but cannot remember it until he gets drunk again. When Molly gives him enough liquor to remember, she is overjoyed and asks Bill to take her ahead to Banion’s wagon train. As she prepares to slip away, however, Indians attack the Wingate train and wound her with an arrow. Young Jed Wingate runs on foot to warn the Liberty wagons ahead, and the settlers ward off a massacre long enough for Banion’s men to arrive and save them. With snow ahead, the wagon trains reach a signpost pointing one way to California and another to Oregon. Many of the pioneers drop their plows off the wagons and head for the gold fields, while Jesse Wingate leads the others to Oregon. Will Banion opts for California, but tells Molly he will come for her after he finds gold. Bill Jackson decides to stay behind a while with Jim Bridger and join him later. Sam Woodhull follows the gold rush, but before leaving, promises Molly that Banion will never have her. Later, as Bill packs to join Will in California, Molly gives him a letter that she will wait for Banion in Oregon. Much later, Bill finds his friend panning for gold and delivers Molly’s message. As Will Banion packs his gold and prepares to leave, Sam Woodhull waits in ambush outside, but as he aims at Will, Bill Jackson shoots him dead. Now a rich man, Will Banion travels to Oregon and reunites with Molly, under the accepting gaze of her family. +

GENRE
Genre:
Sub-genre:
Historical


Subject

Subject (Minor):
Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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