The title didn’t exactly sell itself. “Flowing Gold?—that must be one of them moonshine pictures,” guessed an Arkansas moviegoer. Equally puzzling was the tantalizing ad banner: “Flowing Gold on Market Street on Monday.” But at least one blurb caught the film’s gist: “A thrilling story of flaming hearts and blazing oil wells amid the frenzy of the Texas boom days.”
Set around Ranger, Texas, after the oil gushers of 1917, the eight-reel feature could boast neither major stars nor well-known figures behind the camera. The last film to be independently produced or scripted by the playwright Richard Walton Tully (remembered for his 1912 play Bird of Paradise), it was also the next-to-last of at least ninety films directed by Joseph De Grasse (remembered for collaborating with his wife, Ida May Park, at Universal). But theater owners didn’t need to look far to tie the film to current news. The Teapot Dome scandal, which centered on bribes for federal oil land leases, was still unfolding when Flowing Gold was released in February 1924. The most inventive exhibitor hired newsboys to hand out a fake “EXTRA” edition filled with alternating columns about Flowing Gold and national politics and mock-headlined that his “THEATERS NOT INVOLVED” in U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty’s forced resignation in March.
The movie’s initial selling point was its close adaptation of Rex Beach’s 1922 novel Flowing Gold. For a time, Beach’s books proved both highly popular and ideal movie sources. His usual formula: Pick a historical frontier, weave around it a Jack Londonesque rugged melodrama—a “virile story” in terms of the day—centered on a “self-made” Westerner, hampered by pesky regulations, corporate malfeasance or unionized mobs, who wins out in the end. Variations structured such novels as The Silver Horde (1909), set in Alaska’s salmon-fishing industry (with movie adaptations in 1920 and 1930); The Ne’er-Do-Well (1911), set during construction of the Panama Canal (and adapted into the politically fascinating ten-reel 1915 Selig epic); The Iron Trail (1913), about rail lines into Alaska (filmed in 1921); and most successfully The Spoilers (1906), set during the turn-of-the-century Nome gold rush (with its five film versions: 1914, 1923, 1930, 1942, and 1955). It’s testament to the popularity of adaptations from Rex Beach novels that all the silent films cited above survive.
Flowing Gold’s frontier was well within memory. Both novel and film were promoted with the claim that “The Gold Rush of ’49 Was Nothing Compared to the Oil Rush of 1919.” As with Teapot Dome, the book and film center on oil lease schemes. Our self-made hero is Calvin Gray, introduced with intriguing ethical complexity: a penniless World War I veteran—strictly speaking, he has three cents when we meet him on a train from the east—who is not quite a confidence man but “a gentleman of adventure” who can bluff his way to the top. His effortless nerve gains everyone’s “trust” and “friendship,” and he proves equally at ease with business negotiations in Dallas as with six-guns in Ranger’s barrooms. He is played winningly by Milton Sills, a forgotten star, although SFSFF audiences may recall his impressive range from the 2007 festival: as the fighting lumberman in The Valley of the Giants (1927) and the charming schoolteacher in Miss Lulu Bett (1921). He had the lead in the 1923 film of The Spoilers, famous like all the versions for “brawls and pugilistic encounters.” Flowing Gold, coming just six months later, was looking to build on its success—and its fistfights. “Milton can’t appear in a picture anymore, without someone getting all messed up!” warned Photoplay. “It’s hard to remember that he was a college professor—once” (at the University of Chicago!).
Flowing Gold could be described without too much irony in Picture-Play as “a story about the rush to cash in on the dividends of nature’s gift to the automobile industry.” The oil boom genre continues today, however, only through deeply revisionist variations, notably Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon (2023). The oil flowing down a creekbed in Flowing Gold’s opening shot now conjures up toxic waste rather than gold coins. The most recently released Texas-set oil feature, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023), promises a distinctly different sort of boom.
Those ballyhooed mano a mano fistfights in Texas oil films never quite disguise that it’s the family melodrama that propels them. (Remember Dorothy Malone fondling her phallic derricks in Written on the Wind or oil-coated James Dean crowing “I’m a rich’un” before grabbing discontented wife Elizabeth Taylor in Giant.) Flowing Gold’s gentler family melodrama opens by introducing the Briskows, a proto-Beverly Hillbillies homesteader family of four: good-hearted Ma (Josephine Crowell), sensible Pa (Bert Woodruff), comically dim adult son Buddy (John Roche), and diamond-in-the-rough daughter Allie (Swedish-born Anna Q. Nilsson, in a curiously small role for the credited lead). The film shifts Beach’s story politically leftward by adding an opening scene, missing from the book, of bad banker Henry Nelson (Crauford Kent) threatening foreclosure on their drought-ravaged farm. After our family strikes “black gold, Texas tea” (to quote the Beverly Hillbillies’ catchy theme), comedy comes in their attempts to ape wealthy ways in Dallas (“a small New York”). As with many adaptations from novels, the storyline here can get dizzyingly complicated, thanks to the film retaining so many of the book’s characters. Beyond the town sheriff and judge, the various motley schemers and their grubby henchmen, we are met with three sets of fathers and children. The two daughters vie for the affection of our hero, but only the toughest will be his match in the end.
In the film’s thrilling final reel—“a whopper of realism,” in Exhibitors Trade Review’s words—Allie must save Calvin from death by fire and a torrential storm. Anna Q. Nilsson draws on action heroine skills honed back in her Kalem one-reelers of the early 1910s, although she sensibly relied on a stuntwoman for Allie’s dive into the turbulent waters covered with burning oil. The huge wooden derrick was burned, before the Hollywood Fire Department was called out by worried residents, near the intersection of Melrose and Highland Avenues (where now, fittingly, there’s a gas station on one corner and an oil change station on another). Flowing Gold had begun with Allie’s pathetic efforts with a watering can to revive her desiccated flower garden. The deluge conclusion brings things full circle by neatly bookending the West’s boom-or-bust rainfall options: destructive floods or killing droughts.
Reviews were decidedly mixed following the premiere on February 25, 1924. For the New York Times, “Flowing Gold fills one with amazement at the amount of movie hokum that can be packed into eight reels.” But if the notices held only faint praise, and if the film was only “a fair draw” at the box office, according to Variety, that’s at least partly because of the impressive competition. Among other American films released in New York within just a month of that date were Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, D.W. Griffith’s America, King Vidor’s Wild Oranges, Frank Borzage’s Secrets, John S. Robertson’s The Enchanted Cottage, James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon, and star vehicles such as Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad, Harold Lloyd in Girl Shy, and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel, to mention only features that survive. Is it just nostalgia to think we’d have a tough time finding two recent movie months like that?
Flowing Gold had a three-day run at the Castro Theatre from May 26 to 28, 1924, with music arranged by twenty-three-year-old Hugo Friedhofer (later a prolific Hollywood composer and Academy Award-winner for The Best Years of Our Lives). Reviews for Flowing Gold in San Francisco were again mixed. The Chronicle scoffed (“It has a slow start and a cheaply melodramatic finish”), while The Examiner raved (“Flowing Gold has everything that made The Spoilers a great cinema success—heart interest, melodrama, a fight which is a real he-man affair, a pretty love story and an abundance of comedy”).
Miraculously, Flowing Gold survived complete, via just a single known nitrate print saved by the Czech Republic’s archive, and has been lovingly restored with crisp visuals and evocative tinting by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, thanks to major funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation. So let’s savor its return to the Castro for the film’s first public screening in nearly a century!