#389) Wild and Woolly (1917)


#389) Wild and Woolly (1917)

OR “Lie With Your Boots On”

Directed by John Emerson

Written by Anita Loos. Story by Horace B. Carpenter.

Class of 2002

The Plot: Jeff Hillington (Douglas Fairbanks) is the son of a wealthy railroad magnate (Walter Bytell) and has a huge obsession with the Wild West, down to the lasso and six-shooters he carries with him. When delegates from Bitter Creek, Arizona approach Jeff’s father about an additional rail line in their town, Hillington suggests that Jeff inspect the land to get over his cowboy phase. Bitter Creek has become more civilized in the 30 years since its Wild West days, but the townspeople agree to put on a western façade for Jeff, complete with shootouts and a train robbery. But when the town’s corrupt Indian agent (Sam De Grasse) starts causing problems, Jeff might be the only one who can actually save the day.

Why It Matters: The NFR says that while the film is “[l]acking the sensational antics of [Douglas Fairbanks’] later pictures”, Fairbanks “shows brief flashes of the derring-do that will become his trademark”. An essay by silent film expert Steve Massa is a brief Douglas Fairbanks bio, with an even briefer mention of this movie.

But Does It Really?: “Wild and Woolly” is on the list for representing Douglas Fairbanks before he was the swashbuckling icon he is remembered as. That being said, I don’t know if that’s enough to warrant NFR inclusion. “Wild” holds up quite well for a 102-year-old movie, and Fairbanks is entertaining, but we’ve already got three of his later iconic movies on the list, and that is more than enough for any list of important films.

Wow, That’s Dated: The movie opens with comparing the days of the Wild West to modern technology like cable cars and diesel-powered trains. In addition, this film does not paint Native Americans in the most positive light, depicted here as the “savages” stereotype that conspire with Shelby to rob the train and kidnap Nell.

Title Track: The phrase “the wild and woolly west” was a turn of the century term for the vast, untamed American west. It first appeared in the 1891 book “Tales of the Wild and Woolly West” as a description of the sheepskin that cowboys used to wear (“wild, woolly and full of flies”).

Other notes

  • Douglas Fairbanks, director John Emerson and writer Anita Loos all got their start at the Triangle Film Corporation under the eye of D.W. Griffith. When Fairbanks left to create his own production company, he brought Emerson and Loos with him. In less than two years the trio made eight films together, all of them highlighting Fairbanks’ physical prowess.
  • The cinematographer for “Wild and Woolly” was Victor Fleming, still 20 years away from his directorial one-two punch of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz”.
  • I don’t care who you are; lasso tricks are impressive.
  • Yes, let’s torture the butler with our cowboy antics and pretend he’s not a human being. Poor Judson. Speaking of, how old is Jeff supposed to be? Fairbanks was 34 when he made this movie, is Jeff some sort of man-child? Is he the 1910s answer to “Arthur”?
  • Sure, Jeff’s obsession with the west is out of the ordinary (one character calls him a “nut”), but that’s one of the many benefits of being rich: you’re not crazy, you’re “eccentric”.
  • That’s a pretty flat brim for a cowboy hat. Is Jeff a cowboy or a park ranger?
  • I will admit, despite the overall weird premise, I found the movie charming. Fairbanks’ natural screen charisma helps smooth over the rough patches.
  • Shelby looks like L. Frank Baum. I wasn’t expecting a beloved children’s author to be the bad guy in a movie.
  • I was about to write down a note about Jeff bringing a real gun with him to Bitter Creek, but then the movie acknowledges this problem by having the townspeople sneak fake bullets into his arsenal. You win this round, Anita Loos.
  • A man enters a fake Wild West town that ultimately goes awry? I think Fairbanks et al just invented “Westworld”. Where are the sex robots?
  • This movie repeatedly demonstrates one of those western tropes I didn’t realize was actually in a movie: shooting someone at their feet to make them dance!
  • Douglas Fairbanks leaps onto one of the beams on the first floor ceiling, and proceeds to kick open the second story floor boards to get into his hotel room. That is frickin’ badass.
  • You cannot include several intertitles of Jeff shouting “Nell!” without hearing it in a Dudley Do-Right voice.
  • Once again, this screenplay beat me to the punch of pointing out the film’s plotholes. One seemingly unresolved plotline gets a last minute reprieve with an intertitle stating “But wait a minute, this will never do!” Another point for Anita Loos’ clever writing.


  • Douglas Fairbanks Pictures didn’t last too long after “Wild and Woolly”. Fairbanks met Mary Pickford and co-founded United Artists with her, while John Emerson and Anita Loos got married and moved to New York to work for Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount).
  • Although Emerson grew disinterested in filmmaking, Loos became a celebrated New York writer, spending the next 60 years penning books, plays, movies, and most famously, the novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, upon which the stage musical and film are based.

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