James Cruze: Of Wagons and Waterfronts

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Today is the birthday of the legendary James Cruze (Jens Vera Cruz Bosen, 1884-1942). Cruze’s early life sounds like excellent preparation for his most famous film as director, The Covered Wagon (1923). Born on an Indian reservation near Vernal, Utah, he was part Ute Indian, and raised in the Mormon faith.  (While his stage name sounds Spanish, he was mostly of Danish extraction. The “Vera Cruz” part of his given name was in honor the Siege of Veracruz, an action in the Mexcican-American War).  Cruze ran away from home as a teenager because he disliked farm work. He is said to have performed in medicine shows, and later worked as a fisherman to earn his tuition for drama school.

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Cruze made his fame first as an actor, becoming one of the top stars of the Thanhouser Film Company between 1911 and  1916, in films ranging from classics like David Copperfield (1911) to cliffhangers like the serials The Million Dollar Mystery (1914) and Zudora (1914).  While at Thanhouser, he married another of the studio’s stars Margueritte Snow.

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A shake-up at Thanhouser in 1916 resulted in Cruze being let go. He continued acting with various studios for a couple of years, and by the end of the decade he was a director at Famous Players-Lasky, soon to become Paramount. He went on to become one of the most successful directors of the silent era. In the late teens he directed several Wallace Reid pictures; then most of Roscoe Arbuckle’s features in 1920 and 1921; One Glorious Day (1922) with Will Rogers; then his breakthrough western epic The Covered Wagon (1923), one of the most successful Hollywood movies of the silent era. He divorced Snow that year; in 1925 he married actress and frequent collaborator Betty Compson. There came the first screen versions of the Kaufman and Connelly comedies Merton of the Movies (1924) and Beggar on Horseback (1925). He made more historical epics, like The Pony Express (1925) and Old Ironsides (1926). In 1926 he shot a comedy with Raymond Griffith called The Waiter from the Ritz which was never released. In 1927, there was the racy The City Gone Wild with Louise Brooks.

Like many of the people he worked with (Brooks, Reid, Arbuckle), Cruze was known for being a Hollywood hell-raiser, partying wildly and raising the roof through the heights and depths of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Unlike most of the characters about whom that can be said, Cruze suffered no catastrophic downfall. He divorced Compson in 1930, but he continued to direct films nearly ’til the end of his life.

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The work of the sound era was solid, if less exalted. There was the delightfully strange The Great Gabbo (1929) a deranged ventriloquism romance starring Erich Von Stroheim and Compson (read my account of it here). He contributed to the multi-partite comedy If I Had a Million (1932). He directed many pre-code gems like She Knew What She Wanted (1930) with Compson and Lee Tracy, and Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), also with Tracy. Probably his best known sound picture is the gritty crime thriller I Cover the Waterfront (1933). One of his last pictures (1938) was an early attempt to bring Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York to the screen in a script co-written by Sam Fuller for low-budget Republic Pictures.

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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