Spoiler Alert!: On Rex Beach and “The Spoilers”

I have had occasion to mention various versions of The Spoilers 25 times here on Travalanche, so I thought it might be fitting today to pay homage to the author of that oft-remade tale, and many another, the now forgotten Rex Beach (1877-1949).

Beach was from northern Michigan, a small town called Atwood, near the top of the mitten. After studying law in Chicago, he joined the thousands scrambling to Alaska for the gold rush around the turn of the century. That never panned out for him in a direct way, but it did indirectly, for he was to write about his experiences in dozens of (then) popular novels, The Spoilers (1906) casting the longest shadow. Many did and do consider him a bit of a hack, a kind of poor man’s Jack London, but that’s never inhibited successful screen adaptations, and there were over 50 movies based on his works. You might also consider Beach a kind of poor man’s Upton Sinclair or Frank Norris, too, for there was often a bit of “little guy vs. the unscrupulous Man” in his books. (Before we talk about some of them, we must share the interesting bit of trivia that Beach was also an Olympic Silver Medalist, having been a member of the U.S. water polo team in 1904!)

The Spoilers, Beach’s first complete novel, was also his biggest success. It exposed the greedy propensity of Alaskan government officials to seize gold mines from the prospectors who’d discovered and worked them. Daniel Frohman produced Beach’s stage adaptation of the book for Broadway in 1907, though it only ran a few performances. It was on movie screens, where audiences could gaze on the breathtaking vistas of the Frozen North (or simulations of same) that his tale got the greatest traction. Most screen versions also peak with a climactic barroom fist fight between the hero and villain, also tailor made for Hollywood. The various versions are often discussed or presented in the context of the western genre, but it really only caucuses with that party for lack of a better one. In really it’s part of its only small subgenre (along with The Call of the Wild and such) which I call the “Northern”.

Selig produced the first movie version of The Spoilers in 1914, starring William Farnum. Goldwyn produced a more lavish version in 1923, featuring Milton Sills, Noah Beery, Anna Q. Nilsson, Ford Sterling, and Rockliffe Fellowes. Paramount made the first talkie iteration in 1930, starring Gary Cooper, Kay Johnson (James Cromwell’s mother!), Betty Compson, William Boyd (not the Hopalong one), Slim Summerville, James Kirkwood, et al. The 1942 version by Universal is probably the best known and remembered, for it stars John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Marlene Dietrich, with a supporting cast that includes Harry Carey, Richard Barthelmess, Jack Norton, and William Farnum, who of course had starred in that first version 28 years earlier. I wrote a little about the ’42 version here. A lot of folks who are aware of that one, probably also know about Universal’s 1955 remake, for it is the only one in color, and also has a solid if slightly lesser cast, including Jeff Chandler, Rory Calhoun and Anne Baxter as the leads, with John McIntire, Barbara Britton, Wallace Ford, Raymond Walburn, Ruth Donnelly, et al supporting. The Spoilers was even made into a spoof version, The Soilers (1923) by Stan Laurel!

The Silver Horde (1909), about the salmon canning industry (!) might be the second best known of Beach’s novels, for it was made into films in 1920 and 1930. Laughing Bill Hyde (1917) was made into a film in 1918 starring Will Rogers. But like I say, he wrote dozens of novels, and there were dozens of films made based upon them, directed by the likes of Allan Dwan, James Cruze, Fred Niblo, and many another estimable artisan. Raoul Walsh directed the penultimate Beach adaptation The World In His Arms (1952), featuring Ann Blythe as a Russian countess in 1850 San Francisco and all the men in her life jostling to either seize or protect the great catch, played by Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, John McIntire, and Sig Ruman.

In 1949, despondent over the death of his wife, Rex Beach ended his life with a bullet to the dead at his home in Florida. It’s shocking how common this method of expiration proves to be. Beach’s memory in popular culture did not long outlive him. The last screen version of any of his works was that 1955 version of The Spoilers.

For more on early film history, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.