The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert is a 1931 American pre-Code film released by Pathé Exchange.[3] Produced by E. B. Derr, it was directed by Howard Higgin, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Buckingham. It starred low-budget Western stars William Boyd (in his pre-Hopalong Cassidy days) and Helen Twelvetrees, and featured a young Clark Gable in his talking film debut. The picture was shot mostly on location in Arizona.

The Painted Desert
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHoward Higgin[1]
Bert Gilroy[2]
Produced byE. B. Derr[1]
Written byTom Buckingham[2]
Howard Higgin[2]
StarringWilliam Boyd
Helen Twelvetrees
William Farnum
Music byFrancis Gromon
CinematographyEdward Snyder
Edited byClarence Kolster
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • January 18, 1931 (1931-01-18) (US)[2]
Running time
85 minutes
75 minutes (edited reissue)[1]
CountryUnited States


Two cowboy friends, Jeff (J. Farrell MacDonald) and Cash (William Farnum), are traveling through the desert in the southwest U.S., when they come upon a baby who has been abandoned in the back of a covered wagon. They can't leave the defenseless child, so decide to take the baby with them, however, they argue over which of them would be better suited to raising the child. When Cash ends up prevailing in the debate, this creates a lifelong rift between the two friends.

Years later the baby has now grown into a young man, Bill Holbrook (William Boyd), who works with his adoptive father on their cattle ranch. Cash's erstwhile friend, Jeff, has remained in the area where the infant was found and has established his own ranch, centered on the water hole where the entire feud originally began, a feud which is still in full force. Jeff lives with his grown daughter, Mary Ellen (Helen Twelvetrees). The feud escalates when Cash wants to use the water hole on Jeff's property to water his cattle. Jeff is ready to confront Cash in a stand-off, preventing him from watering his cattle on the property Jeff has claimed, assisted by an itinerant cowboy, Rance Brett (Clark Gable), who has been smitten with Mary Ellen's beauty. The confrontation is temporarily avoided when Cash's herd unexpectedly stampedes.

When Bill discovers tungsten on Jeff's property, he attempts to use it to close the division between his father and Jeff, however this only results in his father kicking him out. He turns to Jeff, and begins a mining operation, which actually has the opposite effect of Bill's original intention, only exacerbating the tension between Jeff and Cash. Bill and Jeff's partnership also causes tension with Rance, since Mary Ellen now shows an interest in Bill. After a shipment of tungsten which was on its way to pay the loan they had taken out to develop the mine is waylaid, Bill works furiously with the miners to replace it with another load. He is successful. However, as he is celebrating the success of the mine, as well as his impending nuptials with Mary Ellen, the mine is sabotaged by a series of explosions.

Everyone believes the mine sabotage is the work of Cash, but it turns out to have been an act of jealousy on the part of Rance, who confesses, leaving the two old friends to reconcile, and their two children to marry.

Cast (in credits order)

(Cast list as per named cast members on the AFI database)[2]


The Painted Desert was put on the slate by Pathé Exchange in June 1930.[4] In July it was announced that E.B. Derr had selected Higgin to direct the film, as well as naming the stars of the film, William Boyd and Dorothy Burgess.[5] Later in the month it was reported that Higgin would head to Arizona to begin location scouting for the film, accompanied by fellow director, Tay Garnett,[6] however in August Higgin began scouting in the Arizona desert with the screenwriter, Tom Buckingham. It was announced that the film would employ over 300 extras.[7]

Higgin was familiar with the area, having worked in and around Flagstaff, Arizona as a lumberjack prior to his entering the film industry.[8] Towards the end of August it was announced that Clark Gable would join the cast as the antagonist.[9]

In September it was announced that Helen Twelvetrees had replaced Burgess in the cast. Tragedy struck the production shortly after filming began when the fourteen-month-old baby playing the role of the infant Bill Holbrook, died while on location. Cause of death was not released. The infant's name was Thais Baer, and she was from Glendale, Arizona.[10] Bert Gilroy was named as assistant director, and production began the first week of September.[11] Shortly after, it was announced that William Farnum and J. Farrell MacDonald had been added to the cast.[12] During production, Charles Craig was replaced in the cast by Jerry Drew.[13] During production, somewhere between twelve and forty actors were seriously injured in a dynamite explosion when the charge went off early during filming, and two crew members lost their lives;[14][15] the injured included the director, Howard Higgin.[16]

The film's release was delayed several times. In early October the film's release was announced to be October 26,[17] but by late October that release date was pushed back, to a premiere date of November 20.[18] In the first week of November the cast and crew returned from location in Arizona to finish the interior scenes on the studio lot in Hollywood.[19]

Ninety percent of the film was shot in Arizona, between the Painted Desert in Dinosaur Canyon, and Tuba City, Arizona, as well as a nearby Indian reservation.[20][21][22] In mid-November it was reported that the recording portion of the film had been completed.[23] Clarence Kolster edited the film during December 1930.[24] By November, advertisements promoting the film were being released to the trade papers.[25]

Produced by Pathé Exchange, the film would become part of the RKO Radio Pictures library when they purchased the studio in March, after which they took over distribution of the film.[2][26]


Most reviews of the film were positive. Motion Picture Magazine thought the film was "worth seeing", and complimented the acting, the message and the cinematography. They stated that while you could call the plot "... hokum if you will, it's the hokum of which life is made and the spectacle of the clasped hands at the end brings an authentic thrill".[27] The National Board of Review Magazine called the film an "exciting and well done" melodrama.[28]

Picture Play magazine, while complimented the acting, commented that it could not "...make a picture unaided by a story", and declaring the film was "duller and more pointless picture ..." than any they had ever seen.[29]

In 1958, the film entered the public domain in the USA due to the copyright claimants' failure to renew the copyright registration in the 28th year after publication.[30]

It was remade by RKO in 1938 as Painted Desert. The studio cut several action scenes directly from the negative of their earlier version for insertion into the remake.

The Painted Desert has seen numerous budget public domain label releases on VHS and DVD.[31] The film's original release length was 83:43,[32] but all home video releases are of its edited 75-minute reissue version, missing the action scenes appropriated for the remake. In 2019, Kino Lorber released it alongside The Pay-Off (1930) and The Silver Horde (1930) on their "RKO Classic Adventures" Blu-ray and DVD.[33] These transfers were restored by Lobster Films of France, but inexplicably The Painted Desert is still in its truncated form, despite its missing scenes being present in the extant 1938 remake.


Gable's performance as Rance Brett, an unshaven former criminal who does not feel sorry about the crimes he has committed, made him an important supporting actor overnight as the result of an avalanche of unexpected fan mail and opened the door for him to become "The King of Hollywood" during the 1930s. Another actor with an extraordinarily powerful voice, Robert Mitchum, also started out playing a bearded villain in a William Boyd Western film twelve years later and drew a similarly huge quantity of fan mail.

The love interest in this film, Helen Twelvetrees, was a very popular actress in the early 1930s, but would be let go by the studio in 1936, at which point she retired from film. She was the answer to a popular Johnny Carson gag on The Tonight Show, "Who was Rin Tin Tin's favorite actress?"[20]

A myth about Gable evolved regarding this film. It was said that he did not know how to ride a horse prior to this film, and learned specifically for his supporting role in The Painted Desert. However, Gable had been a horseman since his early years, and merely took several lessons in Griffith Park prior to the commencement of filming in order to hone his skills.[20]

William Farnum was a major star during the silent era in Hollywood, starring in one of the earliest and most popular Westerns, the 1914 film The Spoilers. When he was injured during the filming of 1924's The Man Who Fights Alone, that effectively ended his leading man career. However, he would carry on as a character actor until his death in 1953.[20]

The 1938 remake was directed by David Howard and starred George O'Brien, Laraine Johnson, and Ray Whitley.[34]

The film is notable for the superior cinematography of the Arizona desert by Edward Snyder.[35]


  1. "The Painted Desert: Details". Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  2. "The Painted Desert: Details". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on March 28, 2014. Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  3. The Painted Desert, American Film Institute (AFI), "Catalog of Featured Films", including a plot summary and production details, 2016. Retrieved May 15, 2017. Some sources cite RKO as the production company and distributor of The Painted Desert; however, according to AFI, Pathé Exchange, Inc., was actually the film's production company and distributor before Pathé's takeover by RKO on January 29, 1931, only 11 days after the release of The Painted Desert.
  4. "Production to Start on Five More at Pathe". The Film Daily. June 24, 1930. p. 1. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  5. "Latest Hollywood Happenings". The Film Daily. July 15, 1930. p. 6. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  6. "Latest Hollywood Happenings: Off On Location". The Film Daily. July 25, 1931. p. 11. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  7. "Latest Hollywood Happenings: "Painted Desert" Staff Active in Arizona". The Film Daily. August 5, 1930. p. 6. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  8. Wilk, Ralph (October 7, 1930). "A Little From "Lots"". The Film Daily. p. 10. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  9. "Latest Hollywood Happenings:Young Veteran". The Film Daily. August 29, 1930. p. 7. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  10. "Obituary". Variety. September 17, 1930. p. 67. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  11. "Hollywood Activities: "Painted Desert" on Location". The Film Daily. September 7, 1930. p. 4. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  12. "Latest Hollywood Happenings: Added to Painted Desert". The Film Daily. September 9, 1930. p. 10. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  13. "Latest Hollywood Happenings". The Film Daily. October 7, 1930. p. 10. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  14. Daly, Phil M. (October 14, 1930). "Along the Rialto". The Film Daily. p. 4. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  15. "The Price of Realism – Human Life". Silver Screen. January 1931. p. 37. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  16. "Hollywood High Lights". Picture Play Magazine. January 1931. p. 107. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  17. "Complete Release Chart: Pathe". Motion Picture News. October 4, 1930. p. 141.
  18. "Three Pathe Specials for November Release". The Film Daily. October 22, 1930. p. 8. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  19. "Latest Hollywood Happenings: Completing Painted Desert". The Film Daily. November 7, 1930. p. 10. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  20. "The Painted Desert, Articles". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on August 8, 2014. Retrieved August 7, 2014.
  21. Wilk, Ralph (January 15, 1931). "Hollywood Flashes". The Film Daily. p. 9. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  22. "Dinosaur Canyon Shot By Pathe Cameras with Sound". International Photographer. December 1930. p. 39. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  23. Wilk, Ralph (November 13, 1930). "A Little From "Lots"". The Film Daily. p. 6. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  24. "6 Features and 6 Shorts in the Works at Pathe". The Film Daily. December 7, 1930. p. 4. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  25. "The Painted Desert". Motion Picture News. November 1930. p. 2. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  26. "Announcement". The Film Daily. March 16, 1931. p. 9. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  27. "The Picture Parade". Motion Picture Magazine. April 1931. p. 61. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  28. "The Painted Desert". National Board of Review Magazine. February 1931. p. 22. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  29. "The Screen in Review". Picture Play Magazine. June 1931. p. 98. Retrieved September 29, 2015.
  30. Pierce, David (June 2007). "Forgotten Faces: Why Some of Our Cinema Heritage Is Part of the Public Domain". Film History: An International Journal. 19 (2): 125–43. doi:10.2979/FIL.2007.19.2.125. ISSN 0892-2160. JSTOR 25165419. OCLC 15122313. See Note #60, pg. 143
  31. "The Painted Desert (1930) DVD comparison". DVDCompare.
  32. "The Painted Desert (1930) releases". British Board of Film Classification.
  33. "The Painted Desert (1930) Blu-ray comparison". DVDCompare.
  34. "Painted Desert: Detail View". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on April 1, 2014. Retrieved June 28, 2017.
  35. Jewell, Richard B.; Harbin, Vernon (1982). The RKO Story. New York: Arlington House. p. 33. ISBN 0-517-546566.
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