“Sunk into the Earth like a great molten bowl, lay the desert – unconquered Empress of the Wilderness – beautiful – mysterious, merciless. A tawny siren, whispering promises of a Paradise beyond – crushing out the lives of men in its poisonous embrace.”
Despite its mysterious and merciless nature as described in the quote above, Willard Holmes (Ronald Colman) plans to conquer the desert. He moves west to help his stepfather, James Greenfield (E.J. Ratcliffe), bring water to the dusty West through an irrigation system.
In the West, Willard meets wealthy banker Jefferson Worth (Charles Lane) and his adopted daughter Barbara (Vilma Banky). Barbara knows the horrors of the desert better than anyone: her mother was killed in a dust storm and she barely survived. Jefferson took her in when he found her just after the storm.
Mr. Worth and Greenfield become competitors as they both try to bring to life different goals for the West. Worth thinks it can be turned into a lush, livable garden paradise. Greenfield cares little about the people who live there and instead is solely focused on money.
Meanwhile, Willard’s personal life also brings on complications. He falls for Barbara, but another man named Abe Lee (Gary Cooper) also has eyes for her, trapping the three in a love triangle.
Henry King directs 1926’s The Winning of Barbara Worth. Tints of yellow, sepia, red, and blue add some flair to this silent Western/drama, adapted for the screen by Frances Marion from a novel of the same name by Harold Bell Wright.
This film contains some very nicely-done, effective scenes of action, such as the huge dust storm in the beginning and the big flood sequence. A balance is struck between the romantic side of the plot and the more tense let’s-build-up-the-West side of it, and these scenes of action make the balance work well, for the most part.
However, I would have liked to see the film focused just on the romance — not because everything needs to be sentimental and sappy, but because the film’s most charismatic players are involved in the love triangle. Banky and Colman have great chemistry, and Gary Cooper is… well, he’s Gary Cooper. A legendary actor with a very handsome face. There’s no such thing as a film too focused on Gary Cooper. The actors all do very well in their roles, but I would have loved to see these characters developed more deeply.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed the love triangle more than anything else in the story, I can certainly appreciate the efforts that went into the entire film, particularly the creation of the frontier West. According to TCM’s article on this film, the crew actually built an entire town in the Nevada desert to be used in this film. The sets are very grand, beautifully constructed, and my attention wasn’t for a single second pulled away from the story due to the film looking “too Hollywood.” The Winning of Barbara Worth does not offer a glitzy, stage-y version of the West.
While not the most gripping of Western tales, The Winning of Barbara Worth is a well-made film with strong performances and stunning sets. The score: 3.5/5