"I have been criticized a lot for my optimistic attitude on everything." -- Yates Martin
Over the past few years the stories told in many Depression era movies have become a lot easier to relate to. Every so often it feels like Warner Brothers ripped their headlines from my morning paper. What fascinates me about movies such as Silver Dollar (1932), along with a few others I've bumped into by accident such as The Conquerors (1932) and The World Changes (1933), is that they were looking a step further back in the past the same way we look to them now for historical relevance.
It's only natural that when times are tough we look back to see how others slogged through similar difficulties and so one of the more entertaining ways to tell a story about the Great Depression during the Great Depression was to set it during a previous era of economic hardship. Notably the Panics of 1873 and 1893. Our 21st Century seats add an extra layer of perspective as we get to view 19th century hardship not only with more distance, but with the twist of knowing how general history turned out for the Great Depression era audiences whom these stories were originally intended for.
Focusing on these 19th century economic downturns did more than remind Great Depression audiences that tough times were nothing new. Each is spun out in epic fashion to include the inspiring pioneering and/or entrepreneurial rise prior to the inevitable fall.
The World Changes opens in 1856 on the virgin land of Dakota Territory; The Conquerors sees the West as the answer to the crushing Panic of 1873 for its young protagonists; Silver Dollar begins amidst the endless opportunities of Colorado's Wild West as it seeks law and order in 1876. I suppose each of these movies came about as a result of the success of Cimarron (1931), winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1931, but I found each of the three movies I've named more entertaining than the earlier, much better known film which can be a bit slow and static.
But the main point of a frontier setting is that it's a place where it pays to have an optimistic attitude about everything because there's opportunity everywhere on open land. In Silver Dollar the prospecting town of St. Charles has grown into a city and the earliest order of business we're privy to is giving the area a new name. Yates Martin (Edward G. Robinson), a Kansas landowner prospecting for Colorado wealth, suggests the area be named after the Governor of his home state, James B. Denver.
Not only is the name of Denver adapted, but Yates is nominated as temporary mayor. Flattered and boastful all at once, Yates declares, "I've got 300 acres back in Kansas, but it can rot for all I care. Yates Martin is after gold!"
But Silver Dollar is more than the typical rags to riches and back story that inspires and calms the period audience. It's also a biopic with names changed but basic biographical outline intact.
The life of Yates Martin is based on that of Horace Austin Warner "Haw" Tabor. Tabor married twice, to the former Augusta Pierce and subsequently Elizabeth "Baby Doe" McCourt. Augusta is renamed Sarah in Silver Dollar and is played by Aline MacMahon, while Baby Doe, still alive at the time of Silver Dollar, is called Lily Owens in the movie and played by Bebe Daniels.
While Silver Dollar is primarily the Haw Tabor story, second wife Baby Doe remains a celebrated figure to this day. There are no less than four Baby Doe biographies, including one published as recently as 2011. Warner Brothers actually sent an all expense paid invitation to Baby Doe for the 1932 Denver world premiere of Silver Dollar. She did not attend.
So Silver Dollar has not only a lush historical period for setting but three colorful biographical subjects which sets up an interesting and somewhat strange romantic triangle on screen.
The Haw figure, Yates Martin, is somewhat happily married to Sarah for approximately half of the film. Sarah is the perfect calming counterpart to Yates' wild optimist on the way towards wealth. But Yates is the same wild dreamer once he makes his fortune and Sarah remains just as conservative as she'd always been during prosperous times. It's not that Sarah fears trouble around the corner as much as she prefers to cling to the modest ways of their previous lifestyle. This begins to wear on Yates.
Yates uses part of his fortune to build an Opera House in Leadville. While doing a peacock strut through the construction site he meets Lily Owens and the two are soon inseparable. When Yates has a rare moment of modesty in private with Lily she encourages him to hold his head up telling him he's never known what it's like to be appreciated. He's touched by her encouragement saying, "It's like rich wine when all you've been used to is cold water from a mountain spring."
The story moves at typical Warner Brothers-First National breakneck pace which, probably because of its basis in fact, can make things a bit choppy at times. Alfred E. Green directs Silver Dollar and its speedy pace seems to fit right in with some of his other movies during this period, such as Smart Money (1931), Union Depot (1932), The Dark Horse (1932), and the later Baby Face (1933).
Edward G. Robinson is strong throughout Silver Dollar, but I had problems with both Aline MacMahon and Bebe Daniels, two actresses I normally like a lot.
Aline MacMahon's Sarah is a bit too hard and MacMahon makes herself too conspicuous thanks to using the historically correct, but nonetheless annoying, New England accent of Augusta Pierce: "Ya certainly can lead that chahge to the bah," she states in one of Silver Dollar's earliest examples. The accent is ever present and always seems forced. MacMahon's best moment in Silver Dollar comes when she crumbles to the ground as Yates leaves her. I didn't feel much for her until those final pleading moments however.
At the other end of the spectrum Bebe Daniels is giggly, I suppose because she's supposed to be young, and doesn't add much of substance at any time. She first comes across as a gold digger, but it's soon apparent that she really loves Yates. She seems dimwitted as Lily, yet Yates is supposed to be ignorant and uneducated himself so he often checks with Lily on intellectual matters. It feels like the blind leading the blind.
It might take a few moments to get over the bushy mustache Edward G. Robinson wears throughout Silver Dollar, but once I managed that his Yates Martin actually reminded me quite a bit of his iconic Enrico Bandello of Little Caesar (1931). Both are manic and driven towards power. But while Yates may be just as obnoxious as Rico the former always remains kind and charitable towards others, even if he's a bit boastful about it.
Other characters in Silver Dollar include a smattering of famous men. Yates has General Grant (Walter Rodgers) as his guest at the grand opening of his Opera House. Stuck next to Yates in his private balcony box Grant is forced to listen to his host excitably describe all of the great things he's done for Colorado.
Yates' further political aspirations are nearly done in when Sarah doesn't bother to come support him during this opening. Instead Lily waves and winks at him from the box across the way. Taken together this scandalous episode makes Yates' unelectable, but he manages to buy an expiring Senate seat mainly to get to Washington and be married before President Arthur (Emmett Corrigan). Like Grant, Arthur is repelled by Yates, who's doing all he can to buy society acceptance but never coming close to attaining it.
The most important historical figure in Silver Dollar comes with the brief visit of a man who was never elected President, though not for want of trying: William Jennings Bryan (Niles Welch). Bryan comes to inquire as to the future supply of silver. Yates boasts that there's a practically unlimited supply and doesn't quite get it when Bryan tells him that's exactly what the gold men of the east believe too. When told of the coming battle between gold men and silver men and that the gold backers will do all they can to demonetize silver, Yates is stumped. "What's that?" he asks.
That's exactly what would happen and it's yet another layer of Silver Dollar. Yates had become rich because silver had had an inflated value. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had forced the U.S. government to buy an increased amount of silver. It was exchanged for far more valuable gold which would cause a shortage of gold and be blamed by President Cleveland as the main cause of the Panic of 1893. Cleveland repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the price of silver collapsed.
While silver retains a small value it's such a low amount that Yates isn't able to mine for more because even though it's there in abundance, which is kind of the point, it's devalued to the point where it's even too expensive to mine.
And so it's no surprise to soon see Yates Martin so stunned that he's practically immobilized. "They sold out everything I had without asking me the price. That's what I can't understand. It's funny."
In history the silver backers had been, obviously the silver miners, but also the farmers of the West who had hoped the inflation brought on by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act would drive up the price of crops. The gold men of the East were the big businessmen who'd lose on their investments by virtue of this same inflation.
Thus, without really ever directly stating it, Silver Dollar becomes a populist tale that certainly Great Depression audiences, more deeply steeped in this semi-recent history than we are today, would pick up on and aid them in further rooting for the little guy. In the case of Silver Dollar that's Yates Martin, who at one point, far removed from his ostentatious mansion, faces eviction over $60 owed in back rent.
I get excited about Silver Dollar because it works on so many levels. It has historical relevance, it's inspirational, biographical, makes a populist appeal and even attempts to be romantic but falls a little short on that final count, largely as a weakness of how the character of Lily is developed.
Bebe Daniels has a few tender scenes with Edward G. Robinson but as far as I can tell the legend of Baby Doe Tabor, whom her character is based upon, grew greater in the period following the conclusion of what we're shown in Silver Dollar. Her loyalty to Haw/Yates and her belief in his belief that silver would rebound one day is touched upon in their final scene together, but the idea of her clinging to his Matchless Mine throughout her own life didn't really reach me until after the fact when I learned more about the Baby Doe legacy.
Mordaunt Hall wrote in his 1932 New York Times review of Silver Dollar that "The film is exceptionally well staged and it moves swiftly and surely from one period to another."
That is true, so even if you're not interested in going beyond what is portrayed on the screen you should find Silver Dollar an enjoyable film. However; if you want to dig deeper into the history, economics and even pop culture of the era, or even eras, Silver Dollar offers a lot to think about.
"Silver? What do I care, it's the same thing only spelled different" -- Yates Martin, after his celebration is interrupted and he's told that the ore his partners have discovered is not in fact gold, but silver.
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