Clark Gable’s First Talkie: ‘The Painted Desert’

After years of extra work in silent films, Clark Gable finally got the chance to be a star when films started to talk. But it wasn’t until 1931 that Gable made his talkie debut with the Pathe Western The Painted Desert.

Gable was not the star in this one, obviously. Instead, top billing went to Bill Boyd, who would go on to play Hopalong Cassidy in low-budget Westerns. Boyd stars as Bill Holbrook, who was found abandoned in a camp by friends Jeff (J. Farrell MacDonald) and Cash (William Farnum). They got into an argument over what to name the boy, so they split and Cash took him.

When Bill grows up, he finds tungsten on Jeff’s land, so he tries to use the possible mining opportunity as a chance to unite the friends. However, it doesn’t work. Meanwhile, he’s also wooing Jeff’s daughter, Mary Ellen (Helen Twelvetrees).

Now, how does Clark fit into this? He plays the role of Rance Brett, a wondering cowboy who comes upon Jeff’s land for water. Rance falls in love with Mary Ellen, so he’s always angry with Bill. That anger reaches a boiling point later in the film.

Directed by Howard Higgin, The Painted Desert is really nothing special technically and is structurally similar to many early Western talkies. That said, it actually moves at a pretty good clip and is hardly boring, unlike the first Western talkie filmed on location, In Old Arizona. The fun in the film is also seeing Gable slowly get more comfortable with talking and becoming a star. He’s clearly more interesting to watch than Boyd.

The Painted Desert was originally distributed by RKO, but is now in the public domain. You can watch the entire film below. (Although, it is in terrible shape. TCM has access to a much better print and that aired recently.)

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