LAND BEYOND THE SUNSET , THE
(Harold M. Shaw, 1912, USA, 14m, BW)
The Land Beyond the Sunset
Directed by Harold M. Shaw
Written by Dorothy G. Shore
Starring Martin Fuller
Mrs. William Bechtel
Distributed by Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
Release dates October 28, 1912
Running time 14 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film
The Land Beyond the Sunset is a 1912 short, silent drama film which tells the story of a young boy, oppressed by his grandmother, who goes on an outing in the country with a social welfare group. It stars Martin Fuller, Mrs. William Bechtel, Walter Edwin and Bigelow Cooper. The movie was written by Dorothy G. Shore and directed by Harold M. Shaw. The film was made in collaboration with the Fresh Air Fund.
Joe is an impoverished New York newsboy who lives with his abusive grandmother. While selling papers, he is given a ticket for a children's excursion sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund.
The next morning, Joe sneaks out of his tenement home to join the excursion, where he sees the countryside and the ocean for the first time. After a picnic, an adult volunteer reads the children a story about a young prince who is beaten by an old witch. A group of fairies rescue the boy, take him to a boat, and sail off for "the Land Beyond the Sunset, where he lived happily ever after." Joe imagines himself as the boy in the story.
When the group returns to the city, Joe stays behind because he is afraid of his grandmother. He wanders to the beach, where he finds a rowboat and decides to go to the Land Beyond the Sunset himself. He pushes the boat into the water and climbs in. The film ends with a long shot of Joe drifting out to sea.
This late-period movie from Edison Studios seems to be an attempt at copying D.W. Griffith’s success with “social message” films, but winds up going in a surprising direction. It makes good use of New York locations to contrast urban poverty with natural, outdoor settings. The Land Beyond the Sunset is an unexpectedly powerful and poignant short movie from Edison, a studio whose work in the early 20th Century is often overshadowed by that of Biograph who, of course, boasted a certain Mr. Griffith amongst their roster of directors. There’s evidence of Griffith’s influence in the way that The Land Beyond the Sunset, which was directed by Harold Shaw, uses melodrama to deliver a social message, and yet the melancholic tone achieved by Shaw is infinitely more effective than you will find in most of Griffith’s films thanks largely to a nicely understated performance by Martin Fuller.
Fuller plays Joe, an urchin who scratches out a living selling newspapers on the City streets. Most of what Joe earns is commandeered by his abusive grandmother to buy booze, but he manages to hide from her an invitation to a children’s trip to the country he was given while working. Rising early one morning, Joe joins the party and strikes up a relationship with a young female teacher who tells him and the other children the story of a young boy who was taken to a fantasy world by fairies. The contrast between the sordidness of his surroundings at home and the open spaces of the countryside prompt Joe to stay behind when the rest of the party returns to the bus, and while walking along the lakeside, he spies an empty boat…
The Land Beyond the Sunset focuses our attention on Joe from the opening shot, filming him against a black background before showing him unsuccessfully trying to sell newspapers on the streets, and convincingly shows both the impoverished state in which he lives and the lack of love he receives from his wretched Grandmother. Without forcing the point, the film illustrates exactly why Joe would find it so difficult to return to a life like this after his brief sojourn in the countryside, and his despair is powerfully reinforced by a shot of his Grandmother superimposed over the idyllic picnic scenes as the teacher reads her story to the children. As well as being achingly beautiful, the final shot which, it has to be said, is at least ten seconds too long, is really quite astounding, not only because of its poignant beauty, but because of its ambiguity at a time when cinematic narrative was still relatively unsophisticated.
We see a busy New York street corner. A boy in rags is selling newspapers – or trying to, but no one seems to want one. We see wealthy-looking people come and go, businesspeople, workers, all hurrying to get where they are going, but no one buys a paper. The boy looks increasingly discouraged as time goes by. Finally, a woman with a little girl walks up to the corner. The woman isn’t interested in a paper, but the daughter feels sorry for the boy. She convinces her mother to give him a coin as a hand-out. The boy gratefully accepts and goes home. At home, his grandmother, who is drinking out of a flask, scolds him for not selling more papers. He tries to put the coin in a jacket pocket for later, but she catches him and takes it, presumably to buy more booze.
In the next scene, we see a minister hard at work at the Fresh Air Fund. He hands out stack of tickets to various women for them to distribute – each is good for a ride on a train to a picnic event. The boy gets up early Saturday morning to redeem one of these tickets, though it’s not at all clear how he got it. He meets up with the picnic party and is taken in hand by one of the young women volunteers. He rides out to a nice waterfront park, the like of which he’s never seen before, and runs on green grass and eats a good meal. The minister leads everyone in prayer before the food is broken out. After the meal, he hears a fairy tale about a boy who meets fairies and is carried in a boat to “the land beyond sunset.” When everyone gets ready to go back to the city in the afternoon, the boy hides and stays in the park, then he walks down to the beach. He finds an old rowboat and casts off. The final scenes show him afloat in his boat, drifting towards the sunset.
Oddly enough, this movie was made with the cooperation of the Fresh Air Fund, presumably to promote the charitable work they did with New York slum children, although the end seems to suggest that they routinely abandon kids in the park! The end sounds rather grim – this poor kid is either going to drown, starve, or die of thirst out there in this ratty rowboat – yet, it has a strangely positive, or at least melancholy, feeling, in part because of the lovely framing of the shot of the sunset. I’d love to know who the cinematographer was for this, but perhaps director Harold M. Shaw conceived it. As I suggested above, the city shots are also quite memorable, and the whole piece is one of contrasting images. The kid in this movie reminded me of Jackie Coogan (who wasn’t born until 1914), and I thought did very well in showing his feelings through body language. The park footage was shot near Long Island Sound in the Bronx, so the whole production was done close to home for relatively cheap. It’s a poetic little film from a largely ignored (at this point in time anyway) studio.
Finally, very little seems to be known about Martin Fuller, who plays the central character of Joe. What does seem certain is that at least part of the IMDB filmography is incorrect. Trade journals of the period make it probable that there were two actors on screen at this time with the name “Martin Fuller”. Considering the boy in Land Beyond the Sunset is probably no more that twelve or thirteen, it seems highly unlikely that he is playing a Civil War veteran with rheumatism in the same year’s A Doctor for an Hour! The confusion between the two actors may well have been the reason for the name change to Marty Fuller in 1913 but, alas, after that year this talented young actor appears to have left films entirely.
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