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IX.  Harold Bell Wright Movies

At least twenty movies (plus one TV movie) were made from Harold Bell Wright's novels, or claimed to be made from a book or story by Harold Bell Wright.  The list below was assembled with input from Rick Gunter, Quentin Burke, Eric Tudor, Julian Lesser (Sol's son), and Lawrence Tagg, in addition to considerable research I have done at the Los Angeles Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the libraries at UCLA and Princeton University. The main collectible items are posters of various sizes, and lobby cards, but there are also magazine ads, flyers, publicity photos, press books, theater programs, and other items.  For a brief description of the various sizes of posters and cards click here.  For Bruce Hershenson's movie poster links page click here.

Click on Small Pictures to See Larger Pictures and More Information

Wright's first novel to be made into a movie was The Eyes of The World, which was filmed at the actual location described in the book -- the mountains near Redlands, California.  The movie was produced by Clune Films, well known at the time for excellent cinematography.



eyesmov.jpg (55248 bytes) 1916 – The Eyes of The World
              b&w    silent    10 reels

States Rights release.  Clune production.

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The critics said The Eyes of the World had beautiful scenery, but that unless a viewer was familiar with the novel, there was no way to figure out the story. Evidently Wright agreed: "People do not go to the theater to see scenic effects," Wright told a Los Angeles reporter later. "They go to see a story visualized. The story is first; everything else is incidental."  Los Angeles Evening Herald, June 17, 1919.   Wright decided no one else could tell his stories better than he could, so for his second movie he, in partnership with Elsbery Reynolds, his publisher, formed the Harold Bell Wright Story-Picture Corporation, with Wright serving as writer, producer, and director. 
sheppremier.jpg (244553 bytes) 1919 – The Shepherd of the Hills
  b&w    silent     9 reels
Harold Bell Wright Story-Picture Corporation release and production

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    But by 1920, after only one movie, the Harold Bell Wright Story-Picture Company was dead. Wright and Reynolds were no longer on speaking terms as a result of Wright's decision to have his books published by Appleton instead of by The Book Supply Company. There is evidence that this quarrel cooled off later and the two men were friends again, but the fight lasted long enough to contribute to Wright's losing his movie rights.  

     In an interview conducted by Columbia University in 1971, Hollywood producer, Sol Lesser, recounted how in 1920-22 he obtained the right to make movies from all Wright's books published to that time. According to Lesser, he and his partner, Mike Rosenberg, wanted the movie rights to Wright's books because they figured all the millions of people who had read the books would want to see movies based on those stories. So Lesser traveled to Tucson to see if Wright would sell. Wright was willing, but there was a big problem. Reynolds owned half the rights to the books, and Wright was not willing to talk to Reynolds or deal with him in any way. But Wright offered a solution. If Lesser would go deal with Reynolds directly and buy from Reynolds his half of the rights, Wright would give his own half of the movie rights to Lesser in exchange for what would then be Lesser's half of the publishing rights. Lesser says he "hot-footed" it to Pomona, paid Reynolds $174,500 for the book and movie rights, and the printing plates, and made the trade with Wright. When the dealing was all done, Reynolds had $174,500, Wright owned all the publishing rights (and the printing plates), and Lesser owned the movie rights to all the Book Supply Company titles. Unfortunately, Wright traded away lucrative movie rights in exchange for book rights that proved to be of little monetary value. Worse, he gave up all right to control the content of the movies.

     Lesser's contract with Reynolds, dated September 6, 1922 and now in the UCLA Library, shows that before Reynolds sold the rights to Lesser, Reynolds already had some deals in motion for production of movies from Wright’s books. Clune had agreed to pay Reynolds three percent of receipts for the 1916 movie, The Eyes of the World, and The Norris Company had bought the rights to make a movie of The Winning of Barbara Worth, also paying Reynolds three percent of receipts. Evidently Clune and Norris had only bought licenses to make one movie each, because Lesser now bought from Reynolds the unlimited rights to those titles, along with rights to the other seven Book Supply Company titles. According to that same contract, in the UCLA library, Lesser also bought the existing film copies of the 1916 movie, The Eyes of the World, the 1919 movie, The Shepherd of the Hills, and the Winning of Barbara Worth! I have never heard of a pre-1926 movie of The Winning of Barbara Worth, but The Norris Company must have put something on film.

     It is likely that the language in Lesser’s 1922 contract with Harold Bell Wright was identical or very similar to the language in the contract with Reynolds, in which Reynolds granted Lesser "the exclusive universal motion picture and stage rights ... together with the exclusive and universal right to use the titles and themes ... and to adapt, arrange, change, transpose, add to or subtract from the themes and titles ... to such an extent as the purchasers may deem expedient," to make movies from Wright's first nine novels (from Reynolds contract in UCLA Special Collections). As the contract would suggest, the Harold Bell Wright "B-movies" that followed departed significantly from the stories in the novels. Sometimes only the names of Wright's titles and characters were recognizable.


man2.jpg (24168 bytes)

1924 – When a Man’s a Man
     b&w    silent     
First National Release 
Sol Lesser presentation

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1924 – The Mine With the Iron Door
              b&w    silent     8 reels
Principal Pictures
Sol Lesser production

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sonofmv.jpg (233311 bytes) 1925 – A Son of His Father
              b&w    silent       
Victor Fleming Production

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brianm01.jpg (36061 bytes)

1925 – The Recreation of Brian Kent
  b&w    silent     7 reels

Principal Pictures, Sol Lesser presents
Sam Wood Production
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bwmovie2.jpg (27496 bytes) 1926 – The Winning of Barbara Worth
              b&w    silent     9 reels
United Artists release.
Samuel Goldwyn Production

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shepoday.jpg (187871 bytes) 1928 – The Shepherd of the Hills
              b&w    silent     9 reels
First National release
First National production

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     (Some lists of Harold Bell Wright's movies mistakenly include Lights of Paris (1928), but this movie never had any connection with Wright. For a full discussion of the issue Click Here)

A quick look at the  list of movies on this page reveals an interesting and important gap: six Wright movies were made in the five years from 1924 to 1928, and eight movies were made in the three years 1935 to 1937, but only one movie was made in the six year gap in the middle. Why? The first flurry of movies were all silent, the next flurry were all sound, and the gap between was occupied with technical and legal issues created by the new technology. The legal issues between Wright and Lesser set a permanent precedent for all of Hollywood.

By 1930, it was clear that the future of movies included sound (though some industry prophets declared there would always be a need for music and entertainers to fill the time occupied in changing reels). Sol Lesser, believing that he owned the unlimited rights to make movies from the Harold Bell Wright titles he bought in 1922, and perhaps later, produced The Eyes of the World with sound, though it seems to have been rather crude. A review of this movie in the Motion Picture Guide mentions that "long takes of a typewriter with a barely legible sheet of paper explain the action." Silent films, not talking films, used written messages to "explain the action," so "Movietone" must have been something less than full sound as we know it today. But a Variety critic said "Rabid fans coming to this from a modern menu will find it much like looking at a 1919 re-release, except that this one talks and has the present day accompanying music and noise."


eyesmv.JPG (215625 bytes)

1930 – The Eyes of the World
  b&w    Movietone    78 min
Inspiration Pictures and Sol Lesser
United Artists release.
Henry King Production

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     It was obvious to Wright, too, that there was much more money to be made from movies of his early stories than from reprints of his books. Unfortunately, he had sold the movie rights. But Wright was now running low on money and he wanted back into the movie business. And he learned that Lesser was planning to produce When a Man's a Man as a full talking movie. This is when it occurred to Wright that his 1922 contract had only conveyed to Lesser the right to make SILENT movies. It could not have conveyed rights to sound movies, he reasoned, because sound movies hadn't been invented in 1922. That meant, Wright believed, that he still owned the movie rights to all the titles he sold in 1922 -- at least for sound movies, which were all that was likely to be produced in the future. He informed Lesser that if Lesser wanted to make, or remake, sound movies from Wright's early books he would have to enter into new contracts and pay him for each sound movie.     
     In a news clipping I found inside a copy of Ma Cinderella, dateline Hollywood, United Press, May 25 1944, reporting on Wright's death the day before, I found this report:

"Eight of his books became movies, and Mr. Wright for years was a familiar figure around Hollywood, where he achieved the front pages when he refused to let Producer Sol Lesser make a talkie of 'When a Man's a Man.' Mr. Wright claimed he had sold it as a silent picture and he didn't intend to have his characters talking out loud." (Newspaper source unknown.)

Lesser disagreed, claiming that his earlier contract conveyed to him the right to make ANY movie, including talking pictures, from the titles covered in the 1922 contract. Under the heading  "Author in Court," and next to a photo of a glum-looking Harold Bell Wright, the 'Galt Reporter' of June 20, 1934 reported that, "Harold Bell Wright is more often read than seen, but the famous novelist made this appearance in Los Angeles court to contend, in a motion picture suit, that he should have extra compensation for one of his novels produced as a talkie." [From a clipping found by Stephen Longshore, of the Adjala Bookshop in Ontario, Canada in a copy of To My Sons.]
     It was not exactly a lawsuit. According to an email message I received May 15, 2001 from Sol's son, Julian Lesser (1915-2005), Wright and Sol Lesser agreed to let a judge settle the matter. "Before undertaking production, the two presented their briefs to the California Court for "Declaratory Relief," the Court to declare a finding on the respective rights in advance without parties suing each other. The Court found that rights were conveyed, regardless of technical changes or additions in the film medium." In other words, the judge ruled against Wright, and Lesser was free to make sound movies without additional payments to Wright..  
     In a letter (now in the Princeton University Library) to Harper and Brothers in January, 1944, Wright provides a slightly different ending to the story--what we might call "spin" today. He tells his publisher that after the judge ruled against him, he threatened to appeal, and rather than continue the legal case, Lesser and associates settled, "on my terms." These negotiations, Wright says, led to the six-movie contract mentioned below. It is clear, however, that his terms did not change the judges ruling: Lesser proceeded to produce talking versions of Wright's early books without paying additional royalties to Wright. If Wright got any concessions from Lesser, those concessions applied only to later titles -- which were not covered in the 1922 contract or in the judges decision.
     The first of several sound movies produced after the judge's ruling was the 1935 film, "When A Man's A Man," though Sol Lesser had already re-made "The Eyes of the World" with some kind of sound. Had the judge ruled in Wright's favor, Wright would have required payment from Lesser for the following four movies (plus, perhaps, the earlier Eyes of the World).

manaman35.jpg (35420 bytes) 1935 – When a Man’s a Man
               b&w    mono    68 min  
20th Century Fox release
Sol Lesser-John Zanft production

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danmatmov.jpg (36176 bytes) 1936 – The Calling of Dan Matthews
              b&w    mono    66 min.
Columbia release.  
Sol Lesser production. 

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mine01.jpg (59013 bytes) 1936 – The Mine With the Iron Door
              b&w    mono    64 min.
Columbia release.  
Sol Lesser production

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wildbrian2.jpg (18800 bytes) 1936 -- Wild Brian Kent  
                b&w    mono    57 min.
20th Century-Fox Release.  
Sol Lesser production.

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     In 1935, because of declining health, Wright turned over all his movie dealings to his oldest son, Gilbert, who was already employed by Lesser to write story ideas and screen plays for several of the movies listed above. Gilbert quickly arranged a deal and signed a contract selling Lesser the movie rights to six Harold Bell Wright stories -- three previously published stories and three original (new, not yet written) Harold Bell Wright stories. The three published stories named in the first part of the contract included two published novels. The first was Helen of the Old House. The resulting movie, which bore no resemblance to the novel, was entitled WESTERN GOLD (1937)The second published novel was listed as Exit in one personal letter, and as God and the Groceryman in another. Neither of these novels was ever produced as a movie, so it is probably not important to figure out which was correct.
     The third published story that Lesser bought was A Desert Santa Claus, which was also never released as a movie. So Lesser really produced none of the three published stories he purchased, though the deal did give him the right to attach Wright's name to a movie that sort of grew from Helen of the Old House.
westgold6sht.jpg (54237 bytes) 1937 -- Western Gold
                 b&w    mono    57 min.

20th Century-Fox Release.  
Sol Lesser production.

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     The second part of the six-movie contract granted Lesser the right to make movies based on original stories, or story ideas, yet to be written by Wright. Gilbert later told his father that he felt the contract should have SOME names for these three stories, so he inserted names of three story ideas of his own, assuring his father that genuine Harold Bell Wright stories could be substituted in the future. But when Wright learned about Gilbert's story titles and outlines in the contract he concluded he couldn't make substitutions without making Gilbert appear to have committed fraud in the original contract. He and Gilbert, who continued asking Wright for original stories to submit to Lesser, never agreed on that point, and Wright never submitted any new stories.
     But that didn't stop Lesser from producing new movies and claiming they were based on stories by Harold Bell Wright. In the end, three movies were produced and released in fulfillment of this second part of the contract. One, THE CALIFORNIAN (1937), was written by Gilbert. Apparently, Lesser didn't like Gilbert's other two stories, because the other two movies, IT HAPPENED OUT WEST (1937), and SECRET VALLEY (1937), were written by other writers employed by Lesser. Though Wright had never even seen any of these stories, Lesser billed all three movies as being "From a Story by Harold Bell Wright." Wright was not pleased with the credit. In 1944 Wright told his youngest son, Norman, "Since this deal with Lesser, and the kind of junk he put out over my name, I have never had, nor been able to arouse, one word of interest in the Wright stories from any producer. I don't blame them. From a $50,000.00 and $75,000.00 writer I have been made into the cheapest sort of Main Street author." [dollar signs supplied] (See Storyteller to America, Lawrence V. Tagg, p. 71) 
outwestmv.jpg (206682 bytes)
1937 -- It Happened Out West
  b&w    mono    56 min.
20th Century-Fox Release.  
Sol Lesser production.

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Secretposter2.jpg (22034 bytes)

1937 -- Secret Valley
  b&w    mono    58 min.
20th Century-Fox Release.  
Sol Lesser production.  

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1937 -- The Californian
 b&w    mono    59 min.

20th Century-Fox Release.  
Sol Lesser production.

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(Later Harold Bell Wright Movies)


1941 – The Shepherd of the Hills
              Technicolor    mono    98 min.
Paramount release.  
Jack Moss, producer.

More Information  

massacreriver2.jpg (48977 bytes) 1949 -- Massacre River (Allied)
                b&w    mono    77 min.

Allied/Monogram Release.  Julian Lesser-Frank Melford/Windsor production.

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1959 -- The Shepherd of the Hills
Television release: KYTV-3, Springfield, Missouri.

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soths64.jpg (15658 bytes)

1964 – The Shepherd of the Hills
               color    mono    110 min.
Macco/Howco International release.  Jim McCulloch, Jr./Howco production.

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* Some sources also mention a 1951 Shepherd of the Hills movie, but that resulted from a clerical error during research. The 1951 release was a re-issue of the 1941 film with John Wayne.


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This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh with the help of many friends.
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Last updated 05/26/11