The Winning of Barbara Worth
Black and white, Silent, 1926
Samuel Goldwyn Company
Directed by Henry King
Runtime: 89 minutes
Starring: Ronald Colman (Willard Holmes), Vilma Bánky (Barbara Worth), Gary Cooper (Abe Lee), Charles Lane (Jefferson Worth), Paul McAllister (The Seer), E.J. Ratcliffe (James Greenfield), Clyde Cook (Tex), Erwin Connelly (Pat Mooney), Ed Brady (McDonald), Sammy Blum (Horace Blanton), Fred Esmelton (George Cartwright)
The movie opens with a woman standing near a covered wagon in the desert, having just buried her husband. Her toddler daughter stands nearby. The desert is described as a siren-- promising paradise, luring people to death.
The scene breaks to Jefferson Worth's outfit on the desert trail, loading up on water at an oasis. They speak of their vision to irrigate the desert to make it a "paradise," while some of the hired hands add some slapstick comic relief.
As both parties travel on, unaware of one another's presence, a large sandstorm hits. The woman covers her daughter with her own body and runs away from her wagon as the wind blows fiercely. The Worth outfit becomes aware of someone nearby when women's clothing begins hitting them in the sandstorm.
After the storm dies down, the Worth outfit finds the other wagon-- the mother is dead but the daughter still alive. Jefferson Worth adopts the girl, who is called Barbara.
15 years pass, and we see the Worth outfit again in Rubio City. Worth has just completed his outline of a plan to irrigate the desert, and engineers are coming to try to tap the Colorado River.
Barbara enters the scene, now an adult. Next we meet Abe Lee, a child from the first scenes with the Worth outfit who has also grown up. He is surveying the desert land, and spies Barbara through his glass. It is clear he is in love with her.
James Greenfield and his foster son Willard Holmes drive up in a car to the area where Lee is surveying. Holmes is the engineer for a large corporation, and they have arrived from the East to work on the irrigation plan. Barbara rides up on horseback, attracting the attention of Holmes, who is immediately smitten. Her horse bucks her, and both Abe Lee and Holmes rush to her aid. Lee is immediately jealous of Holmes' interaction with Barbara.
In the following scenes, the romance between Holmes and Barbara progresses, and he asks her to go back east with him after the project is over. She insists she loves the desert, but is also moved by him. There is also competition between Holmes and Lee, at times pitting their eastern and western ways and values against one another.
As the building of the irrigation system continues, people begin arriving in covered wagons and cars to build houses and settle near the dam site. The new town of Kingston is born overnight.
Greenfield, who bankrolled the irrigation project, sees Kingston as his town, and he becomes increasingly corrupt in his attempts to reap financial benefit. He moves to take full control of the dam, fires Mr. Worth and Abe Lee from the project. Worth warns Greenfield that the dam needs to be reinforced or a flood might come. Greenfield ignores this warning and sends them away.
Fearing for the structural integrity of the dam and disliking Greenfield's direction for the town, Worth's clan and the people who were originally with him in Rubio City move to someplace safer, away from Kingston.
Holmes, who was away from Kingston when Worth and Lee were fired, approaches Greenfield to find out why they have moved away from the town. When he discovers that they were fired over warnings about the dam, Holmes concurs that the dam needs to be reinforced. Greenfield again refuses to listen, and fires him. The Worth clan assumes, however, that Holmes is in agreement with Greenfield, and shuns him angrily.
Worth founds a new town on the higher ground called "Barba." Greenfield, however, has blocked Worth's access to credit in an attempt to make the townspeople revolt once their payroll can't be met. Holmes, behind the scenes, convinces another rich financier to bankroll Worth, in an attempt to do the right thing as well as win back Barbara.
Once the town payroll has been secured, Abe Lee grudgingly rides back to Barba with Holmes to bring it back safely. Greenfield sends men to kill Lee and take the payroll. As the men ambush Lee and Holmes, Lee gets trapped under his injured horse. Holmes is winged by a shot in the shoulder as he helps Lee to safety. The two work together to fight off Greenfield's men, and they ride back toward Barba together on their remaining horse. Lee asks Holmes to leave him behind and get the money to town, sending back help when he can. They shake hands, and Holmes gets the money to town as promised.
Holmes arrives with the payroll just in time, as the men in the town were growing angry and restless, nearly ready to hang Worth's hired hands. Holmes tells the townsmen where Lee is waiting, and collapses from fatigue and his gunshot wound. Barbara helps him back to health, and Lee is also returned to the town to be nursed to health. Lee finally realizes that Barbara's love for him is more like that of a brother, and he sees that she really loves Holmes. Now that he respects Holmes after their shared ordeal, he doesn't stand in their way. However, due to a misunderstanding, Holmes thinks Barbara truly loves Lee, and gives up.
Word comes that a collapse of the dam and a major flood is in danger of happening, as predicted. Holmes rides out with some men to at first try to sandbag, but then to warn Kingston's residents to seek higher ground. Chaos ensues, people are trampled, and the old and crippled are left behind in the wake of the flood.
The flood scenes show buildings being swept away. Greenfield's carriage crashes as he is swept up in the floodwaters. Those that made it to Barba are safe. Greenfield miraculously survives and is brought to the Worth house. Despite his past evils, Barbara helps him, and in gratitude he explains that Holmes loves her and wants to marry her, removing any confusion they may have kept them apart.
Barbara and Holmes agree to be together after Holmes has re-tamed the river. The end of the film shows them living in a fancy modern house with a car, amid a tamed wilderness, with children running on a lush lawn behind the house.
Plot keywords: taming the desert, irrigation, building a dam, city versus country, east versus west, man versus nature, ambush of payroll, flood, good man versus corrupt businessman, romantic rivalry
The Winning of Barbara Worth is available on DVD.