The Headless Horseman 1922

Director: Edward Venturini
"That Sleepy Hollow was a haunted and most superstitious region, Ichabod Crane had often heard, but he little dreamed how soon he was to encounter the famous chief of its legion of ghosts..."
Down-home philosopher and America's favourite 'Ropin' Fool' Will Rogers dons a Yankee frock coat to school Sleepy Hollow's children and steer clear of its mysterious phantom rider. Lucky for him he never met a headless horseman he didn't like... 

Late summer in 1790 and Ichabod Crane, the new schoolmaster from 'Nieu Yorke', arrives in Sleepy Hollow with his nose in a book titled 'A History of New England Witchcraft'Crane is an avid reader of ghostly tales, and is familiar with the local legend of the Headless Horseman, a Hessian trooper who rides from the graveyard each night in search of the head he lost in battle.

The Horseman beckons his mount
Crane is happy to help himself to the community's hospitality. He sets his sights on Katrina van Tassel, daughter of the region's wealthiest farmer, much to the chagrin of her suitor Brom Bones. When Ichabod punishes the innkeeper's son Jethro Martling, Jethro's mother is outraged and Brom sees an opportunity to sew discontent. He wrecks the schoolhouse and daubs a skull on the blackboard, leading the Martlings to accuse Ichabod of witchcraft and demand that he leave town.

Local boy Adrian Van Ripper is later found dazed and disoriented, saying Ichabod has "bewitched" him. The angry locals round on the schoolmaster and he is almost tarred and feathered before the incident is revealed as another scheme engineered by Brom Bones. Ichabod is absolved, and accepts an invitation to a quilting party in the hope of another free meal.

At the party, the locals engage Ichabod with more stories of their encounters with the Headless Horseman. After everyone else has left, he plucks up the courage to propose to Katrina, but she turns him down. Dejected, he rides home alone. As he reaches the bridge that had featured in so many of the townsfolk's ghostly tales, he sees the dark shape of a horse and rider charging towards him...

The Headless Horseman is something of an anomaly. Considering the 'classic' status enjoyed by Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it seems surprising that The Headless Horseman was the only feature film version produced until Tim Burton's in 1999. Similarly surprising is the incongruously cheery outlook for a ghost story, no doubt tailored to suit its star, the immeasurably popular humorist and entertainer Will Rogers.

Will Rogers as put-upon
schoolmaster Ichabod Crane
Rogers was an ex-cowboy and vaudeville performer whose star was still on the rise when THH was made. He'd broken into the movies with Laughing Bill Hyde for Goldwyn in 1918, but it was his radio shows and his syndicated column in the New York Times (both of which began within a few months of THH's November 1922 release) that cemented his position as one of America's best-known, and best-loved, entertainers.

But Rogers' comic talent was verbal rather than physical, and it was only with the arrival of talkies that his film career matched his success on the air or in print. Shrewd producers (like THH's W.W. Hodkinson, who had founded Paramount Pictures as a distribution company in 1914) compensated for this by allowing Rogers to write many of his own title cards, but movies built around Rogers' amiably down-to-earth persona suffered from the absence of dialogue. Perhaps the only advantage as far as the current film is concerned is that we're spared the incongruity of having Connecticut Yankee Ichabod Crane speaking with Rogers' broad Oklahoma drawl.

More authentically colonial is the location shooting. Exteriors for THH were filmed around the still relatively unspoilt (in 1922) Pocantico hills, close to the Tarrytown estate where author Irving made his home (although he was actually living in Birmingham, England while The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was written). Also featured in the film is Tarrytown's Old Dutch Church, whose graveyard features strongly in Irving's story. The author himself is buried in an adjacent site which was subsequently named Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in honour of his most famous work. In contrast, Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow was filmed almost entirely in England, though there is a connection to his more recent pic Dark Shadows. Both the 1970 House of Dark Shadows and its 1971 sequel were both filmed just a few miles from Tarrytown on the grounds of the Lyndhurst estate.

The Old Dutch Church, Tarrytown, last
resting place of the Headless Horseman
Despite the presence of an authentically spooky cemetery, THH gets more mileage from Ichabod Crane's romantic entanglements than it does from the ghastly deeds -- real or imagined -- of its title character. Rogers' affable but slightly pompous schoolmaster drives a plot sorely lacking in dramatic tension and it often plays like an elaborate home movie of an 18th century-themed costume party. But then, Hollywood has never really recognised the potential of Irving's story. The industry's pillaging of America's literary past has turned up multiple versions of, for example, Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, or several of Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, yet The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was for many years most visibly represented by Disney's animated short The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad of 1949.

While the good-natured Headless Horseman may be uninspiring as a supernatural subject, the same cannot be said of another Will Rogers vehicle from earlier in 1922. One Glorious Day, directed by James Cruze and originally intended for Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, starred Rogers as Professor Ezra Botts, a researcher of psychic phenomena whose body is possessed by a disembodied spirit named 'Ek'. It was the first 'imagi-movie' seen by the then-six-year-old Forrest Ackerman, spurring his lifelong fascination with fantasy and science fiction. In turn Ackerman inspired a whole generation of writers and film makers through his prominence in sci-fi fandom and the publication of his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. For that, Will Rogers gets our thanks.

End Credits:
Will Rogers (Ichabod Crane), Lois Meredith (Katrina van Tassel), Ben Hendricks, Jr. (Abraham "Brom Bones" van Brunt), Charles Graham (Hans van Ripper), Mary Foy (Dame Martling), Bernard Reinold (Baltus van Tassel), Downing Clarke (Dominie Heckwelder), Jerry Devine (Adrian van Ripper), Sheridan Tansey (Jethro Martling), Kay MacCauseland (Elsa Vanderdonck), Nancy Chase (Gretchen Oothout).
Producer; Carl Stearn Clancy, adapted from the story 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' by Washington Irving, Cinematography; Ned van Buren.
W.W. Hodkinson Corp., USA
Running time 72 mins.

The Headless Horseman (Grapevine Video)

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