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The Desert Flower

So Big was released in December. In Chicago, Mae Tinee had described it as a “good demonstration of what makeup can do to a girl....” Since much of the film was “concerned with the older Selina, it seems... that an older woman would have been better in the part. I can imagine Norma Talmadge, for instance, getting away with it.” Even so, most reviewers liked Colleen in the role.

In December 1924 First National purchased the rights to a play called The Desert Flower. June Mathis would adapt the melodrama for the screen, taking the situation and characters--set in the high desert with a heroine taking watchful care of a her stepsister, a drunken stepfather, and a final escape--into something more suitable for Colleen's more modern persona.

“Colleen Moore has gone to the Mojave Desert…. The location is about forty miles west of Barstow…. The ‘set’ comprises a string of freight cars on a little-used siding far from human habitation. One of these cars has been especially rebuilt to resemble the box car home of the heroine, Maggie Fortune, stepdaughter of a railroad construction gang foreman.”
--“Colleen Moore on Location in Mojave Desert,” Oakland Tribune, February 15th, 1925, page 2W.

In the movie, Colleen’s Maggie Fortune lived with her abusive stepfather Mike Dyer and infant step sister in a railway car in a railroad construction camp, the car modified with various inventions to make Maggie’s life on the rails easier. Life was hard. Noticing the escalating abuse of Maggie’s stepfather, Mrs. McQuade advises Maggie to leave the camp, which she does with her stepsister. On the way, they meet weak-willed alcoholic Rance, who worked under Dyer. They end up in the mining town of Bullfrog. Maggie tries to make Rance quit his drinking, but nothing works. She manages to scrape together a grubstake so that he can take to the hills prospecting. She hopes that while he is in the outdoors, doing honest, hard work, he will sober up and make a life for himself. When he returns to town he arrives at the same time as Mike Dyer, who has gotten into a fight with one of the townsfolk. During the fight a gun is pulled and it goes off, seemingly killing Dyer.

Rance, knowing that Maggie will be the prime suspect in her stepfather’s shooting, confesses to the crime. At the same time, knowing the timing of Rance’s return might cast suspicion on him, Maggie confesses to the shooting herself. The man who was fighting Dyer also confesses. Faced with three confessions and a mountain of paperwork, the sheriff declares the death a suicide. Rance reveals himself as the son of wealthy parents and asks Maggie to marry him, which she does. In the end, Dyer’s shooting proves to be less-than-fatal. He was only wounded, and recovers.

The location work on Desert Flower coincided with that year’s Wampas Frolic, the fourth time the event had been held to honor new and promising female stars. Colleen had been in the first batch. On February 4th, a gag by LeRoy had Colleen apparently bowing before an audience. When the camera pulled back it revealed she was not bowing, but operating a railroad handcar. The crew and camera for the scene were set up on a short flatcar, to which the handcar was coupled. The handcar was hitched to a team of men with piano wire. When they were to pulled the car forward, the handles would swing and make it appear that Colleen was operating the handcar. All Colleen had to do was hold tight. However, after posing for a publicity photograph, the handcar lurched out from under her feet. She went over the side, landing on her head and neck.
After her spill, she resumed working with a stiff neck, reporting later that in all her later scenes her head looked tilted to one side or the other. Local cowboys offered to take her to a bonesetter, but instead she returned to Los Angeles, where x-rays were taken. Newspapers report that she had been present at the February WAMPAS Frolic, where she was the "Queen" of the "Baby Stars." An award she was to be presented with, however, had been mislaid. When returning to the doctor, she learned that her x-rays revealed a fractured vertebrae. She was put in a cast to immobilize her neck, and spent the next several weeks recovering. While she recovered, production on The Desert Flower was halted. The film would have to be completed before Colleen could leave for her European tour, where she would be present in London for the premier of So Big. Colleen had become as famous in Europe as she had in America, but the tour (and her career) would only go ahead if she was able to walk after her treatment.