Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Greatness rarely appears fully realized, and for every wunderkind debut feature, there are many more great artists who realized their craft through trial and error. Ford, by his own admission, had little natural talent for filmmaking, but was an enthusiastic learner. “The only thing I always had was eye for composition,” said Ford to Peter Bogdanovich, “and that's all I did have.” And though Fordianisms twinkle throughout Straight Shooting, my assessment that it has “a clear emotional flow” could rightly be seen as damning with faint praise, especially in light of the career still far down the horse trail.

Bucking Broadway was Ford’s last film of 1917, a year that had already seen him complete five shorts and three other features. Unlike Straight Shooting, it seems that Ford was very much finding his feet as a filmmaker at this point, particularly in the realm of comedy: Bucking Broadway is ultimately a shambling thrust towards the comic situation of its title, wherein a pack of cowboys ride down Broadway and start a brawl among wealthy New Yorkers.

Harry Carey, continuing his friendly collaboration with Ford and using once again the regular character name Cheyenne Harry, plays a ranch hand who falls in love with his boss’s daughter Helen (Molly Malone), whom he successfully propositions for marriage. That romance is shown here with a resolute lack of sophistication or charm, and given that it is central to the story, the lack of chemistry or other interest is a blight on the film as a whole.

What's more, their relationship's turns are tough to sympathize with: while Harry goes into town to buy some fine clothes, cattle-buying stud inspector Eugene Thornton (Vester Pegg) seduces Helen and convinces her to marry him in New York. While her father and Harry grieve their respective loss of daughter or fiancé, Helen sends Harry a souvenir he once gave her from New York. When Harry receives this, he springs into action and catches a train to the Big Apple.

Why he takes this gesture as an impetus to win Helen back is not entirely clear, at least not past generic impulses of romance. Carey, faced with awfully thin traces of characterization, can do little more than exude his natural charisma, but Malone’s performance impresses even less. Admittedly, she has a thankless role, and I do not shy from what may be an anachronistic response to movie romance in the nineteen-teens: she is a spineless, loathsome woman, and at the center of all that is wrong with the film on a narrative level.

It’s a very sloppy story, no doubt thanks to Ford’s merciless production rate at the time, and better suited to two or three reels than the five allotted. Much of that puffy running time is spent on comic scenes that simply aren’t very funny. The comedy is crassly staged; the best in John Ford humour is rooted in its characters and, even at its broadest, shows insight or nuance that is absent from the dragging gags here. One scene involving a group of ranch hands tapping at a piano and weeping at its melodies is an especially dull riff on genre conventions.

The worst of them features Carey himself: after buying his new duds, Carey leaves the store and sees a black man wearing clothes of the same make. Harry storms back into the store to throw his purchase back at the storeowner. The gag was well at home in its period of production, but it is nonetheless disturbing, and a reminder that Ford’s views on racism were not so sophisticated as they would later become — The Searchers was a long ways away yet.

Nevertheless, there are traces of the artist yet to come. Admittedly, the film is not even on the same pictoral plane as Straight Shooting, but there are nonetheless shots that command respect, showing sometimes ingenious composition and a still-improving grasp of mise en scene. One particular closeup is an absolute knockout: Thornton leaves Helen with a messily dressed woman named Glady, whom he has “introduced to her as his sister” but is obviously his mistress. As Glady and Helen sit in uneasy silence, the “sister” gives Helen a very nervous look, and as she does the shade of a nearby electric lamp — a fixture then absent from rural housing — casts streaking vertical shadows over her face. The shot foretells doubt and doom for the marriage with little more than a lighting conceit and a subtle, knockout 
bit part performance; it’s a shame that Gertrude Astor went uncredited for the role.

Broadway finishes with something more playfully typical of Ford: a comic fistfight. After Thornton gets drunk at a social occasion, he manhandles Helen, who thus realizes that maybe she would be better off with Harry after all (deplorable woman). Harry calls upon the comic relief ranchers, who just happen to be in New York, and a lengthy brawl between dozens of combatants ensues. Ford stages it mostly in long shots, where the action plays out on multiple vertical levels (stairs, a pillar, a pool, a balcony). It’s an entertaining piece of chaos, in no small part because all the fights at once look so real, and probably were: Ford had adopted the technique of paying actors to exchange real blows from his brother Francis, who would promise his cast “a dollar for a bloody nose and two for a black eye.”

Bucking Broadway is the last surviving feature Ford made for Universal under Laemlle, and given the speed with which he was given scripts to shoot at the time, it’s a wonder that he (or any other directors, for that matter) turned out any coherent work at all. But incoherence can be fertile ground for experimentation, and in Bucking Broadway it’s clear that Ford is playing around with comedy in ways that weren’t working just yet.

Bucking Broadway is available as an extra feature on Criterion's release of Stagecoach.


Post a Comment