Sad Hill Media

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

By Will Ross

As a lover of silent cinema, nothing causes me more anguish than the overwhelming number of films from the period that are simply lost forever — by estimates of The Film Foundation, over 90% of films from the period will never be seen again. Though we can count ourselves lucky for the works that have survived (and thankful for the historians and preservationists who rescue them), nothing can fill the hole left by 4 Devils or the fragmentation of Erich von Stroheim’s career entire.

In Jack Ford’s case, the loss of 1918’s The Craving, his sole directorial collaboration with his brother and erstwhile mentor Francis, particularly stings.

But for the purposes of this retrospective, a part of me is thankful that very little of Ford’s Universal output is available for viewing, for two reasons: the completionist in me balks at “greatest hits” retrospectives, whose omissions risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater; and it frees me up to view some of the fragments and shorts dotting Ford’s early work. And though at least parts of a few films from 1917 and 1918 have survived (including a complete print of the feature Hell Bent), the next available Ford I could get my hands on was By Indian Post, a partially restored two-reeler.

Sadly, viewing the film provided the final irony of the so-called silver lining to my completionism: I may have been spared from features that were probably barely above anonymous product, but based on this film his shorts were no better. In fact, By Indian Post is unrecognizable as Fordian not only when held up to Straight Shooting, but even next to the comparatively tossed-off Bucking Broadway. Only two shots even register as interesting: a savage closeup of the hero (Pete Morrison) being throttled...

...and a wide of cowboys in the foreground and background riding towards each other, whose fascination with horse rumps and horizon lines screams “John Ford!” louder than anything else in his work up to this point.

The story’s thinness is, thankfully, well-suited to a two-reeler: cowboy Jode McWilliams writes a love letter for a girl named Peg Owens. A passing native named Two Horns finds the letter, admires its “paper talk” and resolves to take it to a “white girl”
(the second cringeworthy instance of racist comedy in the Ford canon) — obviously Peg. Jode sets out with a gaggle of cowboys to find Two Horns, who delivers the letter to Peg’s great delight.

A man who is apparently a rival for Peg’s love (the details of this are presumably lost with the still-missing 10 minutes) fights with Jode and ties him up in a hotel room, where he is rescued by a friend, grabs a parson in a neighbouring room, and is married to Peg as his rival tries to break down the locked door. The two are pronounced and ride away.

A little spotty in clarity, sure (there’s obviously a lot missing between those two paragraphs), but there’s a clear narrative there, marking a fine restoration job by Lobster Films. And though the thrill of watching a developing stylist doesn’t register much, it does at least show Ford achieving a more successful comic touch than Bucking Broadway, whose gags did not mesh much into the story as a whole. By Indian Post’s farce is fluid and pokes fun at its characters, and so it is, by and large, actually amusing.

But anonymous it remains, and I’ll take ambition over uninspired competence any day. It is valuable inasmuch as it bears the fingerprints of one of cinema’s supreme artists, but I can’t help but wish we could beseech the gods of film preservation to trade it for 4 Devils — or at least The Craving.

The restored By Indian Post can be found on the UK DVD Retour de Flamme Vol 5 - The Fabulous Days of the Early Cinema.


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