Sad Hill Media

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

by Will Ross

In a time when “melodrama” is too often used as a pejorative, it’s instructive to remember that melodramas were once a widespread genre. Indeed, the word was unashamedly used as a descriptor even in advertising, for there it sits on the poster for The Village Blacksmith, just a few short lines above the hallowed name of Ford. A subgenre that so plaintively appeals to the audience’s emotions begs for visual excess, and so in the single surviving Blacksmith reel Ford’s skills as an overt stylist emerge for perhaps the first time.
It’s night. It’s pissing rain. A crippled man, Johnnie Hammond, is gripped by vengeful fury, and drags himself across the muddy village, teeth grit, hair flayed across his face. His father, John the heavy-set blacksmith, braves the storm and rescues the love interest Alice, who has attempted suicide after being framed for theft by her no-good beau Anson — just as Mary did in Just Pals, which gives an idea of the boilerplate material with which Ford worked at this stage in his career.
Johnnie, meanwhile, at last he reaches the home of Anson, crawls in the door, and demands a confession from Anson and his father for their betrayal. Then he gets the shit whipped out of him.
It would be unfair to judge or read much into Blacksmith, given that this reel constitutes only one eighth of its original runtime, but two things we can glean: first, that the acting is clearly laboured and overwrought (though, of course, it is a melodrama, and is perhaps improved by context); second, that Jack Ford’s high contrast handling of the stormy exteriors and overall direction, ridiculous though it is, is striking stuff.
For better or worse, Ford commits himself to the story’s hyperbolism with high-contrast cinematography, self-conscious compositions, and wild lighting effects. In some ways, this predicts Ford’s “Murnau period” in the late 20s, when the German expressionist was working at Fox.
The sequence concludes when John rescues his son from the whipping and forces the father-son fiends to confess their crimes publicly. The film ends with Johnnie’s legs repaired by his medically trained brother, and then a wedding between Johnny and Alice, with a far lighter tone.
Though the merits of the material and actors are dubious at best, Ford’s handling of the film is, at least in the remaining climax and denouement, a work of well-rounded competence with an artistic flair to it. The young director was clearly primed to dive into more personal projects, and when we next see him, he will no longer be Jack Ford.


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