1920 // USA// John Ford (as "Jack Ford") // June 6, 2012 // DVD - Fox (2007)
[Note: This post contains spoilers. Part of a series on the silent films of John Ford.]
From what this author been able to discern, the 1920 comedy-drama Just Pals is the earliest film by acclaimed American director John Ford that is currently available for home viewing by the workaday cinephile. This is hardly surprising, as Just Pals was also the first film Ford made at the studio that was then known as the Fox Film Corporation. Fox’s contemporary corporate home video label has done a commendable job of not only preserving the director’s work, but also of maintaining a quite comprehensive DVD catalog that includes even the director’s more obscure features. (Many of the releases are unsurprisingly bare-bones, but one has to count one’s blessings where silent era home video is concerned.) Given that most of the thirty-odd films that Ford directed at Universal prior to his 1920 Fox debut are lost or incomplete, and that none appear to be available to consumers, Just Pals is the necessary starting point for a chronological trek through Ford’s prolific career.
It’s probably a fool’s errand to try to discern early whispers of Ford’s later auteurist signatures in a feature as pleasantly anonymous as Just Pals. Consistent with that of many American silent features, its story is a double-dose of treacly earnestness, wherein layabout nogoodnik Bim (Buck Jones) discovers virtue and respectability through his friendship with eleven-year-old tramp Bill (Georgie Stone). There is a plot of sorts, chiefly involving the pair’s misadventures as they negotiate the perils of joblessness and homelessness in a small Western town. Not incidentally, Bim has eyes for the local schoolteacher Mary (Helen Ferguson), whose naive entanglement in a shifty suitor’s embezzlement scheme drives most of the film’s action in its latter half. The plot also features a deceitful doctor and his wife, who rather creepily conspire to keep Bill and Bim apart for their own gain. And, just for good measure, camped in the sagebrush outside of town is a flea-bitten gang of bank robbers, the co-conspirators of Mary’s suitor. All of these myriad threads come together neatly in the end, with the evildoers securely behind bars, Mary’s good name restored, and Bim and Bill reunited and polished up.
As with many workmanlike American silents that have faded from popular memory, Just Pals has a kind of matter-of-fact, plodding quality to its storytelling when laid alongside features made just twenty years later (let alone contemporary films). The tidiness of the plot’s resolution notwithstanding, the film is concerned chiefly with presenting a cluster of amusing and thrilling scenes, connected by little more than Jones’ star presence (which is not insubstantial). Accordingly, the film’s events have a this-then-that-then-this banality: Often engaging or exciting in the moment, but lacking in cohesion. Given the film’s vintage, one is inclined to be generous on this score, if only because the aforementioned amusements and thrills have a snappy, theatrical substance that is one of the primary appeals of action-studded films of the era. When Bim hoists Bill up by a pulley in order to give the squirmy tyke a long-overdue wash behind the ears, one can’t help but marvel at its physicality.
And so it is with many of the film’s set pieces: Bim’s spur-of-the-moment rescue of Bill from the hands of a railroad bull; the lad’s foolish nocturnal thievery from what turns into a moving train; and a climactic shootout with the outlaws at the town’s telegraph office. These are all familiar moments of Western action that would not be out of place in Ford’s later filmography, but here they likely represent little more than Hollywood’s perennial fascination with the frontier, rather than this particular filmmaker’s embryonic expression of genre preoccupation. Indeed, at times the Western setting of Just Pals feels almost tossed-off, expressed primarily through the odd plot detail and the film’s modest production design. With a few adjustments, the story could work just as well in a small town anywhere in America.
Visually speaking, Just Pals doesn’t do much to distinguish itself, but this is hardly unusual for the countless American silents turned out by the studios of the time. In such films, the dominant style is best described as “straightforward.” Accordingly, Just Pals is foremost an actor’s feature, and therefore Buck Jones’ film. He possesses the sort of superb leading-man face that only the silent era seemed capable of incubating: square jaw, chiseled cheekbones, and gleaming eyes, yet capable of projecting a kind of dewy sentiment that sets him apart from the stock Tough Guy. Many of the film’s most affecting moments involve little more than Jones gazing off at some distant point, often while embracing Stone with paternal affection. One can practically hear Ford off-camera shouting, “Now, Buck, you’re worried here!” And yet Jones sells it well.
Beyond this, the chief pleasure of Just Pals is the parcel of odd gestures that lend it striking dabs of wit or darkness. There are some unexpected jabs at the petty hypocrisies of the good church-going folk and self-appointed town elders. (It never gets too prickly. This is a Hollywood film, after all.) This satirical current culminates in one of the film’s best visual gags: the grizzled, comically pompous town constable wordlessly rebuffs a proffered church collection plate by flashing his badge. Other idiosyncratic moments crop up here and there. In one of the film’s only special effects shots, Bill blissfully dreams of a proud, employed Bim dressed in a succession of uniforms (including a baseball slugger’s pinstripes). In perhaps the bleakest and strangest scene, a distraught Mary stumbles upon a mother and child about to drown a sack of kittens in the creek. The mother is unable to stomach this deed, but when she turns her back, her son surreptitiously empties the sack into the underbrush. Actress Ferguson watches this scene unfold with a mixture of morbid curiosity and despair that lingers in the mind’s eye. The film subsequently fades to black, and the viewer is left to discern from later dialog that she thereafter attempted to drown herself. The “all’s-right-with-the-world” uplift that closes out the film out can’t quite erase an unsettling moment like that.