Early John Ford
For a long time it was thought that Bucking Broadway was lost, like so many other early John Ford silent Westerns, but happily in 1970 a copy was discovered in the archives of the Centre national de la cinématographie in France, and a restored print was the result. This is not (as far as I know) available on DVD, which is unfortunate, but you can watch it on YouTube, and if you see it on a biggish screen like a smart TV you will have a pleasant viewing experience. The print is good, with a yellowish tint.
The picture dates from Ford’s years at Carl Laemmle’s Universal, where the young Jack (he wasn’t yet the grander John Ford) followed in his older brother Francis Ford’s footsteps and learned the motion picture craft. Released in December 1917, it was the last of seven Jack Ford Westerns (that we know about) that year. The only other one that has survived is Straight Shooting, released in August ’17, in which Ford’s principal star, Harry Carey, also appeared as the good-badman Cheyenne Harry. We’ll have a look at that one next time.
Bucking Broadway opens with nice landscape shots in ‘Wyoming’ (California, of course) and this aspect was already a key element of Ford Westerns. The setting became a key part of the movie in a time when so many Westerns (especially those with modest budgets) were confined to pretty basic and unconvincing studio sets. The cinematography was by John W Brown, whom Ford used on nineteen silent Westerns, and Ben F Reynolds, who shot thirteen oaters for Ford and later worked for Henry Hathaway on those Zane Grey adaptations at Paramount in the early 1930s.
We have a rather bucolic Western setting of a Wyoming ranch with its cowpokes, among whom of course is Cheyenne Harry (Carey), and the owner, good old Ben Clayton (LM Wells, in really quite splendid white handlebar mustaches) naturally has a glam daughter – it was obligatory in them days – Helen (Molly Malone: her name alone would have been enough for Ford to hire her), and equally naturally Harry pines for her. Indeed, he has even built a cabin for her, in which he duly proposes and she duly says yes.
However (there’s always an however) a rich and elegantly attired horse-buyer from back East turns up in his (very handsome) motor car and this city slicker immediately starts chatting Helen up, then wooing her. This is Eugene Thornton (Vester Pegg, also the villain in Straight Shooting and with the same character name, Thornton, as the baddy in Hell Bent – click for that one) and he will soon turn out to be a real cad. Harry tries to compete with Thornton by buying new clothes – there follows a comic scene in the general store – but Thornton proposes in his turn and is accepted by the faithless gal. Together, much to the chagrin of Harry and Helen’s pop, the couple elope to New York.
At this point, unfortunately, the added music, already pretty dire sub-Morricone dross, becomes unbearable as a woman’s voice screeches, and you have to turn the sound down.
Well, while old Ben looks mournfully out of a doorway in a classic John Ford shot, Harry sets off for NYC to find his love.
A smoothie urban couple of con-artists get hold of country-bumpkin Harry’s cash but one of them, the dame (sadly uncredited), takes pity on him, gives him back the money and tells him where Helen is. So Harry catches up with the unhappy couple (for Helen has now realized what a drunken slob she is engaged to) at the posh Columbia Hotel. There, Thornton is beating Helen up, the swine, and at this point Harry calls in reinforcements. You see, the Wyoming cowboys have all come to New York too (pretty improbable, I know, but you gotta have a plot) and they ride to the rescue. We get a splendid shot of the posse riding down Broadway among the motor traffic followed by a ‘saloon brawl’ in the five-star hotel.
It’s all rather silly, but in a nice way, and like all these early Ford Westerns we still have, it’s rather charming. The acting is not overdone, as it so often was in these early movies, but really quite restrained and understated. A must-see for all true Westernistas, especially if they are interested in John Ford.