John Martin Feeney (a.k.a. John Ford or Jack Ford in his early credits) first started working in Hollywood at the age of 20 for his older brother, Francis Ford. Getting involved in various production roles, including acting, it didn’t take long for John to take a seat in the director’s chair. Starting out making short films in 1917 at the age of 23, he made his first feature-length film later that same year.
Ford’s work from the early 30s onwards is widely known and discussed, but he’d already directed a great wealth of films prior to that. Other than his epic The Iron Horse, Ford’s silent films are little-seen. This is largely due to the fact that the vast majority of his early work is now lost, as is often the case with silent films. They weren’t always saved for posterity and many got destroyed in fires, due to the highly flammable nature of early film stock.
Remarkably, Straight Shooting, Ford’s feature-length debut, did survive though. It has been recently restored and Eureka are releasing it alongside another early silent film from Ford, Hell Bent. I got hold of a copy of the set to see how these two westerns from the burgeoning legend of the genre stood up against his most famous work.
Director: John Ford (as Jack Ford)
Story by: George Hively
Starring: Harry Carey, Duke R. Lee, George Berrell, Molly Malone, Ted Brooks, Hoot Gibson, Milton Brown
Running Time: 62 min
Straight Shooting was the second western Ford made starring Harry Carey, after the short The Soul Herder. It proved to be a collaboration even more fruitful than Ford’s with John Wayne, as the pair made 25 films together in total (Wayne only made 23 with Ford and 5 of these were uncredited bit-parts and another was just a voiceover narration).
Carey plays Cheyenne Harry, a notorious gunfighter who’s hired by cattleman Flint (Duke R. Lee) to help drive a family of settlers from their land. However, when he discovers Flint’s targets are an innocent old man, Sims (George Berrell), and his beautiful daughter Joan (Molly Malone), Harry has a change of heart and decides to help the settlers ward off Flint and his cronies. Harry can’t do this alone though, so enlists the help of his old buddy Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown) and his band of outlaws.
For a debut made in the relatively early days of feature-length films, Straight Shooting is remarkably assured. Ford’s keen eye for composition is already apparent, with many pleasing images. He keeps his camera largely static but makes effective use of differing planes to create depth. There are even some of his famous doorway shots, using the device to frame numerous character entrances and exits from or to the great outdoors.
Some of Ford’s familiar themes already come into play here too. Harry is asked at the end to choose between civilisation and the wilderness and the conflict between the two is ever-present, as it is in a great many of Ford’s westerns.
The film has a great sense of pace too. It’s only an hour long so races through its admittedly quite simple story. The only time it slows down is in the final scenes, which feel a little drawn out.
There are a couple of exciting set-pieces, with the inevitable showdown at the settlement providing some impressive horseriding stunts and effective inter-cutting, but Ford builds his characters rather than simply presenting a bit of shoot-em-up action. There are some nice little touches in the drama for instance, such as Joan mournfully putting the empty plate of her murdered brother back in the drawer after he didn’t come home for dinner.
Ford may have crafted richer films further down the line, but this short and sweet debut is very effective. You can also see many seeds sown for his signature style that would later emerge. Plus, besides all that, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Director: John Ford (as Jack Ford)
Story by: John Ford (as Jack Ford), Harry Carey, Eugene B. Lewis
Starring: Harry Carey, Duke R. Lee, Neva Gerber, Vester Pegg, Joe Harris
Running Time: 53 min
Hell Bent sees Carey once again playing Cheyenne Harry, who heads into a town in the wild west and meets Bess Thurston (Neva Gerber), falling head over heels for her. Bess needs to support her sick mother after her brother Jack (Vester Pegg) loses his job, so she becomes a performer at the local dance hall. Harry is initially shocked to see her there, as he thought she was a ‘decent’ girl.
He soon warms to the idea though and, when Bess is accosted by Beau Ross (Harris), he saves her. Bess falls for him at this point, but is put off by his drunken behaviour shortly afterwards. Her trust in Harry wavers further when it appears he let some bank robbers get away with the town’s cash reserves. What she doesn’t realise is that Harry let them off because he discovered one of the thieves was Bess’ brother Jack.
Later, Ross snatches Bess and Harry heads into the wilderness to save her.
Hell Bent once again tells the story of an initially drunken and dishonourable man (Harry is introduced to us after escaping from cheating at a card game) who is reformed by a beautiful young woman, who he must later save from greedy bad guys. However, the film takes a markedly different approach to the material than Straight Shooting.
Chiefly, Hell Bent takes a comedic stance as opposed to the straight-up drama of Straight Shooting. From the offset, in a self-reflexive introduction that sees a writer receive a letter from his producer asking him “if the hero in your next story were a more ordinary man, as bad as he is good”, you know you’re in for a film that’s going to poke a little fun at western conventions.
As such, you get a fair few scenes of drunken mischief, particularly between Harry and his newly found friend Cimmaron Bill (Duke R. Lee). There’s also a fun sequence when the alcoholic Harry is invited for a cup of tea with Bess and he tries his best to go along with it.
The comedy is cut back in the final reel though, when the drama and action kick in. This portion didn’t work very well for me, though it’s largely because there are a lot of missing frames, causing big jumps and confusion, often in key moments of action. It could be due to the condition of the surviving print or it could be because Ford shot fast and didn’t always stick to the rules of continuity. Either way, it makes for a more disjointed film than Straight Shooting.
It’s a less satisfying film in general, that feels like it was rushed out in production. Ford’s shots aren’t as artfully composed, for instance, though there’s still a nice use of locations in places.
Overall then, Hell Bent is another entertaining western for the young director, but it doesn’t feel as polished as Straight Shooting, let alone Ford’s later work. Its comic slant is refreshing but it feels a bit scrappy and underdeveloped overall.
Straight Shooting & Hell Bent: Two Films by John Ford is out on 19th April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. Both films look very good, considering their age. There is minor damage on each print, with some strange horizontal stripes on Hell Bent in a couple of sequences for instance, but this is to be expected from films that are more than 100 years old. Otherwise, there is plenty of detail and the pictures look pleasingly natural. The scores come through nicely too. Michael Gatt’s music for Straight Shooting uses a mix of piano for drama and guitar for western flavour. Zachary Marsh’s Hell Bent score utilises a slightly bigger ensemble and has a lively, saloon band feel to it, which is appropriate to the film.
The 2-disc Blu-ray set includes:
– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase and reversible sleeve artwork [First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
– Both features presented in 1080p on Blu-ray from 4K restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures, available for the first time ever on home video in the UK
– Straight Shooting Score by Michael Gatt
– Hell Bent Score by Zachary Marsh
– Straight Shooting Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of ‘Searching for John Ford: A Life’
– Hell Bent Audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride
– Brand new interview with film critic and author Kim Newman
– Bull Scores a Touchdown Video essay by Tag Gallagher
– A Horse or a Mary? Video essay by Tag Gallagher
– Archival audio interview from 1970 with John Ford by Joseph McBride
– A short fragment of the lost film Hitchin Posts (dir. John Ford, 1920) preserved by the Library of Congress
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring writing by Richard Combs, Phil Hoad, and Tag Gallagher
The two commentaries are excellent, with Joseph McBride providing plenty of in-depth background information about the films and those involved.
Kim Newman’s piece on Carey is very good too, casting light on a once quite famous actor I must admit I know very little about.
Tag Gallagher’s two pieces offer some short but illuminating analyses of the films, with a slightly quirky approach as is often the case with his special feature contributions.
Ford is irritable and closed-off in his interview but it remains an engaging record of the director in his later years.
Hitchin Posts is a nice addition too, offering another look at Ford’s work during the silent era. It’s only one scene, a surprisingly touching sequence surrounding a card game, but is beautifully directed and performed.
I haven’t been sent the booklet to look at yet, but Eureka’s booklets are among the best in the market, so usually add a lot of value.
Overall, it’s a fine package that Ford and western fans should definitely get their hands on.