Salute Your Shorts: John Ford's Bucking Broadway
Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
Of all the great directors, perhaps the one with the most tattered remains of a viewable filmography is John Ford. Of the 140+ films he made (an exact number is impossible given controversies regarding many of his early works that may or may not have been directed by him or even made at all), a good 50 or so are lost, most likely irrevocably. Early films were rarely retained, with volatile film stock easily ruined by accident simply through subpar storage or even destroyed for its silver. This is especially true of smaller film companies, and when Ford joined the industry, his group, Universal, was tiny and took notoriously bad care of their films. The things simply weren’t considered useful to keep around and, as such, of his more than 60 silents, we’re left with around 15 complete or mostly complete films and a few others that still have fragments.
But once every blue moon someone finds a print of a century-old movie, and just such an occasion happened a few years back when Ford’s Bucking Broadway was discovered in a French film vault. The picture had been mislabeled as À l’assaut du boulevard when it had been acquired as part of a large collection 30 years prior to its rediscovery in 2002. Bucking Broadway is only the second of Ford’s films from 1917 to have been found, following the discovery of Straight Shooting back in 1969 in a similar collection being kept in Prague. It’s included in Criterion’s release of Stagecoach and is a surprisingly good film considering that it’s a silent picture from 1917 and thus probably not everyone’s cup of tea.
Ford began his work with the film industry as an assistant prop man for his brother Francis Ford, a director for Universal who primarily worked on westerns. As part of his brother’s repertory cast and crew, John Ford did a lot more than just help out with props, though. He worked the camera, he occasionally acted (he actually had a small part in Birth of a Nation as well) and acted as a stunt extra for his brother because of their obvious resembalence. Eventuallly, though, due to his brother’s drunkenness, John Ford ended up getting tapped by the studio as a director. As he was fond of recounting later, he ended up with his first job because he “yells good” and the studio needed someone to be in charge of their next Harry Carey picture.
As his relationship with Francis deteriorated, John Ford found a new mentor in Carey, whose contract with Universal was running out. Ford used what would become his standard company to direct a two-reeler quickie short film and following its success continued working with Carey. The pair made several other pictures until Straight Shooting came along, which was commissioned as another two-reeler, but Ford turned in a five-reel film. While the movie’s editor initially balked at the job, one of the studio’s executives was happy with the surprise and transitioned Ford into directing longer pictures full-time, with the occasional shorts thrown in between them.
Bucking Broadway was not, strictly speaking, a short film. It was, in fact, Ford’s fourth “feature” film, though that terminology is somewhat inapplicable for the time period. Films at the time were measured by the number of reels they were composed of, with shorts generally one or two reels and features four or more. Bucking Broadway was made in 1917 and just ten years before then, multi-reel films at all were a rarity. The film was five reels long, with each reel roughly 10-11 minutes long, making it a feature film by the standards of the time but still only 54 minutes long. By today’s standards, the film’s length is in an odd middle ground between features and shorts that’s infrequently made anymore, in some ways more akin to an episode of something like Lost than a feature-length film we’d ever see in theaters today, which is why it’s being covered in this column. As far as how much story could be told, a five-reeler is a unique anachronism from a very different period of time, a fact that tends to get glossed over when discussing pictures from that age.
The plot of Bucking Broadway is for the most part extremely typical of its genre. Harry Carey stars as Cheyenne, a local cowpoke who’s fallen in love with his boss’ daughter. She reciprocates, but then, for little to no reason, runs off with a man visiting from the city. She leaves only a note behind her and both her father and her betrothed are left wondering what became of her. Once whisked off to the big city, though, she finds herself disenchanted with the man she came with and sends back for “rescue.” Cheyenne follows her and eventually finds the lady and the man she arrived with. He sends word to his friends back home and they come riding to his rescue, beating up the man and his cronies in a large-scale brawl.
With such a simple plot, the question at hand is how much of Ford’s later greatness is evident here, in his second earliest remaining film. The answer, surprisingly, is a whole lot. Not only does the movie carry the very definite stamp of its director, it’s also entertaining enough that it manages to flesh out a story that’s even in 1917 largely repeating what’s come before it (other than the city, the plot’s not so different from Straight Shooting). While many works from that time period can seem obtuse by modern standards, Bucking Broadway manages to still feel involving, making it easy to become lost in the film until the occasional jarring difference between silent film style and contemporary films becomes distracting.
A lot of this comes from the way Ford and Carey create characters. Carey’s Cheyenne is oddly thoughtful for the time period, thinking about situations and displaying some real emotions. He’s also relaxed in a way that’s easy to see repeated by John Wayne decades later, a cowboy who’s so sure of himself that he seems an influence not just on the Duke but also James Dean. A lot of this came from Carey, but you can see this in the movie’s other characters as well. Despite needing to rush through events, Ford gives characters time to ruminate on things. This is especially odd with the film’s female lead, whose actions seem largely unmotivated. Regardless, the characters are given some modicum of depth which is largely non-existent in many of the film’s contemporaries.
Then there are the film’s panoramas. While obviously not as great as what Ford would shoot later, they have the same epic feel to them as later films. A lot of this comes from the way Ford used landscapes so casually. Since he was actually shooting outdoors, he was able to emphasize the beauty of the natural world without calling attention to things, with beautiful backgrounds thrown in seemingly without care but in fact carefully composed. Ford used more straight-on, semi-theatrical framings here than he would in later works but they’re just as conscious of detail as the rest of his works. Bucking Broadway is weakest in its third act when much of the action takes place in enclosed areas, which Ford was yet to figure out how to make as lively as the outdoors. Another complaint is that the film’s yellow and turquoise tinting does significant damage to the beauty of the film, an aspect of silent era filmmaking that has truly not held up with time.
Ford considered his sense of humor to be one of his best traits as a director, an aspect of his style that sometimes goes without consideration. Bucking Broadway is, in fact, first and foremost a comedy, not a gunslinger film at all as most later westerns became. Light comedy suffuses almost all of the film, which isn’t its strongest trait, but still holds up well in light of its contemporaries. The film doesn’t have a sophisticated sense of humor, but some of its jokes still work regardless of age. Ford was wrong in estimation of his own work, but it’s clear that he was in fact a very strong silent comedy director, though we’ll likely never see much more of this than is evident here.
The highlight of the film, though, was certainly the climactic charge of the cowboys into Los Angeles (despite this scene taking place in “New York”) and the brawl that results. This scene was novel at the time the film was made and, if anything, has become more interesting since then given that it’s still a unique concept. Universal promoted the film by claiming that 20 cowboys galloped through the city for the making of the picture, and though that’s clearly not true (it looks more like, say, six), it’s still a striking image of Ford’s uncivilized world striking against the world of modernity. Universal also claimed that Carey broke a rib during the fight, which is entirely possible considering Ford’s stance on fights and stunts, that they be done for real, and the entire affair makes up for a weak 10 minutes preceding this section, which consists largely of meandering about the city.
I’d hesitate to call the rediscovery of Bucking Broadway the finding of a masterpiece, as it’s really not. What it is, though, is a quality piece of entertainment that, with the right mindset, can be just as enjoyable today as it was when made, with the added bonus that Ford (or Carey) fans get a new perspective on the celebrated filmmaker. For once, Variety got things right in its 1917 assessment of the film, describing it as, “Ridiculously inconsistent but exceedingly effective for the not over-critical.” Something tells me Ford would be happy to hear any of his movies described like that.