Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bucking Broadway (1917)

An early John Ford Western, marked by stunning compositions and expansive use of the locations. His distinctive eye for detail is already evident in this early work. Silent Western star Harry Carey appears as his iconic "Cheyenne Harry" character, lending a mythic quality to the story. A ranch hand is engaged to the the owner's daughter, but their romance is threatened by the arrival of a slick New York horse trader, who romances the daughter and takes her back East to get married. At the engagement party, the man reveals his true colors when his abusive side emerges after having had too much to drink, but the ranch hand and his fellow cowboys arrive just in time to save the girl from her attacker, climaxing in a big, energetic barroom-style brawl on the balcony of the Columbia Hotel.

Ford has fun with the sight of the cowboys in the big city, riding their horses down Broadway (actually the streets of Los Angeles standing in for NYC). There is the predictable Fordian humor of the cowboy out of place in the city (such as mistaking the sound of steam leaking from a radiator for the hiss of a rattlesnake), but there is also a startlingly touching moment when a couple of con artists target the him as an easy mark, but have a change of heart after being genuinely moved by his sincerity and sense of honor toward the woman he loves.

Despite its simple premise and brisk pace, Ford demonstrates some astonishing cinematic inventiveness throughout. His debt to Griffith is clear -- most notably in the cross-cutting between the ranch and the city,  especially during the cowboys' ride to the rescue, his attention to small bits of character business and powerful use of closeups. Ford gives these techniques his own stamp through achieving a fluidity often lacking in Griffith, whose closeups and cutaways were often presented as obvious insert shots to heighten a detail. Ford, however, uses them in a way that arises naturally from the internal rhythms of the film's continuity. At times, they are so subtle we're hardly aware of them, but they add up to achieve the effects he is after in each scene.

There is also evidence of some influence from DeMille, in the effective and surprising use of chiaroscuro lighting that does much to heighten the intensity of both the marriage proposal scene between Carey and Molly Malone, and the later scene on their wedding day, when he realizes she has left him to marry another man. Most striking of all, though, are those breathtaking, sweeping Western vistas for which Ford seemed to have an innate sense of composition. The spatiality and depth he achieves through his framing of these landscapes is truly something magnificent to behold.

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