John Ford’s “Bucking Broadway” (1917)

Speaking of General Sterling Price’s roommate, did you know that John Wayne got his start in the silents? Here is one of his bit appearances in Hangman’s House (1928).

Yeah, he’s just cheering on a racehorse now, but in years to come, after a name change and lots of dues to be paid, he’ll be riding many horses onscreen to glory.

Wayne – who was just Marion Morrison in the 1920s – might not have gotten anywhere after an injury ruined his football career at USC if megastar Tom Mix hadn’t liked football. Morrison got Mr. Mix game tickets, and Mix got Morrison a summer job in the prop department, where he met John Ford.  The rest is history.

But what was Ford up to before he and the Duke met and established their famous working relationship?  What were his silent movies like?

Ford Before Ford

Click the link underneath the picture to the right for a detailed look at “Ford Before Ford.”

In 1914, per Wikipedia, Ford moved from his native East Coast home to Hollywood and started working for his older brother Francis, who had come out earlier and was now an established actor and director with his own production studio.

Despite the family connection, young Jack had dues to pay, too – this was long before he would meet Marion Morrison and decide the name “John Wayne” looked better on the marquee.

Ford started out as an assistant, handyman, stuntman and occasional actor in his brother’s studio before becoming cameraman and chief assistant.

It wasn’t until 1917 that Ford began directing. He made 10 movies and closed out his first year of directing with Bucking Broadway.  Like about 85% of Ford’s silent films, this was considered lost until recently (some sources say 1970, others 2002), when a print was found in France. It was in rough condition and took nine months to restore.

Here is the result.

You can’t really classify Bucking Broadway. It’s part Western, part comedy, part melodrama, part documentary (that extended bronco breaking scene in the middle).

It has its hokey parts, as many silent era films do, but also has premarital sex and a lesbian (this was pre-code).  There is also some racism and sexism, but overall Bucking Broadway has a surprisingly modern feel for a film done in 1917.

While this could be an artifact from the restoration and editing, there are some familiar Ford touches and that’s exciting since the movie was made so early in the director’s career.  You can recognize the style already:  the long shots against spectacular backgrounds; framed scenes that have an emotional impact on your mind as well as your heart; Harry Carey (Cheyenne); Irish-style boozing, rowdiness and male bonding; not to mention the big fight at the end.

Young Jack had learned a lot during just three years in Hollywood, and it would stay with him through the rest of his career.

This version is in English (with Spanish and French subtitles) The first few titles in French are just telling us the history of the film.  It has a modern-era soundtrack, too.

[SPOILERS]

1. The haunting melody when Helen’s dad and Cheyenne find her farewell note is a version of El Degüello, by Dimitri Tiomkin, signifying “no mercy,” as used to powerful effect in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), starring John Wayne. It’s not the actual “No Quarter” bugle call, though. This is what Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and the others probably heard at the Alamo, signifying their doom.

2. What touchingly dates this movie as being almost a century old is that no one gets obliterated at the end. The bad guy gets knocked around and finally gives up, but that’s all. After the big fight, the winners help the losers out of the hotel fountain – it’s been a BIG fight – and send them off pretty much unharmed.

I like that.

3.  The big finale reminds me strongly of the last big fight in Blazing Saddles, and not just because it’s between cowboys and good-looking men (generally) in formal attire.  Ford didn’t break the Fourth Wall, but he sure spread that brawl out all over the hotel, not to mention the cowboys galloping down Broadway (actually downtown LA) to get to it.

However, not even Mel Brooks would have thought of that business earlier in the movie with the radiator; it’s hilarious, in large part because of the way the bellhop handles Cheyenne’s reaction.  Unfortunately, that actor isn’t credited – hope he went on to have a good career in the business.

If you don’t like snakes, though, be forewarned – there’s a detailed closeup (very brief) of a sidewinder rattler.  The definition is so clear that National Geographic could use it today, if they wanted to.  Bet it shook up audiences back in the day to see that suddenly on the big screen!



Categories: Saturday Silents, Silent movies

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