Just Pals (1920)

Director: John Ford

Next on the unwatched DVD list, the Ford at Fox silents collection… from which I watched and reviewed The Iron Horse ages ago, so I’ll be looking at the four other films in this particular box. This was John (or should I say Jack) Ford’s first film for Fox, and I presume it was included in the set mainly owing to that historical fact; as such, I didn’t expect a great deal from it, and was consequently surprised by what it offered. Setting is a small town out west somewhere between Wyoming and Nebraska, where things unfold oddly like a Western version of The Kid (which wasn’t released until the next year, of course); a young boy is fleeing west by train and lands in said small town, where Bim (Buck Jones), the town’s good-for-nothing layabout, kind of adopts him, and gradually the two set each other on the straight and narrow. The film’s SilentEra.com entry has a nice list of keywords that’ll give you some idea of how much action the film contains, i.e. a kind of remarkable amount for something that clocks in under 50 minutes… mind you, I suspect at least some of the indecent haste which with everything unfurls is down to the film being transferred at a slightly faster speed than it should’ve been; not as bad as when you see a film shot at 16 frames per second being run at 24, but I think two or three frames less in this case mightn’t have hurt… Still, no denying the film is chock full of stuff, and though the story can be accused of some degree of sentimentality, Ford’s depiction of small-town life is not entirely glowing; it’s tempered with little details of poverty, petty-mindedness, venality and cruelty in a way that’s never really harsh as such, but nonetheless gives a little darkness to proceedings which isn’t entirely dispersed even by the eventual happy ending. (And points to Ford for the big steaming red herring on the way to said ending, a particularly amusing bit of narrative misdirection.) A small film, obviously, but remarkably enjoyable.

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