Friday, November 23, 2012
John Ford's Lightnin' is a modest, low-key little silent comedy that concentrates entirely on the folksy humor that often populates the fringes of Ford's films. The prospect of an entire film that focuses on what serves as not-always-welcome cornpone comic relief in Ford's more serious works isn't necessarily appealing, but there's some modest enjoyment to be found in Lightnin' anyway, at least before it gets bogged down in sentiment and turgid courtroom drama in its second half.
The film opens with an extended introduction for the old-timer "Lightnin' Bill" Jones (Jay Hunt) and his pal Zeb (Otis Harlan), two amiable drunks who will go to any lengths to get a drink. Bill and his shrewish wife (Edythe Chapman) run a curious hotel that straddles the Nevada/California border, so that married women can stay in Nevada while awaiting a divorce but still get their mail sent to California to avoid the shame of staying at a Nevada hotel. Ford sets a meandering, somewhat ramshackle pace, focusing on the shenanigans of Bill and Zeb as they dig up various buried booze bottles while trying to avoid the disapproving eye of Mrs. Jones. There are some decent running gags here, especially involving Bill's dog, who dutifully tracks down hidden bottles of alcohol and fetches them for Bill.
Eventually, the film ambles along into an actual plot, involving a band of corrupt land barons who are trying to swindle the Joneses out of their property, with Bill resisting at the advice of his young friend John Marvin (Wallace MacDonald), who knows all too well that this deal isn't on the level, since the same gang swindled his family. Marvin's also wanted by the police, since he took his land back by force from the crooks. This provides an opportunity for Ford to establish a comic situation similar to that of Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality, with the local sheriff unable to issue his Nevada warrant on Marvin as long as he remains on the California side of the Jones hotel. Ford never really takes advantage of the comic potential of these situations; he's not a really great comic director, though he has an undeniable feel for this kind of folksy rural milieu, including the corny humor and stock types that come with the territory.
The film's sentimental plot and old-fashioned humor mean that its appeal is fairly limited, and its deliberate pacing doesn't help. In the second half of the film, the plot leads to a courtroom drama with Mrs. Jones requesting a divorce from Bill, talked into it by the crooked men trying to take her land. At this point, the film slows to a crawl and, at the finale, gets totally overwhelmed by predictably sentimental hokum, culminating with Bill's earnest speech in which he wins back his wife. Despite the lame plot and down-home humor, Ford provides some occasional visual interest and poignancy to the film, much of it focusing on the relationship between John Marvin and the Joneses' daughter Millie (Madge Bellamy).
At one point, Millie, playing up her anger at John, prepares a meal for him anyway, leaving a note beside it to remind him that she's still angry at him despite her gesture. While he eats at the table in the foreground, she's in the doorway in the background, facing away from him and from the camera. The composition dramatizes the conflict between the young lovers while also emphasizing that the girl's anger is to some degree theatrical, a pose, and that despite her turned back she's still connected to John. The doorway also adds to the tension of the shot; it's not the typical Fordian doorway shot with an outsider isolated from the home, but as always in Ford the threshold of the house is made to seem like a site of great import. Here, perhaps, because the girl is still inside the house, not separated from her lover by the doorway, it's a way of confirming that the break between them is not decisive. Soon after, she does lock him out so that he's on one side of the door and she's on the other — after he has the nerve to kiss her — but the way that she caresses the door in his absence once again confirms her longing for him. The staging of these scenes is consistently clever, delving into the contradictions between surface separation and subterranean connection.
Such moments reveal Ford's sensibility even when working with some rather weak material. Lightnin' isn't one of Ford's better or more revealing silents, but with its sporadically striking images and an early example of Ford's love of folksy comic archetypes, it's well worth seeing for devotees of the director.