Monday, January 21, 2013
Just Pals is a warm, pleasant, low-key early silent from John Ford, a simple and rather loose film about a town bum and the young rail-riding kid who he befriends. Bim (Buck Jones) is a layabout, reviled all around town as a good-for-nothing bum who will never trouble himself to do a bit of work that he doesn't have to do. In one nice shot early on, Ford shows Bim lounging around in a hayloft while, in the deep focus background, laborers work hard down below. Bim shouts out to them, in a title card, that even just watching them work is too much work for him, and that sums up his character pretty well. But his restlessness, shifting around trying to get comfortable after seeing the workers, suggests that maybe he isn't as content with his shiftless reputation and laziness as he tries to pretend he is.
Bim soon makes friends with a young kid named Bill (George Stone), who, like most other kids and no adults, instantly likes the laidback Bim. They have a warm friendship that Ford depicts in a few scenes — most humorously, a great scene when Bim tries to give the resisting kid a bath by dangling him from a barn rafter with a rope tied around his midsection — before the film ambles on to something else. The plot's surprisingly overstuffed for a film that's not even an hour long, and the second half builds much of the action around a crooked accountant (William Buckley) who gets his sweet schoolteacher girlfriend Mary (Helen Ferguson) in trouble by "borrowing" money from her. The film also crams in a suicide attempt, a bank robbery, a child kidnapping, a lynch mob, and some frenzied action scenes.
This means that the film switches tones every five or ten minutes, sometimes pitched as a light humanist comedy (in tone, anyway; there aren't many actual jokes), sometimes as a Western actioner with Bim trying to foil a gang of bank robbers, sometimes as a melodrama with the schoolteacher suffering for the crimes of her no-good boyfriend and Bim trying to save her from harm. The one throughline is the very Fordian Western theme that the lazy bum turns out to be a noble, decent man while the seemingly sophisticated businessman is actually a crooked scoundrel who reveals his true colors in the finale. It's a version of the noble-country-versus-corrupt-city dichotomy of many old-school Westerns — Ford's own Bucking Broadway included — even if here all the characters belong, geographically if not spiritually, to the country.
There are some excellent scenes along the way, too. In one scene, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the narrative, a young boy is supposed to throw a bag full of kittens into the river, but he can't go through with it, and he just dumps the cats out in the grass instead. Mary looks on in horror, instinctively turning her face away and covering her mouth, and in the next scene the town is abuzz because she's thrown herself in the river, distraught over the scandal in which she's stuck. The connection between the kid's act of mercy and Mary's suicide attempt is ambiguous but very resonant.
Later, during the bank robbery, Ford employs Griffith-like crosscutting to enhance the building tension as the robbers blow the vault, Bim races to save the day, and in the church, the rest of the townsfolk are totally oblivious. That includes the clueless sheriff (Duke R. Lee), the broadest comic caricature here, a gnarly old man who, when the collection box comes around in church, flashes his badge as though that exempts him from donating. At the very end of the film, he disrupts the romanticism of the finale with an almost surreal flourish when he pokes his head out of a hole in a tree like a cartoon animal.
This is a rather strange little film, and a very enjoyable one as well. Its arc of redemption is predictable, but still poignant, and Jones' heartfelt performance makes it especially easy to feel the heartbreaking regret that the seemingly easygoing Bim actually feels about his his lowly place within this town. And the film is just packed with so much, offering some lush melodrama one moment, a gang of thieves riding into town, kicking up dust, the next. Throughout his career, Ford would always combine genres and tones like this, often more smoothly than here, but Just Pals already shows the director deftly juggling comedy and drama, equally interested in tugging heartstrings and delivering brawling pile-ups and gunfights.