The story is as old as the hills: Country boy loses girl to city slicker but then gets a chance to win her back. Speaking of being lost and found, this film was once thought lost before turning up in France. A good thing too as it is the second-earliest John Ford-directed film to survive. Harry Carey plays the unfortunate Wyoming beau.
You can take the cowboy out of the country…
Back in 1917, John Ford was still being billed as “Jack” and he was directing a series of western shorts for Universal with the popular Harry Carey in the lead playing a stock character named Cheyenne Harry. Both men were ambitious and wanted to move up to features but that wasn’t easy. The shorts were making money. Why risk the higher budget of a feature when people still enjoyed the two-reelers?
According to Carey’s widow, Olive, Carey and Ford resorted to some trickery. They told Universal that their film stock had fallen into the water and that they needed more. With double the film to work with, they produced Straight Shooting.
Sadly, it seems that none of Ford’s two-reel shorts survive but Straight Shooting is rather impressive, especially for a first-time feature director. It is gorgeously shot and its centerpiece is a realistically ruthless shotgun shootout between Carey and Vester Pegg.
The money men at Universal were less than impressed with Ford and Carey’s deception and intended to cut Straight Shooting down to two reels. Universal head Carl Laemmle came to the rescue. As he rather colorfully put it, “If I order a suit of clothes and the fellow gives me an extra pair of pants free, what am I going to do—throw them back in his face?” Straight Shooting stayed a feature.
(You can read more about Ford’s early career in Scott Eyman’s excellent Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford.)
The success of Straight Shooting pulled Ford and Carey out of the short film doldrums. Just four months (and two other features) later, they collaborated once again for Bucking Broadway. If Straight Shooting owed its austerity and style to the westerns of William S. Hart, Bucking Broadway was right out of the Charles Ray playbook: Country Boy vs. The Big City.
Bucking Broadway was thought lost for nearly a century before a print turned up in a French archive. It has since been lovingly restored and made available for all to enjoy.
Harry Carey once again plays Cheyenne Harry, a good-natured ranch hand who has fallen for Helen (Molly Malone), the boss’s daughter. He plucks up the nerve to ask for her hand, is accepted and prepares to bring his bride home to his small ranch.
In the meantime, the boss (L.M. Wells) has hired a city man to help price his horses. Eugene Thorton (Vester Pegg) shows up with a fancy car, fancy New York ways and sweeps Helen off her feet. He asks her to return to New York with him and be his wife. Helen hesitates—she is engaged to Harry, after all—but soon lets the whirlwind romance get the better of her. She leaves a Dear Harry note and departs for New York.
Harry knows he has lost her and is prepared to give her up if that makes her happy. However, Helen immediately realizes that she has made a mistake and on the eve of her engagement party, she sends a letter to Harry asking for him to come to her. Harry doesn’t hesitate for a second. He’s off to New York to save his lady!
If the plot is pedestrian, the acting and the cinematography are anything but. The film boasts rich, deep shots of landscape, cattle, horses and the performers in perfect composition. These compositions are, I dare say, among the best I have seen in films of 1917 and it is hard to believe that Ford was only in his first year as a director.
Feast your eyes!
Bucking Broadway was pretty much an excuse to film the climax, which features fistfights in a grand hotel, Harry’s cowboy friends galloping to his rescue through the streets of New York (thus the movie’s title) and the subsequent brawl. It’s an exciting scene and the cast throws their all into it.
The editing is also excellent, with bold and rapid cuts during the action scenes. The other technical aspects are, perhaps, less accomplished. Ford has not yet discovered what a panning shot is for. The story seems a bit choppy but this may be due to missing footage. I noticed that the picture momentarily blanks out, an indication that snippets of footage are gone.
The performances are nicely understated. Of course, Harry Carey was one of the most proficient actors in the western club and his easygoing charm and sincerity are always welcome. He also engages in a very rough fist fight with his romantic rival. Nice!
Molly Malone does good work, though I did not much care for her character. She does sport some adorable hats, though. In my opinion, most interesting character and performance in the film (tragically, uncredited) is the glamorous New York grifter who takes a shine to Harry and helps him track down Helen. The uncredited actress has fun with her role as an unabashed swindler with a soft spot for cowboys. To be honest, I wished that Harry would dump Helen and end up with her. Now that would have been a fun twist.
Really, the two main flaws of Bucking Broadway are the sometimes-muddled plot and some rather unfortunate racial humor. Neither flaw reaches the point of being a deal-breaker for me personally, I am just issuing a friendly content warning.
While it is hardly ambitious and it is basically a two-reel plot stretched out to an hour, Bucking Broadway still has plenty of charms to recommend it. Harry Carey is adorable as the awkward lover, the cinematography is beautiful and the climax is a great deal of fun. No one is going to call this picture a masterpiece but it is well worth seeing, especially for fans of John Ford who wish to make the acquaintance of his younger incarnation.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Bucking Broadway was released as an extra on the DVD and Blu-ray Criterion Collection release of Stagecoach. It features a peppy and humorous score from Donald Sosin. This set is certainly worth adding to your collection as you get two top-notch westerns for the price of one.