It’s ranchers vs. farmers when the local water rights are up for grabs. John Ford’s first feature film stars Harry Carey as a Good Bad Man and Hoot Gibson as his ally.
None of your crooked shooting, now.
First thing you should know: I’m not a huge John Ford fan. I haven’t seen everything he has directed but I’ve caught the classics and… they’re okay. His films are not on my list of favorite westerns. It’s not hatred, more of a meh. That being said, I have enjoyed his silent films and am ready to give this picture a fair shake.
So, will Straight Shooting dazzle this non-fan of Ford? Does it deserve its reputation as a smashing silent western? Let’s dive in and see! I haven’t seen this in years, so it’s almost like a new-to-me review.
We’re in the west, there are ranchers and farmers and water rights to be had. You just know a range war is in the future. The main target of the villainous ranchers is Sweet Water Sims (George Berrell), a farmer who lives with his two children. Any time something is named “sweetwater” in a western, you know bad things are going to happen and such is the case here.
Thunder Flint (Duke Lee) has claimed the water rights and locked the farmers out of the spring. Further, he has plans to take care of Sims in a rather permanent manner.
Sims has a son, Ted (Ted Brooks), and a daughter, Joan (Molly Malone). Joan’s suitor is Sam Turner (Hoot Gibson), who works for Flint. Turner is also friends with Cheyenne Harry, the Prairie Kid (Harry Carey), an outlaw who dabbles in a bit of killing to pay the bills.
Cheyenne and a rancher named Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg) have been engaged by Flint to kill Sweet Water Sims. They don’t particularly like one another and Fremont is definitely more into the whole killing thing. He proves this when he shoots Ted to death as he is trying to get water from the forbidden stream.
Seeing the mourning family and being smitten by Joan, Cheyenne decides to quit the ranchers and the whole killing game and go straight. Anyone who has seen a William S. Hart picture knows exactly where this is going.
Harry Carey had been in the movies for years, playing assorted toughs in Biograph films, taking a whack at directing (Brute Island, most definitely NOT recommended) and, since January of 1917, playing Cheyenne Harry, a taciturn western hero. He’s absolutely marvelous in this picture, menacing in a disturbing, laid-back kind of way.
Hoot Gibson, who would enjoy quite a long career in westerns himself (he was my father’s childhood favorite alongside Hopalong Cassidy) but he isn’t given all that much to do hear with most of the heroic stuff being done singlehandedly by Carey.
Molly Malone is pretty much your standard western, though she does keep the coquetry to a reasonable level. (No dashing about blowing kisses at squirrels or shrieking when she sees a bird’s nest. Yes, these are things that were considered perfectly sane behavior in some outdoorsy silent films.) She later appeared opposite Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in Comique comedies before returning to westerns.
Vester Pegg needs to lay off the eyeliner but he is generally successful in his villainy. Duke Lee didn’t make much of an impression as the main villain, I’m afraid. Both men would subsequently appear in John Ford’s sound films.
The picture’s famous showdown occurs just before the grand finale, which I think is a structural mistake. As is the case with every adaptation of Ben-Hur, you have the action high point of the picture… and then another third of movie to go.
Without going into spoiler territory, the film’s real climax (a cabin under siege) is sometimes compared to The Birth of a Nation but as it contains 100% less rape and 100% less racism, the audience emerges as the winner. It’s all by the book western stuff but done well and exciting, it just doesn’t hold a candle to that showdown.
Oh, that showdown is a good one! Harry Carey and Vester Pegg slowly approach, rifles at the ready, and we get a classic western flourish, the showdown staredown. It’s probably most associated with Sergio Leone but this film was made a decade before Leone was born. Obviously, this is not the first example of a character approaching the camera in order to advance the narrative and ending up in an extreme closeup. Just to name one, James Williamson’s 1901 comedy The Big Swallow predates Straight Shooting by sixteen years. However, it IS an early example of the technique being used in a western feature. (See how I hedge my bets?)
The editing is spare but effective and Carey is particularly excellent as he enters killer mode. In my opinion, Carey was the best actor of the silent western stars and he gives off a wonderful aura of menace.
Ford was all of twenty-three when Straight Shooting was made and he had been directing since… a few months back. Harry Carey’s wife, Olive, remembered that both Carey and Ford were eager to jump from shorts to features but the notoriously stingy Universal was not willing to give them the go-ahead. Some sneakiness was in order.
Carey and Ford knew they could shoot a feature in the time allotted for a two-reeler (three to five days) but their film was insufficient for the project. In order to get more, they claimed that their film stock had fallen into the water and that they needed more. Voila!
There is a notion floating around that the prestige western, the mature western, the western for grownups, was invented by Ford in 1939 when he released Stagecoach. Obviously, this ignores William S. Hart but westerns were sufficiently prestigious for Jesse Lasky, Sam Goldwyn and Cecil B. DeMille to risk everything on an adaptation of The Squaw Man, the maiden voyage for Lasky’s eponymous company (and a piece of proto-Paramount). DeMille returned to the western genre multiple times during his career, often with great success.
So, while the western was seen as a viable genre for a prestige picture, there was still the risk that Carl Laemmle, head honcho at Universal, would be angered by the Ford-Carey Feature Rebellion. In fact, there was talk of cutting the film back down to two reels but Carl Laemmle supposedly said, “If I order a suit of clothes and the fellow gives me another pair of pants free, what am I going to do—throw them back in his face?” And so the extra pair of pants stayed.
I should note that the picture was marketed under Universal’s Butterfly label, mid-tier five-reelers. Whether the colorful story of the Ford-Carey Feature Rebellion is an exaggeration and the film was always intended as a Butterfly or if it was retroactively Butterflied, I cannot say for certain. That being said, the story is cute and it doesn’t hurt anyone, so let’s just enjoy it.
As is the case in Bucking Broadway, released four months after Straight Shooting, Ford’s compositions are balanced and deep. There’s a lot of there there, if you know what I mean. Ford certainly wasn’t alone in embracing the deep dish frame—Maurice Tourneur was the reigning king of depth and William S. Hart’s films did not scrimp on glorious vistas—but he does show an unusually fine eye for such a young director.
That being said, this film is not technically flawless. While Ford is great at knocking our socks off with gorgeous vistas a brutal showdowns, his newness shows itself in the basics. There are times when we lose the thread of the story, have trouble figuring out who is speaking and in reaction to what, and where the seams just plain don’t match up.
I remember reading once that a would-be poet once presented a famous author with his poetry of woe, death and a descent into madness, that sort of thing. The famous author responded with, “No, kid, start with the rhymey-dimey stuff.” While we should admire Ford’s audacity, his failure to master the rhymey-dimey stuff stops Straight Shooting from being a masterpiece.
I should note that these criticisms were also voiced in 1917. Peter Milne, who you may remember as the author of a list of Best Film Directors, states in his Motion Picture News review that the film “has drawn upon reliably familiar situations for his story, yet the new setting he has laid them in sheds something of a new light over the whole… the succeeding fight in which the marauders ride round and round the lone cabin, until the kind-hearted highwaymen arrive and save the day, is engineered on the style of the Indian attack in the comparatively ancient pictures.”
Robert C. McElravy of Moving Picture World was utterly charmed by the picture and its range wars setting, particularly praising both the photography and Harry Carey’s performance. I find myself in the odd situation of agreeing with silent era critics. Whodathunkit?
So, with everything measured and discussed, how well does Ford’s feature debut make out? Well, in my opinion, it has its flaws but its high points are good enough for me to regard this as one of the most impressive feature debuts of the silent or any movie era.
The story? We’ve seen it before a million times (and I’ll bet 1917 audiences had too). The acting? Pretty good, especially Carey. Cinematography? Gorgeous. Basic editing? Uh… needs work. Style? Simply stuffed with it! This is a perfectly solid western with plenty of dash and flair. Historically important and fun, which is always a winning combination.
Where can I see it?
Alas, the only version currently on home video is from Alpha and I hear it’s pretty dire. Here’s hoping a proper release will come out eventually. (Hint, hint, Universal.) I actually forget where I got my copy, it has been so long. The film occasionally comes into print through public domain dealers and I will be happy to update this page if/when something better comes along.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.