Harry Carey plays a western sheriff who heads to San Francisco to collect his inheritance. While there, he falls in love with a sexy cat burglar (Lillian Rich) and infiltrates her gang so that they can get hitched, as one does.
Opposites really do attract
A western sheriff and a cat burglar? Who do we have to kill? Well, thanks to the Národní filmový archive, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, we don’t have to kill anyone and this fun little picture has been restored.
Silent film fans probably know about William S. Hart’s darker western fare, Tom Mix’s colorful adventures and epic titles like The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse. However, western comedies from talents like Douglas Fairbanks and Harry Carey don’t tend to be discussed as often. They’re not slapstick spoofs of the genre but they do have fun with western tropes and provide a light evening’s entertainment.
Of course, Fairbanks found far greater success in swashbucklers and Carey’s most famous silent work is probably Straight Shooting, John Ford’s first western feature. Still, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the lighter side of the west. (Even with Ford, Carey could play it funny. Bucking Broadway proves that.)
In this case, Carey plays Sheriff Pat Halahan, a small town lawman who can rope bank robbers with the best of them. When it turns out the girl of his dreams is only interested in his inheritance, he dumps her and heads to San Francisco to collect the money with his dog instead.
The big city doesn’t agree with Halahan, especially when he tangles with a flirtatious wife and a violently jealous husband. He is going to leave for home the next day when… someone breaks into his room? It’s Faith O’Day (Lillian Rich), a sassy cat burglar. The sparks instantly fly between the lawman and the lady crook and they make a bet: if Halahan can’t break into a hotel room to return the broach Faith stole, she’ll return to his ranch with him.
Did Faith send him to the hotel room belonging to that same coquettish wife and green-eyed husband? Is the Pope Catholic?
So, Sheriff Halahan finds himself in the embarrassing position of being a wanted man in the city of San Francisco. And you will never guess who the chief of detectives is. (Hint: His wife is a flirt.)
However, the sheriff’s newfound credentials as a bandit do allow him to pose as the infamous Chicago Kid and infiltrate Faith’s gang. He is still determined to save her from a life of crime and take her back to the country with him and she is pretty keen on the idea too. But big boss Quig Mundy (Francis Ford, brother of John) has other ideas…
Well, I have to say, I rather enjoyed that little confection. It’s silly as anything but everyone seemed to be having fun with it and that feeling is infectious. Carey and Rich deserve particular praise for their charismatic performances and their chemistry is a major reason to see this film. Though they both seem a little bit too excited when Carey handcuffs Rich to a pipe…
I find Harry Carey to be a really interesting talent in the old western star club. He started out doing a fair amount of gangster/burglar stuff himself before he went west in a big way, so this picture is a bit of a homecoming. With Ford, he tended toward more of the William S. Hart “I’m plum willin’ to kill” style but, as mentioned in the introduction, he could be silly as well.
Carey kept his persona a bit dusty even when his films were more droll affairs. They didn’t always work (looking at you, The Prairie Pirate) but titles like Beyond the Border and Soft Shoes are playful little delights that are highly underrated.
Of all of the western stars in the silent era, I think Carey was the best and most versatile actor of the bunch. He could be a cold and hateful bastard in something like The Trail of ’98 and then just as cute as a bug in something like this. He could pull off cuties, killers and manly men but he never came off as affected. (That has always been my problem with John Wayne: At a certain point, you have to ask who he is trying to convince of his manliness, him or me. Much virile. So testosterone. Wow.) A western lead to be able to swing between killer, two-gun hero and cutie pie in rapid succession is pretty rare.
In this film, Carey’s glee is palpable as his sheriff character realizes that he finds a criminal to be incredibly attractive. Rich’s tough girl experiences similar emotions when she finds herself falling for a cop—but that doesn’t stop her from playing practical jokes on him. While her character is forced into more of a damsel mode near the end, she still plays a streetwise kid extremely well and my only complaint is that I would have liked to see more of her criminal antics.
And now we will have a spoilery discussion of Sojin, so consider yourself warned. Sōjin Kamiyama was a Japanese actor with a long career but much of his silent Hollywood career was spent playing either scheming stereotypes or gardeners and valets. I don’t really feel it’s my place to comment on Sojin playing these parts but I do feel very comfortable criticizing the non-Asians who wrote them.
So, when I saw Sojin hanging around the gang’s hideout, I was convinced that I would not like what was coming next. “Hilarious” cross-culture confusion? Chop suey jokes? Tong stereotypes? I was braced for impact. And then do you know what happened? Sojin turned out to be an undercover San Francisco police officer and he saved the day with a well-aimed pistol shot. I was watching the movie alone on my laptop but I burst into spontaneous applause. Well done indeed!
As for the rest, Francis Ford is suitably menacing as the heavy, Stanton Heck and Harriet Hammond are amusing as the unfortunate couple who keep running into Halahan and the dog is cute. What more could you want?
Soft Shoes is a cute little fish out of water comedy that has aged remarkably well. The leads are likable, the supporting cast is good and if they story is a bit by the book, well, that’s okay too. The most important thing is that it’s loads of fun.
Where can I see it?
Available for free and legal streaming courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation. The picture even has a professional score from Donald Sosin!