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  • Writer's pictureSouth West Silents

John Ford Before John Ford

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Over the past few years we have celebrated the Western’s early heritage by looking at the great William S Hart but for some reason we have never celebrated the pillar of power that is John Ford. At last then step in our very own Rosie Taylor who will take us into the world of not only Ford but the world of John Ford before John Ford.

Rosie has been kind enough to write a piece about her interest in the great Mr Ford before she takes to the stage to introduce us into the early work of John Ford.


I coined the title of this piece from Peter von Bagh’s introduction to John Ford: Muti e Primi Sonori at Cineteca di Bologna in 2009. He makes a poignant case for Fords early work, suggesting that “isn’t it about time to eliminate once and for all the deep suspicion that Ford’s silent output was mainly an undifferentiated preparation for his real achievement that came later?” Calling this consensus “Ford before Ford” he talks about Fords work right up to his early sound films. But Scholars begin to become excited about Fords early work after the influence of Murnau’s Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans (1927). So to some extent Fords later silent and early sound output has been considered. For me, however, “Ford before Ford” really represents the very early films – those he made with Harry Carey between 1917 and 1921, when he was effectively an apprentice – “before” his style was really developed. These are the films that perhaps hold the most exciting possibilities of his development. What could we learn about John Ford’s filmmaking from these films? What could they reveal?

Ford directed many of the great Westerns of the genres golden age, with a career spanning over fifty years and somewhere around 150 films of many genres. He still holds the record for the most Oscars won by a director, and received the American Film Institute’s first ever Lifetime Achievement Award. He is perhaps best known for his long association with John Wayne; launching Wayne’s career in “A” Westerns with his appearance as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). However, this wasn’t a first for Ford. He had previously held long associations with other Hollywood stars, helped launch the career of actors like George O’Brien in the mid 1920’s, and had worked with many of the greatest stars of the silent Western including Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix and Buck Jones.

Ford was a veteran director by the time sound arrived, but like many directors of his generation, his silent output was, for a long time, relatively forgotten, and sadly remains so, to a greater extent than it should. Anyone who knows John Fords work will probably be able to cite The Iron Horse (1924); his great nation building silent epic. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Ford made nearly seventy films before 1930, half of which were made before 1920. Sadly only a fraction of these films survive in full or part today, leaving not a great deal to explore.

John Ford (or Jack as he was known then) came to Hollywood in 1914 to work for his brother Francis, already a successful Hollywood director. Ford worked as a property boy, a stunt man, and eventually an assistant director. Jack would later acknowledge learning a great deal from his brother in these early days. He spent two and a half years working for Francis, and other directors including Alan Dwan “one of the most resourceful and prolific silent filmmakers” according to Joseph Mcbride. He also claimed to have ridden as one of the clansmen in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Ford made his directing debut with a two reel film – The Tornado (1917), for 101 Bison Company, under Thomas Ince – whom Francis was working for at this time. At Universal Jack would come to direct a series of two, and later five reel films, with the Western star Harry Carey. Carey’s contract was coming to an end, and his public appeal waning, so Ford was assigned to make a final few pictures with Carey as Cheyenne Harry the outlaw hero. Unexpectedly these films became very popular with the public, most notably the working classes, and Carey’s career was re-launched, simultaneously launching Fords career as a director.

Of around 25 Westerns Ford made with Carey between 1917 and 1921, only 5 now survive in full, part, or fragments ; Fords first feature Straight Shooting (1917), Bucking Broadway (1917) and Hell Bent (1918) survive more or less in full. Whilst The Secret Man (1917) and A Gunfightin’ Gentleman (1919) survive in fragments. Two other films of this period survive; By Indian Post (1919), a two reeler starring Pete Morrison, missing several minutes; and only the first part of The Last Outlaw (1919) survives, starring Ed Jones.

Considered low brow entertainment at the time, these Westerns were made in high number over a short period of time, with a shoe string budget and minimal resources. Though popular with the public, they were rarely reviewed by the more intellectual publications like The New York Times; they didn’t meet the tastes of middle class audiences, and were certainly not considered worth the critical attention given to Westerns of stars like William S. Hart. Together with few films surviving, little enough is known about these pictures (other than what survives in sometimes brief reviews, synopses and studio papers) to be able to explore the start of Fords career in full. Yet, as Joseph McBride notes in his biography on Ford, the result of little critical attention at the time was that “it allowed [Ford and Carey] to explore their favourite themes without becoming self-conscious or worrying unduly about how their movies would be received,” and before the power and influence of producers in Hollywood really began to shape filmmaking.

Ford and Carey would write their own scenarios based on stories they liked, aided by a writer, at this time George Hively. They would ride out into the mountains with a small cast and crew and shoot – with very little studio input, and a fair bit of improvisation and experimentation. This must have been a very creative time in the young Fords career. One would imagine that the influences from his experience working with his brother Francis, Harry Carey, and even Alan Dwan and the very prolific Thomas Ince, would be fresh in Fords mind. Even the influence of Griffith could have been indirectly present through Carey, who had previously worked for Griffith as an actor.

What does survive of these very early Ford films offers a glimpse into this possibility; from the few surviving films of his brother Francis, Tag Gallagher has noted the obvious influences on the young Jack including his use of composition. And these Ford – Carey productions reveal the emergence of certain traits in Fords filmmaking that would last the entire span of his career.

Composition became the most defining feature of a John Ford film, refined further in the 1920’s and 30’s, but present from the start. A style he shared with his brother, Ford was long an admirer of great painters of the American west like Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. The opening shot of Straight Shooting has the leader of the rancher’s clan, Thunder Flint; centre frame on horseback, with his cowboys, and cattle down the hill in the background expressing, through depth of field, the grandeur and landscape of the West. As they ride off this continues, shot after shot, subtly choreographed into the epic landscape, the players bring to life the West in grand scale and beauty as if this was a moving painting. Credit must be given to the cameraman George Scott for his ability to successfully capture Fords vision so seamlessly. Ford would come to work with some of the most talented cinematographers in the business including George Schneidermann, Joseph H. August, and Gregg Toland who would photograph some of his most visually impressive films. Bucking Broadway is no less beautifully shot, by Ben Reynolds. In fact it could even show a progression in Fords work in only the short period of a few months. Even Fords use of chiaroscuro in some sequences seems to outdate the German Expressionist influence at least in part.

The Wagon Boss, Charles M. Russell (1909)

The “good bad man” hero was a common theme of the early silent Western, which Ford and Carey utilised throughout their partnership. Fords “good bad men” were noble outlaws with good hearts; usually the saviours of a society that has outcast them, they receive redemption in the audience’s eyes by the close of the film, but are often unable to be assimilated back into the society they saved. A character that would often appear throughout Fords career, most famously John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) finds its roots in Cheyenne Harry. In Straight Shooting Harry is hired to kill ranch owner Sweetwater Malone, but upon seeing the mans grief at the death of his son, decides against the killing, and ends up defending the Malone family and ranch from the very men that hired him. However, at the close of the film he is unable to stay, acknowledging that he is an outlaw and an outsider, and cannot adjust to life in the community.

The viewer is easily able not only to empathise with Harry, but emotionally engage, beyond just simple spectacle. The Ford hero is often a hardworking man, of lower social status, if not an outlaw. But this provides the opportunity for Ford to mock social status – something he often articulated in his films.

Evident in Bucking Broadway, Mr Thornton, a wealthy, arrogant horse inspector from the east, steals the affections of Helen, the ranch owner’s daughter and Harry’s love interest. In an extensive and hilarious sequence of cowboys riding down the streets of New York, and fighting Thornton’s associates in a New York hotel restaurant as if they were in a saloon brawl, Thornton’s true colours emerge and he is made a mockery of. Helen returns with Harry to the West. The hard working cowboys, uncouth and rough, but honest and hardworking, are the heroes! Ford would often mock the higher social classes in this way. Perhaps why these films were so well received by the working classes, but less so by the more middle class critical press.

Cowboys riding through New York (actually downtown Los Angeles) in Bucking Broadway (1917)

Cowboys riding through New York (actually downtown Los Angeles) in Bucking Broadway (1917)

Bucking Broadway also expresses the beginnings of another very “Fordian” trait – humour! Defined by J. Farrell MacDonald in The Iron Horse and Three Bad Men (1926), and carried on by Victor McLaglen throughout Fords career, the characters would usually be Irish and invariably drunk. At the celebratory drinks for Harry and Helens engagement, in Bucking Broadway, the cowboys sit round a piano drinking, singing and playing songs (another Ford staple). The more they drink and sing old tunes about home, the more nostalgic they become and these tough, man’s man cowboys all start sobbing; missing their mothers, until they are weeping on each other’s shoulders like children. Not yet quite as defined as it would become, this was a seed of Fords humour that would develop in the 1920’s and beyond.

Harry Carey had none of the showmanship of Tom Mix, or the stature of William S. Hart; his costumes were simple and his character rough, but he established the quintessential John Ford hero. He even became the childhood idol of John Wayne. Despite the often seemingly crude simplicity of the Ford – Carey films with their “pulp Western formula” and cowboy antics, they are shot beautifully, with engaging characters, and are filled with a nostalgic romance for the vanishing west, as a good John Ford picture should be. And while critically they perhaps have not always stood in such stead as other films of their time, the ones that survive are a pleasure to watch, unmistakably “Fordian”, and an insightful view into the beginnings of one of the most successful and influential directors in Hollywood.

In the first fifteen years of Fords career, he developed a style that would come to be recognised as uniquely his own. He influenced directors from Orson Welles to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. And he made a strong contribution to the Western from the start, a genre which would dominate America’s movie theatres for almost a further forty years. It is a great shame that so few of his early films survive to testify to his development and early contribution to the medium of film, as well as to give us a further insight into “John

Ford before John Ford”.

Filmography Bucking Broadway (1917) Indian by Post (1918) Straight Shooting (1917)

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