Just Pals (Fox, 1920)
Lyrical and charming
In 1920 Jack Ford and Harry Carey had some kind of falling out, and they never made a Western again together. Ford left Universal and moved to Fox, where he believed he would get more recognition – and more money. His first picture there was a Western – naturally. The big Western star at Fox was Tom Mix but Ford was given as the lead of his picture Buck Jones.
Buck was one of the great silent cowboys. Brought up (according to some) on a ranch in Indian Territory, he learned roping and riding early and after Army service he joined the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West show and became their champ bronco buster. He settled in Hollywood and got work on many Westerns, especially with Mix, then starred in his own. With his famous horse Silver, Buck was one of the most popular actors in the genre, and at one point, amazingly, he was receiving more fan mail than any actor in the world. He successfully made the transition to talkies and starred in nearly 150 pictures. He died aged 50 in 1942 after receiving horrific burns in a fire in a night club.
Just Pals is rather a charming light Western which is a 50-minute delight. Buck plays Bim, the town bum, who protects Bill, a small hobo boy, from a villainous bullying railroad employee. Of course heroes very often protect children or animals in the first reel; it establishes their goodiness. The chivalrous act also impresses Mary Bruce, the local schoolmistress, for whom Buck pines – but of course a town bum cannot aspire to court such a lady, and Buck’s rival, Harvey (William Buckley), the boater-wearing cashier in the local express office, seems to take all her attention. Mary was played by Helen Ferguson, often Buck Jones’s leading lady, who later became a real power in Hollywood.
Bim and Bill become the pals of the title and set up ‘house’ together in the local stable. The part of Bill was taken by child actor Georgie Stone, then eleven years old but already on his forty-first picture. He was very good, too, giving a Huck Finn side to the lad. Amazingly, Stone only died in 2010, aged 101.
Unfortunately for Bill, though, the schoolma’am thinks he ought to attend classes, and Bim, as the boy’s unofficial guardian, reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, the skunk Harvey, Mary’s suitor, has being embezzling money from the express office and he inveigles Mary into loaning him school fund money to tide him over an audit. Mistake. For the school governors arrive and demand the cash and she can’t produce it, so she attempts suicide by drowning.
It isn’t terribly Western so far, more of a 1920s small-town drama. It’s a contemporary setting and the opening scene shows us a motor truck and a horse-driven wagon, so the picture inhabits that twilight world that so many Westerns of the era did, where the Wild West seemed still to exist in ‘modern’ times.
But it gets very Western as the picture moves on, with mounted bandits robbing the express. The raid is a set-up, you see. Harvey is in on the hold-up, so that the losses will mask his theft. But Bim is determined to thwart the evil scheme, to protect the honor of schoolma’am Mary, who didn’t die but lies languishing in the doctor’s house.
Oh, and another thing (there’s a lot of plot in less than an hour): Bim gets a job offer (he has responsibilities now) but needs a uniform to work as a porter. Young Bill has a brainwave and steals a railroad man’s outfit from a train for Bim, but is injured jumping back off the cars. The doctor and his wife who treat him discover that there is a reward for the child and so pretend to be nice to the boy, and dismiss Bim. In so many Ford movies, the ‘respectable’ folk of a community are nothing of the kind and it is society’s outcasts who do the decent thing. This was most evident in Stagecoach, of course, but again and again in Ford’s pictures this was the case. In Just Pals everyone in town except the schoolmistress is a hypocrite or crook. It’s the ‘town bum’ and the hobo boy who save the day.
Just Pals has another Fordian aspect about it: the film is notable for its gentle pans and tracking shots of the rolling hills of the Wyoming/Nebraska border country (really, California). Ford was already making the landscape a character, a feature he had learned from his brother Francis Ford. There is an understated lyrical quality and a sense of domestic detail. The small town and characters prefigure the Springfield prologue of The Iron Horse (1924), which we shall soon be reviewing.
Jones is excellent, and there’s almost something Buster Keaton-ish about him. He seems hopelessly vague and fey. He comes up trumps, though, foiling the dastardly plot and (when goaded by the boy) winning the hand of the fair maid.
There’s a comic-relief sheriff (Duke R Lee, much used by Ford from Straight Shooting in 1917 to My Darling Clementine in 1946) who has an oft-repeated tagline, “The law’ll handle this”. Even he is a scoundrel, though, showing his lawman’s badge to get out of contributing to the church collection. In the final scene he comically pops his head out of a hole in a tree, just as Harry Carey had done in Straight Shooting. Who knows, maybe it was the same tree.
The DP was George Schneiderman, much used by Ford and one of the greats of silent cinematography. There are some notably well-composed scenes and attractive shots.
The print of Just Pals is good, brownish in tint going to blue for the day-for-night scenes. My copy has suitable cheesy Wurlitzer organ music accompaniment.
Western fans will definitely want to see this picture. It’s amusing and very well done, and so few of Ford’s silent Westerns survive that when one does, we feel obliged to see it.