bucking broadway film review

Bucking Broadway (1917)

⭐⭐⭐½ (3½ stars out of 5)

Bucking Broadway (1917) Directed by John Ford

The singular artisticity of the romantic cinema genius John Ford, is softly latent in this melodramatic little western that can serve as an excellent prelude to his very lyrical style of filmmaking. Bucking Broadway is a film that survives and remains more vivid than ever in its firm belief in old-fashioned values and moral principles that trumpet traditions with purist beauty. The influential filmography of the seemingly tough yet profoundly sentimental John Ford is one of the great complexities of the study of cinema, not even the studious connoisseurs who have dissected all his films have exact answers to define him as an artist; at least we all have as a univocal consensus something that is undeniable, and that is that he is nothing less than one of the greatest visual poets of the septième art, that is more than objective and clear. I personally consider that many of his traditionalist idiosyncrasies are in a fresh and virgin state in his silent films, and many of the answers to the complexities of his mercurial personality can be much better analyzed in his silent stage, for obvious reasons; one of them being that as a filmmaker obsessed with the visual purity of the medium not the literary of the content, it makes his silent stage a fascinating paradigm of how his cinematic mystique works, from as early in his career as 1917, he was already showing his enormous disinterest in logical, fluid storytelling and was more inclined to orchestrate a narrative that emphasizes the essence of a frame, that dramatizes American ethos and formalities.

Bucking Broadway carries in its DNA the Fordian idealism that permeated his entire pre-World War II filmography, it is a western with comic overtones that vibrates with a photographically miraculous romanticism, a film shot on pictorial locations that evoke the nostalgia of lost paradises and capture the natural sublimity of impressionism. Ford evades rationality to overlay and give preponderance to subjective emotion, which is beautifully rendered as if in limpid verse. In just its short 55-minute running time, this film manifests a delightful and harmonious sentimental joy. Narratively, it is clumsily structured and the plot repeatedly stumbles over the same flaws, but part of the homogeneity of the entertainment stems from the airy harmony of emotions that in each breathtaking composition infects one with the same romantic desire of the characters, expressing a universality of passionate feelings that are cinematically designed in this slender treasure of a film.

Almost the entirety of the film spreads human optimism with a humorous spirit, however there are many symbolic nuances that suggest the inscrutable political bipolarity of John Ford. This film evidently belongs to the most critical stage socially speaking, although traditionalism and the graceful purification of American customs was something that thematically defined Ford, holistically seen his filmography we can find many discrepancies in their positions. Liberalism versus enlightened despotism, very marked conservatism in his characters, clearly more cultural than political but still religious beliefs dominated much of his filmography, and then we also have a kind of subtle socialist empathy, it is totally anomalous in ideologies and in having a concrete point of what Ford’s work represents, and definitely that is what makes his prolific career in film so rich. And I focus specifically on questioning what is the true essence of Ford for the simple reason that I find in this early film of still an undeveloped filmmaker, one of his most gorgeous undefined pieces in his filmography, which evocatively confirms to us that his ingenuity is inexhaustible.

The brisk comedy in Bucking Broadway is coupled with light-hearted charm to the melodrama, and even as disjointed as the two may be at times, the dramatic accentuation is vitalized with an intense vibrancy of cross-cuts that facilitate narrative progression and above all energize a hilarious and rollicking climax that never loses the rhythm of the plot. The strength of this film is Ford doing what he does best, but without the masterful cinematic maturity that would be seen in the not too distant future, nevertheless one can already perceive his methodical eye for executing exquisite z-axis compositions, and emotions conveyed through scenic splendor.

On a Wyoming ranch, cowboy Cheyenne Harry and the owner’s daughter Helen Clayton are about to become engaged, but the whole soon-to-be idealistic marriage is ruined when a wealthy man who comes to inspect the herd takes the beauty captive. Driven by honest emotions and his burning love for the girl, Cheyenne Harry rushes on the first train to New York with the purpose of finding them and rescuing his beloved from the captain’s clutches.

An unembellished narrative like this gives John Ford the option to exploit his optical magnificence, the narrative is a quotidian hokum, extremely basic for a time when almost all fiction filmmaking was melodramatic, yet it seamlessly fits that kind of routine narrative structure so that Fordian lyricism enters with gallant visual rhyme and synchronizes the emotions of the story through the spirit of the American West. The film is uncontrollably funny, has a bit of physical comedy and a lot of energetic action courtesy of a gutsy editing that certainly has a walloping Griffith-ian influence. It’s a plot that could be seen as a melodrama wrapped with the hallowed landscapes and legendary atmospheres of historic American passages, it’s densely packed with a lot of customary integrity and developed with a splendorous drama governed by the idealistic standards that only someone like Ford knows how to pull off without being heavy-handed or too arbitrarily ideological.

I am one of those who categorically believe that John Ford never made an entirely political film, the political or rather socio-political motifs have a more cultural than discursively political manifestation; a great archetype of what we would see in better form later on, is found here in this idyllic film. The poetic romance between the two main characters, played magically by Harry Carey and Molly Malone, shows us a love brimming with candor, and also of a high generosity, is what for John Ford means a pure and sincere love, here he shows it with tact and impressionistic beauty, however that perfect romance, is altered by the arrival of a socialite guy, who ends up cajoling the girl with his millionaire charms to convince her to go with him to the city. That small but effective dramatic confrontation gives the film an outrageously brilliant and very amusing climax, yet the point I’m trying to make is that with just those conflicting actions of a love triangle, they inevitably form a social comparison and Ford confirms his humanist soul, making idealism overcome materialism, in that final riotous ending.



Matteo Bedon

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When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them. Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.

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