Saturday, May 8, 2021

Stubs - Straight Shooting


Straight Shooting (1917) Starring: Harry Carey, Duke Lee, George Berrell, Molly Malone, Ted Brooks, Hoot Gibson, Milt Brown, Vester Pegg. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by George Hively (credited as Story). Producer not credited. USA 62 minutes. Silent. Western.

Westerns had been a staple of American films almost as long as there have been films made in the U.S. One of the earliest examples is Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). One director who is perhaps most associated with the genre is John Ford, who would direct such classics as Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) to name only a few of his best-known films. It should come as no surprise that Ford’s first feature film would also be a Western, Straight Shooting (1917).

While he had been directing films, they had been shorts, including some in the two-reel Cheyenne Harry series of films. Cheyenne Harry was one of actor Harry Carey’s most popular roles. A good-natured outlaw, Cheyenne Harry would appear in films for 20 years, starting with A Knight of the Range (1916) and ending with Aces Wild (1936).

But Ford was not the first choice to direct Straight Shooting. When the first director left the film, it was John’s brother Francis who recommended him to replace him. Francis was once a popular actor in Hollywood but his career was already in decline.

Most of the exterior sets were built and the film was shot on the Universal backlot. Straight Shooting was budgeted as a two-reeler, though Ford managed to make it a full-length film. He managed to increase the film’s budget by telling Universal some of the exposed film had fallen in a river. When Universal realized that they had a full-length film on their hands, the studio was upset. It was only through the intervention of Carl Laemmle that the film escaped being cut for its first release. Laemmle is quoted as saying if he paid for a suit and got an extra pair of pants, he wouldn’t just throw them away. The film would be subsequently edited down to two reels for re-release in the late 1920s.

The story of Straight Shooting is one of the basics for the genre, ranchers used to wide open grazing are mad at the homesteaders who have fenced in the range.

Thunder Flint (Duke Lee) leads the cattlemen who don't want homesteaders on their open range.

In the small town of Smithfield, the cattlemen, led by Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), reject the right of small farmers to plow the cattle’s grazing land. Farmer Sweetwater Sims (George Berrell), his daughter Joan (Molly Malone), and son Tom (Ted Brooks) live happily in their small cabin, in defiance of Flint.

Flint has the Sims' pond fenced off.

To try to drive him out, Flint orders his men to build a fence around Sims’ pond, cutting him off from the water he’ll need.

George Berrell is Sweetwater Sims, a farmer trying to homestead in cattle country.

In their home, Sims and his children are having dinner when Sam Turner (Hoot Gibson), an employee of Flint’s, comes to visit. Sam, who is in love with Joan, doesn’t take part in Flint’s plans, but does bring a letter from him about the water dispute.

Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey) makes a rather unorthodox entrance in Straight Shooting.

Meanwhile, a law enforcement officer hangs a reward poster for the capture of Cheyenne Harry. After the officer leaves, Harry (Harry Carey) pops out from inside the trunk of the tree and laughs at the poster.

Harry is supposedly the one that Flint wants to handle the homesteaders and sends Turner to bring him back. Turner finds Harry drunk in a saloon and relays Flint’s instructions that he can name his price. Needless to say, Harry rides to the village of Smithfield.

Cheyenne Harry meets up with another hired gun Placer Fremont
(Vester Pegg) at a saloon and the two get roaring drunk.

In Smithfield, Harry stops to get refreshments in the local ginmill. He ends up drinking with Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg), another gunman hired by Flint, and soon, both are staggeringly drunk. Sam and Ted visit the bar and get in a fight with Harry and Placer. Pursued by the drunks, Sam and Ted exit through an upstairs window and jump down onto their horses below and ride off.

Placer and Harry chase Sam and Ted outside and shoot at them as they flee.

The sheriff has been watching Harry and tries to arrest him, but Flint arrives and interferes with the arrest. Flint wants Harry to get Sims off the farm.

Later, Ted goes for water and crosses Flint’s fence. Placer, on patrol, shoots and kills Ted with a rifle and leaves the boy in the river and rides off. When Sims realizes that Molly has let Ted go to the river, they hurry out there and find Ted’s dead body in the pool.

Harry sees the Sims family mourning the death of Ted and changes his mind about the job.

When Harry arrives, it is suggested that he take a look at the landscape and he comes upon Sims, Joan, and Sam mourning at Ted’s grave. Harry approaches and expresses his condolences. The scene makes Harry change his mind about the job. He takes Sims, collapsed in grief, home. Harry tells Joan that he now sees what the cattlemen really are.

Flint orders Placer to kill Harry.

Back at the bar, Harry tells a rancher that he is in essence going straight, quitting the job for Flint, and quit killing for a living. He decides not to drink. The rancher informs Flint that Harry is quitting. Flint orders Placer to bump off Harry. The cattlemen are visiting the farmers that night, and he wants Harry out of the way.

Sam overhears Flint planning the raid and rides to Sims’ house to warn them. He goes to Harry and tells him about the coming raid and that Fremont is looking for him. Harry tells Sam to warn the farmers.

Harry and Placer have a shoot out using rifles.

In the streets of the town, Harry and Fremont face-off with rifles in hand. The townspeople retreat to safety as Harry and Fremont walk toward each other. At the last moment, Fremont lunges around the corner of a building. Harry approaches warily and sticks his hat around the corner. Fremont shoots at it, and Harry leaps out and kills him. As the townspeople approach the dead man, Harry rides out of town.

Harry goes to the hideout of Black-eye Pete.

Sam warns Sims to prepare for a fight. Joan rides to get help from the other farmers and to gather at Sims’ house. She meets Harry. He tells her to return home and he’ll get his outlaw friend, Black-eye Pete (Milt Brown), and his gang to help the farmers.

But the cattlemen have already surrounded Sims’ farmhouse and the fighting is fierce. The situation gets desperate as the farmers are nearly out of bullets. Sam, who is fighting on the farmers’ side, has also been shot. Harry, with Pete’s gang, arrive just in time and drive off the attackers.

Harry and Pete return to the cabin. Sims expresses his gratitude for their help. Harry examines Sam and tells him that he will soon recover. Harry thanks Pete and says his goodbyes. Harry confirms that he is going straight and as he makes this declaration, he exchanges sideways glances with Joan.

Later, Sims asks Harry to remain with them and stay as his son now that Ted has been killed. Joan stands behind her father looking hopeful at Harry. However, Harry says that he belongs on the range. Sims presses him, and Harry agrees to think it over and to give Sam his answer by Sunset.

Sam (Hoot Gibson) steps aside despite his love for Joan (Molly Malone).

Meanwhile, Sam hopes that Joan still wants him, but gracefully accepts her preference for Harry and steps aside.

Evening arrives and Harry has decided to leave. Joan, however, wants him to stay. As he is starting to leave, she comes to him with her request. As the sun sets, he gives her the answer she wants.

At the time of its release, the film met with some censorship. As an example, the Chicago Board of Censors refused to issue a permit for this film as submitted as it consists of a detailed portrayal of murder and outlawry. Today, these portrayals seem mild, even compared to network television.

Harry Carey as Cheyenne Harry.

Harry Carey may not be a name you hear much about these days but he was one of silent films' earliest superstars. His career began in 1908 before he began working at Biograph studios in 1909 and D.W. Griffith in 1911. Carey had a rugged frame and craggy features that worked well in Westerns. He would successfully make the transition to sound films and appear in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In many ways, Carey is the prototype for John Wayne’s western persona. John Ford, who directed both men, told Wayne, “take a look over at Harry Carey and watch him work. Stand like he does, if you can, and play your roles so that people can look upon you as a friend.” “That’s what I’ve always done”, Wayne later said. And he supposedly got his broken speech patterns from Carey as well: e.g., “Take your…[pause]…stuff and run down to the…[pause]…creek.”

Carey is good as the lead in the film. He is already familiar with this sort of role, and working with Ford, so it is a little like watching a craftsman go through his paces when you see him here. He is what the role requires and given his place in early silent films, he would seem to be the only choice for this role.

Hoot Gibson is another western star that appears in this film. He was a rodeo champion who started to appear in films doing stunts as a sideline. He managed to transition to films and from silent to sound as well, becoming, during the period between World War I and World War II, second only to cowboy film legend, Tom Mix, as a box office draw. He is obviously young here and while he does what he needs to do he’s not really a stand out in the role.

Duke Lee receives second billing but there isn’t much available about him today. Lee would appear in nearly 100 films during his career. His best-known film would be Stagecoach (1939), in which he plays the sheriff of Lordsburg. He also reportedly appears, in an uncredited role, in Overland Stage Raiders (1938), which we have previously featured here. He was probably considered menacing at the time.

Actress Molly Malone

Molly Malone may sound like the owner of an Irish pub but she was an actress from the silent era who appeared in 86 films during her career. She started her film career at the age of 29 and she was 31 when Straight Shooting was made but she did catch the eye of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who cast her in several of his comedic shorts, including The Hayseed (1919), Back Stage (1919), A Desert Hero (1919), The Bank Clerk (1919), The Garage (1920), and The Round-Up (1920). She would also work with both Harry Carey and John Ford again in The Soul Herder (1917) and The Phantom Riders (1918). Unfortunately, there isn’t really that much for her to do but what she did must have been what Ford was looking for in the role.

It is interesting to see not only the prototype for Wayne but also see some of the characteristics of Ford’s better-known films. While his use of Monument Valley as a backdrop is legendary, here we see him using perhaps less dramatic landscapes, including Beale’s Cut, to great effect. Even early on he shows that he has a great feel for the use. The people, horses and cattle seem so small against the immenseness of the world around them.

And there is also the play between interior and exterior which is perhaps most talked about in The Searchers, when at the end of the film, Wayne, doing his best Carey impersonation, stays outside while civilized people stay inside the house, framed by the open door. We see that utilized here as well, with the door frame once again used as a demarcation between the wild west outside and the civilizing family on the inside. To settle down is seen as staying inside with home and hearth. Harry makes a different decision than Wayne's character makes in The Searchers.

The film was recently restored by Universal Pictures. Though there are some moments when the film shows its wear and age, for the most part, save some missing frames, the film looks really good, especially considering it is over 100 years old.

From an outsider's perspective, there appear to be only so many storylines in Westerns. Homesteaders versus ranchers seem to be one of the more common ones. As an example, Shane (1953) seems to trod much of the same ground. It is the execution that separates one film from another and elevates a few to be classics. While Straight Shooting doesn't qualify as a classic it does point the way to ones still to come from John Ford.

If you’re a fan of Westerns, then you really should seek the film out. It may seem to be a little slow in places but it is an example of one of the greatest storytellers, John Ford, learning his craft. The films might get bigger and better over time but the kernel of what they would become can be found in Straight Shooting.

No comments:

Post a Comment