When the January film doldrums hit and there's just nothing to see, I've made sort of a habit, or at least this year makes it a habit, of filling the cold winter nights with whatever sexy box set I got for my birthday/Christmas. This year, that role has been oh-so-ably filled by the magnificent (and incomplete) Ford At Fox collection, a perfectly indispensable gathering of 24 of the 52 films that John Ford shot for 20th Century Fox (most of the missing 28 films are lost silents, although there are at least fragments of four or five films that aren't in the box).

Since I'm actually going to have a couple of weeks ahead of me with not much to see in the theater - sorry folks, I'm actually going to skip out on The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything - I've decided to break this up a little bit: this week I'll look at some of Ford's silent work, all of it new to me; next week I'll take a gander at his less-characteristic sound films. Would you believe, "John Ford's Preston Sturges film"?

There doesn't seem to be a better place to begin than the beginning, the first project 26-year-old Jack Ford shot for William Fox, all the way back in 1920. By this point, the young man was a veteran of some thirty-odd films, mostly pulp Westerns, mostly for Universal. Accordingly, the script he was given at Fox was a mere programmer, hardly close to the iconic work he is better known for in the modern day, starring one of Fox's contract players, a modestly popular star of Westerns named Buck Jones.

Oddly, though both Ford and Jones were veterans of the genre, Just Pals is not a Western (although it's set on the Nebraska/Wyoming border). Instead, it's a modern day (i.e. 1920) seriocomedy about the mores of Small Town, USA, which isn't so very far from the concerns that Ford would continue to plumb throughout his career, however disguised by mythic trappings.

Just Pals casts Jones as Bim,* the local bum and layabout of Norwalk, beloved by the town's children, we are told, but disdained by the adults who view him as a drain on society and a pernicious influence. It happens one sunny day that Bim runs across a young homeless boy named Billy (17-year-old George E. Stone,a short, youthful-looking actor who would appear in countless films well into the '50s) getting tossed on his ear for hopping trains, and offers to give him a place to stay for a while. A bond quickly grows between the two, leading the upstanding citizens of Norwalk who are convinced that Bim is a villainous pederast, preying on Billy because the child's lack of ties make him an easy target. "Nah," says Bim every time, "we're just pals," thus the title.

No, not really. It was 1920, for God's sake. But the upstanding citizens of Norwalk are terribly concerned that Bim will ruin the boy with his deeply unserious and un-Christian views on work and living. Mostly they abuse Bim verbally, with the exception of the lovely Mary (Helen Ferguson), who has her doubts about the man's fatherly abilities, but only goes so far as to ask Bim if he wouldn't mind sending the boy to her school. Hoping to impress the lady, his longstanding crush, Bim immediately accedes, against Billy's wishes.

In the meantime, Mary has gotten herself into a bit of trouble by loaning the school's fundraising money to the dissolute Harvey Cahill (William Buckley), shortly before the town elders come to collect. Not knowing what else to do, she sends Bim to get the money; when Cahill is nowhere to be found, Bim (having learned the value of self-sacrifice from his love for Billy) announces that he stole the money, but not before Mary has gone to drown herself in the river, just about the same time that a gang of robbers are finishing up their plans to rob the town. From there on, things shake out in pretty much exactly the way you'd expect a lighthearted 1920 dramedy to shake out.

Coming in at a crisp 49 minutes, back when three reels were all it took to make a film a "feature," Just Pals is at least on one level nothing more than a showcase for the supremely efficient filmmaking that was a cornerstone of the assembly-line features of its era, and it's pretty easy to say that if it didn't have a certain someone in the director's seat, it wouldn't be remembered at all. At any rate, the performances are no better than serviceable (frighteningly, William Fox apparently held that the best proof of Ford's ability was that he'd gotten Jones to give up some of the best work of his career; a modest and unprepossessing career it must indeed have been), the story is, in broad strokes, totally unexceptional, and there aren't really that many moments where the great visual artist that Ford would become sticks his head up to say hello.

On the other hand, as one of the earliest surviving works of one of the cinema's chief auteurs, and the very first film at the studio that would give him many of his earliest masterpieces, Just Pals points to the artist that "Jack" Ford would eventually become. The clearest example is that of theme: although it's primarily about the ways that men can become better people through familial bonding (to be fair, not an unheard of theme for the director, not by a long shot), it's also a study of moral hypocrisy, the way that people tend to say what they want others to hear, but then go ahead and behave rudely and selfishly if not worse (and it's worse, this is a '20s melodrama). For all the braying that the townfolk expend on Bim's corrupting influence, there's little doubt that none of them are any better. And this, this is certainly a theme that Ford (one of the cinema's great chroniclers of small town living, with all its gossip and power-mongering) would hit upon many times in the future.

Then there is the matter of characterisation: Ford would make a career out of humanising stock types, and Fox's appreciation for Jones can certainly be thought of as an early sign of this tendency. He's hardly the most memorable character in the film, though: the most especially Fordian is the crusty old Sheriff (Duke R. Lee, not in his final film for the director, though most of his future roles would be cameos at best), who's given his very own catchphrase, "The law'll take care of this," and feels in a lot of small ways like the ethnic caricatures who would, for better or worse, pepper most of Ford's later films.

And of course, there is the not-so-small matter that John Ford would eventually become one of the greatest directors of imagery in narrative cinema. I cannot begin to say what a Ford picture looked like in the teens; perhaps the idiom of The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was born fully formed, and the move to Fox set him back, although I certainly doubt it. But what is quite obvious is that something about a few of the shots speaks the man that the director would become. Who else could have put together this image?

The simultaneous focus on the foreground and the background, with a framing element dividing them, that is an unmistakable John Ford touch.

Or take this shot:

Maybe not so unique, but the way that the trees on the left form a backdrop to the man and boy in the dead center and keep the composition much more active than just people standing in the center of the frame, this is the stuff that blossoms into a great eye for cinematic framing. Plus, y'know, silhouettes. Très Ford.

It's worth noting that Ford was here working for the first time with cinematographer George Schneiderman; the two would go on to make 20 more films before all was said and done. Obviously, they fit together, for the seeds of Ford's genre-defining style are scattered throughout the film, and are likely the most interesting element of a not-so terrible movie whose main appeal is the rare view it gives us of one of the uncontested masters of his art just beginning to figure out what he might be capable of in the future.