Straight Shooting offers up a twofer for the the historically-inclined fan of director John Ford. Made in 1917, the year that the 23-year-old (years away from swapping out the name "Jack") began making movies with The Tornado, it is the first feature-length project of his career, after five shorts. And with all of those presently believed to be lost, it is the oldest Ford film of any sort that exists for us to view today. (One other film he made in 1917, Bucking Broadway, also survives, having been rediscovered in 2002).

There's nothing pleasanter than looking at the earliest output of an artist one admires - and if I had to make the decision right this very second without a chance to reflect on it, I'd be obliged to call Ford my favorite American-born film director of all time - and finding that he or she had it right from the start, and the things that one loves about their later, mature work is also what one loves about their early work. It is not only rewarding on the immediate level of giving us more to enjoy in their early films, it allows us to feel clever and justified in our good and sophisticated tastes. So I'm a bit flattened to note that John Ford didn't have it in 1917. One can absolutely look at Straight Shooting from the perspective of later years and find the seedling version of the director's aesthetic: even if your understanding of Ford's visuals begins and ends with "looking through doorways at the outside" from The Searchers, there's plenty of that in this film, or at least something close enough to that to make the 39-year evolution between the two points unmistakable and clear.

But leaping from "bits and pieces of John Ford's aesthetic were already in place" to "John Ford started being John Ford by making a great John Ford film" just doesn't work at all. Straight Shooting is a quickie made by a kid who was probably just thrilled to have a paying job, and it is saturated in tropes that were already ossified clichรฉs in 1917; honestly, they had probably been clichรฉs by the time narrative cinema itself started to form in the 1890s. And it's very difficult to tell from the 57-minute copy of the film (discovered in Prague of all places) that is primarily what most of us will ever have an opportunity to see - it's my understanding that a 71-minute reconstruction rebuilt from the Prague copy exists in the holdings of the George Eastman House, one of the great temples of cinema history on the planet - if Ford even did a decent job of telling a story that was one long train of musty old-fashioned melodrama. There are uncertain gaps in the story a-plenty, and they don't all seem to be the result of print damage.

The concept, anyway, is that rancher Thunder Flint (Duke R. Lee), like all of his rancher brethren, is appalled at the influx into the wide-open American West of god-damned farmers, taking up all the water and building fences across what used to be prime grazing land. The particular farmer that has sand all up in Flint's crack at the moment is one Sweet Water Sims (George Berrell), who tends the land with his son Ted (Ted Brooks) and daughter Joan (Molly Malone). While we might all agree that the farmer and the cowman should be friends, Flint will have none of that, and sends his goons to put a scare into the Simses, among them being a certain Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey, Sr. - of course, he wasn't going by "Sr" yet, what with his son not being born and all). A drunken lout of no real distinction, Harry is shocked awake when he visits the Sims farm shortly after one of Flint's other thugs has shot Ted dead - in the back, Harry notices with the particular righteous scorn that a self-aware bad man reserves for those even worse than himself - and thereupon dedicates himself to protecting old man Sims, and definitely the pretty Joan, from his former employer.

There's melodrama, and then there's mellerdrammer, and boy oh boy, does the rickety nonsense at the heart of Straight Shooting fall on the wrong side of that gap. Even at his all-powerful best, Ford would be prone to bouts of sticky domestic reverie centered around unnaturally saintly wimminfolk, and when he was still too green to even think about modulating emotions in any significant way, it spins right out of "sticky" into "suffocating". The action sequences that pile up near the end of the film are quite a bit stronger than anything which goes on before them; more than a little is stolen from the D.W. Griffith handbook as it had been built up in the six years since The Lonedale Operator, without the ambition and sophistication of Griffith's most recent films, but then, Straight Shooting makes absolutely no claim on being an A-list production. The relatively static camera used throughout was certainly nothing to brag about by that point, but even deep into his career, Ford was not afraid to use a static shot, staging the action as a function of depth rather than laterally following it. And that, at least, is something that Straight Shooting boasts plenty of; there is a particular shot early in the film, in Flint's hideout, where a cluttered but still interior space on the right is contrasted with horses riding up to the door on the left, where it felt like something the director would be up to 20 years later, when his claim to mastery was already secure (I'd include a still, but the copy I watched - on YouTube - looks much too lousy for that kind of thing. It's at 8:20, if you're curious).

Still, the occasional visual felicity aside, Straight Shooting has pretty much one thing going for it only, and that's Harry Carey. The rest of the cast ranges from satisfactory to alarmingly overwrought (Berrell in particular gives a performance of outrageous gesticulations that feel more like what the ill-informed assume silent acting looks like than what it actually did), and makes little impression; but Carey, already a star (in fact, already a star with the character of Cheyenne Harry, who'd crop up in several films from 1916 to 1919), has the natural screen presence we demand today just as they demanded at the dawn of the studio era; he comfortably inhabits the space in front of the camera without actively having to demand its attention, and his physical performance of drunkenness, ardor, remorse, and savagery are all remarkably simple and clean in expression, without the constant underlining of several of his co-stars.

It's enough to make an otherwise blandly competent movie actively watchable, and with the additional presence of some very fine landscape photography - a Ford trademark that I am happy to see present at the start, I might even say that it's pleasant watching for fans of the genre or director in a slightly adventurous mood. Every era has its workaday movies filling no function other than to keep an audience entertained for exactly no longer than its running time, and Straight Shooting is by all means on the better side of the bell curve by which we judge such things; it moves quickly if a bit incoherently, and it's legitimately attractive to look at, if uncomplicated. But look for the signs of future mastery here, and you look in vain.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1917
-The Butcher Boy is the first of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's projects with Paramount, and the film debut of Buster Keaton
-Superstar Mary Pickford appears in the most famous of her "adult playing a kid" roles, The Poor Little Rich Girl
-Cleopatra, starring iconic vamp Theda Bara, is released; it is among the most famous of all lost films

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1917
-Universum Film AG, better known as UFA, one of the world's most important studios during the late silent period, is founded in Germany as a propaganda company
-In Argentina, Quirino Cristiani finishes El Apรณstol, the first known feature-length animated film. It is now lost.
-The Polish Bestia is released; it is the oldest surviving film starring Pola Negri