October 25, 1920 [Just Pals, An Eastern Westerner, The Toll Gate]

Harold Lloyd may seem to be the tenderest tenderfoot ever to engage in Western horseplay--but I shouldn't let the owlish glasses fool me. All year long I've watched as the Frontier Male has softened like butter in August, dripping human kindness on the innocent and the unprotected--the Western myth, cinema-style, a sentimental wish that all those sand-blasted, prairie-broken cowboys and desperadoes are merely waiting for the opportunity to rescue children, court schoolmarms, and settle down.

True, William S. Hart, whether in The Toll Gate or any other of his pictures, looks like a wood carving of a recalcitrant mule--but whaddaya know, 'pears like all he was waitin' for, I 'spec'late, is the lovin' arms of a good wumman. --and I'm not sneering, not exactly, if only because Hart's world seems perched at the edge of a precipice of damnation--his bandit gang at his heels, thwarting his efforts to go straight, until that long equine face of his falls into something very much like anguish.

Despite such efforts at pathos, The Toll Gate never loses its epic-melodrama trappings, even when Hart gazes with unashamed affection at the curly-haired tot he simply refuses to leave in the lurch. But, while Just Pals also indulges in--how can I put it?--a narrative of unnecessary bulk--embezzled funds, a manhandled schoolmarm, the climactic near-lynching--it makes room for a number of genuinely affecting, small moments. The director is Jack Ford, and while he appears to understand the need for a certain scope in the Western (he positions his actors in tableaux, before a low sun, on a high hill, back-lit and elegiac-epic), he seems equally interested in (comparatively) subtle gestures. Bim, the town bum--Buck Jones, as always perfectly relaxed, his hair tousled, his face unconscious of its potential for heroism--"adopts" a young hobo; in one scene, they are presented with the opportunity to eat their fill, if they kill a number of chickens. Of course, neither can face the moment--Bim, it seems, even less eager to slaughter than the boy--and they walk away, their stomachs empty but their delicate sensibilities intact. This kind of thing is indulged throughout the picture, giving respite from the ridiculous extravagances of the plot. As in The Toll Gate, there is anguish over endangered innocents--but Jones and Ford seem more ready to bend their knees without condescension and see things as the children do.

Meanwhile, in An Eastern Westerner, Lloyd thumbs his nose at the Sagebrush Saga, slapping it silly with his absolutely unstoppable forward progress through all its tropes, from rope-tricks (faked, of course) to poker games (cheating, of course--and unsuccessfully, of course), from masked marauders (innocent shades of the KKK?) to the inevitable love interest--with, along the way, horses' tails doubling as clothes-brushes and pickpockets double-crossed. It is a bracing curative for the sugary heart-aches of the Western, as ready to leave frontier ruggedness behind as it is to revel in that same rough-and-readiness we have come to demand of life at "Piute Pass" (Lloyd's Western hamlet); in the end, though, whether comedy or epic, they are all of one mind, their freshly scrubbed faces turned to the sunset of a decidedly tamed frontier.


Popular Posts