Just Pals is a fairly effective little comedy drama, very typical of its time, which would probably have been all but forgotten were it not for its having been directed by a young John (or rather "Jack") Ford.
Ford may be better known now, but the star of the show is Buck Jones one of the legion of cowboy actors (who got into the business because they could ride a horse) around at this time, but a talented and very popular performer nonetheless. He rarely did comedy, but he seems to have taken to it well, and yet he also displays a dramatic depth that is important here. Crucial to the mix though is the rapport he obviously struck up with his co-star, young George Stone, who gives the sort of naturalistic performance you can get from inexperienced child actors. The female lead is Helen Ferguson, who remains restrained and convincing in a part that is essentially a melodramatic stock role.
The actors need to be talented and versatile, because the plot lurches and genre-hops all over the place, visiting a few clichés of silent melodrama (embezzled funds, a suicide attempt), and even diverging into a Western for five minutes or so. The tenuously interwoven subplots feel more like an "adventures of " although eventually the whole thing is allowed to tie up satisfactorily. And it is of course, supposed to be a comedy at heart. Most of the jokes are in the intertitles, and a few of them are even funny. There are also a few visual gags involving a reverend's collection box which look to me like on-the-spot contributions from Ford.
Speaking of Ford, his mark is all over Just Pals, more obviously so than in his later pictures because he had not yet learnt subtlety. We are treated to many aesthetically framed shots, with tree branches and hedgerows defining the space for the action, and yet these devices are often intrusive, completely enclosing the subject. He even uses heavy framing in the location shots, whereas the later Ford would often show off the openness of the outdoors. Having said that, there is an absolutely wonderful piece of visual character definition near the beginning, with a snoozing Buck Jones in the foreground framing some busy farmhands. Even then Ford could be brief yet effective in setting the scene.
Just Pals is one of so many silent picture that has been preserved, restored and brought to DVD on account of a future "big name" associated with it, and yet has indirectly provided modern audiences with a rare glimpse at forgotten stars who, ironically, were major players at the time. Yes, it is of some interest to anyone studying Ford's career, but the presence of Jones, Ferguson and others who were to eventually become casualties of the sound era, make it watchable in its own right.
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