#57 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
I remember reading a quote from someone who worked with John Ford late in his career that Ford understood how to assemble individual sequences, but he didn’t really understand the connective tissue from one sequence to the next (it was either one of his screenwriters or his editor, I can’t remember). Anyway, with that piece of information in the back of my mind, a lot of the looseness of Ford’s earliest films ends up making a lot of sense. He was making short feature length films (almost all about 50 minutes in length) that were usually centered around a large setpiece at the end. Whether all the pieces are actually laid out has been a bit of a crapshoot with the best of these early films, Bucking Broadway, having everything necessary to make the finale work. Just Pals doesn’t succeed as well, finding a middle ground in terms of effectiveness.
Just Pals is the story of Buck Jones’ Bim, the local bum of a small Western town, who befriends a boy, Bill (Georgie Stone) who shows up as a stowaway on the passing train, tossed off when discovered. Bim has a crush on the school teacher Mary Bruce (Helen Ferguson) who is engaged to Harvey Cahill (William Buckley), an employee at the bank. After Bim makes himself known to Mary by rescuing Bill from the train engineer, embarrassing himself at the same time by getting knocked into a ditch, Bim decides to finally make something of himself, clean himself up, and become the kind of man that Mary could love. So, he runs off to find some kind of work, any sort of odd job anyone will offer him.
At the same time, Harvey is in trouble. He dipped into his till personally and has come up short. Mary is in charge of a memorial fund raised by the school children, and Harvey convinces her to give her the money to cover the shortage, though she’s reticent about the whole thing. Bill, in an effort to help Bim get a steadier job, steals a uniform from a train engineer passing through town, but he falls off the train injuring himself. Bim, feeling responsible, takes Bill to the local doctor (Edwin B. Tilton) whose wife (Eunice Murdock Moore) believes that Bill is the lost son of a rich man as told in a newspaper article. They conspire to keep Bill away from Bim to collect the reward themselves.
This puts most of the pieces in place for the big climax, and I was pretty happy with it. However, when we get the sudden introduction of certain elements that drive the action in the middle of the climax, my appreciation dimmed. Mary sends Bim to Harvey to get the money, but the process takes too long and Mary ends up throwing herself in the river. Harvey agrees with some outlaws to let them rob the bank to take any suspicion off of him for any missing funds. Bim finds out, goes to the outlaws’ with a recovered Bill, and confronts them about the plot before they quickly get captured. Then, out of literally nowhere, a car careens off the road up above and lands in the middle of the camp where a boy jumps out and helps Bill and Bim go free. We later learn that this boy isn’t completely out of nowhere, but the sudden presence of the car to free them from a tough spot feels like deus ex machina in the most unsatisfying way. The outlaws end up caught, Harvey taken away, and all ends up well with the new boy being the missing boy from the newspaper article, soon claimed by his father who gives the reward money to Bim.
It’s light, action and adventure fare that would entertain enough if the final act didn’t feel so random because certain elements were introduced too late to feel natural. It feeds into the idea that Ford really did know how to put on a show within an individual sequence but never quite understood all the different pieces that needed to go into it beforehand to make it feel right.