Sunday, August 8, 2021

Heading west once again, this time with John Ford: two early features at Town Hall Theatre

A darkly lit scene from 'Hell Bent' (1918), directed by a very young John Ford.

Heading west today—west to Wilton, N.H., that is—to accompany two early John Ford dramas starring Harry Carey.

It's the latest installment in our summertime salute to silent film Westerns at the Town Hall Theatre.

This afternoon, we're screening 'Straight Shooting' (1917) and 'Hell Bent' (1918), a pair of features that mark the first westerns directed by a very young John Ford. (Billed in these here titles as "Jack" Ford.)

So gather round the cinematic campfire (not the best image for nitrate film) and take in two rarely screened tales from long ago. More info in the press release below.

Also, I'd like to report that silent Garbo remains a top box office attraction. Last night in Brandon, Vt., 'Wild Orchids' (1929), a late MGM silent starring the Swedish sphinx, drew a sizeable crowd on a humid evening.

Perfect conditions for a steamy, tropical romantic thriller! 

Original promotional materials for 'Wild Orchids' (1929).

But I've found 'Wild Orchids,' with its "stalking big game" metaphor threaded throughout a cat-and-mouse story, always makes a strong impact on audiences. Coming as it did at the very end of the silent era, it was produced by people who were at their peak of fluency in the medium.

And the result is a film that really holds up well. After last nights screening, I had an interesting conversation with a couple who said that for a silent film, they were surprised at how sophisticated it was.

Well, I'm surprised that 'Wild Orchids' is not more embraced by critics. But then Garbo always wanted to be left alone, anyway.

If you're eager to see 'Wild Orchids' on the big screen, I'll do it again later this month—on Wednesday, Aug. 18 at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine.

In the meantime, hope to see you at this afternoon's double helping of John Ford silent westerns. The round-up begins at 2 p.m.!

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Early cowboy star Harry Carey plays as "Cheyenne Harry" in two early John Ford westerns.

Contact: Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Director John Ford's first two Westerns to be shown in Town Hall Theatre double feature

Summer series of rare silent Westerns with live music continues with Harry Carey films on Sunday, Aug. 8 in Wilton, N.H.

WILTON, N.H.—Even if you've won four Oscars for Best Director (more than anyone else), you had to start somewhere.

See the very first Westerns helmed by John Ford, who would later win multiple Academy Awards, in the next installment of the Town Hall Theatre's summer salute to silent film westerns.

'Straight Shooting' (1917) and 'Hell Bent' (1918), both directed by Ford when he was in his early 20s, will be shown as a double feature on Sunday, Aug. 8 at 2 p.m.

The screening is free and open to the public; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film programming.

The program will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.

"Both of these early John Ford Westerns are more than a century old," said Rapsis. "They didn't need to pretend to be in the 'Old West' because it was there all around them."

Critics regard 'Straight Shooting' as a landmark in the history of the Western. The first feature directed by Ford, it revived the career of early superstar Harry Carey, who gives a rough and tumble performance as a hired gun who turns on his employers to defend an innocent farmer and his family.

In 'Hell Bent,' "Cheyenne Harry" (Harry Carey playing the same character from Straight Shooting) flees the law after a poker game shootout, and arrives in the town of Rawhide, where he becomes friendly with local cowboy Cimarron Bill and dance hall girl Bess Thurston.

When gang leader Beau Ross kidnaps Bess, Harry goes to desperate lengths travelling across the deadly desert in order to free Bess from her hard-bitten captor.

“Cheyenne Harry” is a role Carey would play into the 1930s, an amiable antihero who pals around with outlaws but who really has a heart of gold. Carey's work was a pivotal influence on John Wayne, a later Ford collaborator.

Carey's rugged frame and craggy features were well suited to westerns and outdoor adventures. When sound films arrived, Carey displayed an assured, gritty baritone voice that suited his rough-hewn screen personality.

As he aged, Carey transitioned from leading roles to character parts, including the President of the Senate in Frank Capra's 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.' (1939).

John Ford, the only four-time 'Best Director' Oscar winner, stands as an iconic figure in American cinema. In a career spanning five decades, Ford directed more than 140 films. He's widely regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers of his generation.

Ford's work was held in high regard by his colleagues, with Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman among those who named him one of the greatest directors of all time.

Ford made frequent use of location shooting and wide shots, in which his characters were framed against a vast, harsh, and rugged natural terrain.

Upcoming titles in the Town Hall's summer series of silent Westerns include:

• Sunday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m.: Set in western Canada, 'Mantrap' (1926) tells the story of a New York divorce lawyer on a camping vacation to get away from it all, but gets more than he bargained for with Clara Bow, then fast on her way to becoming Hollywood's 'It' girl. Directed by Victor Fleming, who would go on to helm 'Gone With the Wind' (1939) and 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939).

• Sunday, Aug. 29 at 2 p.m.: Our look at silent-era Westerns concludes with the genre's lighter side. In 'Womanhandled' (1925), Richard Dix tries to win his girlfriend by taking up the rugged cowboy life, only to find it not so rugged. In 'Go West' (1925), Buster Keaton sends up the legends of the West with his timeless brand of visual comedy; includes perhaps the most unlikely love story in any mainstream 1920s Hollywood film.

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis will create musical scores for each film live during its screening, in the manner of theater organists during the height of silent cinema.

"For most silent films, there was never any sheet music and no official score," Rapsis said. "So creating original music on the spot to help the film's impact is all part of the experience."

"That's one of the special qualities of silent cinema," Rapsis said. "Although the films themselves are often over a century old, each screening is a unique experience — a combination of the movie, the music, and the audience reaction."

'Straight Shooting' (1917) and 'Hell Bent' (1918), two early westerns directed by John Ford and starring Harry Carey, will be screened on Sunday, Aug. 8 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Free admission; a donation of $10 per person is suggested to support the Town Hall Theatre's silent film series.

For more information, visit or call (603) 654-3456.

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