A mixture of comedy and drama, John Ford’s 1924 Lightnin’ is based on a play by Winchell Smith about a perennial louse of an older man and the efforts he has to go through to save his wife and home from a pair of conmen. It’s a largely entertaining time that doesn’t really end on the notes that I feel like it needs to fully realize the story’s potential while also leaving a story thread or two unresolved. I enjoyed it, but I just don’t think it quite comes together in the end.
William “Lightnin'” Jones (Jay Hunt) sits around all day while his wife, played by Edythe Chapman, maintains their hotel on the California and Nevada border. A fair amount is made of this hotel and its location between the two states, but aside from the arrival of a single guest, nothing else is really done with it. Anyway, Mrs. Jones has grown tired of the work, and she’s eager to sell to the men from the company that’s buying up property around the area. Their daughter Millie (Madge Bellamy), whom I think she’s supposed to be adopted, is encouraging the move and also falling in love with Lightnin’s much younger friend, John Marvin (Wallace MacDonald), the local lawyer. Marvin has gained a certain notoriety because he’s become the thorn in the side of the company by foiling their previous purchase of other land. Into this walks the famous dancer Margaret Davis (Ethel Clayton) who wants to use the hotel’s unique position to somehow get her a divorce from her current husband by sort of seducing the local judge, Townsend (J. Farrell MacDonald). There’s a fair amount here for a 100 minute long film, and I don’t really think it fully takes advantage or integrates everything, especially the Davis subplot.
The first two-thirds of the film, though, is light and breezy entertainment. Hunt plays Lightnin’ with a great sense of self-aware humor, understanding how to play a drunk affectionately. His exploits on finding liquor underneath his wife’s nose, using his dog to transport his bottles and hide them when necessary is amusing. His status as a louse has this genial quality that makes him very likeable. Alongside for much of the journey is Marvin, having his own entertaining encounters with the local sheriff who’s out to arrest him. The most purely physical bit of comedy is a moment where Marvin shows up at the hotel and jumps from one side of the border to the other, with the demarcation clearly marked down the middle of the central room. Marvin jumps on furniture, playing with the sheriff as he goes into California land where the sheriff has no jurisdiction.
Where the movie doesn’t really fulfill its potential is in its ending. Lightnin’ has been kicked out of the house by Mrs. Jones because he refuses to sign the document at Marvin’s insistence. The ending is a long courtroom sequence where three things are set to happen. The first is the Davis divorce. At its most basic storytelling level, I think this is here to provide extra business to the scene, trying to find tension about the question of whether the ironically named Lightnin’ will get to the courthouse on time. The second is the divorce itself, and it becomes a proxy fight for the third battle to come, the proposed signing of the sale papers to the company once Mrs. Jones is the sole owner of the property after the divorce is complete. This feels like a recipe for comedic madness, three major storylines all clashing into one place for resolution, I was imagining an ending like Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, but instead it ends surprisingly quietly with Lightnin’ and Mrs. Jones earnestly reconciling. It takes its time to do this, and I just feel like the movie’s got too much else going on to settle into this kind of ending.
I was let down, and I feel like the film had more than one idea that just didn’t really come to anything. The hotel’s location felt greatly underutilized as a concept. The company men are mostly background characters with the sheriff taking up more space as a more comic villain. The Davis subplot just kind of suddenly ends. There’s a lot of fun comic business for the first hour or so that really makes the early parts of the film fun, but I just feel like the ending didn’t fully utilize everything that came before, going for a simpler, smaller ending focused on the main element of the film’s story instead of finding more satisfying ways to integrate everything else.
Still, I have some affection for this little film from Ford’s early career. It’s mostly a nice and earnestly felt bit of comedy, and that’s hard to hold against it.