Ford At Fox: The Iron Horse (1924)
John Ford's first epic production, The Iron Horse, flung Jack onto the critical map. While his previous Westerns with Harry Carey were popular, they were treated as run-of-the-mill programmers by the stuffed shirts. But throw a lot of money and publicity behind a historical pageant - and they take notice! Laureled upon first release but downgraded during his auteurist deification (along with his other silent work), its real value lies somewhere in between. Sure, it's saddled with an ungainly plot, with the fresh faced George O' Brien (who three years later would star in Murnau's Sunrise, which proved to be a huge influence on Ford) seeking love with his childhood sweetheart Madge Bellamy as they build the transcontinental railroad. The love plot is rife with coincidence and an evil mustachioed boyfriend.
But there are enough Fordian touches to offset the creaky melodrama - including luminous landscape photography by George Scheiderman (who shot Ford's Will Rogers trilogy), scenes of low humor preceding tragedy (after a train car is turned into a raucous outdoor casino, Ford pans down to a wife mourning her husband, who died of drink), and some wonderful scenes of drunken Irish humor (played besottedly by charter Ford Stock Company member J. Farrell McDonald). What lifts The Iron Horse to another level is the effortless way in which Ford links the personal and historical - as O'Brien and Bellamy's romance is fixed only after the last railroad spike is driven, effortlessly lifting the cliched romance into the realm of a founding myth - a couple uniting the country from East to West.