At any rate he was generous, never mean, like others in the village I could mention if I chose. –Graham Greene, The Second Death
John Ford’s career at Fox began with this charming short feature starring Buck Jones as the likable, but lazy town bum, Bim. The film opens with a series of short, introductory vignettes, beginning with the elderly town sheriff looking out for trouble and a group of rowdy young boys who admire Bim, albeit to their parent’s chagrin. These two scenes serve as a perfect and effortless lead in to Bim, “the idol of youth and the bane of elders.” Already, in a few short scenes, Ford’s sequencing allows the viewer to almost intuitively grasp Bim’s situation in the town and the sources of conflict to come—Bim is an outsider, looked down upon by “responsible” adults for his idle (and thereby destructive) ways.
This outsider mentality is typical of many of Ford’s films, including his well-known later films—Wayne’s characters in Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, not to mention Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. These “good bad men,” as Bogdanovich calls them, all find some kinship with Bim, only able to observe the established community from afar.
But in Just Pals, optimism rules the day. Sure, the townspeople are against him. But Ford presents Bim’s faults in a more whimsical fashion. He’s lackadaisical, but without anyone to support, he only really hurts himself. And underneath the veneer of laziness, he possesses a strong moral code. He protects helpless women and children. For instance, when Bill takes a thrashing from the railroad man, Bim jumps to his defense. With Mary at risk of public ridicule and shame, Bim protects her secret, even at his own peril.
So while Bim is an outsider, he is not completely alone. The helpless and the hungry, the defenseless and the defeated, all find Bim. Bill, the boy hobo, finds Bim. Mary, the compassionate schoolteacher, finds Bim. On the other hand, the established and hard-working townspeople not only look down on Bim, but rush to judgment against him, even to the point of death. Their calloused ways even encourage the use of orphaned children for their own financial gain.
Ford’s humanism is at work in this duality—better to be sitting with the outsiders of the world than conform to the prideful established community that can’t be bothered by stooping below their station to help a fellow human being. But there is a strain of individualism in addition to the humanism. Despite the intimations of the title and the fact that Bim has found companions in Bill and Mary by the end of the film, he would not have found these friends had he not struck out on his own and distinguished himself from the townspeople.
This resulting community of outsiders defines the optimism of this early Ford picture. Nobody’s truly alone. There’s always another “pal” to be had.