Tuesday, April 23

The Directors: John Ford

He was as wily and irascible as Hollywood directors came.  A few others may get honorable mention, but Ford was the daddy of them all.  He was also one of the most talented and the most honored of all movie directors.  The only director still to have won four Oscars, he is chiefly known as a director of westerns and yet oddly none of his Oscars were for that genre.  He was a legend in his own time and he knew it and cultivated it.
Ford was born in Maine in 1894, of Irish ancestry, of which he was fiercely proud.  He followed his older brother to Hollywood and got into the movies, doing some acting, some stunt work.  He sat at the knees of the great masters of the time, Griffith and DeMille, and learned a great deal about film-making.  Someone shouted out that he had some traits that directors had, namely loud and bossy.  He certainly did.

He would take loud and bossy and hone it to being an autocrat at times, a control freak almost always.  He did not suffer fools gladly.  He expected things always to go his way.  He never minded reminding an actor or a writer or even the studio heads at times that he was making a John Ford picture.

Most people who knew him thought he was a lonely man and one who was secretive and angry.  On his film sets he would aggressively single out someone to berate, often in earshot of others.  Most who knew him thought he was a bully.  All his adult life he dealt with alcoholism.  He could forgo it at times, but if he did, he would end up binging.  Of course he was a mean drunk.  His wife, his son and daughter were also alcoholics.

Oddly through all of this, people loved to work with him and they did over and over again.  He himself preferred the same faces around from producers like Merian Cooper, writers Dudley Nichols and Frank Nugent, and stunt people (his favorite crowd) Chuck Hayward and Chuck Roberson.  The same character actors populated his films over and over again such as Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Ken Curtis (Ford's son-in-law), John Carradine, Andy Devine, John Qualen, Hank Worden, Mae Marsh, Jack Pennick and adorable Mildred Natwick.  The family Carey, actors all, was also like Ford's own family... father Harry Sr., wife Olive and son Harry Jr. (whom I recently devoted a posting to when he passed away).  They all comprised what was informally known as The John Ford Stock Company.

He worked more than once with actresses Claire Trevor, Joanne Dru and Vera Miles and he employed Maureen O'Hara five times.  All these actresses had that good pioneer stock in their DNA and Ford liked strong women in strong parts.

He often employed three actors who often did very well under his tutelage, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and especially John Wayne.  Most of their westerns under Ford's rein were some of the best ever made.  Wayne worked for Ford an astonishing 14 times-- and was often that whipping boy we mentioned earlier that Ford needed on his sets.

The first of the Ford-Wayne collaborations was 1939s Stagecoach.  It made Wayne a star.  The actor had been busting his ass in a goodly number of cheapie westerns but audiences found his Ringo Kid in Stagecoach pretty irresistible... and the film as well.  It was a good year for Ford, too.  He turned out two superb Henry Fonda films, Young Mr. Lincoln and a film I've always loved, Drums Along the Mohawk.  It was Ford's signature year.

He had worked at Fox, directing the studio's top moneymakers, Will Rogers and Shirley Temple.  He worked with Katharine Hepburn in the dud Mary of Scotland.  She has said that they had some sort of a relationship in which they loved one another.  She would claim the same thing about Spencer Tracy years later.  Ford's first big film had been 1935s The Informer about an Irish rebel who rats on his friend.  It won Ford the first of his Oscars.

His next set of three films caused a stir with critics and the public alike, The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, and Tobacco Road and How Green Was My Valley, both 1941.  He would win Oscars for Grapes and Valley and the latter would also win best pictureAll were solid hits with their sad glimpses into the lives of ordinary people trying to make a go of life.

In 1946 Ford returned to westerns.  He sensed that westerns would be his ticket to fame.  He always rather fancied himself a frontiersman and as an extension of that, a myth maker.  Where better to practice telling myths than in westerns?  He rightly saw the oaters as an American rite of passage.  He would say that movies and westerns grew up together.

Ford was a visionary.  He cared about all aspects of making films, but his chief love was for the camera and the landscapes it would capture.  He drooled over shadows and mountains, the blue sky, clouds, wind, the panoramic look of beauty and desolation and ruggedness.  No serious discussion of Ford's westerns could ever be complete without discussing Monument Valley where Utah hugs Arizona.  Its mesas and sandstone buttes appear in many of the director's films.  It is one way to distinguish a Ford western from most others.  

One of the films featuring Monument Valley is that 1946 film, My Darling Clementine, again with Fonda, about the famous gunfight at the O. K. Corral.  It features classic black and white photography with Ford's liberal use of shadows.  The cowboy in Ford was back in the saddle.

The following year he made Three Godfathers about a trio of cowpokes who comes across a dying woman and her baby in the desert and they vow to get the child to safety.  It was one of Ford's softer westerns and John Wayne showed his versatility.  (And you didn't think he had any.)

That same year he made the first of what is called the Cavalry Trilogy, Fort Apache, starring Wayne, Fonda and Temple.  Next came She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (most would say this was the best of the bunch) and Rio Grande.  Ford was fond of story lines involving groups of men who have to surmount a serious plight. He wanted them involved with their families as well.  All would stand together, all would suffer together and usually there was a strong and determined woman in there somewhere.  His westerns usually had dark themes and there was frequently comic relief as well.   Ford had a love-hate thing with Indians.  There was a palpable bigotry on his part.  That began with the Cavalry Trilogy and reached its zenith in the most acclaimed of all his westerns, 1956s The Searchers.

Before he made that film, he made four that I absolutely loved and odd as it may seem for me, none are westerns.  The first is one of the best damned films the master ever made and the one for which he got his fourth and final Oscar, The Quiet Man (1952).  It was a rousing story of an American who returns to his Irish roots and has a helluva time with his new Irish bride and her blockhead brother.  Wayne, O'Hara and McLaglen and the supporting cast were all magnificent.

Then came 1953s Mogambo.  It may have taken place in Africa but so help me, Ford, with his bad vision, likely thought he was making another western.  Clark Gable was perfectly cast as the big game hunter with two beautiful women in the forms of Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (both Oscar-nominated for their roles) dogging his every step.  It was a blockbuster.

Ford took off two years and in 1955 he certainly had one of his most interesting years.  In her autobiography, Tis Herself, Maureen O'Hara describes a time working with Ford where she opened a door into a room and caught Ford kissing her male costar.  Though she didn't mention the actor's name, it surely was Tyrone Power when they all made The Long Gray Line

I was flabbergasted when I read it even though I had read for years that he had a thing for the ladies and the gentlemen.  I always held that info in reserve... on the back burner... in case I needed to call it up one day.  Then came O'Hara's little scorcher.  The crabby, unattractive, poker-playing, foul-mouthed, mean-ass, man's man John Ford is... is... oh I can't bring myself to say it.

Furtive kisses with Hollywood's most handsome bisexual or not, The Long Gray Line was a thoughtful, tearful true story of an Irish immigrant who has a 50-year career on the grounds of West Point.  Then came a film and experience that John Ford probably wished had never happened. 

He was fired from directing the wonderful shipboard naval comedy-drama, Mister Roberts.  It is known that he and Henry Fonda, its title star, had a dispute on how to play some scenes.  Fonda also had an issue with how Ford treated well-respected costar William Powell.  After a heated debate, Ford decked Fonda.  Ford was then taken off the picture and replaced by Mervyn LeRoy.  Fonda never worked with Ford again.

Anxious to put this incident behind him, the cantankerous one searched for another western and came up with arguably the best one ever made and I say the best film Ford ever made, 1956s The Searchers... and that's saying a mouthful considering this man's library of films.  He worked once more with Wayne and many of his stock company before and behind the camera.  He brought aboard handsome Jeffrey Hunter as Wayne's partner in looking for a female family member who has been stolen by the Indians.  Ford would work twice more with Hunter in less prestigious productions.  The film presents Wayne in one of his most iconic performances and one of his darkest as a man of questionable character and intentions.  Monument Valley was never served so well.  Ford's framing of certain scenes is so beautifully accomplished.

The remainder of his films-- and there would be a dozen more-- were not up to his usual standards.  Perhaps he was getting too old to work up much interest.  Perhaps he had lost some of his magic.  Maybe the Mister Roberts incident effected him more than was known.  Whatever the case, the master was in cruise control.  But there was one exception.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962, was Ford's last great film and my personal favorite.  It the only one of his film's in my 50 Favorite Films although if I were to do another 50, several more would show up.  It is not as remarkable as The Searchers, but it has the most astonishing cast with Wayne, Vera Miles, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Woody Strode, John Qualen, Jeanette Nolan, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin.

The movie has a wonderful nostalgic feel and the plot itself is about nostalgia.  Told in flashback, a senator and his wife return to their hometown and deal with the truth about the politician's involvement in the death of a vicious killer.  This is a western with a particularly moving story which elevates it above the usual western.  Frankly though, most of Ford's westerns had vital stories but this one always struck a chord with me.  It is my partner's favorite western and he doesn't particularly take a shine to the genre.

Shortly before he died in 1973 at age 79, Ford was the first recipient of the still prestigious American Film Institute award.  There may be parts of his personal life that were questionable and even some aspects of his professional life, but he has history on his side when considering the finest movie directors ever to draw a breath.

Coming in May

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