When TCM asked if I would provide on-camera thoughts for a
DVD set of five John Ford films made for Columbia Pictures, I happily said yes.
Three of the titles have never been released on disc before. Even so, I didn’t
realize how much I would derive from the experience of revisiting these movies—one
from the 1930s, three from the ’50s, and one from the early ’60s.
The Whole Town’s
Talking (1935) is a breezy comedy the great man made in the wake of his
artistic success with The Informer. Edward
G. Robinson gives a great performance in a dual role as a milquetoast
bookkeeper and his dead ringer, a cold-blooded gangster. And while history
would have us believe that it was Frank Capra who discovered Jean Arthur’s
latent talent as a comedienne, it’s instructive to see her in prime wise-girl
mode here before she teamed with Capra for Mr.
Deeds Goes to Town.
The split-screen work of Robinson and Robinson is
exceptionally good, and piqued my curiosity. The cameraman was Joseph August,
who had just shot The Informer at
RKO. I wondered if he had previous experience with this kind of trickery—often
accomplished “in the camera” in those days, as opposed to using optical
effects—and then I remembered that August had been William S. Hart’s cinematographer
in the silent era. Sure enough, the Western star had played a dual role in Three Word Brand (1921), and it was
August behind the camera. No wonder he was up to the challenge.
Another cameraman, Charles Lawton, Jr., was under contract
to Columbia and was assigned to Ford for his subsequent assignments at the
studio in the 1950s and ’60s. He and Ford worked out some beautiful CinemaScope compositions
for The Long Gray Line in 1955, even
though the Old Man grumbled about the unnaturally wide frame. It’s a handsome
movie that makes great use of its location work at West Point. And even though
the blarney is laid on pretty thick, I found myself getting caught up in the
emotion of the piece all the same.
For an atypical Ford enterprise filmed in England, Gideon’s Day (1958, also known as Gideon of Scotland Yard), the director
acquired the services of the redoubtable Freddie Young, whose artful lighting
of interiors is one of the distinguishing qualities of this entertaining yarn.
Jack Hawkins stars as a harried Scotland Yard inspector, and you don’t have to
look far to find familiar faces in the supporting cast. Two of Ford’s troupe
from How Green Was My Valley are
here: Anna Lee and John Loder. This is no ordinary police procedural, as its
screenplay was written by T.E.B. Clarke, whose credits include the memorable
Ealing Comedies The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. Columbia
originally released this in the U.S. in black & white, but fortunately the
DVD offers it in its original color version.
The Last Hurrah is
the most familiar title of this group, and has Ford’s fingerprints all over it:
the story of a benevolent Boston mayor and old-line political boss, it’s a
sentimental affair from start to finish. It also marks a Gathering of the Clan
with Spencer Tracy surrounded by familiar and welcome faces (Pat O’Brien, James
Gleason, Edward Brophy, et al). According to James Curtis’ definitive Tracy
biography, he and the director got on famously during this trouble-free shoot, their
first collaboration since Up the River
in 1930. Yet there’s someone else in the cast who could boast an even longer
history with Ford: supporting player Frank Albertson, who costarred in Salute in 1929, followed by Men Without Women the following year.
Two Rode Together,
from 1961, is the last and least successful of this five-film parlay, yet it too
has moments that validate it for any Ford aficionado…whether it be a moving
scene featuring silent-screen veteran Mae Marsh or a long conversation between
its stars, James Stewart and Richard Widmark, that the director quixotically
staged along the banks of a rushing river. Watching this after reading Glenn
Frankel’s recent book The Searchers: The
Making of an American Legend, is particularly interesting, as Ford casts
Henry Brandon (who played Scar in The
Searchers) as the real-life Chief Quanah Parker…but fails to utilize the
character’s significance in any way.
I loved immersing myself in these films over a week’s time.
There are few directors whose bodies of work offer such continuity and
richness. Sony has done an exceptional job of restoring the films for TCM’s new
release, and I am proud to be a part of this DVD set.