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The John Ford File: Part 2

The John Ford File: Part 2

T H E   J O H N   F O R D   F I L E
(P A R T  2)

As I promised in my last blog, here are my original Card-Filed opinions (1952-1970) on all the 24-plus John Ford films in the amazing DVD collection, Ford at Fox (available as a boxed set).

In the three actual cards reproduced for this blog, the date at the top right is the year I first saw the film.  The numbers at the left are the cumulative index-card notation at that point; each viewing rates another number.  The six possible rankings are:  Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Exceptional, though each of these often has a plus (*) or minus (-) valuation to aid precision.

THE IRON HORSE (1924; Fox).
Seen:  Manhattan (1959).
(Pretty fair epic silent film of the building of the first transcontinental railroad and of one man’s search for the murderer of his father.)

Seen:  West Los Angeles, California (1969).
Good- (Generally well done, but still very much under Griffith’s influence—though the atmosphere and the attention to detail as well as the compositions are unmistakably Ford’s; the story is pretty weak, and the humor is still undeveloped, still crude.  But… with some absolutely breathtaking photography; it seems that Ford had his eye from the moment he stepped behind a camera.)

3 BAD MEN (1926; Fox).
Seen:  West Los Angeles, California (1966).
Good*  (A somewhat contrived and occasionally haphazard story that has, however, many of the classic Ford gambits in immature form…  There is a Dakota land rush at the end that is extremely exciting and beautifully orchestrated, and a rescue of people in a burning church that is clearly influenced by a similar sequence in “The Birth of a Nation,” but which does not pale by comparison.  The exteriors are beautiful and typically Ford in all their aspects:  the riders on the horizon, the epic long shots, the great American odyssey, the brilliant interior-to-exterior photography, the vivid black and white contrasts. The story of three outlaws who sacrifice themselves for a young girl and her lover…has the Fordian concept of the glory of defeat, but it is still crudely stated, and not always naturally  played…still a marvelously vigorous work, devoid of pretense, and with a flair for the movies that is both unmistakable and totally unique.)

Seen:  West Los Angeles, California (1969).
(…still crude and undeveloped here, but the talent is there, and the eye for pictorial effects is as striking as ever…  In no way a finished work of art, but also much more than of purely historical interest.)

FOUR SONS (1928; Fox).
Seen:  Manhattan (1959).
(Brilliantly directed, effective tearjerker about a German mother and her four sons before, during and after World War I.  A strange choice for Ford, with some superbly done battle scenes.)

Seen:  West Los Angeles, California (1969).
Good (Considerably influenced by Murnau in atmosphere and the moving camera—and not nearly as effective—this is still an absorbing and talented work… Ford was still developing his personality, and it looks as though things did not all come together until the late thirties.)

HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928; Fox).
Seen:  W. Los Angeles, California (1966).
Good (A dying Irish “hanging” judge forces his daughter to marry an utter scoundrel, thinking he will help her to a good position in life, but eventually she is saved by her real beloved and an outlaw Irish patriot, who is after the man because he married, then deserted his sister, who then killed herself.  The plot is not always convincing, but Ford brings atmosphere and personality to it in his Irish humor and especially in his dark and mist-shrouded photography…the last shot of McLaglen, alone, still the outsider, brings to mind the ending of “The Searchers.”  Fascinating then in the seeds of what was to come that lie scattered throughout…)

Seen:  W. Los Angeles, California (1969).    
(The race sequence remains the high point of the film, and the whole thing is rather likeable, but of negligible worth; it is of interest mainly because of Ford’s future rather than because of itself.)

BORN RECKLESS (1930; Fox).
Seen: W. Los Angeles, California (1966).
Fair* (A gangster picture with a middle sequence set during the war in France that is almost pure Ford- with Ward Bond and Jack Pennick- striking photography and typically Ford humor; the rest has some fine atmosphere and composition, but it is still pretty stagey and somewhat stiff in the dialog scenes, which were supposedly “staged by Andrew Bennison.” The Ford personality is there, however, though only in small stretches at a time; otherwise, it is not an unlikeable picture, but it is completely dated.)

SEAS BENEATH (1931; Fox).    
Seen:  W. Los Angeles, California (1966).
Good (Early Ford talkie with all the great Fordian elements in embryo form…striking photography at sea, careless story plotting held together by a vigorous and dynamic sense of pictures.  The acting by most of the leads, especially George O’Brien and the women, leaves much to be desired; but the visual quality of many of the scenes and the sense of reality captured in the battles compensated for much of the awkwardness of the presentation.  The Ford personality is so unmistakable in many of the moments…it’s fascinating to see:  a genius not yet at the peak of his powers.)

PILGRIMAGE (1933; Fox).
Seen:  W. Los Angeles, California (1966).
Fair* (Interesting early Ford talkie about a possessive mother who forbids her son’s marriage to the girl he has made pregnant, driving the boy into the War, in which he is killed; years later, still unrelenting, she makes a pilgrimage as a Gold Star mother to his grave in France and encounters a young man there whose mother is putting him through a similar experience—and she finally sees her foolishness and tragic mistakes.  Sentimental, sometimes crude, but done with considerable conviction and thoroughly engrossing…  Personal in many respects, but not yet crystalized Ford.)

I haven’t had the time to see Pilgrimage again, but I have a hunch that I’ve underrated it. Images from the picture come back to me periodically, and the whole thing reverberates in my memory.

DOCTOR BULL (1933; Fox).
Seen:  W. Hollywood, California (1968).
Very good- (Ford’s “Arrowsmith”—a charming small-town comedy-drama, with Will Rogers in the title role; not one of Ford’s best films, but a very interesting early sound work; the script is the weakest element, but Ford’s handling of the New England atmosphere, his attention to detail, and Rogers’ personality make up for the awkwardness of some of the other players and for the overuse of dialog.  Generally dated, it shows an interesting trend in Ford’s work—his personality best expressed in the little picture.)

In the next blog we’ll continue going through the Ford at Fox box set, an obvious treasure trove for Ford fans; I haven’t been able to revisit all the pictures, as I noted above, so for now these cards will have do.

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