Back to IndieWire

The John Ford File: Part 5

The John Ford File: Part 5

T H E   J O H N   F O R D   F I L E
(P A R T  5)

Just to round things up, here are a bunch of my Ford Cards on a miscellany of pictures he directed, some of them available, some unfortunately not (both noted below). But if I had a card on it, at least we know that a print existed in that year.

This is a good example for film preservation:  of the nearly 30 features Jack (before the billing became John) Ford made with Harry Carey, 1917-1920, only one or two more have survived.  Indeed, comparatively few Ford silents exist, and this was his most prolific era, making nearly a hundred films.

LIGHTNIN’ (1925; Fox).                               
Seen:  West Los Angeles, California (1966).
Fair- (Of purely historical interest:  dated story about an elderly woman who runs a hotel… and her husband, who likes to drink and tell stories about all the things he used to be; there is a romantic subplot involving their daughter, as well as the basic line that deals with a pair of swindlers trying to get the land cheap because they know the railroad will want it.  Not especially well played, written; nor is it memorable in its staging.  But there is some striking outdoor photography…  Otherwise, there is a lot of talk, some mild humor, and a good deal else that indicates Ford’s lack of interest in the subject–though he brings it off professionally.)

THIS IS KOREA! (1951; U.S. Navy-Republic).    
Seen:  Van Nuys, California (1965).
Good* (In this hour-long documentary, Ford somehow manages to combine a sense of patriotism with a deep quality of distaste for this Korean war…a kind of sad, plodding drudgery which shows…that he has completely understood the pointlessness of this particular conflict…John Ireland is one of the narrators.) (available)

MEN WITHOUT WOMEN (1930; Fox).    
Seen:  Beverly Hills, California (1969).
Fair* (Likable but minor early Ford—one of his more serious projects—with some excellent sea sequences and a generally fine level of intensity…sea recovery scenes at the end are the most memorable.)

THE BLUE EAGLE (1926; Fox).
Seen:  West Hollywood, California (1968).
Good (Lively, fast-paced, improbable but fresh and likeable comedy-melodrama about a couple of Irish boys who are constantly fighting, but who ultimately team up to clean out a dope ring; unpretentious, simply acted and directed with great gusto, and an emphasis on humor. …despite everything there are beautiful touches and several beautifully composed frames that could only be Ford.)

Seen:  W. Los Angeles, California (with “Salute”) (1969).
Fair*  (Likeable, decidedly minor Ford silent, set in Ireland and America, with several amusing comedy touches, a light touch and pleasant photography and acting.  In no way memorable, but a nice example of the bread-and-butter days of Ford and Hollywood, when movies still dared to be just a movie…very well done Irish atmosphere, all created on the back lot with considerable imagination.)

SALUTE (1929; Fox)
Seen:  W. Los Angeles, California (with “The Shamrock Handicap”).
Good* (Fresh, quite likeable Army-Navy rivalry story, filmed on location at Annapolis—with some dated acting, but also some quite personable appearances by Ward Bond, John Wayne, Frank Albertson, Stepin Fetchit, others; the outdoor sequences have a lovely quality of reality, and though the whole story is by now most hackneyed, it is told in such an unpretentious, almost breezy manner, that it retains a good deal of its charm…not as weak as most films of the period.  A decided improvement on Ford’s first feature talkie, “The Black Watch,” made the same year.)

RILEY THE COP (1928; Fox).
Seen:  W. Los Angeles, California (1966).
Fair* (One of Ford’s last silent films—with music and effects…an old Irish cop in N.Y. has never arrested anyone and feels paternal about the pair of young lovers he has known from birth—the girl is named Mary, of course; when she goes to Germany for a long vacation, the boy follows, is arrested for embezzling and Aloysius Riley is sent to Munich to bring him back; but there’s beer there—and Prohibition in America—so Riley is detained, falls in love with a fraulein, the boy is exonerated, and the two couples get married…the film has an overall frivolous quality that is likeable and thoroughly unpretentious; the photography…is exceptional…)

DONOVAN’S REEF (1963; Ford-Paramount).
Seen:  Manhattan (1963).
Excellent*  (Mr. Ford’s 128th;* movie and his 15th* with John Wayne—a semi-nostalgic…rowdy comedy set on a South Seas island—beautifully color-filmed and acted, strikingly personal in its direction; with a story of little consequence, Ford has constructed a thoroughly delightful romantic farce about a couple of former Navy men who have retired and spend most of their time now brawling and raising hell.)
[*These numbers are not accurate.]

Seen:  Manhattan (1963).
(Ford in a “Wings of the Eagle” mood in this charming and outrageously perverse masterpiece, among the very best of the year.)

Seen:  Van Nuys, California (1969).
(A vacation movie—lots of fun—and uniquely Ford.)

Seen:  Manhattan (1999).  This film is amazingly personal to Ford, but also formally at times way over the top; a rarified taste, perhaps, though I like it.  The Wings of Eagles reference is as imprecise in title as in comparison with Donovan’s Reef; which is a comedy with serious undertones. Wings is a tragedy with comic moments.

(Available on DVD)

AIR MAIL (1932; Universal).
Seen:  Manhattan (1961).
Good (Interesting example of early Ford sound work:  a likeable, well directed story of air mail flying, centering on an incorrigible daredevil, reckless but remarkably able, and his sober superior; Pat O’Brien and Ralph Bellamy fit the roles nicely.  Similar to Hawks’ “Ceiling Zero,” which is better, probably because Frank Wead wrote both…  This is decidedly minor Ford, but exciting and excellently made nevertheless.)

Seen:  Van Nuys, California (1965).
(All the humorous touches—especially those involving Slim Summerville—are the most personal to Ford in this work and they are also the best things in it.)

THE LONG GRAY LINE (1955; Rota-Columbia).
Seen:  Manhattan (1955).
(Sentimental, tearful story of fifty years in the life of Irishman Marty Maher, and his beloved West Point.  Well directed and shot; some of the film is humorous, much is maudlin and boring.)

Seen:  Manhattan (1962)
Excellent (A superb piece of work, among Ford’s most deeply moving:  sentimental, yes, but as only Ford could be—from the depths of his heart.  Unqualifiably a beautiful movie.)

Seen:  West Hollywood, California (1968)
(As strong a picture of the importance and glory of tradition as “Fort Apache”—and as personal to Ford perhaps; wonderful performances and magnificent direction.)

The best performance of Tyrone Power’s career, and a most unmistakably Fordian picture of the glory inherent in defeat.  Fine use of wide screen, though Ford was said to keep wandering into the frame because he misjudged it’s width.

CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964; Ford-Smith-Warner Bros.).
Seen:  West Hollywood, California (1964).
Excellent- (An epic Ford achievement:  the harrowing story of the flight of 300 Cheyenne men, women and children 1800 miles to their native Yellowstone country.  Strikingly photographed, acted with dignity and conviction, filled with incident, detail, humor… masterful Americana…)

Seen:  Canoga Park, California (with “Emil and the Detectives”) (1965).
(Cut by Warners, the picture has lost the important touch of humor, an ingredient too absent from this to start with; always a flawed film it has been damaged even worse.  But nothing can destroy the majesty of Ford, and it shines through every frame.)

Seen:  Beverly Hills, California (1970)
(Decidedly Ford’s weakest film of the fifties and sixties, it still contains some memorable sequences, and marvelous ideas, but it is nonetheless a deeply flawed work.)

Cheyenne Autumn was the first film I extensively watched being made—-for three weeks; a few hours had been my limit before that—-and so it is impossible for me really to be objective about the overall work.  Being there in Monument Valley with Ford for over twenty-one days, having lunches and dinners with him daily, getting to know all the actors, learning an enormous amount watching a frail and skinny 69-year-old man easily command a cast and crew of over 600, a large trailer town in the midst of the desert.  I remember thinking to myself, well, I guess getting to be that age wouldn’t be so bad, after all—-at least, you don’t have to worry about how you look or what you say, as Ford clearly didn’t.

From here on through to the end of Ford’s life in 1973, up to right now, it is not entirely possible for me to be objective about Ford, and I often enjoy being in his company with a film of his even from a weak day.  What I like best, of course, are those pictures in which his humor, his humanity and his sense of history most eloquently prevails.  Naturally, feeling a personal affection for the man I knew, and knowing the ever-present plight of film preservation, it is painful to think of losing any single one of those movies he did, even the poorest one.  They all are some part of the singular life’s work of one of the precious few poets in the art form of the 20th century.

Saving films, then, is like saving parts of lives.  There have already been so many lost moments of Ford, let’s keep hoping there will be more found somewhere soon—-one silent Ford feature recently turned up unexpectedly in New  Zealand, Upstream (1927), and, though decidedly minor, it was fun to see Ford working in a theatrical milieu. Let’s help to make certain there are no further pictures to leave us forever.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: News and tagged