Ford at Fox
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Available Dec. 4, List Price $299.98
Cranky old John Ford might never have used the word... but "Wow" is the only appropriate reaction to this mammoth collection. Twelve pounds, 20 discs and 24 grand old films (eight of them beautifully restored) from the 1920 Just Pals to My Darling Clementine in 1946. You also get a pretty picture book and an illuminating new documentary, Becoming John Ford, which concentrates on the director's working relationship with Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck. The whole enterprise is a grand and fitting tribute to the man whose movies Spielberg and Scorsese, Lucas and Leone and Kurosawa learned so much from. Ford was the classic American director. The box set is a classic in its own right what could be a paradigm for collections of other Hollywood originals.
Ford's response to this attention would probably be a dismissive grunt. Possibly an obscenity. Fact is, he was not a nice man. As Orson Welles puckishly noted, "Jack had chips on his shoulder like epaulets." In Becoming John Ford, one of his biographers, the scholar Joseph McBride, says, "He was a tyrant, he was a sadist. The John Ford family, it's sort of like a bunch of abused children, and an abusive father. And yet they were devoted to him." An alcoholic with a mean streak, Ford "would read and drink himself into oblivion," according to McBride. Another sympathetic critic, screenwriter Lem Dobbs, describes the director as "kind of a nutcase." Ford may have been speaking of himself when he observed, "Irish and genius don't mix well."
Ford was not a full-service auteur. He didn't write the scripts for his films (which makes the documentary's complete ignoring of the contributions of Dudley Nichols, Nunnally Johnson, Lamar Trotti and Philip Dunne who shaped the stories and wrote the dialogue for most of the best films collected here a near-criminal offense). Often, it's claimed, he wouldn't read the script. "An older man was supposed to kiss some woman," McBride says, "and he wasn't doing it with enough passion, and Ford said... 'Kiss her on the mouth.' And he said, 'Mr. Ford, she's playing my daughter.'"
Like virtually every other director in the '30s and '40s, Ford was obliged to be a company man, rankling under his boss's gaze. ("The front office likes the rushes," he once said, "so there must be something wrong. We'll have to keep shooting till we find out what it is.") And when the shooting was over, Ford didn't edit his films; he left that job to Zanuck and his minions. "Darryl knew I hated to go into the projection room," Ford said about The Grapes of Wrath. "So I had this tacit agreement that he would cut the picture." Ford praised Zanuck's use of music (not much) and sound effects (crickets). "He was a great cutter, a great film editor." The boss fine-tuned Ford's movies while the director moved down the assembly line to the next job of work.
But on the set, between "Action!" and "Cut!," he worked miracles of visual composition and human emotion. The young Ford learned much from F.W. Murnau's 1927 Sunrise (made at Fox); he applied Murnau's framing savvy and moving camera to his next film, Four Sons, and kept enriching his technique with borrowings from earlier masters and the application of his own innovative spirit. His aim, he said, was to create "auditory imagery, the chance to project symphonic qualities for the creation and holding of mood, so that pictures will no longer be limited to pure and simple narrative for material." Ford's gift for getting the best out of actors especially, in his Fox years, Henry Fonda earned them 10 Oscar nominations. Ford's peers at the Motion Picture Academy recognized his gift: they gave him a record four Oscars or Best Director. Ford at Fox shows why Ford deserved those accolades.
If $300 ($209.99 at Amazon.com) seems a bit steep for a box of old movies, buy one of the cheaper, smaller packets. Start with The Essential John Ford Collection; it contains the official classics My Darling Clementine, Drums Along the Mohawk, How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath, plus Becoming John Ford). Also available are: John Ford's Silent Epics (Just Pals, The Iron Horse in two versions, Four Sons, Hangman's House and Three Bad Men); John Ford's American Comedies (leading with three movies starring the immensely popular Will Rogers Steamboat Around the Bend, Judge Priest and Doctor Bull buttressed by the minor When Willie Comes Marching Home, Up the River and What Price Glory). These sets go for $35 to $38 at Amazon. Two fascinating early talkies, Pilgrimage and Born Reckless can be had in a double-feature set for $17.99. Highly recommended is the one-disc Becoming John Ford, whose extras include the director's wartime documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7th ($11.19 at Amazon).
Ford's films aren't miniatures; they're epics, with the grand sweep of life passing before his cameras. Births, marriages and deaths, especially deaths, are movingly recorded. Mothers are the moral center of Ford's world; they have folk wisdom in their DNA, and usually dispense it lovingly. From the mother, emotional bonds spread less to a man's spouse than to his family, his neighbors, his village or class, who often join him in celebratory or mournful song at a milestone event. (Ford was a sucker for choral singing almost as much as for roughhouse comedy. He put way too much of it in his movies, and Zanuck had the good sense to leave a lot of it on the cutting room.)
And after the singing, the keening, the fond or tearful farewells, the hero is left alone to commune with the departed. Some of the most telling moments in the period films Judge Priest, Young Mr. Lincoln and Clementine are of men talking to their dead brides or visiting the graves of loved ones. Even in the contemporary films, Ford's tone was elegiac. The documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7th spend nearly as much time on requiems for the fallen soldiers as on the attacks themselves.
In the '30s and '40s, Ford worked at most of the big studios: MGM, RKO, Columbia, Goldwyn, Universal and United Artists. This freelancing resulted in some of his most famous films, including The Informer, for which he won his first Oscar, and the ur-Western Stagecoach. (Both these films were written by Nichols.) But for a quarter century Fox was his home. There, and throughout the studio system, directors rarely got to choose their own films. Ford accumulated power as his reputation grew, and under Zanuck he got the prestige projects: the best-selling novels ready to become Oscar-worthy pictures. But he and his contemporaries were typically hamstrung by the industry's avidity to compromise. "If you're thinking of a general run of social pictures, or even just plain honest ones," he is quoted as saying in Becoming John Ford, "it's almost hopeless. The whole financial setup is against it. What you'll get is an isolated courageous effort here and there."
Earlier, he took what he was given, though even the routine assignments have their pleasures. The 1930 gangster drama Born Reckless parades the brashness common to those frontier days of the first talkies. In one scene, Edmund Lowe, as the charming con Louis Baretti, pulls a ring off his finger, tosses it into a moll's blouse and pats her breasts goodbye. Later, Lowe has a speech (written by Nichols) that compresses every underworld cliche into 53 words or maybe it invented the phrases that James Cagney and countless tough guys would use later. "Made ya turn stool pigeon," Lowe tells a police informant. "Double-crossed your own mob, huh? Turned in Big to save your own rotten hide. Say, this room ain't big enough for both of us. This town ain't big enough. So you if you ever bump into me you better see me first, you dirty sneakin' rat."
Which is to say that Ford's pictures were of their time. Or, more frequently, the time before that a pastel past of rural virtues, docile wives, southern hospitality and shiftless Negroes. The most unshiftable, and inscrutable, was the amazing Stepin Fetchit, who dominated any scene he was in by establishing his own molasses tempo when he moved or spoke. He was in five Fords, including Judge Priest, where he plays Will Rogers' handyman and, more or less, lawn jockey. Rogers sends him on an errand, asking, "Gonna put your shoes on?" "Saving' 'em case my feet wear out," is the drawling reply. Rogers: "As much settin' around as you do, won't be your feet that wear out." Judge Priest, set in 1890, has bushels of this sort of humor, plus a quartet of mammies apostrophizing the Old Confederacy by joining Rogers in a chorus of "My Old Kentucky Home." Yet the film is so relaxed, so amiable, that it might exist in some alternate universe where blacks weren't chattel, and the races got along fine.
It might surprise viewers of the Rogers films to hear that Ford was a liberal Democrat who during the blacklist days defended the non-Communist Left against right-wingers like Cecil B. De Mille. The Grapes of Wrath is in a way a primal Ford film (and a great one), with its close-knit family led by Jane Darwell as a wise, flinty mother. But the movie also bordered on socialism, with its sympathy for immigrant laborers (Okies) and its defiant speechifying: "Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad." John Steinbeck, the novel's author, was apprehensive that Fox, owned by Eastern banks, would squash the red out of his grapes. Zanuck assured him the adaptation would be faithful, and it was. And Ford wrung every drop of rage and pathos out of the plight of desperate farmers, 10 years into the Depression.
One of the strongest anti-capital films Ford directed is one that has received little attention: The World Moves On, written by Reginald Barkley. It traces 100 years in the life of a banking family, slogging along until it gets to World War I. Suddenly there are five mins. of harrowing war footage, as intense as anything from the many war movies made at the time. The scenes aren't Ford's; they were taken from the 1932 French film Wooden Crosses (available on Criterion's Raymond Bernard box set). Flash forward, as a title card informs us: "Then post-war years ideals born of blood and sacrifice forgotten money the new morality power the new God " As if in the Almighty's personal punishment for the family's avarice, the Depression arrives, and the clan is bankrupt. So is the country. "There's no way out except for another war." The heroine (Madeleine Carroll) grows bitter: "War is a disease. Homicidal mania on the grand scale, brought on by fear and jealousy." Cut to a startling montage of news clips showing Hitler and his SS, a militarized Japan, Britain's warships, Mussolini's soldiers in Rome, U.S. fighter planes. It's World War II, all foreseen in a movie from 1934.
Ford, who had been in the Naval Reserve since 1934, was one of the first Hollywood directors to go to war. (Zanuck went too.) He didn't make a commercial movie for four years, though Fox, at the suggestion of Franklin Roosevelt, put the documentary The Battle of Midway in theaters. "This is Midway,' announces the narrator (Donald Crisp, from How Green Was My Valley, reading Nichols' script). "Not much land, right enough. But it's our outpost. Your front yard." Midway is both a record of the military engagement and a pure John Ford movie. There's even a Fordian mother (voiced by Darwell), choked with emotion as she wishes godspeed to her departing Navy son. Then comes the battle, shot by Ford and two other cameramen. It's tremendously intense for its time; moviegoers had seen nothing like it. "The image jumps a lot," Ford said, "because shells were exploding right next to me. Since then they do that on purpose, shaking thc camera when filming war scenes. For me it was authentic because the shells were exploding at my feet."
Even bolder was December 7th, which Ford shot part of and later boiled down to 34 mins. from a feature-length version assembled by cinematographer Gregg Toland. (The full version is available from VCI Video.) The film detailed for wartime audiences the attack that triggered America's entry into the war. "Pearl Harbor," the narrator proclaims, "the Navy's $100 million fist." The movie notes that a radio man detected incoming aircraft 30 mins. before the attack time enough to alert the fleet and save lives but was waved off by an unnamed, "inexperienced lieutenant." The radioman and other soldiers play themselves in this early docudrama. The narrator: "At 7:55 a.m., hell broke loose. Man-made hell. Made in Japan." In one reenactmnt, we see a Navy gunner, a young black man, unloading his weapon into the sky. He is killed, and a white man takes his place. As part of the U.S. reaction to the attack, we see Hawaiian children in trenches, donning gas masks, and Waikiki Beach wreathed in barbed wire. And of course, a roll call of dead sailors and their surviving parents, wives and infant children. Even in the short version, it's powerful, harrowing stuff.
It's the later, post-Fox John Ford who's remembered today the director who sustained and reinvented the Western, whose signature star was not Fonda but John Wayne, and who made Monument Valley his own personal landscape. (He lived in it, he loved it, he painted it, he owned it.) What you find in this gigantic collection is a man who could lend his expertise to any genre. He'd make two, three or four films a year, segueing from a ferocious drama (The Prisoner of Shark Island) to a Shirley Temple movie, and a good one. (McBride says Ford should have won his first Oscar for Wee Willie Winkie, not for The Informer.) You also see what has been called "the genius of the system" the dream factory in high gear, producing more caviar than sausage. Ford at Fox is as much about Fox as it is about Ford a sumptuous reminder of a director and the studio that enabled, hobbled and sustained him.