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Archive for the ‘Directed by John Ford’ Category

Mary Of Scotland

01 Dec

Mary Of Scotland—directed by John Ford. Historical. 123 minutes Black and White 1936.
★★★★
The Story: An attractive young queen assumes her throne only to be bullied by everyone.
~
Mary of Scotland as a monarch is not a good subject for drama, although Mary Stuart as a person is so tempting that even Schiller placed his great talent at her disposal. I saw Eva Le Gallienne and and Irene Worth (and later Signe Hasso) do it in Tyrone Guthrie’s production at The Phoenix. It is a play frequently revived. It is based on a confrontation between the two queens Elizabeth and Mary that never (as politically inexpedient) could have taken place. And of course there is the opera Maria Stuarda of Donizetti, based on the Schiller. Schiller had a massive talent for extensive confrontation scenes of a romantic order. And they have a certain carrying power in his play. Shakespeare wisely stayed clear of the subject, even when his patron, the king, was Mary’s son, James. Maxwell Anderson, however, riding his over-stuffed studio couch of talent into the ditch accomplished a traffic jam.

What’s the problem?

Mary made unwise decisions. If we had a good play about her today, it would resemble the decisions the present queen of England is seen to make in The Crown: every single decision Elizabeth II makes is wrong. But her string of errors holds the story of her reign together.

But Mary was also a creature of bad luck. And that is a subject that cannot be dramatized. While if ever an actress was born to overrule bad luck it was Katharine Hepburn, even she cannot do it. Dudley Nichols, an able screenwriter if there ever was one, cannot do it. Pandro Berman has produced it magnificently, but that merely detours the problem. And, of course, John Ford directed it with his crude sentimentality and his robust love of men doing manly things this time in kilts. They execute them in close order marches, singing in brave choral unison, amid the screeches of bagpipes.

Frederic March as the sexy rash warrior Lord Bothwell is miscast although he assumes the position with all the will of the matinée idol he wasn’t. Frederic March cannot assume a role perfect for Errol Flynn. March’s real-life wife Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth falls into the same trap that snared Bette Davis in the role: playing the queen as a waterfront thug.

Katharine Hepburn alone carries the film, which is all over the place Alone among the actors at least she is not over-costumed by Walter Plunkett. Sometimes she plays in the Noble Mode of her era and choice, but often she is touching, not because she can generate at will that left-eye tear of hers, but because Mary was flustered and muscled by her Scots lairds. She assumed a throne whose rule had been in the hands a regency of men too accustomed to having their own way, and her assumption was ignorant, incompetent, and incorrect. To see Hepburn helpless has its appeal.

She is supported by the brilliant filming of Joe August. If you want to learn something about how to shoot this sort of royal hooey (Game Of Thrones), watch Mary Of Scotland. Watch how his camera holds his actors in its embrace, caresses them with black, searches their faces in fade-outs.

When I was eighteen I lived in Oundle and visited the next town over, Fotheringhay, where Mary was held by Elizabeth in house arrest. After much delay, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant. But when Mary was beheaded and fell, a commotion bestirred her garments. Then it was discovered she has secreted her lapdog in the voluminous sleeves of her dress.

It’s a telling detail of a woman too trivial to grasp the reality of her royal situation. A child woman, of course, Hepburn could play but only as a hoyden as Jo in Little Women. Still she looks lovely in the role and acts it with all the restraint necessary to an actor baffled by a role of a sexy woman once played on Broadway by the least sexy actress of all, Helen Hayes. That is to say, into the basic material nothing fits because the basic material for drama is not there.

Hepburn is not box-office poison, but the material RKO gave her in those days was. Or perhaps her arrogance in thinking she could overcome that material by force of personality was the poison. Hepburn was not an actress who could shape material to her own ends. That was not within her genius or appeal. She could do a lot. She could not do everything. Still if you love or admire her, as I certainly do, here she is in the least heroic role she ever played. And it is worthwhile to see how she keeps her seat in the role to ride it right off the cliff at the end.

 

The Quiet Man

11 Nov

The Quiet Man –– directed by John Ford. Romantic Drama. An American returns to Ireland, falls for a beautiful woman and must fight to make her his own. 129 minutes. Color 1952.

★★★★★

We get three fairy tales for the price of one. To exploit them, John Ford loads us with his usual bunk. John Wayne plays the man Ford wished he were, and the movie gives us the Ireland Ford wished it were: instead of the starvation, dirt, and violence of it that drew his own forebears to Maine, we get The Emerald Isle and Ford’s St. Patrick’s Day parade of all its clichés before our eyes. Swathed in “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” “Danny Boy,” and “The Kerry Dancers,” we drown in the sentimental blarney of The Auld Sod – with one exception: the film was actually taken in Ireland itself and with actors who actually were Irish. For it is of such a green and such a melodiousness of tongue that one’s worst expectations are swerved by.

That’s the Ford’s first fairy tale, sentimental fantasy of Ireland that Shaw, Wilde, O’Casey, and Joyce deplored.

The second one is a real fairy tale, but one in modern dress, and that’s the one in which a wounded prince enters a kingdom and wins the heart of the princess. Naturally, the princess has a wild boar father-figure who won’t let her go. And the princess has a wound as well, which is that she is the immediate relation of that wild boar, and is one too. So it is a taming of the shrew story, to boot.

The fairy tale immediately before us, however, is the fairy tale of a Hollywood movie, which has its own regulations and sentimental holdovers, played out by actors of heroic mold and legendary beauty, force, and charm. And for this purpose Ford has placed his alumni before us. We have Barry Fitzgerald who takes us a long way into believing that alcoholism is cute. Mildred Natwick plays the spinster Goddess of the town. Ward Bond, as the local priest who actually narrates the fairy tale, and actually gives sporadic evidence of what a good actor he really was. George Ford plays the town sage. And Victor McGlaglen plays the dumb galoot Boar-King whom the prince must kill.

What draws us to this gallumfry? It is the fulfillment of the crazy idea that there actually could be before us a romance played by John Wayne in which, when he kissed the girl, we did not desire to crawl under our theatre seats in horror. He is never less masculine than when kissing. But, in fact, he and Maureen O’Hara seem to have something happening between them. He has wonderfully acted scene, for instance, in which a thunderstorm arises to symbolize the wild sexual passion of O’Hara – but instead of taking advantage of her, he takes responsibility for her. He’s just great. And their kisses are shameless and fun.

They are two handsome people to be sure. Maureen O’Hara, as usual, is called upon to play the fiery red-head, but she does not fall, as she often did, into the trap of being not just high spirited but bad tempered. This is partly due to the fact that anything you could scream at the moronic Victor McGlaglen sounds like a lullaby compared to what he really deserves.

She also comes up against and matches the force of John Wayne’s patience, which is a force of nature never to be overthrown. He also carries the fastest grin in the west. It’s fast because it’s perpetually internal. It presents him before us with a ready philosophy of life, one which is quizzical, kind, long suffering, and gentlemanly. His sense of humor and his patience are one single thing. He is sedate of movement and of speech, a peaceable person, slow to punch. He is an actor who does not fare well with longer than three sentences in a row. So he stands for a taciturnity and much else that we might admire in ourselves did we possess it to any degree worth taking credit for.

This grin and this patience and this deliberation of movement move this actor into scenes like a ploughshare – which is to say they give him genuine authority. And, while Wayne may be biased and stubborn, he is no fool. He weighs matters well. He was a quick study as an actor – and what did he do between takes? He played chess. From all this we made him a great movie star, and no one was more justified to be one.

So he and O’Hara well satisfy our curiosity and our desire for their romantic connection. They are neither of them in their first youth when they play this, but Wayne still has his fine figure and O’Hara is sufficiently messy to convince you that they are not too long in the tooth for such romance, but just at the right age after all.

The movie is less offensive than other Ford pieces. One looks for Ford’s famous eye, but that search is challenged by the brilliant green of the countryside and by the authenticity of the village itself, which was built on the Republic lot and the old Gene Autry ranch in the hills. You believe they are all in one place.

Ford blocks the movie like a musical without songs. His sense of comedy is from the silent film, and does not work in sound, for it is stagy, always forcing us to find it funny, but we never do. His notion that affection between males emerges only after fisticuffs is at once homoerotic and ridiculous. His sense of small group shots gives us his infallible tableaux, although his sense of crowds is non-existent, for he handles them as just a gaggle of people waiting to react when the stars ride by. And he uses eager Irish town folk as extras, a strategy by a director that invariably produces sudden shyness in them. But the narrative is brisk, and the fairy tale of the prince and princess moves along at a fine trot.

Wayne is set an impossible task –– to get the gold from the dragon, Victor McGlaglen. McGlaglen’s hold on it is as crazy as O’Hara’s refusal to relinquish her dream for it. So there are two crazinesses whose stories must be beaten to death here, since logic will not make them sound. It ends in a donnybrook, of course. Classically comedy ends with a marriage and a dance, but here the dance is between two males, which is odd, don’t you think?

Anyhow, as usual with Ford, whatever he does badly he does well, and we ourselves complete the film by putting down the greeting card it takes the form of as the expression of a black-hearted man pretending to a heart of gold, and our forgiveness that it is human after all for him to have wished that he had one.

 

Up The River

11 Mar

Up The River — directed by John Ford. Farce. A swaggering con and his moron sidekick bust out of the slammer to help a pal with his goil. 92 minutes Black and White 1930.

★★★

Fox had to make a gangster picture fast, so they sent John Ford to look for a new face in New York, giving him tickets to five Broadway plays. The first one he saw was The Last Mile, and instead of going to the other four, he went back four times to see Spencer Tracy who was the star of it. Ford caught a matinee of another play while he was there, and found his supporting player. So both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart make their screen debuts in this film — which is not a gangster film at all but a comedy set in and out of a Utopian prison, where all the inmates are gutter roses and weep when reminded of their mothers and whence Spencer Tracy may make a break whenever he likes. The problem with the film is that its director celebrates what is dumb – and this seems to be the basis of Ford’s popularity. Ward Bond, uncredited turns up as a dummy bully, and all the prisoners are witless. Tracy’s sidekick, Dannemora Dan, played by Warren Hymer, is so stupid that when he comes out of an IQ test listed as “moron,” he is proud of the denomination, and we are supposed to think this is funny. This prison has females in it, and one of them falls for Bogie, who is a society boy who accidentally got on the wrong side of the law. Actually Bogie was a society boy, and it’s also interesting to see three other things one was not often to see from him again. One was how tiny he was, short and slight. This feature was adjusted by not shooting him in full in future films, or not shooting him in contrast with much taller people and things. He makes the mistake of chewing gum in his opening scene, but stops it soon. And he walks with that bowed-arms stride of his already. And when he is angry he is really frightening, Duke Mantee in the making. The second thing is that his basket shows, as does that of Hymer. Well, these are pre-code films and the guys hung loose, I guess. The third thing is his sunny smile. It’s radiant – who’d a thunk it? Tracy plays the know-in-all BMOC, smug and deceptive, and honest to his marrow. It fit right in with Ford’s Irishness in all things. Ford talked down to all his characters and to his audiences, just as much as those do-gooder society matrons distributing the benison of their contempt do. Everyone in Ford films is treated as dumb. The least common denominator is Ford’s whole orchestra, both on the screen and in his audience. I am not fooled: I do not mistake it for the common touch. Everything Ford does is backed by the inherent bully in him. The film was a big hit, and Fox signed Tracy to five-year contract, and he was on his way.

 

 

When Willie Comes Marching Home

10 Mar

When Willie Comes Marching Home — directed by John Ford. Farce. A patriotic soldier longs to get into the WW II action and then does so. 82 minutes Black and White 1950

★★

It seems incredible that this World War II comedy was made in the year it was, five years after the War itself was over, but there it is, gawky and out of place, and too old for its own mental short pants – as is its star, Dan Dailey, who is clearly 35 when he plays Willie, the boy who wants to go to war. Dailey was one of show business’s most valiant performers, and he brings to the tale his huge ingratiating smile and his mastery of physical comedy time and time again, as he falls, faints, collapses, and dances about to escape the nips of a nasty dog. He has the lanky agility of Ray Bolger, and it almost saves the film. For the problem with the picture lies in how many areas? Aside from being out of date, the story is clearly a bad imitation of Preston Sturges’ masterpiece, Hail The Conquering Hero, of five years before. That might work – save for the treatment by the director. For, while the story is droll, what John Ford thinks is funny, aint. Or at least I am too hoity-toity to find it so. Ford finds patriotism funny. Ford finds drunkenness funny. He finds brawls funny. And he finds stupidity funny. And maybe they are – but Ford’s touch is ham-handed. His wit is on the level of The Three Stooges, not Preston Sturges, for Ford is beer-brained and out to please the lower orders – only. In fact, he is a dreadful snob. Five years later, he was to submit Mr. Roberts to the same wrecking ball of this sort of wit, until Henry Fonda put his foot down and Ford was taken off the film and replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. As soon as Ford enters a room, the mental climate lowers. You find this over and over again in his pictures. There is a terrible disconnect in him between what he thought entertainment was and what people are. Like all artists he saw entertainment as an idealization. But, lying behind that there’s got to be the guts of reality, and where they should be in Ford I find delusion and cowardice. I think of Stagecoach as one of the greatest films I have ever seen. And among its virtues is one that When Willie Comes Marching Home also possesses – pace. Ford knew how to move things forward, he knew where a camera should be placed in a scene to make it simple and clear and arresting, and he has a sense of broad spectacle. These are no small gifts. Ford started way back in the silents. But talkies changed film radically, no more so than with comedy. Drama changed somewhat, but comedy changed completely – from physical wit to verbal. This is why silent comedy is still watchable. But Ford didn’t change with it. He is a bum making films about bums and talking down to them all the while he does it. I feel in him a very gifted, hard-working hypocrite and bully. And I don’t like him.

 

Tobacco Road

18 Feb

Tobacco Road — directed by John Ford. Rural Comedy. Will the old folks be shunted out of their shanty on Tobacco Road? 84 minutes Black and White 1941.

* * *

Does John Ford think we’re all stupid? I have never understood the eminence into which this director fell – or perhaps he always belonged there – as a sub-popular entertainer. His sentimentality, his crude humor, his encouragement of excess in his performers, his delight in the sound ethics of a fistfight. It’s all here, Ward Bond included, playing a love-silly hick whose infant wife has run off to Atlanta. The whole thing is directed as though it were a Warner Brothers cartoon, with violence and improbability at every turn. Charlie Grapewin and Elizabeth Patterson play the old folks, and Grapewin is as supercharged as Paterson is American Gothic. Society-bitch actress Gene Tierney, smeared with hog-dirt, skulks behind the shrubs like Moonbeam McSwine in L’il Abner. William Tracy as a rageaholic nitwit does not bear looking at as he creates mayhem wherever his nasty nature drives him. The Broadway play was the longest running play in the history of the American theatre. The novel on which it is based is a trove of rich humor, funny in and of itself, written by America’s greatest short story writer and the finest novelist of his day, as Faulkner and all the others admitted, Erskine Caldwell. But Ford thinks Caldwell needs improving, as though Mark Twain needed slapstick to entertain. The material was supposed to be salacious. Which meant that these hillbillies got married and unmarried without ceremony, but in Caldwell that is not dirty, it simply a piece of the human comedy. And then…and then…you find Ford taking a picture of Elizabeth Patterson’s sad face as she faces homelessness And then Ford places them on the long walk to the poor farm pressed against a hard sky, two old people who have no place to go but down and a hard walk to get there, and you can forgive much. And then you realize that it is all being shot by Arthur Miller a great cinemaphotographer. And that whatever is being given us is in a very meritorious partnership. And that whatever it is, it is professionally done to the maximum. For essentially Ford is a storyteller’s eye. Then you remember Stagecoach a masterpiece. Then you take a star and you add it to the two you sourly accorded it, and you say no more.

 

 

Steamboat Round The Bend

24 Feb

Steamboat Round The Bend – Directed by John Ford – Comedy Drama. A captain must clear his relative of a base canard. 81 minutes black and white 1935.

* *

In the extras, Scott Eyeman brings us a really terrific commentary, full of interesting information and observation and love of John Ford’s pictures. It is really helpful to hear all about it, and is one of the few commentaries of a picture that brings a critical eye to bear and not just a series of Isn’t It All Terrifics!  Of course he does think it is terrific, and so he should as Ford’s biographer and filmographer. But I can’t stand John Ford. I don’t like his sentimentality. I don’t like his sense of humor. I don’t place the high value he does on fistfights and alcohol as dramatically charming. I don’t care for the sort of scripts he liked — this one by Dudley Nichols, who was also, of all people, Jean Renoir’s favorite screenwriter when Renoir first came to America. (True, Nichols did have a good sense of the vernacular, and also knew the sort of actors Ford was going to surround himself with.) And I usually don’t care for the sort of performances Ford thought were good. (Though I wish they would re-release Ford’s last film, Seven Women, with Mildred Dunnock, Ann Bancroft, Margaret Leighton .) I grew up in the era of Will Rogers, but I don’t believe I ever saw him in a film, this was his last picture, and as an actor he is unforgivable, or, at least, I don’t think much of what Ford lets him get away with: Rogers’ contempt for the craft and for his public. It’s as though Ford is saying, Well, we all know what the vanilla icecream cone of Will Rogers tastes like, so let’s put up a fake, then it won’t melt. Which is a highfalutin attitude, after all. So we are not watching a character in a picture; we are Watching A Tradition Called Will Rogers! Will Rogers was the biggest male film star of the early 30s. He was dreadful. Anyhow, the picture does have a wonderful real Steamboat race at the end, accompanied by Ford’s usual horseplay. It has the delightful Stepin Fetchit, as the moronic whining Negro male of which Butterfly McQueen was the female version, both made entertaining and lovable through their mother wit. It has butterball Eugene Pallette, the goblin Irvin S. Cobb, the windbag Berton Churchill, and lovely Ann Shirley, excellent as the love interest. It’s not so much America as Americana, which is as a portrait of Pawnee Indian chief by George Catlin is to  roadside tourist truck.

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