Thursday, April 01, 2010

Ouevres: John Ford

TCM recently played the excellent documentary Directed by John Ford, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Ford needs no help from me in getting his due, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to look at his work and see how it still resonates today. As Martin Scorsese so rightly says in the doc, "He is the essence of classical American cinema. And any serious person making films today, whether they know it or not, is affected by Ford."

(Which can only make me wonder how Ford plays into Michael Bay, but I digress.)

The documentary also tells one of my favorite Ford anecdotes. In the 60s, when asked who his favorite directors were, Orson Welles (himself no slouch) answered:

"Well, I prefer the old masters, by which I mean, John Ford, John Ford - and John Ford. He's a poet and a comedian. With Ford at his best, you get a sense of what the earth is made of - even if the script is by Mother Machree."

When Bogdanocvich showed this quote to Ford, Ford shot back "Where is Orson?" Bogdonovichh replied, "Well, he's over at the Beverly Hills Hotel." Ford muttered "Mm-hmm."

A couple of days later, Welles called Bogdonovich, asking, "Did you show that quote of mine to Ford?" Bogdonovich affirmed and Welles said he got a telegram from Ford saying: "Dear Orson - Thanks for the compliment. Love, Mother Machree."

Besides finding these stories very striking/funny, I chose Ford because, even though he's never been one of my absolute favorites, he IS one of the greats, and two of his films reflect great personal experiences of mine.

Please note this list is by NO means complete - it only represents the Ford films I have seen so far.

The Informer: Terrific suspenseful morality story with a robust, Oscar-winning performance by Victor McLaglen, Scorsese referenced the film in The Departed. GRADE: A

The Prisoner of Shark Island: Somewhat creaky but still fascinating portrait of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was given a harsh prison sentence after he dared to treat the broken leg of one John Wilkes Booth - and then ended up saving many lives in prison upon an outbreak of yellow fever. GRADE: A-

Stagecoach: If it's not the best Western ever made, it's the quintessential one - and even non-Western action movies owe it a debt. And it also contains the greatest of all movie star entrance shots. GRADE: A+

Young Mr. Lincoln: Wonderful look at the pre-presidential days of Honest Abe, with perhaps that most presidential of all actors, Henry Fonda.  GRADE: A-

Drums Along the Mohawk: Fonda again, this time starring in a lyrical story of frontier lift. This is the film that's playing on TV when E.T. has his drunken telepathic adventures with Elliott. To think that Ford made this, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Stagecoach all in the same year, is nothing less than mind-boggling. GRADE: A

The Grapes of Wrath: It's very different from the John Steinbeck book, yet is faithful to the spirit of it and works completely on its own terms. A model of adaptation. Oh yeah, and that "I'll be there" speech is pretty good too. It was Steinbeck's novel that inspired me to become a writer when I wrote an English paper on the book using similarly evocative prose. If only I could do something similar with film. GRADE: A

How Green Was My Valley: Heart-rending Irish melodrama, outstanding in every way - but it's not a better film than Citizen Kane, the film it beat at the Oscars that year. GRADE: A

They Were Expendable: Fine PT boat war story, boasting a particularly strong performance from Donna Reed as John Wayne's love interest. GRADE: A-

My Darling Clementine: Of all this films made about Wyatt Earp, this is still the only one I've ever seen - and I'm betting it's the best. GRADE: A

Fort Apache: The first of Ford's Cavalry trio. To be honest, it's been so long since I've seen this, I really don't  recall much about it, except that it's quite good, and Shirley Temple was awfully cute as a teenager. And maybe I only remember that because I just watched The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. GRADE: A-

3 Godfathers: I just watched this for the first time recently, and what should have been hokey is actually quite charming as Wayne, Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendariz (who later had a memorable turn as 007's partner in From Russia with Love) play three outlaws who end up having to care for a newborn. Think of it as a prototype of Three Men and a Baby. Features some of the greatest desert photography this side of Lawrence of Arabia. No, really. GRADE: A-

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Cinematographer Winton Hoch strikes again with his glorious shots of the lightning over Monument Valley in the second of Ford's Cavalry trilogy. GRADE: A

The Quiet Man: Sure, it's a bit chauvinistic and full o'blarney. But there simply isn't a better St. Patrick's Day movie. Funny story: I went to see this in a theater on a rare day off from work during the week. I was about 32 at the time, and I was the youngest person in that audience by two country miles. Gray/white/blue hair as far as the eye could see. GRADE: A-

Mogambo: Ford remakes Red Dust with the same lead, Clark Gable, but with Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner instead of Jean Harlow and Mary Astor. Not a bad trade-up, and certainly not a bad film with those actors, but I really don't remember much about it now. except that the jungle footage looked fake. Not much of a distinction, is it? GRADE: B

Mister Roberts: Not completely a Ford picture, as he departed the production and Mervyn LeRoy took over, but Jack Lemmon later said, "Mervyn LeRoy would watch all of the rushes that Ford had shot prior to his temporary departure and decided to shoot them the way John Ford would have shot 'em." Wise man. GRADE: A

The Searchers: My second favorite western of all time, after only High Noon. And to heck with True Grit - Wayne never gave a better performance than he did here. The opening shots are absolutely masterful. GRADE: A+

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Earns it place in film history on the strength of eight words: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." (Now there's a maxim too many outlets take to heart these days), Having Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in the film helps too. GRADE: A+ 

How the West was Won: I had the great privilege of seeing this film in its original three-projector Cinerama. Funnily enough, Ford's sequence, set during the Civil War, is one of the less interesting parts of the picture. Ford's best visuals were understated; Cinerama by its very nature is overstated. Still, it's grand entertainment on the whole. GRADE: A-

Want to know more about Ford? Don't count on the man himself to help you. Best to just watch his movies. They'll tell you all you need to know.

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