Thursday 19 October 2017

Bruce Hodsdon continues his series - Star Actors and Auteurs in Classical Hollywood (6) John Ford: an original 'architect of the screen'

This is the latest in a fascinating series devoted to the relationships between a number of major Hollywood directors and the actors they worked with. The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

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John Ford, 1915
As verified by Joseph McBride, John Ford was a first generation American born near Portland, Maine in 1894 of Irish immigrant parents and named John Martin Feeney at birth. He was the tenth of eleven siblings, five of whom died in infancy.  In 1913 he arrived in a Hollywood in the early phase of transitioning to 'Hollywood'. Ford rode with the Klan in D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) while at that time (1914-16) he also acted in at least twelve 2-4 reelers directed by his brother Francis who had adopted the name Ford as did John who was credited on films as 'Jack Ford' until 1923. 

The Iron Horse
In 1917 he wrote and directed a 2 reel western, The Tornado, the first of 33 films under contract to Universal. Ford's first 5 reeler (approx-imately 60 mins), his earliest surviving film, was Straight Shooting, starring Harry Carey Sr., with a cattlemen vs homesteaders theme. He is known to have directed more than 60 silent films of 5 reels or more between 1917-28. His major silent, an epic western, The Iron Horse (1924), a William Fox production, was made on a budget of $280,000 with a cast of thousands filmed over ten months. It made Ford's name internationally.  He completed his first talkie, a three reeler, Napoleon's Barber, in 1928 with The Black Watch (1929) being the first of 58 sound features, thirteen of them westerns. His last feature film was 7 Women (1966). Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) was his first film in colour. He said it was much easier for the cameraman than black and white. Ford, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh and Henry King were the only survivors from the earliest Hollywood years still directing features in the early to mid-sixties.

In a moment of erudition,  for he was not often a cooperative interviewee, Ford told Jean Mitry, author of the first book length study of Ford's cinema published in 1954, “that you don't compose a film on a set. You put a predesigned composition on film. It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives of his plan from given premises – the purpose of his building, its size, its terrain. If he is clever he can do something within the limitations.” 

Ford (l) on set
Ford almost always worked closely with his writers from the beginning of the film, and over decades with many of the same people across the spectrum from actor to editor - they knew exactly what he wanted and collaborated in shaping a recognisably 'Fordian' world on the screen. He had the added advantage of entering film making before the studio system had begun to impose itself wherein the role of director became more circumscribed as film production came to be organised along Fordist (Henry not John) lines. This allowed Ford maximum opportunity to shape his mode of directing which he was able to maintain even through a higher proportion of studio assignments in the thirties. Gary Wills comments that, as the studio system took hold, “if he could not control what he made, he would try, at least, to control how he made it.” He also had scant regard for institutionalised rules such as the Screen Actors Guild's imposition of employment demarcations. Ford expected actors, for example, to change roles on the set at his direction if they weren't immediately engaged in their acting role.

Ward Bond
He continued to successfully set his own mode of operation throughout his long career to an extent that was unique in Hollywood after c1930. Tag Gallagher concludes that if working on a Ford set was “for most people a reunion, for new comers it could be “a trial by fire” when they were singled out and given a hard time in what amounted to a form of bullying.  He didn't only pick on newcomers but also singled out established members of the inner circle. Often at odds with his extreme red-baiting, despite his affection for Ward Bond, who was with Wayne his favourite actor, McBride notes that Ford, “behaved with sadistic cruelty toward (him), making sarcastic remarks and playing elaborate practical jokes that invariably bounced off  (Bond's) 'rhinoceros-thick hide.”  He was known to have reduced Victor McLaglen and John Wayne to tears, his way, it seems, of imposing discipline on the whole company. This said, his sets were not tense,  (bit player Danny Borzage and his accordion a frequent presence) and Ford himself was more often “the soul of kindness” (although less so as he aged) than unremittingly unforgiving. Many of the regulars counted their time making Ford pictures amongst their most memorable experiences.

Andrew Sinclair in his critical biography, observes that Ford worked more by instinct than a standard method, profiting from the talents of actors and crew with techniques of simplicity based on a deep knowledge of camera technology and management. A Ford film proceeds “in a series of visual statements sparing in the use of dialogue, rich in phrasing, simple in structure” mostly observed with a static camera, drawing on “a language of human heritage which lay in the ritual of family – the community, the military and the tribe” which Ford “observed with an impatient sort of pity, a world in which moral choice meant something - he remained a judge.”

One of his cinematographers, Arthur Miller, said that he appeared to direct “less than any man in the business.” He didn't want the actor “to imitate the part,” he wanted the actor to “create the part.” He would start the morning with everyone informally sitting around the coffee table discussing anything at random until he suddenly interposed himself without warning, as if driven by impulse, about something to do with the picture, addressing an actor requiring her to use her imagination. He would then often detach himself from the conversation temporarily lost in thought. There were never any long rehearsals, especially of dialogue. Miller said that he never saw him “act a piece of business for an actor” or give specific directions or set marks for the actors to position themselves on the floor.

Maureen O'Hara, Walter Pidgeon, How Green Was My Valley
Miller, who photographed How Green was My Valley amongst others, said that it seemed a miracle that Ford obtained the control he did with such seemingly casual methods, as Gallagher notes, “every scene and gesture so meaningfully choreographed.” Henry Fonda concurred saying that Ford didn't “like to talk about it,” that there was “practically no communication,” although he did give actors general advice like never taking an emotion to its furthest extreme, always leaving something for the audience to complete for themselves. Anne Bancroft described how he arrived every morning knowing exactly what he intended to film and “with every scene visually worked out in his mind. His rehearsals (were) so thorough that more often than not he (would) film the most difficult scene in one 'take'.” To Katharine Hepburn it was his sensitivity that made him a great director of actors. This ability to almost read minds meant Ford could prompt an actor to do what he wanted, an ability shared to some degree by many great directors.

Will Rogers, Steamboat Round the Bend
Insofar as he was able (studios frequently assigned lead actors to him in advance, particularly in the thirties), Ford claimed to spend more time on casting than any other single task. Over time he tended to build up a stock company of stars, ex-stars and bit players. He said that a weak or even poor script can be turned into a good picture by a good cast. Although often praised as a great storyteller, for Ford story considerations were secondary to character, it being necessary, in character cameos, to give a sense of “life lived” often building screen characters on the eccentricities of individual actors. In this way his work was done before any rehearsals which explains the results he achieved with apparently laconic methods. He never used story boards. Both he and John Wayne put great emphasis on naturalness, a minimising of the distance between actor and role most epitomised by Will Rogers (who improvised many of his lines), as well as a number of Ford's regular supporting players and John Wayne in Stagecoach and the cavalry trilogy, for example. 
"That's my steak, Liberty"
Van Cleef, Marvin, Stewart, Wayne
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
In say The Searchers (1956) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for Wayne there is a greater distance between actor and role in what amounts to an extension of his persona.

In searching for information on how Ford worked with actors and as a leading director in the studio system I found there was also a darker side to his relationship with stars such as John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara as well as a longstanding close friend like Harry Carey Sr whose naturalistic style of acting Ford had admired in their collaborations on the silent screen (1). Tag Gallagher who made a sustained attempt to understand the relationship between the man and his films, believes that no one is ever likely to write an adequate biography of him, although Joseph McBride has since taken us much further on the journey.

Ford hid his sensitivity and erudition behind a difficult, crusty manner and an often deliberately rough, even at times unkempt, appearance. There seems no doubt that he was a conflicted, often troubled man (2).  He was difficult to know or understand, essentially a loner, an alcoholic who went on benders on his boat between films. He read voraciously and, according to Gallagher, spoke ten languages but posed as an illiterate, frustrated by his professed inability to write although writers with whom he collaborated like Frank Nugent spoke of “his astonishing flair for dialogue.” He needed writing conferences as a sounding board, Nugent noted, “sometimes groping like a musician who has a theme but doesn't quite know how to develop it.” Ford hated expository scenes and would brutally cut dialogue, Nugent saying that the finished film was “always Ford's not the scriptwriter's”(3).

Gary Wills in his book about John Wayne writes that Ford resorted to verbal humiliation, even on occasion physical, of Wayne and other actors, often directed at those from the stage. Like a dutiful son (the Duke called him 'pappy') Wayne just took it, others like William Holden did not and were 'excommunicated' by Ford on the set. Harry Carey Jr thought Wayne was frightened of Ford although Maureen O'Hara took a somewhat different view - that she and Wayne took what Ford dished out because of respect for his ability (4). 

Wayne, Stagecoach
When the Duke was an established star Ford embellished the beginnings of their friendship in 1926 with mythology, but it was twelve years before Ford found a major role for Wayne in Stagecoach (1939) for which he was paid a fee substantially less than half that of supporting actors such as Thomas Mitchell (5). Glenn Frankel reports that while Ford and Maureen O'Hara bonded through their shared Irish heritage and she was impressed by his competence, describing him as a magician but also as a tyrant with an ugly streak- she was physically on the receiving end at least once.

The paradoxes and contradictions in Ford's personality and persona as a man and a film director - his deliberate obscurantism and myth making about his life and relationships, his creative rigour alternating with indulgence in his portrayal of gender relations, sentiment and tradition, the economy in his command of visual storytelling through the ability to edit in the camera, personalising of the filmmaking process in which benevolent patriarch coexisted with bullying authoritarian, his ability to create the sense of community both on the set and in a world on the screen, his open hostility to constrictions placed on him by producers in coexistence with his legendary position in the industry as an unprecedented  four time Oscar winner for best director - together make John Ford classical Hollywood's most enduringly complex creative artist.

Homage to Harry Carey Snr
Wayne, The Searchers
1. In 1917 Ford directed the first of 25 silent westerns with Harry Carey Sr, The Soul Herder, which Ford liked to consider was his first film as director. He acknowledged Carey as his mentor and Harry seemed to have been instrumental in persuading Carl Laemmele to promote young Jack to director. They became estranged in later years, Ford only casting him once as the fort commandant in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). John Wayne developed a close friendship with Carey during the war and paid tribute to him in The Searchers when, silhouetted in the doorway, he holds the elbow of one arm with the other hand – an on-screen gesture associated with Carey. His son Harry Jr had a long acting career, including seven films with Ford.

2. When he was younger Ford had affairs including most notably with Katharine Hepburn, the complexity of which is discussed at length by McBride. At the end of his life Hepburn called Ford the most fascinatingly complex man she had ever known who even did not understand himself entirely. In later years, according to Frankel, he was not only given to ogling young women but there were signs of repressed bisexuality as he tended to gather handsome young men around him. O'Hara told of once walking into his office without knocking to find him kissing a famous leading man.

3. This was Ford's preferred form of collaboration developed in his early years directing silents, the only exceptions being three films with Nunnally Johnson, pre-war, including The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green was My Valley with Phillip Dunne, which more closely followed the conventional notion of the film being more fundamentally tied to the original script (Gallagher 464-5).

4. O'Hara also acknowledged that Ford gave her a freedom as an actress that she otherwise never felt she had in Hollywood which  “was like being in a prison.”

5. Ford appears to have deeply resented Wayne starring in Raoul Walsh's epic western The Big Trail (1930).

The following are 30 Ford films of which I have a clear enough memory to rate; in bold are my 'key films'.
The thirties: The Lost Patrol, Judge Priest, The Informer, Young Mr Lincoln, Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk.  The forties: The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine, The Fugitive, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Three Godfathers. The fifties: Wagon Master, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright, The Long Gray Line, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles, The Rising of the Moon, The Horse Soldiers. The Sixties: Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Donovan's Reef, Cheyenne Autumn, 7 Women.

Wayne, Harry Carey Jnr, Pedro Armendariz
Three Godfathers
Ford's personal favourites based on his comments to Peter Bogdanivich in what was almost certainly the longest interview he ever gave, conducted over a seven day period in 1966:  Dr Bull, Judge Priest, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road (“I enjoyed making it”), The Fugitive,  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, The Sun Shines Bright (with Wagon Master and The Fugitive, “the closest to what I wanted to achieve”).

Main Sources: Tag Gallagher. John Ford The Man and His Films 1986. Gary Wills; John Wayne The Politics of Celebrity 1997; Andrew Sarris. The John Ford Movie Mystery 1976;  Glenn Frankel. The Searchers The Making of an American Legend 2013; Andrew Sinclair John Ford 1979; Joseph McBride Searching for John Ford 2003; Scott Eyman John Wayne The Life and Legend  2014; Barrett Hodsdon The Elusive Auteur, 2016; Peter Bogdanovich John Ford 1967.

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