John Ford at Columbia 1935-1958: Way outside the West

My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille – and he certainly knows how to give it to them. But I don’t like you, C.B. I don’t like what you stand for and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.

That speech, which could have come straight out of one of Ford’s cowboy movies, was delivered at a Hollywood lunch in the 1950s. Cecil B. DeMille, director of The Ten Commandments, had just proposed making directors swear a ‘loyalty oath’ to the USA. If your image of Ford is a card-carrying Republican who made comforting, conservative frontier tales, you might be surprised that he said that. (Also you should probably watch The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) But Ford was a man of many facets, who made prestige literary adaptations (The Grapes of Wrath), war movies (They Were Expendable) biopics (Young Mr. Lincoln) and some even less characteristic films, four of which are collected on this Blu-Ray set from Indicator. Here are four very different versions of John Ford – ones they missed when they printed the legend.

My name’s John Ford. I create great roles for women.” By far the most surprising mutation of Ford comes in the earliest film on the set, 1935’s The Whole Town’s Talking, a screwball comedy with Edward G Robinson as Jonesey, a wistful, romantic office worker who finds to his horror that he’s the exact double of a wanted gangster. Robinson plays both roles, and clearly enjoys the opportunity to clown on the hoodlum image he got from his breakthrough film Little Caesar (which shares a writer with The Whole Town’s Talking in W.R. Burnett). But it’s Jean Arthur who steals the show.

As Jonesey’s co-worker Bill, Arthur slouches into work in a tweed suit, loudly refuses to do any work and is thrilled by the possibilities for mischief opened up by her colleague’s suddenly famous face. Far beyond a manic pixie dream girl, she is an imp of the perverse, cheerfully screwing up a police investigation into Robinson’s gangster by chewing a cigar, adopting a faux-tough accent and pretending to be a key witness. Bill’s androgyny was probably meant as a light satire of America’s new female workforce, but it reads now as – at the very least – a kind of bohemian nonconformism, and Arthur is a delight essaying the kind of giddy irresponsibility that Hollywood movies would not let their heroines exhibit again for a very long time.

My name’s John Ford. I make immigrant stories. Perhaps it’s because Irish-Americans were quickly assimilated into whiteness, but Ford is rarely considered as a great chronicler of immigrant America in the manner of Elia Kazan or Martin Scorsese. Yet his Irish roots were central to many of his pictures, particularly when he worked with Dublin-born star Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara appears in The Long Gray Line, a whimsical story of an Irish immigrant’s fifty-year military career, which is a favourite deep cut for many Ford fans. Appearing on Blu-Ray for the first time ever, it’ll probably be enough to persuade some to buy this set on its own.

The genre here is even more archaic than screwball comedy. It’s a tall tale of the kind that filled out 19th century American newspapers – yes, fake news has always been with us – and was briefly elevated to the status of art by Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce. Twain and Bierce, though, tended to restrict their whimsy to short stories. The Long Gray Line is nearly two hours and ten minutes long, and for this viewer its charms did pall. Ford wants to hail Irish-American patriotism, but the humour isn’t distant enough from the kind of dumb-paddy jokes that were being made by less well-intentioned wits. It does have to be said, though, that star Tyrone Power has a gift for slapstick that his swashbuckling roles in The Mark of Zorro and Captain from Castile don’t prepare you for.

My name’s John Ford. I make Ealingesque comedy thrillers that can be spun off into British TV shows.” Wait, what? Yes. Gideon’s Day, slightly recut and released in America as Gideon of Scotland Yard, is the first adaptation of one of John Creasey’s George Gideon novels. The role would later be played by John Gregson in the TV series Gideon’s Way, but here it’s Jack Hawkins playing Creasey’s incorruptible sleuth. It unfolds over a typical day in his career, which is to say one packed with incident: he uncovers corruption among his fellow officers, brings a gang of payroll robbers to justice and apprehends the killer of a teenage girl.

Considered as a British film – and Ford wanted to get this right, despite the usual clanger of mixing up London Bridge and Tower Bridge – Gideon’s Day points forward to the ambitious, flashy British cinema of the 1960s. Cinematographer Freddie Young and set designer Ken Adam would go on to work on the early Bond films, as well as with major auteurs like Lean and Kubrick. In other ways, though, it harks back to older UK cinema. The lively script is by T.E.B. Clark, who wrote The Titfield Thunderbolt and Passport to Pimlico. The combination of his gentle wit with the surprisingly dark plot – there’s a scene of a murderer walking upstairs to his victim’s bedroom that feels like a kind of suburban Nosferatu – gives it that little tang of Victorian arsenic, the same flavour that makes Hitchcock’s films in his home country so beautifully, unpleasantly British.

My name’s John Ford. I think the whole damn system stinks.” The same year as Gideon’s Day, Ford made The Last Hurrah, an excellent, cynical film about politics that shows how subtle and adaptable his visual style could be. The Whole Town’s Talking makes Academy ratio feel spacious and fun, but the wider 1.37:1 of The Last Hurrah allows the director to create bustling, claustrophobic compositions – quite apposite to its tale of Frank Skeffington, a ‘lifer’ politician played by Spencer Tracy watching his finely-honed campaigning machine crash into a ditch.

The Last Hurrah was a flop on release, and it might have been better understood had Ford been able to secure his first choice for Skeffington, Orson Welles. Who could play glad-handing depravity better than the man who was Charles Foster Kane, Harry Lime and Hank Quinlan? But Skeffington isn’t a monster, he’s a cynical hack, and the punch of The Last Hurrah comes from recognising how ordinary his corruption is. The depiction of Skeffington casually using a string of compliant journalists to get his campaign messages out wouldn’t shame a Sam Fuller film.

Like Gideon’s Day, The Last Hurrah is based on a popular novel, and the fluctuations in Ford’s directorial personality across these four films might simply be ascribed to them having different writers. And yet, watched together, The Long Gray Line‘s celebration of Irish-American patriotism and The Last Hurrah‘s abhorrence of that identity being exploited for political gain don’t feel like a contradiction. They feel like two ends of the same considered viewpoint, a refreshing embrace of nuance in an age like ours where identity is seen, absurdly, as something you can be for or against. His name was John Ford. He made great movies that hold up today.

Extras? You bet. Almost every extra on Indicator’s set is brand new, and the ones that aren’t are the ones specifically included for archive value, like the Super 8 cutdown of The Last Hurrah designed for pre-VHS cinema club viewing, or a Columbia promo film for The Long Gray Line. Critics who’ve recorded new appreciations, commentaries and essays for this set include Ford’s biographer Tag Gallagher, Glenn Kenny, Pamela Hutchinson (talking about Jean Arthur) and Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London, who gives a terrifically animated argument in favour of Gideon’s Day. I think The Whole Town’s Talking is my favourite from this set, but he nearly made me reconsider.

Click image to buy John Ford at Columbia (1935-1958) directly from Indicator

JOHN FORD AT COLUMBIA, 1935-1958 IS OUT NOW FROM INDICATOR

Graham Williamson

Writer, podcaster and short film-maker, Graham fell in love with cinema when he saw Kyle MacLachlan find an ear in the long grass in Blue Velvet. He hasn't looked back since (Graham, not Kyle). His writing has been published in Northern Correspondent and he appears on The Geek Show's Cinema Eclectica and Literary Loitering podcasts. He was once described as "the only person who could get a Godard reference into a review of the bloody Blue Lagoon".

Let us know what you think ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top
%d bloggers like this: