John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection

These are the liner notes I wrote for John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection (DVD, 2013)

ford columbia

The five features John Ford directed at Columbia Pictures are fascinating departures, a group of mostly city-set tragicomedies that reveal how this legendary director of Westerns was also a keen observer of his present day. From the neurotic split personalities in The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) to the  worn out politician in  The Last Hurrah (1958), these films  depict how industrialization was altering the civilization Ford  so movingly constructed in The Iron Horse (1924) and My Darling Clementine (1946), by privileging the individual above the community. This is also reflected in his late Westerns like Two Rode Together (1961), which presents the township as riven with hypocrisy. Made decades apart, these films present an alternate history of Ford as a gimlet-eyed chronicler of urban life .

 The Whole Town’s Talking was an agreeable assignment. In late 1934 Ford had finally convinced RKO to fund The Informer, after being turned down by the five major studios because of the film’s sensitive political content. To once again prove his box office bona fides, he made the lyrical Will Rogers comedy Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) for Fox, and was loaned to Columbia for The Whole Town’s Talking. Based on W.R. Burnett’s short story “Jail Breaker”, it was intended to be Edward G. Robinson’s return to box office glory.  Robinson was on suspension at Warner Bros., having rejected one script too many, and the studio was happy to loan him out to Columbia for some quick cash. Robinson biographer Alan L. Gansberg claims the actor rejected Alfred Santell as director, and demanded that Harry Cohn get John Ford from Fox.

Steamboat Round the Bend completed shooting in August of 1935, and The Whole Town’s Talking began rolling in October. Burnett’s story was adapted into a script by frequent Frank Capra collaborators Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling, and the film retains the Capraesque sensibility of a little man stumbling his way up the economic ladder. It tells the tale of mild mannered office clerk Arthur Ferguson Jones (Robinson) who just happens to be the spitting image of escaped gangster “Killer” Mannion (also Robinson). Jones is arrested, released and hired to pen a newspaper column about his brush with infamy, and when Mannion gets wind of it he leaks details of his violent exploits to his doppelganger. The column becomes a sensation, all while Jones is pining after Miss Clark (Jean Arthur), the sassy co-worker who acts as his de-facto agent and manager.

Ford presents the city as an undulating mass of humanity, people as indistinguishable suits and fedoras. The opening shot tracks through a city office, with hunched over workers typing at their clacking counting machines (perhaps a nod to King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928)). Later when Jones is arrested for looking like Mannion, he is subsumed by shouting police and press, left cowering in a corner chair. Jones yearns to disappear and be one of the mob, but his face betrays him. It is only Miss Clark who seems worthy of individuality. She is introduced in a nimbus of cigarette smoke at the office’s threshold. After taking a deep drag, she flicks away the butt, steps through the door and exhales an insouciant puff. Minutes later she is fired and rehired, and reacts to both as if it were a run in her stocking. She is, rather gloriously, her own woman.

The recessive Jones only catches her eye after getting loaded with the bosses and yelling, “so long, slaves!” to his co-workers,taking on the aggressive attitude of Mannion. The rest of the film finds Jones searching for balance, trying to say goodbye to servitude without subjugating others. Ford slowly empties out the frame, the madcap chaos of the office and police station scenes replaced by tense shotsof Jones and Mannion circling each other, deciding the ideal way to be free.

Ford would not return to Columbia for 20 years, until The Long Gray Line (1955). It is another story balancing the individual and the group, this time among the regimented life of soldiers at West Point. Producer Jerry Wald had wanted to produce a film version of West Point lifer Marty Maher’s autobiography at RKO. Bringing Up the Brass (1951) had strung together anecdotes from Maher’s 50 years as an instructor at the Point, but RKO declined to option it. Wald eventually took an executive producer position at Columbia, where he revived the project and hired Ford to direct and Tyrone Power to star.

It was Ford’s first feature since undergoing eye surgery for cataracts. During the Mogambo (1952) shoot in Africa, Ford contracted amoebic dysentry, and began suffering blurriness of vision. He stubbornly put off the operation until July 1953, when he started to fear going blind. Vision in his left eye would be impaired for the rest of his life, and necessitated that he wear his famous eye-patch. Ford biographer Joseph McBride quotes one of the director’s soundmen observing, “The Old Man can’t hear, he can’t see. All he can do is make good pictures.”

Now with only one good eye, the studio mandated he make The Long Gray Line in CinemaScope, his first experience with the new format. He was none too happy with the process, telling Peter Bogdanovich, “You’ve never seen a painter use that kind of composition. Your eyes pop back and forth, and it’s very difficult to get a close-up.” Despite his complaints, he took to the process naturally, using the film’s title as visual instruction, with rows of gray Marines set up like dominos across the wide frame. Irish immigrant Martin Maher (Power) is always set apart from these lineups, a waiter who works his way up to become an instructor of boxing and swimming, despite his lack of experience in both.

While intended as a tribute to West Point and its former graduate (and current President) Dwight D. Eisenhower (played by Harry Carey, Jr.), the film endures as a treatise on aging, as Maher watches as his boys who once lined up for lap swim end up on long lists of dead men during the two World Wars. He is helpless against these ravages of time and the violent world outside. He finds comfort in the regimented order of life at West Point, where he can always find everything in its place, usually put there by his wife Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara), who even brings over his father and brother from Ireland. O’Hara reportedly had vicious fights on the set with Ford, and her performance is equally vehement, depcting Mary as a hotheaded Irish lass who delights in needling Marty’s masculine insecurities. Early in their marriage Mary and Marty learn they can’t have children, so their love turns to the cadets. As classes come and go, and die overseas, Marty and Mary become walking memorials to the men they taught and loved. In one of the most moving scenes in Ford’s films, he shows Marty tottering through an empty kitchen, the soldiers’ absence far stronger his presence. But as Marty and Mary have built their own isolated community in West Point, it fills up again with young recruits, eager to hear Marty’s stories of the old days. It ends on a triumphal note, but as the vicious cycles of the rest of the film have made clear, these boys will also disappear.

Ford continued the theme of solitude within a crowd with the laid back police procedural Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958). The most obscure of his sound features, it follows the harried Inspector of Scotland Yard (Jack Hawkins) over the course of one day, tracking murderers as well as a fish he must bring home to dinner. It was adapted from the detective novel Gideon’s Day (also the British title of the film), the first of a series by J.J. Marric, one of the many pseudonyms of prolific pulp novelist John Creasey.

Ford was reuniting with producer Michael Kilcannin, who had helped put together the Irish anthology film The Rising of the Moon (1957) with WB the previous year. The studio system was breaking down, and with it Ford’s post-Searchers project The Valiant Virginians, which was killed when the producer pulled out his money to invest in a chain of television stations. Ford sought to ease his frustrations abroad. His interest in Gideon revived Columbia British Productions after a fourteen year layoff; the studio was last active on Alberto Cavalcanti’s Affairs of a Rogue (1948). Joseph McBride surmises that Ford took on the project because he wanted to help British actress Anna Lee, a member of his acting stock company, get off of the blacklist. In her first role since 1952, she plays Gideon’s wife, Kate. The shoot also conveniently killed time while Ford was waiting for Spencer Tracy to finish shooting The Old Man and the Sea, so he could use him in The Last Hurrah.

Shot at Elstree studios in Hertfordshire, England with an all-British cast and crew, it held little market appeal in the U.S., where Columbia treated it as a B-picture. They cut it by a third (to 54 minutes) and only distributed B&W prints of the film shot in Technicolor by DP Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia).

This doomed its reputation at the time, but it is overdue for rediscovery. Gideon is a clear stand-in for Ford himself, an abrasive workaholic attempting to bend an unwieldy bureaucracy to his will. Ford always called his films “a job of work”, and Gideon treats his job with the same gruff professionalism. Whether it’s catching a thrill killer or getting to his daughter’s violin recital, he is only concerned with completing the task at hand. In an expansive mood Ford once called star Jack Hawkins, “the finest dramatic actor with whom I have worked.” Trained on the London stage, Hawkins is a rumpled masculine totem who keeps his emotions sewn up underneath a begrimed suit coat. (great description!)

The film details the messy overlapping chaos of the everyday, where work bleeds into private life until it’s impossible to tell the difference. At one point Gideon has lunch with his wife, but brings an army of detectives along, literally bringing work home with him. Anna Lee puts on a brave face of indomitable domesticity, but near the end of the film instructs her daughter (Anna Massey): “Promise me one thing. Never marry a policeman.” Shot in a string of medium shots and cut at a breakneck tempo by Ford’s standards, it is the most televisual of his films. The Gideon series of novels was eventually turned into a series on the British network ITV, while Ford had moved on to film another man working inside a bureaucratic system in The Last Hurrah.

After Ford finished reading Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah (1956), he fired off a telegram to Harry Cohn saying he would make the film version for free (he actually did it for $125,000 and 25% of the net, according to Joseph McBride). The novel is a fictionalization of the life of James M. Curley (1874 – 1958), Boston’s Irish-American political boss. The Democrat Curley was a four-term mayor, a two-term Congressman, and a two-time convict. O’Connor named him “Frank Skeffington”, and detailed his failed campaign for a fifth term as mayor, reflecting the decline of machine politics as children of immigrants began to climb the economic ladder. Already folk heroized in O’Connor’s book (adapted to the screen by Frank Nugent), Ford buffed him further, with no trace of the mob ties or kickbacks that kept him in power. Instead he zeroed in on the character’s creeping obsolescence, as political campaigns shifted from the streets onto television. It is unreliable as history but, like The Long Gray Line, is deeply moving as a film about aging.

Ford had a tough time casting the lead role, cycling through names like James Cagney, John Wayne and even Orson Welles, before agreeing upon the common sense choice, Spencer Tracy. The two proud Irishman had not worked together since Tracy’s debut in Up the River (1930), where, McBride writes, “Tracy found the director overbearing and always resisted being part of his stock company.” After Tracy rejected a part in Ford’s The Plough and The Stars (1936), their relationship deteriorated. Katherine Hepburn interceded to secure the plum role of Skeffington for Tracy, who was then in poor health after the demanding and stressful shoot on The Old Man and the Sea (1958). Tracy was so drained during The Last Hurrah he was contemplating retirement, telling The New York Times: “Twenty-eight years is a long time. I started with John Ford and it has been suggested that since he is directing this film it might be an appropriate time for me to call it quits. You know, the beginning and the end with Mr. Ford.”

He would go on to make six more films, but this mood of melancholy retrospection was ideal for the role of Skeffington, who takes stock of the world that was and the one swiftly passing him by. Sensing that his fifth election will be his last, he asks his sportswriter nephew Adam (Jeffrey Hunter) to join him and observe the end of his era. His campaign is filled with pressing-the-flesh handshakes and ill-fitting suits. Ford usually shoots in long shot to frame Tracy in crowds, whether it’s his fluttering advisors or favor-peddling constituents. Ford compares that to his isolated young opponent, propped up by his WASP benefactors in hilariously awkward television spots. A young priest echoes what Ford himself may have thought of the coming generation: ”I prefer an engaging rogue to a complete fool.”

Adam is the only member of Skeffington’s family who might learn his traditions, as his son is an airhead playboy and his beloved wife passed on. Skeffington honors her by placing a rose in front of her portrait before leaving the house, reminiscent of Will Rogers conversing with his dead wife in Judge Priest (1934). Skeffington hearkens back to Ford’s films with Rogers, a folksy politician who is more concerned with people than power. The Last Hurrah acts as a memorial for men like Judge Priest as well as the artist who made it, with Ford perhaps reflecting on his own obsolescence. The cast is filled with old character actors from his past: Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Mae Marsh, Pat O’Brien, Donald Crisp and many more. They hover around Skeffington like friendly ghosts, easing him into the afterlife. When Skeffington loses the election, and strolls alone past the victory parade, it is a mournful inversion of the finale to The Sun Shines Bright (1953), Ford’s remake to Judge Priest. That film concludes with the whole town parading before the kindly judge, paying their respects. In this version he is rejected by the next generation, disappearing into the cheering crowds and ending up on his deathbed.

While he was filming Two Rode Together (1961) Ford was forced to bid farewell to Ward Bond, who died of a heart attack at the age of 57. He had directed Bond in over 20 features, and when he was informed of Bond’s death on the set by Andy Devine, he characteristically replied, “Well, I think you’re going to have be my horse’s ass now!” He would mourn after the shoot with an alcoholic bender that would land him in the hospital. Ford did not have fond memories of the film, calling it “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years”. His grandson Dan Ford said he made it solely for the money ($225,000 plus 25% net profits), yet, as disjointed as it is, it features darkly funny performances from Jimmy Stewart and Richard Widmark, flashing some of Ford’s gruff witWhere The Last Hurrah and The Long Gray Line mourn time’s passing, Two Rode Together is bitter about it. The story, adapted by Frank Nugent from Will Cook’s novel Comanche Captives,, follows cynical small town sheriff Guthrie McCabe (Jimmy Stewart) as he is asked to enter Comanche territory and reclaim kidnapped white children, some lost for years. Accompanying him is cavalry officer Jim Gary (Richard Widmark), a sometime friend appalled by Guthrie’s mercenary instincts to profit from parents’ desperation.

Jimmy Stewart is corrosively funny as Guthrie, as he skewers the townspeople’s misplaced hopes and casual racism against his Mexican girlfriend Elena (Linda Cristal), who once lived with the Comanche. He’s introduced tipping back in his chair in a dandified suit, his foot on a front porch post, a burlesque of Henry Fonda’s similar pose in My Darling Clementine. It’s clear from this visual rhyme that the simplicity of Fonda’s Wyatt Earp has curdled into decadence. The Comanches revert to the stereotype of simplistic savages, riven by petty jealousies and driven by the bloodlust of warrior chief Stone Calf (Woody Strode, who was part Native American).

The film is fueled by a palpable disgust with humanity, perhaps exacerbated when Ford got word of Bond’s passing. The film is at its calmest and most engaging when it focuses on the sniping friendship between Guthrie and Jim, a battle of clashing insecurities expertly deployed by Stewart and Widmark. Ford clearly enjoys watching them work, as the story slows down to a crawl to accommodate them. The highlight of the film is a nearly four-minute shot of the two men sitting creekside, where they argue about money, jealousy and the terrors of marriage proposals. Ford frames them from the ankles up, so they fill up the composition with their jousting gestures, their stogies brandished like rattling sabres. It’s a charming scene of pure performance, before the plot rears its ugly head.

Guthrie and Jim find a few of the children, but they are irredeemable, just like the townspeople. It acts as a blackly comic version The Searchers, similar to how Ford parodied The Grapes of Wrath (1940) with Tobacco Road (1941). In The Searchers Ethan Edwards is a necessary monster, brutally clearing the way for a nascent civilization, while in Two Rode Together Guthrie’s search proves him to be a wreck clearing the way for more of the same. Progress has stunted, and Guthrie’s only recourse, in the ostensibly happy ending, is to leave town with Elena for parts unknown.

Following this distorted little Western, Ford would make The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which clarified and deepened his concerns about the narrative of progress in the old West. John Ford’s films with Columbia often have the feel of test runs for something greater, but it is that spirit of experiment that makes them so essential, with ideas flying out in every direction. Whether through CinemaScope or Academy ratio, snappy urban comedy or prestigious biopic, Ford vigilantly pursued his themes of freedom vs. conformity, nature vs. civilization, and the passage of time that would make them all obsolete. But these films will endure.


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