November 17, 2015

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In the era of declining DVD sales, Hollywood studios are still experimenting with how to exploit their extensive libraries, if they choose to do so at all. With their Warner Archive line of manufactured-on-demand DVDs, and Warner Archive Instant streaming service, Warner Brothers has been the most aggressive in remastering, distributing and marketing their holdings. Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox have all started their own DVD-MOD labels, but with little-to-no publicity and questionable commitment to quality (Fox was notorious for releasing old cropped and pan and scan transfers to their MOD-DVDs). Some license titles to boutique labels like Twilight Time, Kino Lorber (my employer), and Shout! Factory, while Paramount has made the surprising step of launching a free YouTube channel with hundreds of titles, which they are calling “The Paramount Vault.” For now it is a branding exercise that doesn’t delve very deeply into their catalog, but Paramount starts dropping restored Republic Pictures films on there, I will take notice. Since Netflix has shown little interest in films made before Millennials were born, the one place that might turn a buck is iTunes and other transactional VOD providers (where you pay-per-movie), which have shown an insatiable desire for content regardless of the production year. And for their centenary, 20th Century Fox is releasing one hundred of their films to iTunes in HD, many of which have never been available on home video (you can see the full list at Will McKinley’s blog).  Announced in October, some of the rarer titles have recently appeared in the iTunes store, including John Ford’s first all-talkie feature The Black Watch (1929). Not included in the massive Ford At Fox box set and impossible to see otherwise except on fuzzy bootlegs, this is a promising development for the future accessibility of 20th Century Fox’s film library.

CaptureIn Variety the president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Mike Dunn, spoke about the opportunity digital streaming is presenting: “You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet. It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be a completist.” With lower overhead costs than DVD and Blu-ray, and less immediate sales pressure, it’s an attractive spot to place those HD transfers the studio archives have been stocking for a decade plus. While the quality will never match Blu-ray (my HD iTunes download of The Black Watch was 2.86GB, while a single-layered Blu-ray can hold 25GB), it is an acceptable substitute for those niche titles Fox would never release in a physical format. The first reel of The Black Watch is heavily scratched and worn, but the remainder shows clarity and depth, doing justice to Joseph August’s cinematography. It’s certainly worth a $4 rental.

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John Ford’s first sound film was a short, now lost, entitled  Napoleon’s Barber (1928), about an “anarchistic French barber who gives a shave to Napoleon on his way to Waterloo” (description courtesy of Joseph McBride’s John Ford: A Life). He would make two more silents (Riley the Cop and Strong Boy), before entering production on The Black Watch, which was something of a debacle. The film was based on the novel King of the Khyber Rifles (1916) by Talbot Mundy. The scenario by John Stone and dialogue by John K. McGuinness tell the story of Donald King (Victor McLaglen), a captain in England’s Black Watch regiment of Scotsmen. Just before the Black Watch is sent to fight in France at the start of WWI, King is selected to undertake a secret mission in India. His men think he is a coward for taking a cushy post, but his mission is to break up a group of Indian insurrectionists led by Yasmani (Myrna Loy), the so-called Joan of Arc of India, set to start a holy war against the British colonizers. King infiltrates Yasmani’s clan and attempts to break it up from within, which their growing attraction makes more difficult.

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Ford filmed The Black Watch as a part-talkie, but Fox general manager Winifred Sheehan hired British cast member Lumsden Hare to direct additional dialogue sequences. Ford recalled that

Sheehan was in charge of production then, and he said there weren’t enough love scenes in it. He thought Lumsden Hare was a great British actor — he wasn’t, but he impressed Sheehan  — so he got Hare to direct some love scenes between McLaglen and Myrna Loy. And they were really horrible — long, talky things, had nothing to do with the story — and completely screwed it up. I wanted to vomit when I saw them.

Though they didn’t make me nauseous, there are some extended dialogue sequences of ponderous deliberation. It is as if Hare believed dialogue couldn’t be registered unless McLaglen and Loy have rests in between each line. These are jarringly static sequences, because Ford and August shot the rest of the film with group dynamics in mind.

The film begins with a classic Fordian dinner, soldiers arranged symmetrically around the table singing mournful melodies in between busting each other’s chops. There is a general clamor nonexistent in the added dialogue sequences. This clamor increases when the troops go off to war at the train station, in which lines of men wind through the concourse and the soundtrack crackles with drums, bagpipes, and the cries of parting families. In the New York Times Mordaunt Hall praised it’s realism: “Those who witnessed the trains carrying soldiers to the front during the black nights of London town, will be affected by these sequences, for they are without a doubt the most realistic thing of their kind that has come to the screen, and the fact that these scenes are presented with a variety of sounds such as singing, the tramping of fighters’ feet, the officers’ commands, the chug-chug of the locomotives, render them particularly vivid.”

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Things get even more elaborate once Captain King goes to India, and August has a field day shooting through latticework, curtains and lace. Yasmani is introduced in extreme close-up under a veil, Myrna Loy’s face just a suggestion. The representation of India doesn’t get beyond Indiana Jones levels of colonialist fantasy. Though in her early career she was positioned as an exotic object of desire (Across the Pacific, Desert Song), the Montana-born Loy is never quite convincing as a warrior who could command the loyalties of Indian subversives (who are depicted as a thoughtless mob that get gunned down in a gruesome Wild Bunch ending).

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The Black Watch remains strongest in its depiction of the war, and a short sequence showing the Black Watch battling through Flanders Fields is haunting. As the camera slowly tracks backward through a foggy landscape, the men pour forth with ill-fated enthusiasm, as their lives are cut down in the trenches. Peter Bogdanovich praised the back-lighting in this sequence to Ford, who responded with, “Well, we never had many people so I tried that way to make it look as though I had more.” Ford ascribes poetic results to practical problems, describing filmmaking as an issue of mechanics. The Black Watch is a transitional work that provided Ford and his crew an opportunity to work out the kinks in the sound film, poor Lumsden Hare aside. And with Ford’s Men Without Women (1930) also scheduled for release to iTunes in HD  from Fox, we will soon get a fuller picture of Ford and DP Joseph August’s development into the audible age.




October 13, 2015


The Long Voyage Home (1940) was self-consciously an art film. An atmospheric bummer adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, it was the first  movie made for John Ford’s independent production company Argosy (co-founded with Merian C. Cooper). This offered Ford an unusual amount of freedom, and co-producer Walter Wanger commissioned prominent fine artists (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Georges Schreiber, and Ernest Fiene) to come on the set and paint whatever they wanted.  In the biography Searching for John Ford Joseph McBride quotes the director as saying “I didn’t like the idea at first, but the artists proved to be a grand bunch of guys.” Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland did their own painting with light, making The Long Voyage Home his most visually experimental film. There is the deep focus that Toland made famous the next year in Citizen Kane, plus low-light chiaroscuro and trick shots like anchoring the camera to the floor of the ship so the audience has a plank-level view of a storm, the waves crashing over the lens. It screened on 35mm (a UCLA restoration) in the Revivals section at this year’s New York Film Festival, but it is also streaming on Criterion’s Hulu page, if you are digitally inclined. At points the film feels like a workshop, to try out techniques Ford was unable to use on his bigger studio pictures, which gives The Long Voyage Home its patchwork quality. And yet Dudley Nichols’ sensitive script is able to tie the anecdotal structure together, and it remains a profoundly moving experience of unmoored men at sea, fruitlessly trying to claw back to land.


The Long Voyage Home was shot in thirty-seven days for $682,495 at the Goldwyn Studios lot, as well as aboard the freighter S.S. Munami at Wilmington Harbor, CA. Eugene O’Neill was friends with Ford and proposed bundling his seafaring one-acts into a film. Dudley Nichols updated it to WWII, gathering a group of O’Neill’s dead-ender sailors on The Glencairn as they travel from the West Indies to Baltimore and on to England, transporting explosives through a war zone. It is an ensemble cast that includes Thomas Mitchell as Driscoll, a gregarious Irish rouster, John Wayne as Ole, a sensitive, big-hearted Swede, and Ward Bond as Yank, a bullet-headed brawler. In the digressive narrative room is given to the stories of Smitty (Ian Hunter), an alcoholic escaping his past, and Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald), a failure come to terms with his lonely life at sea. John Qualen and Billy Bevan are also on board to provide some nosy comic relief.


None of them have managed to figure out life on land, so they continually sign up for more journeys on the ocean, in perpetual avoidance of the “real” world on solid ground. Instead they drink and brawl and pine nostalgically for the old days of drinking and brawling. The crew pairs off in friendships, with Driscoll and Yank as best friends and world travelers, even if they can’t remember half of their trips. Smitty and Cocky continually end up on deck with each other, as the rest of the crew gets blasted. Smitty is nervous, sweaty and haunted, the most noirish character of the bunch. The crew invents an elaborate backstory for his secretiveness, one that expands in complexity until they start believing his is a Nazi spy.  Most of their time is occupied inside of these fantasies. Smitty’s refusal to participate marks him as an outsider. The truth is sadder than any of them can comprehend. So they ignore it and move on.a_wa1094

John Wayne gives one of his most unusual performances, taking on a Swedish accent and playing Ole as a sweet, slow-witted goofball. He is a lovable giant, and the characterization runs counter to the All-American athlete persona he had been cultivating for years. But for John Ford he would do anything. Wayne was still finishing off his Republic Pictures contract, and had to shoot the drama Three Faces West for twenty days before taking on Long Voyage Home. Insecure at his talent for accents, he asked Ford for help. As quoted in Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Ford responded: “Well, Jesus, all right if you want to be a goddamn actor. You don’t need it.” But Ford hired Danish acting coach Osa Massen to help him out, and if the accent isn’t quite accurate, her instruction put Wayne at ease, and his performance of wide-eyed innocence is one of the most delicate of his career. Though it was a glorified supporting part, Wayne was still given top billing, probably due to the smashing success of Stagecoach in 1939.


Ole has plans to quit the seaman life and return home to his family in Sweden. It is the crew’s solemn vow that they will protect him on shore leave and make sure he gets on the ship home. He has failed many times before, getting caught up in drink, getting in debt, and returning to work to pay off his debts. But for all of the men, Ole is a symbol of freedom, the only one who could conceivably forge a real life on land. Everyone else has had their family and friends die off or disavow them. The ship is their entire world. And the way in which Toland shoots them it feels like a moving mausoleum. Toland reserves his low light shots for the bridge, the tools of navigation bathed in darkness. They hyperreal qualities of deep focus here emphasize the empty spaces, of lost crew members and phantom memories. The most representative sequence is the shot of the raging storm that crashes onto the camera, which anticipates the GoPro techniques of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s immersive boat film Leviathan. There are no actors in the shot, it is emptied of everything but the water. The crew of the Glencairn are disappearing, and they will all eventually be subsumed in the ocean. The shot is a foreshadowing of future absence, and for most of the crew, not an unwanted one.

John Ford: A Biography

I wrote this biography of John Ford for TCM’s DVD box set John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection (2013)

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In 1967 Kenneth Tynan asked Orson Welles which directors he most admired. Welles responded: “The old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” In the short history of moving images, John Ford occupies a uniquely revered position. He won a record four Best Director Oscars while remaining as popular with moviegoers as critics. His films were rousing entertainments that also picked at the contradictions of American life, of individual freedom vs. community, civilization vs. wilderness. These contradictions settle in the person of John Wayne, who forges a new society in Stagecoach (1939), violently holds it together in The Searchers (1956), and exposes the lies of its construction in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Ford’s films are as American as apple pie and armed aggression, and Ford is a great enough artist to encompass both.

John Martin Feeney was born in 1894 in a two-story farmhouse in Cape Elizabeth, Maine to his mother Barbara and father John. He was their tenth child, but only the sixth to survive. Both of his parents had emigrated to the United States from Spiddal, Ireland. John Sr. worked for the gas company, and made extra cash by selling bootleg whiskey to sailors and dockworkers. He eventually saved up enough money to purchase what would become Feeney’s Saloon, the new family business. John Jr. was a poor student but a devotee of the Nickelodeon theaters, and found his way into the movies when he discovered his wayward brother Francis had changed his surname to “Ford” and become a successful actor and director. After graduating high school, he briefly attended the University of Maine in the school of agriculture. He quickly decided dredging pig slop wasn’t for him, and sent his brother a wire asking for a job at Universal. He left for Southern California by train in July 1914.

His first job was as a studio ditchdigger, but he pitched in wherever he could. He was a stuntman, prop wrangler, camera operator, assistant director and actor, learning the whole business from the ground up. He even nabbed a bit part in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan. He made his directorial debut on the two-reel Western The Tornado (1917), credited with his nickname, “Jack Ford”. The majority of the 40-plus films he directed for Universal have been lost. The greatest losses were the 24 films he made with Harry Carey, only one of which survives (Straight Shooting (1917)). Carey was known as the “Bronx Cowboy”, a rough-and-ready hero more realistic than the spic-and-span Tom Mix. Ford described the Carey persona as, “sort of a bum, a saddle tramp, instead of a great bold gunfighting hero.” The director would look back fondly on these films, dedicating 3 Godfathers (1948) to Harry Carey, and making Carey’s son Harry Carey, Jr. part of his stock company of actors. John Wayne would pay his own homage at the end of The Searchers (1956), by mimicking Carey’s famed gesture of gripping his right elbow with his left hand.

In 1920 Universal agreed to lend Ford’s services to Fox, the studio for whom he would make more than 50 features over 30 years. In another milestone that year, he would wed Mary McBryde Smith, a North Carolina native of Scottish and Irish descent. Their marriage was a rocky one, but like a good Catholic he never divorced. Together they had two children, Barbara and Patrick.

Ford’s first film for Fox was the lyrical small town comedy Just Pals (1920), and the last the WWI comedy What Price Glory (1952). As Harry Carey’s star waned in 1921, Ford left Universal for good and signed a long-term contract with Fox. The Iron Horse (1924) was his first big-budget spectacular, an epic  re-telling of the construction of the transcontinental railroad that movingly conveys the immigrant experience (it was inspired by John’s Irish uncle Mike). 3 Bad Men (1926) is a less triumphal version of American expansionism, an intimate tragicomedy about three outlaws who escort a grieving daughter to her land claim. Darkened with chiaroscuro lighting by DP George Schneiderman, it reckons with the price paid in blood by the push Westward. As the popularity of the genre sunk, Ford wouldn’t make another Western until Stagecoach (1939).

Fox at that time was under the spell of German master F.W. Murnau, who had come stateside to film Sunrise (1927). His mobile camera and expressionistic lighting deeply affected Ford, whose works in this period bear Murnau’s influence. It is most evident in Four Sons (1928), a WWI melodrama about a Bavarian widow whose children all enlist in the war, and it re-emerges in Pilgrimage (1933) and The Informer (1935). With the Western in eclipse and the emergence of sound, Ford experimented in a variety of genres, including gangster films (Born Reckless, 1930), underwater action (Men Without Women, 1930) and jailhouse comedies (Up the River, 1930). The last featured the debuts of Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart.

His films of the mid-1930s can be split into the “serious” works he made for RKO, like the IRA drama The Informer and WWI morality play The Lost Patrol (1934), and his more commercial films for Fox, like his trilogy of bucolic small town comedies with Will Rogers: Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935). He netted his first Best Director Oscar for The Informer, but today the Rogers films seem more personal. They are visions of troubled melting pot communities held together by the folksy, open-minded progressiveness of Will Rogers, the kind of society that might have sprung up after the church raising in My Darling Clementine (1946). Ford later re-made Judge Priest as The Sun Shines Bright (1953), and named it the favorite of his films.

John Ford became the John Ford of legend with the release of Stagecoach in 1939. While the number of Westerns being produced was again on an uptick after over a decade of decline, the vast majority were cheap B-pictures. So when Ford started shopping his adaptation of the Ernest Haycox short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” it took him a year and a half to land the picture with Walter Wanger for distribution through United Artists. John Wayne, a former bit player for Ford who was making B-Westerns for Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures, was tapped for the lead. It was the first film that Ford shot at Monument Valley in Utah, the pockmarked moonscape that would become the testing ground of his Western protagonists for decades to come. A swiftly paced adventure that also pokes holes in classist bourgeois values, it helped to kickstart a new cycle of Western films and launched Wayne into the stratosphere. Orson Welles screened it repeatedly to learn film form before making Citizen Kane (1941).

The film’s success led to an astonishing burst of creativity, leading to what is informally known as Ford’s “Americana Trilogy”: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). A mix of Popular Front politics and Ford’s brand of populist patriotism, they span the era from the Revolutionary War to the Dust Bowl, and etch Henry Ford as a symbol of American decency, which, in Drums and Grapes, has revolutionary implications. Ford would go back to his roots for How Green Was My Valley (1941), his melancholy portrait of industrial progress, as a Welsh mining family declines along with the ascent of mechanization. Famous for beating Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar, it is one of Ford’s most emotionally wrenching works, and introduces a skepticism towards “progress” that he returned to throughout his career.

It was his last feature before the onset of WWII, during which he served as a Commander in the U.S. Navy, and led the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, for whom he directed a number of propaganda films, from the syphilis scare flick Sex Hygiene (1942) to the harrowing battle footage of The Battle of Midway (1942). Midway and December 7th (1943) would win Best Documentary Feature and Short awards, respectively, but the bulk of his work for the OSS was secret, filming “guerillas, saboteurs, Resistance outfits.” After being discharged, he built the Field Photo Farm, a decked-out retreat where his Navy pals gathered every Memorial Day, and which had as its centerpiece a chapel in which the names of their deceased colleagues were etched. It remained in use until the end of his life.

His first feature after the war was They Were Expendable (1945), a downbeat portrait of a stretched-thin PT boat crew defending the Philippines from Japanese attack. The elegiac script was written by Ford’s Navy pal Frank “Spig” Wead, whose tragic life he captured in the bio-pic The Wings of Eagles (1957). After Ford’s immersion in the present, the rest of the 1940s find him grappling with the myths of the American West, beginning with Wyatt Earp and My Darling Clementine (1946). Henry Fonda, that paragon of virtue, turns the Earp role into that of a civilizing figure, clearing a path for community to rise in the violent go-it-alone ethos of the frontier. In the “Cavalry Trilogy” that begins with Fort Apache (1948), Fonda plays against type as an uptight martinet who leads his troops into a slaughter. Similar to the “print the legend” decision in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), which covers up the real identity of the title’s shooter, Fonda’s folly is hidden and he is recast as a hero. John Wayne plays the scout who buries the truth and prints the legend. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), Wayne is an aging officerat peace with the moral compromises of the job. He is headed for retirement but is wary of the generation that will follow him, clashing with his subordinates and his children. Here again Ford is a skeptic of progress.

Wagon Master (1950) is one of his lesser known Westerns, but perfectly expresses Ford’s vision of community. Starring Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., it follows a wagon train of Mormons and Medicine Show performers as they head west for the promised land. Ejected from every city they land in, together they create an outsider society of their own. In The Quiet Man (1952), John Wayne runs away from a violent past into the Emerald Isle, shot in eye-popping Technicolor by Winston C. Hoch. One of Ford’s passion projects, he had been trying to get it made since 1935, and finally convinced Republic Pictures’ Herbert Yates to back it after getting Wayne and Maureen O’Hara to accept pay cuts. Filled with knockabout Irish comedy and sweeping romance, it became one of Ford’s most popular pictures, and he won his final Best Director Oscar for his efforts. His other personal project for Republic, the Judge Priest remake The Sun Shines Bright (1953), disappeared quickly from theaters. A profoundly moving tale of tolerance, its plainspoken cornpone honesty did not connect with audiences.

Ford soon proved his box office bona fides with Mogambo (1953), an exotic big game hunting adventure with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. On the shoot in Africa he contracted amoebic dysentery, which eventually led to cataract surgery and the donning of his trademark eyepatch. Always a heavy drinker, his alcoholism became chronic in this period, leading to the chaotic Mister Roberts (1955) production, for which Henry Fonda returned to the screen after eight years on Broadway. The two clashed, and the combination of drink and stress led to a ruptured gall bladder. Mervyn Leroy was called in to finish the production. The film was a hit in spite of itself.

Out of the chaos of Mister Roberts came Ford’s supreme masterpiece, The Searchers. Invigorated by his return to the Western genre and Monument Valley, it is an immersive journey into the dark heart of America. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, former Confederate soldier and mercenary gun for hire on a vengeful quest into Comanche territory to recover his kidnapped niece, whose parents were slaughtered. He is a virulent racist set on killing the niece sullied by the Comanche—Westward expansion envisioned as genocide. The ending is a miracle and a wish, a conversion into the communal America of My Darling Clementine and The Sun Shines Bright.

After a detour to Ireland and England with The Rising of the Moon (1957) and Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958), Ford returned to America and continued to feel his age, and make films about the process. The Last Hurrah (1958) tells the last days of a Boston politician, played with warmth by Spencer Tracy, and Two Rode Together (1961) is about an aging gunslinger Jimmy Stewart, exhausted and cynical about a town’s plan to recover their kidnapped children. Stewart returned for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a stately B&W memorial to the Western, in which, like Fort Apache, history is re-written to protect our country’s founding myths.

In his final decade Ford was engaging with the Civil Rights movement, reflecting on his own representation of Black and Native Americans (although personally he drifted toward Conservative Republican politics after WWII). Sergeant Rutledge gave Woody Strode a rare leading role in a chamber courtroom drama, playing a cavalry officer unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Cheyenne Autumn (1964) tells the tale of a Cheyenne tribe starved of resources by U.S. Indian Agents, and how they break through their reservation to take back their ancestral hunting grounds. Ford’s final film, 7 Women (1966), has the verve of a pulp adventure novel as Christian missionaries are besieged by Mongolian warriors, with only secular doctor Anne Bancroft to save them. It is like a feminist version of the Cavalry Trilogy, a siege narrative with nuns instead of soldiers (and with Vietnam the unspoken allegory, instead of WWII).

Ford’s health kept deteriorating, and in October of 1971 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While battling the disease he stayed in touch with his stock company and watched old Westerns on television. He died on August 31st, 1973, with Woody Strode holding his hand.

–by R. Emmet Sweeney

John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection

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

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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.



December 11, 2012

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In an early Christmas present, the Museum of the Moving Image screened a 35mm print of John Ford’s unaccountably hard-to-see The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) this past Saturday. Unavailable on home video, aside from out-of-print VHS tapes going for $60 on Amazon, it deserves to be as well known as his Oscar winning drama from the same year, The Informer (his third film in ’35, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend, is no slouch either). A box office hit which revived the career of Edward G. Robinson, its descent into relative obscurity is puzzling, aside from the larger trend of studios choosing to ignore their own history. It has not even been released on Sony/Columbia’s DVD burn-on-demand service, which was made for titles like this.  In any case, it is an elegantly constructed farce that showcases the astounding range of Robinson, who can play delicate meekness and gruff murderousness for equal laughs.

John Ford made The Informer at RKO, Steamboat ‘Round the Bend for Fox, and The Whole Town’s Talking for Columbia, a free agent playing the field for quality projects and paychecks. While Ford had to fight for The Informer to get made at RKO, The Whole Town’s Talking was pitched to Harry Cohn at Columbia by independent producer Lester Cowan. He was selling Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling’s script, which was adapted from a short story by moneymaker W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar). Riskin was a frequent collaborator of Frank Capra, and The Whole Town’s Talking is sandwiched in between his work in It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds (1936). His script for Ford exhibits a Capra feel, in that it concerns a mild-mannered worker or vagabond thrust into extraordinary circumstances, as in Deeds or Meet John Doe.

Arthur Jones (Edward G. Robinson) has never once been late to work at the J.G. Carpenter accounting firm, but his regimented life becomes upended when escaped mobster “Killer” Mannion (also Robinson), turns out to look exactly like Jones. The cops immediately arrest Jones, and he becomes a minor celebrity for being a murderer’s look-a-like. Then Mannion decides that Jones could be of use to him, and the two engage in a roundelay of identity swaps that confuses the cops, their friends and in the end, themselves.

wholtownFord sets up the city as fidgeting mass of humanity, so large and indistinguishable that two people could swap identities with ease. He opens the film with a tracking shot that surveys the faceless workers at J.G. Carpenter, all hunched over their desks and pecking away at their number machines. Later, when Jones is apprehended, the police and the press are depicted as yammering mobs, filling the frame with shouts and bravado as Robinson cowers in a corner. Robinson plays Jones as a man who desperately wants to fit in and disappear like the rest of his colleagues, quiet and recessive.

From the beginning, though, fate is against him. His alarm clock breaks, and he arrives at work late for the first time in almost a decade. Standing out alongside him is Miss Clark (Jean Arthur), who sashays into work even later, in a nimbus of cigarette smoke. Jean Arthur’s entrance here is a marvel of physical control, sucking in one last draw before the door, flicking away the butt an instant before entering, and then exhaling the smoke in the instant after crossing the threshold – a perfect puff of insouciance. It unravels as one continuous gesture, a perfect performance that takes only a few seconds of screen time.

How does such a magical scene happen? Arthur described John Ford’s directing style on the film to Joseph McBride in in his essential Searching for John Ford bio:

Ford always had a handkerchief or a pipe hangin’ out of his mouth. He chewed on it and you never knew what he said. And Robinson had a pipe that he’d chew. They’d stand there, these two guys, and never give you any directions at all or anything much. I’d say, ‘How do I know what I’m gonna do if you don’t talk?’ And they said, ‘Well, we talk with our brains. We don’t need to verbalize things.’…You know what he’s thinking anyway. He’s just – it’s all over him. A darling, darling man. I don’t think he gave much direction, but everybody seemed to understand what they were supposed to do.

Ford trusted his collaborators, which comes across in the moments of offhand beauty like Arthur’s entrance. As Miss Clark she is the willing outsider, Jones an accidental one, although he fervently desires to win her hand, leaving facile anonymous love poems on her desk.

It is only when he encounters Mannion, and discovers a similar animalistic quality in himself, that she shows any interest. He awakens this flicker of attraction in her after boozing it up with the boss, who is looking to curry Jones’ minor celebrity into publicity for the firm. He plies Jones with cigars and whiskey, and Robinson gives a master class in queasy reaction shots. He holds the cigar as if it were radioactive, his hand underneath, pinching it with thumb and forefinger. Ford holds the reaction even longer after he knocks back a shot of liquor, his face full of micro-narratives of disgust, fear and a flickering of acceptance. It is an uproarious sequence that ends with a woozy Jones  smooching Miss Clark and kissing off the rest of the office with a slurred, “so long, slaves!”. Jean Arthur’s smile at this subversive action reveals that she has ID’d one of her own kind.

When she encounters Mannion, she senses the sociopath instead of the subversive. Robinson plays Mannion with a five ‘o clock shadow and an inferiority complex. He speaks in staccato bursts and narrows his eyes into slivers, but at the merest hint of criticism he blows up. Mannion’s darkness cloaks the farce – there are real mortal consequences to all the ridiculous circling of the sub-Keystone cops and press corps. In order for Jones to survive and win the girl, he is forced to kill, or at least abet a killing, and it is that ferocity which attracts her. It is this violent undertone which gives The Whole Town’s Talking its curious power, and is what connects it to the wider current of Ford’s work.  Jones/Mannion are the comic versions of what will later emerge as the dueling impulses of The Searchers’ sadistic hero Ethan Edwards.


March 15, 2011


Under siege. John Ford’s Fort Apache established one of the major Cold War film archetypes, as J. Hoberman explains in An Army of Phantoms, his breathless, careening cultural history of the period (which the New Press released today). Covering the initial years of the political frost, from the mid-1940s through 1956, it’s the prequel to his 2003 The Dream Life, which ranged from 1960 to the release of Blow Out in 1981. He is preparing a third volume, Found Illusions: The Romance of the Remake and the Triumph of Reaganocracy, that will cover the rest of the 80s and the end of the Cold War. His stated inspiration is Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler, and Hoberman’s less deterministic project will likely cozy up to it on film reference shelves in the coming decades as an essential and idiosyncratic work of cultural studies.

The phrase “cultural studies” tends to make me recoil in various poses of disgust. It’s the lapsed academic in me. As David Bordwell said in a Cinema Scope interview, ” most film scholars aren’t interested in film as a creative art. I know it sounds odd to say that, but I think it’s true. Most scholars are interested in film as an expression of cultural trends, interests, processes, etc. or of political moods, tendencies, etc.” Much of what I encountered of cultural studies in school reduced films to fit ideological agendas, starting with a theory and then squeezing the movie to fit that theory. The art object itself was lost in the process.

What Hoberman is doing here is undoubtedly cultural studies, describing how social and political events shaped the era, and in turn the tone and texture of Hollywood’s product, but it is a supple and nuanced version of the discipline. Since he is coming from a film critic’s background, he never loses sight of the unruly complexity of the movies themselves. The wealth of production history Hoberman lays down here is one of its most invaluable aspects, and has me continually dogearing pages (Full disclosure: I took a Film Criticism seminar that Hoberman taught at NYU).

For example, in his thumbnail portrait of The Thing (1951), he places it in the context of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X, an alien cheapie that beat it into theaters, heralding 1951 as “the year that the saucers landed and the extraterrestrials arrived.” The Thing’s pre-production also “coincided with the emergence of Senator McCarthy and the early stages of the Korean War.”, resulting in a “congealed hysteria.” Politics and film inform each other, but they are not irreducible to the other. Hoberman is adapting French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul’s concept of sociological propaganda:

a vague, spontaneous, all-pervasive, yet half-conscious form of social bonding and ideological proselytizing advanced by advertising, newspaper editorials, social service agencies, patriotic speeches, and anything else that might use the phrase ‘way of life.’”

It is the haziness of being a part of an epoch, the received wisdom that we mouth daily because we don’t have time to reflect on everything we say. It is a flexible, elusive concept, the perfect prism from which to pursue the indirect but palpable influence of the social and political spheres on film. Those are his theoretical walking orders, but Hoberman fills the book  with the clammy details of the dream factory. After spotty snowfall in Cut Bank, Montana, the crew re-located “to an arctic landscape created on the RKO ranch in Encino – another sort of ordeal with sweaty, parka swaddled actors tramping over the artificial snow that had been created from rock salt, ground-up Masonite, and crystallized photographic solution.”

The Thing’s scenario was comic-book Fort Apache, the group under siege by a marauding, unknowable force. The parallels with Communist infiltration (and the bloody “police action” in Korea) were starkly clear, and The Thing’s “effete little Nobel Prize-winning scientist affecting a blazer, turtleneck, and goatee” is nothing less than a “wannabe Russian”. The Thing makes gestures toward anti-communism, but more than anything else it’s a Howard Hawks film, a buzzing group of insecure he-men talking their way through their problems and through the Red Menace. This Fort Apache scenario of terror from without is one of the repeated motifs of the book (Only the Valiant, which I wrote up earlier, introduces subversion from within into the cavalry Western), although many others wind through it, including The Next Voice You Hear, whose vision of God-as-entertainment actualized Hollywood’s fondest dreams of itself. Hoberman draws out the cruel irony of how the real universal communicator, television, almost puts Hollywood out of business. The third major strand is provided by Kiss Me Deadly and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides’ term for nuclear power, The Great Whatzit, which Hoberman uses throughout as both a metaphor for nuclear weapons as well as the undefinable anxieties which haunted the generation.

All of these ideas are buttressed by meticulous research, with reams of contemporary opinions from VarietyThe New York Times and especially The Daily Worker, as film and  political history start to smack up against each other. Everything converges in his tour-de-force explication of the House Un-American Activities Commission hearings, whose impact on the movie business is laid out in granular detail, as studio heads tried to triangulate between Sen. McCarthy and the panicky artist-progressives who pushed out their money-making product. Never have I read such a thorough examination of this period, and the moral gray areas that subpoenaed witnesses had to traverse. There is no cheap moralizing or blanket condemnations of those who named names, only a fanatically detailed, contextually rich rundown of the cultural currents that led to their decisions.

I’d advise you not to open the Great Whatzit, but please open the book.

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February 1, 2011

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“If life in general is a play, then a theatrical boarding house is a burlesque show.” -the epigraph to Upstream

This past Sunday, the Museum of the Moving Image presented a screening of John Ford’s Upstream in NYC for the first time since the film’s debut over 80 years ago. Long thought lost, a nitrate print was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in early 2009, part of a cache of 75 titles now being preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation, in partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The restoration work on Upstream was performed by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, under the direction of Twentieth Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. The U.S. re-premiere occurred last September 1st at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, and has been slowly touring the country since.

Upstream is an effortlessly delightful comedy set at a rooming house for struggling show people. It’s as if Ford populated an entire film with Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hams from My Darling Clementine and Wagon Master. The main blowhards are Eric Brasingham (Earle Foxe), described as “the last and least of a theatrical family” (the beginning of the John Barrymore gibes), and the Castilian knife-thrower Juan Rodriguez (Grant Withers), although the inter-titles wryly note he was born in the midwest as Jack. These two-bit entertainers stumblingly woo Gertie (Nancy Nash) to be their partners in acts and in the bedroom. Ford fills in the edges of this triangle with even more colorful types: the “star boarder” played by Raymond Hitchcock as a flirtatious monocled dandy; the aging, earnest dramatist Campbell Mandare (Emile Chautard); the permanently tipsy tap-dancing duo Callahan and Callahan; and the pushover landlady/fading Southern Belle Miss Hattie Breckenbridge Peyton (Lydia Yeamans Titus).

This setup, adapted by Randall Faye from Wallace Smith’s story, “The Snake’s Wife”,  indulges John Ford’s obsession with staging the chaotic joy of communal rites (his wondrous dances, parades and church-raisings). The film opens on a raucous lunch at the boarding house, as each member is stirred from their dingy apartment rehearsals by the bell. In its fevered bits of business and subtle revelation of character, it reminded me most of the dinner scene in The Searchers, after Ethan first returns home.

Through some snappy parallel editing Ford introduces all the main players and offers a thumbnail sketch of their personalities. In the first sequence Brasingham is shown cheek to cheek with Gertie in front of a chintzy tropical backdrop, in his favored nose-up profile attempting to convey the throes of romantic love. Then a knife flies in off-screen, flipping right in-between the actors. Ford pulls the camera back slightly, revealing the flophouse room beyond the backdrop, as well as Jack brandishing his tools. Here we get Brasingham’s empty pretension, Gertie’s doe-eyed infatuation with him, and Jack’s mulish aggression. This one shot encapsulates all the action to come.

Ford continues by cutting back and forth between the tenants in their rooms, the bellboy walking down the hallway  in a backward tracking shot, and then the guests sitting down at the dining room table. Mandare is shown disregarding his rent notice, but immediately latches on to a skull-shaped match holder to recite Hamlet. A medicine show huckster is shown brewing his swill (the same gig as the Mowbray character from Wagon Master), a mother-daughter “sister act” clomps out a high-kick routine, the “Soubrette” flaps her eyelids down the staircase, and the Callahans tap the ceiling plaster onto the dining room table. During the meal, the “star boarder” slides all the way down his chair in a vain attempt to play footsie with the Soubrette, as Ford cuts to an under-the-table angle of softshoe misdirection. This madness comes to a close when a theatrical manager comes to the door, stunning the loudmouths into a panicked titter. Ford then pans across their elastic faces in a long take across the table, marking the end of this extraordinary sequence.

This opening indicates a mastery of late silent Hollywood style, with the swift parallel editing of Griffith married to more exploratory camera movements. It was initially supposed that Upstream would reflect the influence of F.W. Murnau, who had wowed the Fox technicians during the filming of Sunrise, and whose expressionist style became evident in the chiaroscuro of Ford’s Four Sons of 1928. Ford had also visited Murnau in Germany after the completion of Sunrise, returning to the States in April 1927, according to Tag Gallagher.  Gallagher and Bill Levy both list Upstream’s release date as January 30th, 1927, which would put its production dates before the production of Sunrise, released later in ’27, and before his trip to Germany. Doug Cummings comes to a similar conclusion at his blog Film Journey.

In any case, the evidence is on-screen, with naturalistic photography throughout. There is no effort to emotionalize the space, aside from a few trick shots of superimposition that act to speed the story along rather than as poetic gestures. One example occurs after the theatrical manager hired Brasingham to play Hamlet in London:”it doesn’t matter that you’re a terrible actor, we just want the name.” Upon hearing the word “Hamlet”, he blocks out the rest, simply staring at himself in the dusty mirror behind the manager, his self-actualization as an insufferable narcissist, rather than as just a pitiable one. It is during the queasy moments before his premiere that Ford employs a visual trick that Cummings compares to the final scene of Nosferatu. As Brasingham tries to remember the lessons that Mandare taught him, a spectre of the latter emerges in a superimposition, a ghostly reminder that makes both a flashback or an inter-title unnecessary. This presence expresses Brasingham’s inner turmoil quite succinctly on its own, a conjuring of past education and emotion.

This ghostly image though, rhymes with one in the final scene, when Brasingham, now an international sensation, returns to the boarding house for a publicity stunt. But the day he arrives Jack is finally marrying Gertie (“How would you like to throw plates at me for the rest of your life?”) in another great communal scene, and Brasingham assumes the cameras are for him. A group photo is being taken, one in which the preening “Star” and Mandare both inch toward the center, blocking the bride and groom. When the flash goes off, and the smoke fills the room, Ford uses another dissolve to Brasingham’s silhouette etched into the smoke, his face coming into focus as it dissipates. This time Brasingham is the ghostly figure, a foolish specter disappearing into his own image.

From the few films I’ve seen from this period in his career, it ranks right with Three Bad Men (1926) as one of my favorites, and it’s truly a cause for celebration that it’s been found and restored.

The screening I attended also included a fragment from the trailer to the Strong Boy (1929), which was also restored, although the rest of this Ford film is lost. It starred Victor McLaglen as a hot-headed train valet, aka “baggage smasher”. The fragment contained some dangerous looking fight scenes and the kind of knockabout comedy Ford would insert in everything he made.


August 3, 2010

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When John Ford decided to cast Woody Strode in the title role of Sergeant Rutledge, Warner Bros.  pleaded with him to cast a better known actor like Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte. Ford replied, “They aren’t tough enough.” That story, relayed by Joseph McBride in his Searching for John Ford biography, defines the mystique of Woodrow Wilson Woolwine Strode. With his taciturn manner and wiry athleticism, he was an immediately arresting presence on-screen. He brought more than an intimidating physicality though, secreting a constant melancholy behind those hooded eyes and chiseled face.

His tough-guy credentials were unassailable. He was a tight end at UCLA, blocking for star running back Kenny Washington. In their senior year of 1939, they shared the field with Jackie Robinson (they were called  “The Gold Dust Trio”) and went undefeated, ranking 7th in the year-end AP poll. But in the years immediately following graduation, they were blocked from joining the NFL because of their race. From 1934 – 1946, there was a gentlemen’s agreement of sorts between league owners not to sign black athletes, despite the success of players like Fritz Pollard in the ’20s.  In the prime of their careers, Strode and Washington played for the Hollywood Bears of the Pacific Coast Football League (PCFL).  In 1946, they broke the re-instated NFL color barrier by signing with the L.A. Rams after an intense campaign by sportswriter William Harding. (for the full story, read Alexander Wolff’s great article in Sports Illustrated). Strode told Wolff, “They didn’t take Kenny because of his ability. They didn’t take me on my ability. It was shoved down their throats.”

Strode was already 32 years old, and he was cut after one forgettable season (Pro Football Reference shows he played in 10 games, and caught only 4 passes, although he was probably a solid blocker). Washington lasted for three intermittently productive years. It was a disillusioning experience:

“Integrating the NFL was the low point of my life,” Strode told SI in an unpublished interview before his death. “There was nothing nice about it. History doesn’t know who we are. Kenny was one of the greatest backs in the history of the game, and kids today have no idea who he is.”
“If I have to integrate heaven, I don’t want to go.”

In 1948, he moved to the Canadian Football League (CFL), to greater success. Playing both offense and defense, he led the Calgary Stampeders over the Ottawa Roughriders to win the Grey Cup, 12 – 7. He played for two more years, and helped pay the bills by working as a professional wrestler during the offseason.

By 1951, he was ‘rasslin full time. In his autobiography, Goal Dust, he reminisced about balancing fighting and entertainment:

It’s a thin line between the showmanship and the straight wrestling. Straight wrestling is too dull. If I’ve got a headlock on you and stop your circulation, you’ll faint. They fans won’t pay to see that. The real artists can hit you without doing any damage. They can throw a punch and land it right on your skin. That’s how good you have to be. The guys who miss are not good.

While honing his acting skills in the ring, he started to get regular work on television and film as an exotic other, his first regular gig a stint on “Ramar of the Jungle” as a native named “Big Boy”.  His film work was more of the same stereotyped nonsense until he nabbed a part in Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill in 1959. It was on that set where he caught John Ford’s eye, as told to Frank Manchel, excerpted in Volume 25, Vol. 2 of The Black Scholar:

[Pork Chop Hill] is the first dramatic thing that I had done, and he [Ford] was on the same lot with me, and he sent his chauffer over to find me. So I went over to see him, and he says, ‘I hear you’re trying to be an actor.’ At that point I was wrestling for a living, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m just making a little money.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Woody. I got a little job for you, and I’ll tell you about it when I get through with this picture I’m doing.

Ford was finishing up The Horse Soldiers (1959), and in the meantime Strode caught bit parts in Spartacus (1960) and The Last Voyage (1960). Eventually Ford, who always referred to his profession as a “job of work”, must have admired Strode’s similar attitude, handed him the title role to Sergeant Rutledge.  For contractual reasons, Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers were given lead billing, while Strode was merely listed as a featured player, but he is the heart and soul of the film. It is a courtroom drama that documents the court-martial trial of Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, an officer in the Ninth Cavalry Regiment (nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers”), accused of the rape and murder of a white teenage girl (Toby Richards) and her father, his superior officer. Hunter is the earnest, conflicted defense lawyer who argues the case in front of the distracted, buffoonish panel of Army judges.

The script, by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, was inspired by a Frederic Remington picture “of black calvarymen on the western frontier.” Without access to their first draft, Joseph McBride reports on Bellah’s novelization of the film as “patronizing”, and that “Rutledge seems less intelligent in the book than he does on-screen, and the author finds a familiar outlet for his prurient racist fantasizing….” Suffice it to say that Ford made major revisions to the screenplay before it was finalized – McBride reports he spent ten days with the writers fixing it up. Strode remembers the script fondly: “it was so well written…. When I say them lines, I still feel it. Do you hear me?”

It is Ford’s most straightforward film about race, placing Strode’s soldier as a good worker (his highest compliment) railroaded  by a justice system riven by bigotry. But there is ambivalence threaded throughout Sergeant Rutledge that makes it much more than a simple message movie. It is clear Ford is making a case for racial equality, but beyond the conclusion of this one individual case, he doesn’t offer much hope. The panel of judges are amusing but clueless drunks, the lead prosecutor a race baiter, and the Buffalo Soldiers themselves despair as to their place in society. As Moffat, one of the 9th Regiment, is dying, he tells Rutledge, “Some day. You always talkin’ about some day, like it gonna be Promised Land here on earth. Brax! We’re fools to fight the white…white man’s war.”

Rutledge tries to reassure him that they are not fighting the white man’s war, but that they fight in order “to make us proud.” Ford’s grand theme had always been about building communities (the church-raising scene in My Darling Clementine is the peak of this strain), but there was a skepticism regarding official institutions that ran throughout (the sheriff at the beginning of Clementine is a coward), but he found men who could do their jobs in spite of it all. The 9th regiment is not sacrificing their lives for the United States, but for their self-respect, and in this sense falls in line with the tension in Ford’s work between the individual and the community that he’d been mining his entire career. Earp leaves town at the end of Clementine, leaving the civilizing to others, but Rutledge soldiers on in order to empower more young black men. In his most dramatic speech, and probably the finest piece of acting he put on film, Strode responds to the prosecutor’s goading about his refusal to desert. It was “because the Ninth Cavalry was my home. My real freedom. And my self-respect. And the way I was desertin’ it, I wasn’t nothing but a swamp-runnin’ ni**er. And I ain’t that! Do you hear me? I’m a man.”

In collaboration with the great cinematographer Bert Glennon (Stagecoach, Wagon Master), Ford shoots Strode from dramatic low angles and pushes the artifice to an expressionist degree during the witness’s flashback testimony. It is Ford’s most theatrical film, or at least the most self-reflexively artificial, allowing him to shoot heroic shots of Strode that might have made John Wayne blush. There are some shots that look like Strode is posed in front of a moonlight drenched Casper David Friedrich painting.

But the most telling sequences come at the end. After the rote romantic clinch between Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers is finished outside the courthouse, the Buffalo Soldiers march in formation past them, and towards the camera. It is a remarkable hand-off between the ostensible, contractually obligated stars, and the real ones. The final shot shows the regiment riding over Monument Valley, and regardless of the fact that the film was a flop, it contained indelible images. In 1971, Strode told Charlayne Hunter of the New York Times that, “You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos River that any black man ever had on the screen. And I did it myself. I carried the whole black race across that river.”


May 25, 2010

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“This isn’t going to be some goddamned two-bit propaganda flick.”

-John Ford to Vice Admiral John Bulkeley, USN

John Ford put off making They Were Expendable for over two years. He was busy with his Field Photo Unit making war documentaries, and he wasn’t eager to to go off active service. He was completing post-production on The Battle of Midway (1942), and dealing with the negative reaction to December 7th (directed by Gregg Toland), a Pearl Harbor re-enactment whose depiction of a less than prepared Navy led to its shelving, and to the future censoring of the Photo Unit’s output. Joseph McBride, in his magisterial biography Searching for John Ford, writes that “the navy reacted to the long version of December 7th ‘by confiscating the print and ordering Ford to lock up the negative.”

MGM was developing They Were Expendable this whole time, hiring Sidney Franklin to polish Frank “Spig” Wead’s script and assigning Ford associate James Kevin McGuiness as the executive to oversee the project. Wead was a former Navy aviator who turned to writing about flyboys after a tragic fall down the stairs broke his neck (he wrote Hawks’ great Ceiling Zero, and Ford filmed his life story in the underrated The Wings of Eagles (1957)). The raw material for the story was the exploits of John D. Bulkeley, a lieutenant in command of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, based in the Philippines, as reported in a best-selling book by W.L. White, and then an essay in Life magazine. With a skeleton crew and no lines of support, Bulkeley took down multiple Japanese planes and ships, and famously spirited General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor to Mindanao (from where he escaped to Australia) over 620 miles of open water.

McBride opines that another reason for Ford delaying production until ’45 was that he couldn’t film such a downbeat subject in an appropriate manner while the war was still raging. For Bulkeley’s story ultimately ends in defeat, as the U.S. is forced to retreat, and the majority of Bulkeley’s crew is killed. McBride quotes Bulkeley:

I was very bitter about the thing. …We went over there with 111 men and only 9 men came back alive. [The War Department] put 80,000 soldiers over there, and that was a political decision on the part of the president and [Secretary of War Henry L.] Stimson that we were going to show the Asiatic race that we supported them, that we did not back off the Japanese. But the war plan was totally, utterly hopeless. You could not send a battle fleet out there and defeat the Japs and bring aid and so forth to the Philippines. We were not only too far away, we weren’t ready. To try to defend the Philippines was stupid, we couldn’t do it. But we had to put up a fight.

To film a realistic portrait of this event would be impossible in ’42, but in ’45 he pulled it off – and it’s one of the most mournful, moving, and static war films ever made. Very little happens. Men leap on and off PT Boats, rag on a callow ensign, and occasionally exchange fire with Japanese planes and battleships (I now realize I’ve inadvertently copied James Agee, who said: “all you have to watch is men getting on or off PT Boats, and other men watching them do so. But this is made so beautiful and so real that I could not feel one foot of the film was wasted.”) The love interest, Donna Reed, glows incandescently for a few scenes with John Wayne, and is then re-located by command. She does not return. The narrative is jagged, with dead-end detours followed by long sinuous set-pieces, lensed by cinematographer Joseph August. The action scenes are evenly-lit in razor sharp deep focus, while the interiors are sepulchral and shadowed – both the harrowing surgery sequence (held on Reed’s clenched, disbelieving face), and the staff dinner (again centered on a Reed close-up, adjusting her necklace for a reminder of normalcy), are shot in heavy chiaroscuro, as if the characters didn’t want to see the world outside their doors.

On the surface Robert Montgomery was an offbeat casting choice to take on the Bulkeley role (here named Brickley), as he rose to stardom as a light comedian. But in his naval service he was assigned to Bulkeley as executive officer during PT boat combat in the Southwest Pacific in 1943, earning a bronze star. His performance is of implacable good humor, a stalwart, impenetrable veneer that quickly compartmentalizes disappointment to do the job at hand. John Wayne plays the blustery, self-destructive Rusty Ryan, whom Brickley keeps together through force of will. When Ryan, hiding a blood disease contracted after a hand injury, is about to lunge into battle (and begin, one expects, a major subplot surrounding the disease), Brickley sees the hand, and forces him into a hospital. Professionalism trumps drama here at every turn. Aware that they are cannon fodder, they enter the breach again and again, trying to give their side just a few more seconds to turn the tide. It is an insane kind of dignity, which perhaps makes it even more admirable. So when Rusty places his hand on Brickley’s shoulders, and squeezes, right before they are to take their leave for Australia, it speaks for all the men they lost, and the few they might have saved. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in John Ford’s cinema, and so, of all cinema.


October 27, 2009

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Today finds me further entrenched in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc box set which comes out today from Sony Pictures Home Entertaintment and the Film Foundation, and for which I had a hugely entertaining interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife. Before I get to her exuberant personality, a few more notes about the movies…

An auteurist’s delight, the set traces Fuller’s career from assembly-line scriptwriter to writer-producer-director tyro. The leap from the innocuously pleasant It Happened in Hollywood (1937) to the delirious noir Underworld U.S.A. (1961) is fascinating, and the drips of his personality discernible in his screenwriting work from Hollywood through Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet (1952) is something of a revelation. Fuller’s blunt-edged prose is handled deftly by Phil Karlson’s hopped-up realism in the latter, while Douglas Sirk’s gleaming surfaces and detached irony are an odd, endlessly fascinating fit for Shockproof, which should be some kind of auteurist case study.

Then there is the full-on eau de Fuller with The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. Kimono is a nuanced take on inter-racial romance shot through with Korean war guilt and stunning location photography of L.A.’s Chinatown. Underworld U.S.A. is all clenched fists and close-ups, documenting the all consuming revenge kick that takes down Cliff Robertson and anyone near him. His tormentors are thrown up as shadows on an alley wall, his own brick-screen idols that he’ll track down one by one with bitter ferocity.

Below the fold is the interview with the delightful Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife for over thirty years and a great thinker and actress in her own right (her film debut was in Godard’s Alphaville), about her late husband’s career in newspapers, the Army, and Hollywood.

What have you learned about Fuller since you completed editing his autobiography, A Third Face?

A Harvard archivist went looking for Sam’s  papers, and he found something that Sam never told me. He was married to Buster Keaton’s wife who committed bigamy. He was 26 years old, had just sold Hats Off! [1936, Sam’s first scriptwriting gig], and she dragged him to Tijuana and married him.  After he found out she was still married to Buster, the marriage was annulled. He never told me. The archivist found the annulment papers and the newspaper announcement. Buster Keaton at the time claimed he was so drunk he didn’t remember having married her.

Sam was so disgusted he never told me. He even cut her face out of a photo. It’s just her and a woman’s sleeve, and he never told me about it. I was shocked. He told me when we met in Paris that he’d never marry or go out with actresses. He hadn’t told me why. He probably forgot about it. He was traumatized by it. So the marriage was annulled, and that’s how he was briefly related to Buster Keaton.

Was Sam’s writing style influenced by his time in the newspaper business? Power of the Press and Scandal Sheet (and later, Park Row), seem to show a strong influence from this time in his life.

Totally. Sam was broken into the newspaper business by John Huston’s mother, Rhea Gore. John and Sam worked at the New York Evening Graphic together, along with Walter Winchell. It was run by Emile Gauvreau, the crazy Irishman with eight beautiful daughters (Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht based their play and film, “The Front Page”, on him). And he was a health nut, he went barefoot from Nyack to New York every day. At the time they called the paper the “Porno” Graphic. And John Huston’s Mom, Rhea, broke Sam into crime reporting. John said he spent more time with his mother than he did. Rhea, even though she divorced Walter Huston and married into a railroad fortune, continued working as a newspaper woman. She was very ballsy, cutting through red tape, bribing cops to get the story. She’s a Sam Fuller character herself.

John didn’t get along with his mother, left the paper, ran off to Hollywood and started writing for William Wyler. He came to Hollywood before Sam. Sam started as a copyboy for Arthur Brisbane, one of the most powerful men he worked for. He was the brain behind William Randolph Hearst, and Sam was his personal copyboy when he was 14. Hearst wouldn’t make a move without him. Sam lost his father when he was 11, and Brisbane was a father figure to him. Sam had a lot of these father figures.

The newspaper office was like his living room, growing up…

Totally! Sam always wanted to run his own paper somewhere in New Hampshire and write his own editorials, and convey his own vision of the world.

What did Fuller think of some of the early adaptations of his work, like Power of the Press?

There’s some great dialogue in that. Like “Freedom’s dynamite, it to be handled with care”! It does sound like him. Scorsese said that Sam was so deeply American, the kind of America that is vanishing. When we lived in Europe together, it always struck me that Sam was innocence abroad. I think he was kind of like a Mark Twain character. Europeans have layers of perversion, and Sam was really innocent there.

What was his relationship like with the studio heads, and how did he manage to get such envelope-pushing material onto the screen, like the relationship between a Japanese-American man and a white American woman in The Crimson Kimono?

Such a beautiful film. Alain Resnais made Hiroshima Mon Amour around the same time, about a white woman with a Japanese man. The same year an article in an Oxford newspaper dubbed TheCrimson Kimono as “Los Angeles Mon Amour.” The head of the studio said to Sam, why don’t you make the white guy a little bit on the mean side, so we understand why she prefers the Japanese man. And Sam said, hell no. They have a lot of affinities, they’re both nice guys, fought in Korea together, and I’m not making the white guy on the mean side so the bible belt will buy it.

In Forty GunsSam wanted the heroine to die, and at the end he should have to shoot her, the woman he loved. Zanuck said “Barbara Stanwyck is a star, you cannot kill the star.” So Sam had to attach a happy ending. He had to compromise, they all had to. But Sam was a very moral guy. He never lied. He berated himself, undervalued himself. He didn’t want to marry me, saying “I’m 54 you’re 22, I don’t like younger women, ten years from now I’ll be an old fart, I’m a has-been.”  He talked himself out of it. He didn’t promise me anything. Because he didn’t bullshit me, I stayed with him. It’s hard to take, but it’s easier on a relationship. And that was courageous. Maybe it was the courage of a fool, but it worked.

He didn’t promise me lines in his films. I had to give up many of my own ambitions to make the marriage work. Even though Sam was a feminist and worked with women, it’s such a nerve-wracking business. I did squeeze in a master’s degree in literature and taught French for four years, and started a doctorate on Samuel Beckett. But then this White Dog thing happened, and we moved to Europe, and I never finished it. Instead I finished Sam’s autobiography.

Will you go back to the Ph.D.?

No, I’m still intrigued with Sam’s characters. I love Beckett, but there’s something so modern, so way ahead of his time in Sam’s work. I’m intrigued by he got away with it, and through so many ups and downs. Why do they call a European movie an art movie and his movies B-movies?

Howard Hawks bought the rights to Fuller’s first novel, The Dark Page, could you talk about that time in his life?

Hawks bought the novel while Sam was still in the war. I’ve got a letter Hawks wrote to Zanuck raving about Sam’s writing, and he bought the novel. This is one of the items I posted on the fan page for The Dark Page on Facebook. They republished the book last year in Scotland, the same company also re-published No Bed of his Own, by Val Lewton , the producer of Cat People. The first time he saw his book in print was in an army edition of The Dark Page, which ends up as a scene in The Big Red One.

Was Sam upset when Hawks sold the rights to his book to MPI?

Hawks was a businessman, Sam wasn’t. He bought it for 15 grand, and I think he sold it for 100, netting 85. He wanted to do it with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson before it fell through. Of course if you’re a writer and Hawks buys it, and you’re young…

The plot is similar to many of his works,  including his novel Crown of India, where an older man trains a younger man, teaches him the ropes, and then the younger man has to expose the older man, and use his lessons against him. Totally Oedipus. The son always wants to outsmart the father. I’ve seen it with all the young directors that came and almost destroyed Sam, some of them. They always wanted something. There’s no innocence when somebody comes and says, “I admire you.” Sam was a very simple person, he never wanted to become a cult figure. Truffaut said about Sam that he’s simple without being simplistic, and that’s very rare. Well said.

Curtis Hanson was one of the nicest disciples. We knew him when he was 18 years old, when Sam and I first got married, he always knocked on Sam’s window. He wound up spending hours with him. Then there was Peter Bogdanovich. Sam helped him write Targets. Peter acknowledges it, but Sam didn’t want any credit.

Sam had his own father figures, but Sam was a gentleman, a civilized man, and I could see how he handled his Oedipus complexes. He never destroyed these father figures. He had all kinds, from Arthur Brisbane, and later on when he came to Hollywood, Peter Pan – Herbert Brenon, was one of his first. The German director E.A. Dupont, who directed Piccadilly, who helped him on I Shot Jesse James, was another. John Ford was one as well.

What was Sam’s relationship with Ford?

Ford loved Sam as a writer and always wanted to work with him. Sam thought John was the greatest director in the world. He worshipped him. John was very proud of Sam, and would call him every year on D-Day and say, “Fuck the Big Red One!” That was a running gag because Ford was in the Marines. Sam just had an unlimited admiration for him – he’s pure Americana.

Another father figure was General Terry De La Mesa Allen. He made the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was so famous at the time. All the dogfaces, all the soldiers loved him. He fought alongside them. He was so famous John Ford pleaded with Sam to meet him. Sam organized a luncheon or dinner, and I have pictures of Ford with General Allen. When he made the covers of Time and Newsweek, he was so modest. “I’m no hero”, he said, “dead men made me a general.” Listen to that line. Gives me goosebumps.

That sounds like a line right out of one of Sam’s war films…

He influenced Sam the most. All these years of battle, and Sam volunteered for it. People tend to forget, that when Sam volunteered in WWII, he was a writer and an artist. The whole war scene hit him differently than other soldiers. I think that Sam’s nervous system was shaken forever. People forget that he was in every major battle in WWII, including Omaha Beach. And war hysteria never left him. Sam had a very short fuse. People are never the same after an experience like that, for the rest of their lives.

Did he ever talk to you about his battle experiences, or was it something he kept to himself?

No, he talked about it constantly! That’s why people thought he was a macho guy, but Sam was very sensitive, he cried before me when we saw a film. And I think he was covering up his sensitivity by talking like he did, about killing Nazis and such. He really suffered for the rest of his life from war hysteria.

You acted in Dead Pigeon On Beethoven street, one of his lower budgeted European productions (for German TV)…

It was Pulp Fiction twenty years before Pulp Fiction. Sam always wanted to make a comedy, and this was a private eye spoof made for German TV. Sam couldn’t make a realistic German film about German cops. What does he know? And what is realism anyway? Wim Wenders said you should strike the world realism from the dictionary. At the time they had the Profumo Affair, where two call girls brought down the English government. So Sam wrote me a part of a girl who sets up politicians and blackmails them. At the time, Fassbinder, who was so obsessed with American cinema, he showed Sam that he made a Western. And it was awful. He showed it to Sam, in Cologne.

Never released?

No. And Fassbinder wanted to play the part of Charley Umlaut in Dead Pigeon, but they had already cast the role. The English loved it, they thought it was funny, it played at the London Film Festival. But the French, they expected Sam to make a straight film noir. You always get pigeonholed. Because Sam fought in WWII, he was punished for it. He had to do straight film noir. They wouldn’t let him do comedy, and he had such a great sense of humor, and such a great sense of the absurd.

Thieves After Dark was booed at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984, when John Cassavetes got the Golden Bear for Love Streams. But John loved the film, and we wound up spending the whole night with John and Gena Rowlands eating herring and drinking beer. And he said, “I loved the picture”. And I guess the French didn’t like the idea of Sam making comments about French unemployment. I saw it again, and it’s a very good film. They have a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. I remember when I was there, and they called John Ford a fascist. I just hated it. After I met Sam I saw Shock Corridor with a friend of mine who was a movie critic, and he said “Fuller is a genius, but he’s a fascist”.  Sam was the opposite of a fascist.