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More John Ford? Never Enough!

by Leonard Maltin
October 22, 2013 3:17 PM
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When TCM asked if I would provide on-camera thoughts for a DVD set of five John Ford films made for Columbia Pictures, I happily said yes. Three of the titles have never been released on disc before. Even so, I didn’t realize how much I would derive from the experience of revisiting these movies—one from the 1930s, three from the '50s, and one from the early '60s.

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) is a breezy comedy the great man made in the wake of his artistic success with The Informer. Edward G. Robinson gives a great performance in a dual role as a milquetoast bookkeeper and his dead ringer, a cold-blooded gangster. And while history would have us believe that it was Frank Capra who discovered Jean Arthur’s latent talent as a comedienne, it’s instructive to see her in prime wise-girl mode here before she teamed with Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

The split-screen work of Robinson and Robinson is exceptionally good, and piqued my curiosity. The cameraman was Joseph August, who had just shot The Informer at RKO. I wondered if he had previous experience with this kind of trickery—often accomplished “in the camera” in those days, as opposed to using optical effects—and then I remembered that August had been William S. Hart’s cinematographer in the silent era. Sure enough, the Western star had played a dual role in Three Word Brand (1921), and it was August behind the camera. No wonder he was up to the challenge.

Another cameraman, Charles Lawton, Jr., was under contract to Columbia and was assigned to Ford for his subsequent assignments at the studio in the 1950s and '60s. He and Ford worked out some beautiful CinemaScope compositions for The Long Gray Line in 1955, even though the Old Man grumbled about the unnaturally wide frame. It’s a handsome movie that makes great use of its location work at West Point. And even though the blarney is laid on pretty thick, I found myself getting caught up in the emotion of the piece all the same.

For an atypical Ford enterprise filmed in England, Gideon’s Day (1958, also known as Gideon of Scotland Yard), the director acquired the services of the redoubtable Freddie Young, whose artful lighting of interiors is one of the distinguishing qualities of this entertaining yarn. Jack Hawkins stars as a harried Scotland Yard inspector, and you don’t have to look far to find familiar faces in the supporting cast. Two of Ford’s troupe from How Green Was My Valley are here: Anna Lee and John Loder. This is no ordinary police procedural, as its screenplay was written by T.E.B. Clarke, whose credits include the memorable Ealing Comedies The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. Columbia originally released this in the U.S. in black & white, but fortunately the DVD offers it in its original color version.

The Last Hurrah is the most familiar title of this group, and has Ford’s fingerprints all over it: the story of a benevolent Boston mayor and old-line political boss, it’s a sentimental affair from start to finish. It also marks a Gathering of the Clan with Spencer Tracy surrounded by familiar and welcome faces (Pat O’Brien, James Gleason, Edward Brophy, et al). According to James Curtis’ definitive Tracy biography, he and the director got on famously during this trouble-free shoot, their first collaboration since Up the River in 1930. Yet there’s someone else in the cast who could boast an even longer history with Ford: supporting player Frank Albertson, who costarred in Salute in 1929, followed by Men Without Women the following year.

Two Rode Together, from 1961, is the last and least successful of this five-film parlay, yet it too has moments that validate it for any Ford aficionado…whether it be a moving scene featuring silent-screen veteran Mae Marsh or a long conversation between its stars, James Stewart and Richard Widmark, that the director quixotically staged along the banks of a rushing river. Watching this after reading Glenn Frankel’s recent book The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, is particularly interesting, as Ford casts Henry Brandon (who played Scar in The Searchers) as the real-life Chief Quanah Parker…but fails to utilize the character’s significance in any way.

I loved immersing myself in these films over a week’s time. There are few directors whose bodies of work offer such continuity and richness. Sony has done an exceptional job of restoring the films for TCM’s new release, and I am proud to be a part of this DVD set.

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  • Karen Snow | October 22, 2013 4:54 PMReply

    I've seen all of these over the years and reading about them brought back a few memories. I remember seeing "Gideon's Day" on the late-late show and being delighted, as I was then in the throes of reading every J.J. Marric book in the Gideon series I could lay my hands on. "The Whole Town's Talking" was a little-known delight when I found it in a revivial house. "Two Rode Alone" I always thought better of than its critics, particularly Linda Christian's performance, and the scene where Stewart defends her against the bigoted folk at the fort. I adored "The Last Hurrah", sentimental though it may have been, although to this day I still haven't identified the haunting Irish melody underscoring the portrait of the Tracy character's wife, his reminiscence of her and how it closes out the film. Any info on that music ?

  • Max Fraley | October 22, 2013 11:14 PM

    Don't intend to short change any of the John Ford movies, but I have always felt from my first viewing of THE SEARCHERS that it is not his best western. Good for sure, but in my humble opinion believe several others are equal to and/or score above this beautiful production. My preferences with one exception are all in black and white: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, STAGECOACH, WAGON MASTER, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE. FT. APACHE and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. What a legacy to leave movie lovers.

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