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JOHN FORD AT THE OBSERVER IN 1999

by Peter Bogdanovich
December 7, 2010 3:47 AM
8 Comments
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In 1999, AMC was still honoring its original name and intention by running actual American Movie Classics on their channel---what TCM does now--- and that year they programmed an amazing 35-film retrospective of John Ford’s extraordinary opus. I was living in Manhattan then, doing a weekly column for Peter Kaplan’s The New York Observer (its heyday, in other words), and Peter and I agreed we should do a big spread about the AMC Ford tribute. I would write it and he would use many illustrations and give it a lot of prominence. It was also Kaplan’s idea to include in the illustrations several of my original movie card-file cards themselves. As I’ve written before, I kept a card file of every movie I saw---of whatever length---from January 1952 to December 1970; from when I was 12 and a half to when I was 31 and a half, and had just finished shooting “The Last Picture Show”. I stopped keeping the file because I guess I felt my apprenticeship had definitely come to end.

Part of what I learned about the movies came from my religiously keeping track of every picture I saw, who directed it, where I’d seen it, and what I thought of it. If I saw it again, I would note a change in opinion or a further observation. I had a rating system: Poor; Fair; Good; Very Good; Excellent; Exceptional; and each could have a plus (*) or minus (-), so the bottom would be Poor- and the top was Exceptional*. Over the years, films could radically get their rating and opinion diminished or increased as I learned and aged.

Peter Kaplan had seen the actual file of typed 6x4 lined index cards and thought, since I referred to their comments in my piece, that people would want to see what the originals looked like. When The Observer uploaded the piece on their site, these cards did not get scanned, they are just indicated and quoted in the regular typeface. (Also the dates of the AMC Ford series are still there, and a bit distracting. ) We are soon going to start a new category here at Blogdanovich called The Movie Card File, and we’ll scan in the originals of a number of these cards and post them for you. In the meantime, here is the link to The New York Observer piece I did on John Ford at AMC eleven years ago. Shortly we will also give you links to other Observer film-related articles I did for Kaplan in the 2000s, before he left the paper.

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8 Comments

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  • peter Bogdanovich | January 11, 2011 12:43 AMReply

    Blake---
    I was overwhelmed by your last commentary on my films and various
    other things, and I thank you so much for your eloquence and sensitivity
    on my behalf. I agree with all your insights about Ford, and believe you
    are absolutely correct in the comparison between Ford and Orson's
    "Chimes at Midnight," which OW himself always considered his best
    picture. Ridiculous that no one's seen it! I feel that "Saint Jack" and
    "They All Laughed" were a kind of artistic peak for me, and I only hope I
    can still make a couple more films in that vein---I have the scripts. Your
    comments are so pithy and informed; they're a delight. PB.

  • Blake Lucas | January 6, 2011 6:39 AMReply

    PB - Personal circumstances kept me from replying to your gracious comment of 12/22/10 until now but I wanted you to know how much very much I appreciated it. I certainly do intend to make comments when I feel I have something to say--and continue to look forward especially to the lists for the years and well as more from the original cards.

    Your words to me were especially complimentary coming from someone I've always admired not only as a film critic and historian but also as a filmmaker--so I'll say something about that because it ties in.

    I think everyone who is reading this blog likes your films and many have said so. But one question has not come up that I believe is worth addressing. What does an artist of classical tastes (one whose heart is really in a classical tradition) do when their age and time means that they don't start working in their chosen medium until a post-classical period? To put it more simply, you identify (and I for one think these dates are just about right) the Golden Age of American Talkies as 1929-1962 but you didn't make your own first film until 1968.

    A pastiche isn't going to mean anything, but overthrowing everything one has learned and believed in won't either. So I partly like your films because I think you've found a good answer to this dilemma. Your films feel very modern and of their time to me, but always aware somewhere behind them of the great films you've studied and loved,. My own two favorite Bogdanovich movies were made consecutively--SAINT JACK and THEY ALL LAUGHED--and perhaps show this best. I especially love the second of these and watched it again just in the last few months. One could almost guess the person who made this loved Lubitsch and Renoir but it's wholly contemporary and not like their films. The location shooting with continuous camera movement, and a lot of overlapping sound and music to provide further continuity moving among the characters, are distinctly the film's own, and the wonderful ensemble of characters as well. And although you may disagree with me in view of his work with Cassavetes, I think in both these films you were the best director ever of Ben Gazarra--he's just wonderful in these two films.

    So, also THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, which does have Fordian qualities. But can any movie not made by Ford really be called "Fordian"? I always felt it was elegiac for things you yourself felt transience about and that was what moved me. And also, the best things for me are wholly yours--I'm referring to the portraits of the three older women, with an uncommon empathy for a young male filmmaker in the 1970s, which often seemed like a heartless period of American filmmaking to me, as much as it is revered by many. But surely there are touches of homage in this movie that are beautifully done--the one I loved most was not to Ford; it was the slow, stately camera movement into the dance, which seemed to paraphrase a very beautiful moment in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. The dance scene (well, there is Ford too!) was my favorite in the movie, especially because of that tender moment outside of the Ruth/Sonny kiss.

    It doesn't take anything away from anyone that no one can really do Ford except Ford. But I'd say there have always been directors who cared about him and sometimes have shown an affinity that was really affecting. One I'd mention, strangely, is Elia Kazan, perhaps because he too is so consumed with defining America. To me he isn't remotely on a level with Ford in most of his films, very uneven, and most of his most famous films very overrated. But it's not the case with WILD RIVER, which has that past/present, individuals in the flow of history kind of narrative Ford did so well and Kazan did it beautifully and with a lot of complexity in his own way.

    For me, though, and I'd be interested if you'd care to comment on this, the one film that most profoundly compares to Ford is Orson Welles' late CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT--hard to see now and that's a shame because I believe it's Welles' greatest film, and that's for many reasons, not least that the basis for it might have been Shakespeare's best work too and that Falstaff is the role Welles himself was born to play. But there's something deep in its vision of life that unites Welles not only to Shakespeare (and it's a fully personal work to Welles as well as being the best cinematic adaptation of the Bard) but also to Ford. In some way, though each of these artists was of their own time, they could also stand outside of it in works like this one. CHIMES is for me the one movie that could most hold its own on a double bill with any Ford film.

  • PB | December 23, 2010 3:26 AMReply

    Blake---
    Thank you for your extremely insightful comments; I really enjoy
    reading them. Keep 'em coming.

  • Barry Strugatz | December 14, 2010 11:34 AMReply

    In your cards you mention Ford being among the four greatest directors. I'm guessing your others are Welles, Hitchcock and Chaplin?

  • Blake Lucas | December 8, 2010 8:04 AMReply

    Having not read the piece when it was originally in the Observer I really enjoyed it and found it fascinating, and this is from someone who has read your book on Ford and continually gone back to it as well as seeing DIRECTED BY JOHN FORD a number of times.

    One could argue all day about the ratings of the individual films, but I was interested in seeing your responses and how they sometimes changed. The most striking example--THE LONG GRAY LINE. Your original opinion was kind of negative, and that was the way I reacted to when I first saw it. I got to love it more and more, as you did, over repeated viewings, and fin fact ended up writing a substantial piece of my own on it sometime after I had really taken it to heart.

    I thought you underrated DONOVAN'S REEF (another one I also underestimated, but only the first time in '63). This became one of my favorites--its casualness is deceptive. I'd be interested to know if you still think it's minor. And I can't agree that CHEYENNE AUTUMN, whatever its flaws, is his most minor film of the 50s and 60s (WHAT PRICE GLORY is the one I'd name, followed by the unfortunate MISTER ROBERTS which, because he was never able to transform it and make it fully Fordian while he was on it, seems like the most dated film to bear his name, at least in this otherwise glorious period). In any event, with the complete Dodge City episode restored to CHEYENNE AUTUMN, it shows better for the magisterial work it is.

    I actually like the unusual DOCTOR BULL best of the three Will Rogers movies and do love all three of those. This and some of the other then rarities AMC showed (I remember the weekend well) are now happily available on the Ford at Fox set--especially happy in the case of the beautiful PILGRIMAGE which I believe a lot more people know now.

    But some of them are still languishing unreleased, and my tapes that played on an old VCR are kind of useless to me now, though have kept them--it was good to be able to see AIR MAIL and SALUTE again, both excellent and still unavailable. They didn't show the very striking THE BLACK WATCH.

    I especially enjoyed your heartfelt comments about the incredibly moving and beautifully achieved HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, one of the very greatest of Ford. I sincerely hope that when you get to the 1941 list, you will have the will to go against conventional opinion and put this where it belong, at the top. That means ahead of CITIZEN KANE, a brilliant film but not on the level of artistic maturity of HOW GREEN.

    I will add that I consider Ford one of the dozen or so greatest artists of all time in any medium and am certain that is how he will be regarded in the long view.

  • Blake Lucas | December 8, 2010 6:26 AMReply

    I just want to add briefly a note to what I wrote last night, because I looked back at your notes from the original cards.

    It's tremendously impressive to me that you not only enjoyed such masterpieces as THE SEARCHERS and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE when they first came out, but also recognized them for the great works of art they are. In those days, great works of cinema were supposed to just be by people like Bergman, Antonioni and Kurosawa. I'm not taking anything away from any of them, but my own epiphany about cinema did occur on second viewing of LIBERTY VALANCE (this was a year or so after it came out) in the scene of Vera Miles and Andy Devine at the burnt-out house. I know I don't need to explain that here, other than to say that I realized cinematic art was not always the most obvious thing. Sometimes the greatest and deepest art is when it is not obvious. True of many Westerns, especially Ford's perhaps, but not only his.

    I'll withdraw what I said about DONOVAN'S REEF--as I observe you got to think less of the film over the years. It surprises me--not the experience of most Fordians who become deeply affectionate about it over time. But I know there is dissent. I personally believe the film is best appreciated if Amelia/Elizabeth Allen is seen as the protagonist and am sure that's how it was intended. Everyone else is introduced in the comic prologue before she ever appears, and then the main story begins with her introduction in Boston. Still, this is probably a case where one loves a movie or does not. If one does, one becomes keen to celebrate its highly individual qualities and charms.

    I hope that in the future we will get to see more of your original cards.

  • Morris Benjamin | December 7, 2010 11:09 AMReply

    Look forward to reading the cards.

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