T H E J O H N F O R D F I L E
(P A R T 3)
We continue through my John Ford card file regarding the extraordinary collection of his films in the DVD box set, Ford at Fox (available).
Seen: W. Los Angeles, California (1966).
Fair- (The 100-year history of an American-French-German dynasty, pretty weak in writing and indifferent in performance, but with some magnificently edited and shot battle sequences; few recognizable Ford touches except for that and the outrageous, but funny, Stepin’ Fetchit scenes.)
JUDGE PRIEST (1934; Fox).
Seen: W. Hollywood, California (1968).
Excellent- (Probably Ford’s most personal film of the thirties – until the trio of 1939 – which he remade as “The Sun Shines Bright”. Will Rogers as the Kentucky judge is marvelous, the first Ford hero to speak with his wife’s gravestone – and tintype – and Henry B. Walthall gives a pure performance as a reverend who recalls the Civil War exploits of a man accused of assault and thus frees him; still rough in many ways, occasionally dated and crude, this is a germ of what was to be Ford’s greatest kind of work – an understanding of the effect of the past. Funny and touching, it is a lovely piece.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940; Fox).
Seen: Manhattan (with “Tobacco Road”)(1956).
(Certainly one of the finest novel-to-film adaptations ever made, a powerful and tragic, brilliantly acted, written, directed and photographed version of Steinbeck’s story of Oklahoma migrant workers forced off their land by the government and obliged to flee westward with their families looking for work where there is none. A deeply moving piece of Americana, poignantly told.)
Seen: Manhattan (1962).
Very good- (Fine and sensitive as the acting and the direction is, this is not in any way as great or as personal as many of Ford’s other works, such as “The Searchers,” “The Quiet Man,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” or “The Wings of Eagles,” none of which is flawed by the dated social consciousness and unconvincing, rather confused propaganda of the script, particularly its latter scenes. But there is no denying the mastery of Ford’s treatment, nor the vitality and beauty of its scenes and performances...)
Nevertheless, it is still an extraordinarily dark work to come from a major American studio. I remember showing it to young River Phoenix a couple of months before he died, River being struck repeatedly by the brilliance and beauty of Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad, later to be immortalized with a Springsteen song. Though flawed, an important picture, and one that never ceases to move me.
We will continue with Ford at Fox in our next blog.