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 PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936; Fox).
Seen: Manhattan (1962).
Very good* (Beautifully directed piece of Americana, about Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man wrongly accused of conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln: with a particularly impressive opening sequence...with a haunting still-frame of Lincoln’s head blurring into immortality. The ending and the use of music throughout is equally effective, and though all the rest of the film is fine, it has not the greatness of “Young Mr. Lincoln” or “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”...)
WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1937; 20th Century-Fox).
Seen: Manhattan (1961).
Good* (Sentimental, often amusing, sometimes touching version of Kipling’s story, about a little girl’s adventures in a British Army outpost in India, her stern grandfather-Colonel, her pretty mother, and the big Scotch sergeant she befriends. Directed with Typical Fordian humor and humanity, limited by the demands of a Shirley Temple vehicle, but wonderfully played by Victor McLaglen, and beautifully photographed; an entirely entertaining little picture.)
Seen: Van Nuys, California (1966).
(Perfect example of what an artist can do with less than promising material.)
FOUR MEN AND A PRAYER (1938; Fox).
Seen: Manhattan (1963).
Good* (Extremely likeable, personally done, charming minor Ford film about four British sons who go on a worldwide chase in an attempt to restore their court-martialed and murdered father’s good name; well played for the most part, and competently written.)
Seen: Van Nuys, California (1965).
(Ford’s marvelous sense of humor shows through...A hopeless script becomes a delightful little picture.)
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.