Monday, September 24, 2012

John Ford Speaks!

In Peter Bogdanovich's book, John Ford: Revised and Enlarged edition, the center-piece is an interview with Ford, where he discusses his entire career, along with four of Bogdanovich's early journalistic essays. In A Meeting at Monument Valley and My Name's John Ford. I Make Westerns, Bogdanovich describes his experience going to Monument Valley to visit the set of Cheyenne Autumn. In the essay, between reporting on how Ford filmed the movie and how he behaves on the set, are anecdotes about Ford by his collaborators. Two of them that stand out are: a discussion between Ford and Carroll Baker about Ingmar Bergman ("you mean the fella that called me the greatest director in the world."); and how during the McCarthy era at the Director's Guild, Ford defended Joseph L. Mankiewicz against Cecil DeMille who was accusing him  of being a communist.

A Poet and Comedian is how Orson Welles characterizes Ford, and Bogdanovich would add that in Ford's best films "these two sides of his personality are mixed." In the essay, Bogdanovich elaborates about Ford's  career development and themes within his films. "With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in a real world," said Welles, quoted by Bogdanovich, and who would add, "he has told the American saga in human terms and made it come alive." And that, "But the key to his work in the thirties lies in a personal struggle (no doubt unconscious) between two very different kinds of film, both of which interested him deeply: the dramas [...] and the lighter pictures of American life."

There is a moving and heart-felt memorial (Taps) and a annotated filmography, which is useful for the brief descriptions of his little-known silent films as well as uncompleted projects.

The following are some of my favorite remarks from the Ford interview, A Job of Work, which was taped at his home in the Fall  of 1966. What's illuminating about the interview is the framework it provides to better understand the realities of a classical Hollywood era studio director and the mediation of personal self-expression within larger commercial projects, as well as the interference and common-place alterations that ended-up shaping his films.

For more information about Ford there is the the great documentary Directed by John Ford, also by Bogdanovich, with a filmed interview with Ford, though he comes off as more gruff and less amicable then he does in the book. As well there is John Ford: Interviews, which is especially interesting for the interviews translated from French, where Ford is more outgoing and receptive. You can also find more of Bogdanovich's writing at his excellent blog Blogdanovich and there is a great interview with him where he speaks for over fifty-minutes about his writing, film-making and other projects at video-magazine The Seventh Art.
Directors and Actors
D. W. Griffith, "influenced all of us. If it weren't for Griffith, we'd probably still be in the infantile phase of motion pictures. He started it all - he invented the close-up and a lot of things nobody had thought of doing before. Griffith was the one who made it an art - if you can call it an art - but at least he made it something worthwhile."

Henry B. Walthall
, "was one of the greatest actors of all time - a personality that just leaped out from the screen. He had nothing to do in that picture [Kentucky Pride] - but he had such a presence - like Barrymore had, but Walthall was a much better actor."

Will Rogers: "Well, no write could write for Will rogers, so I'd say to him, 'This is the script but this is not you - the words will be false coming from you. Just learn the sense of it, and say it in your own words.' Some of the lines he'd speak from the script but most of the time he'd make up his own; he'd stop and let people pick up their cues and then go on; he wouldn't write the lines down, but he'd work it out beforehand and then just get in front of the camera and get the sense of the scene in his own inimitable way."
Scripts and Directing
Men Without Women (1930), "I think it was the first picture Dudley Nichols and I did together. From then on, we worked together as much as possible, and I worked very closely with him. He had never written a script before, but he was very good, and he had the same idea I had about paucity of dialogue."

On screenplays: "Well, there's no such thing as a good script really. Scripts are dialogue, and I don't like all that talk. I've always tried to get things across visually. I don't like to do books or plays. I prefer to take a short story and expand it, rather than take a novel and try to condense. But it has become more difficult to get a good story."

Directors: "Certain directors go by fixed rules - they say you must have a close-up of everything. But we've got this big screen: instead of putting a lot of pock-marked faces on it - big horrible head, eye - I just don't like it - if I can play a scene in a two-shot, where you can see both faces very well, I prefer it that way. You see people instead of just faces. Of course, nowadays in pictures, you never even get a chance to look at anyone's face."

Directing: "Phil Dunne wrote the script and we stuck pretty close to it. There May have been a few things added, but that's what a director is for. You can't just have people stand up and say their lines - there has to be a little movement, a little action, little bits of business and things."

Multiple takes: "No-because the actors get tired, they get jaded and lose the spontaneity - so that they-re just mouthing words. But if you get the first or second take, there's a sparkle, an uncertainty about it; they're not sure of their lines, and it gives you a sense of nervousness and suspense."

Music: "Generally, I hate music in pictures - a little bit now and then, at the end or the start - but something like the Ann Rutledge theme belongs. I don't like to see a man alone in the desert, dying of thirst, with the Philadelphia Orchestra behind him."
Medium Specificity and Cinematography
Talkies: "I didn't feel anything about it - it was just a job of work."

His first color film, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): " There was no change really. It's much easier than black and white for the cameraman; it's a cinch to work in, if you've any eye at all for colour or composition. But black and white is pretty tough - you've got to know your job and be very careful to lay your shadows properly and get the perspective right. In colour - there it is; but it can go awfully wrong and throw a picture off. There are certain pictures, like The Quiet Man, that call for colour - not a blatant kind - but a soft, misty colour. For a good dramatic story, though, I much prefer to work in black and white; you'll probably say I'm old-fashioned, but black and white is real photography."

Filming The Long Gray Line (1955) in CinemaScope: "I hated it. You've never seen a painter use that kind of composition - even in the great murals it still wasn't this huge tennis court. Your eyes pop back and forth, and it's very difficult to get a close-up."

Filming a part of How The West Was Won (1962) in Cinerama
: "It's worse than CinemaScope, because the ends curl on moving shots and the audience moves instead of the picture. You have to hold onto your chair. I didn't care for it."

Cameraman George Schneiderman; "Well, I like to have the shadows black and the sunlight white. And I like to put some shadows into the light. We would talk it over, and I'd say 'Right here, George,' and he'd say 'Fine - I'll move a little to the right.' I'd  say 'Go ahead.' We worked together - Never had an argument with a photographer."

Best cameramen: "Comparisons are odious, of course, but Gregg Toland and Joe August were really great cameramen, and so was Artie Miler. I think they stand out as three of the best I ever worked with."
The Iron Horse (1924): "But the point is we had this simple little story come out as a so called 'epic', the biggest picture Fox had ever made. Of course, if they had known what was going to happen, they never would've let us make it."

Mother Machree (1927): "I had a lot of fun with that, but you didn't choose these things - they were thrown at you and you did the best you could with them."

Born Reckless (1930): "In those days, when the scripts were dull, the best you could do was to try and get some comedy into it."

Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)
, "should have been a great picture but at the time they had a change of studio and a new manager came in who wanted to show off, so he recut the picture, and took all of the comedy out."

The World Moves On (1934): "I pleaded and quit and everything else, but I was under contract and finally I had to do it, and I did the best I could, but I hated the damn thing. It was really a lousy picture - it didn't have anything to say - and there was no chance for any comedy. But what the hell, that was called 'being under contract.'"

Stagecoach (1939): "I still like that picture. It was really Boule-de-suif, and I imagine the writer, Ernie Haycox, got his idea from there and turned it into a Western story which he called 'Stage of Lordsburg.'"

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939): "They cut some nice things out of it. For example, I had a lovely scene in which Lincoln rode into town on a mule, passed by a theare and stopped to see what was playing, and it was the Booth Family doing Hamlet; we had a typical old-fashioned poster up. Here was this poor shabby country lawyer wishing he had enough money to go see Hamlet when a very handsome young boy with dark hair - you knew he was a member of the Booth Family - fresh, snobbish kid, all beautifully dressed - just walked out to the edge of the plank walk and looked at Lincoln. He looked at this funny, incongruous man in a tall hat riding a mule, and you knew there was some connection there. They cut it out - too bad."

How Green Was My Valley (1941): "I wanted to reprise the mother's song so I got the idea of bringing the cast back. In the theater I always like to see the cast come out - regardless of whether the guy's playing the messenger boy or the butler - I like to see him out and take his bow. That's probably where I got the idea."

My Darling Clementine (1946)
: "I knew Wyatt Earp. In the very early silent days, a couple of times a year, he would come up to visit pals, cowboys he knew in Tombstone; a lot of them were in my company. I think I was an assistant prop boy then and I used to give him a chair and a cup of coffee, and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So in My Darling Clementine, we did it exactly the way it had been. They didn't just walk up the street and start banging away at each other; it was a clever military manoeuvre."

The Fugitive (1947), "It came out the way I wanted it to - that's why it's one of my favorite pictures - to me, it was perfect. It wasn't popular. The critics got at it and evidently it had no appeal to the public, but I was very proud of my work."

Fort Apache (1948), "Yes - he was the colonel, and what he says - goes; whether they agree with it or not - it still pertains. In Vietnam today, probably a lot of guys don't agree with their leader, but they still go ahead do the job."

When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950)
: "Well, that was my racket for a while, and there wasn't anything funny about it. I wonder what s.o.b. will be the first to make a comedy about Vietnam?"

Wagon Master (1950), "I wrote the original story. Along with The Fugitive and The Sun Shines Bright, I think Wagon Master came closest to being what I wanted to achieve."

The Quiet Man (1952): "We had a lot of preparation on the script, laid out the story pretty carefully, but in such a way that if any chance for comedy came up, we could put it in - like Barry Fitzgerald bringing the crib into their bedroom on the morning after the wedding night, and seeing the broken bed."

The Sun Shines Bright (1953): "The Sun Shines Bright is my favorite picture - I love it. And it's true to life, it happened, Irvin Cobb got everything he wrote from real life, and that's the best of his Judge Priest stories."

The Searchers (1956): "Well, I thought it was pretty obvious - that his brother's wife was in love with Wayne; you couldn't hit it on the nose, but I think it's very plain to anyone with any intelligence. You could tell from the way she picked up his cape and I think you could tell from Ward Bond's expression and from his exit - as though he hadn't noticed anything."

The Wings of Eagles (1957): "I didn't intend it that way, but he did. I woke up one morning and my good hat was gone, my pipe and everything else; they'd taken all the Academy Awards and put them in the office set."

Sergeant Rutledge (1960), "Yes, that's the point. The Negro soldier, the regular, is very proud. They had always been a cavalry outfit, but in this last war, they were mechanized - they took their horses away, and they were broken-hearted. They were very proud of their outfit; they had great esprit de corps. I liked that picture. It was the first time we had ever shown the Negro as a hero."

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962
): "Well, Wayne actually played the lead; Jimmy Stewart had most of the scenes, but Wayne was the central character, the motivation for the whole thing. I don't know - I liked the both - I think they were both good characters and I rather liked the story, that's all. I'm a hard-nosed director; I get a script - if I like it, I'll do it. Or if I say, ' Oh, this is all right' - I'll do it. If I don't like it, I'll turn it down."

7 Women (1966)
, "I think it was a good story. And it was a good switch for me, to turn around and make a picture all about women. It didn't do well here, but it was a sensation in Europe. I thought it was a hell of a good picture."
Thoughts and Philosophy

The boastful Irish character: "I suppose the character is a composite of several people. My father, for instance. He would tell about the great things he'd done as a young man, such as the time he lifted a heavy boulder up out of the water, or how he swam Galway Bay. Of course, he was a damn liar, but he would entertain us kids."

The concept of the glory in defeat or noble failure that runs throughout Ford's films, "Well, I think that's coincidence - although it's a wonderful thing to think about. But I never realized that - I mean, it isn't something I've done consciously -  it may have been subconscious. But, then, I didn't write the stories."

The difficulty to finance small personal pictures: "Oh, you can't anymore - it's impossible. You've got to go through a series of commands now and you never know who the hell reads the scrips any more. You can't get an O.K. here in Hollywood for a script - it's got to go back to New York, and through a president and a board of directors and bankers and everybody else. What I used to do was try and make a big picture, a smash, and then I could palm off a little one on them. You can't do it any more."

The worth and importance of his films: "Well, that's presumption I can't accept. I never felt that way about it. I've always enjoyed making pictures - it's been my whole life. I like the people I'm around - I don't mean the higher echelons - I mean the actors, the actresses, the grips, the electricians. I like those people. I like to be on the set, and regardless of what the story is, I like to work in pictures - it's fun.
Harry Carey tutored me in the early years, sort of brought me along and the only thing I always had was eye for composition - I don't know where I got it - and that's all I did have. As a kid, I thought I was going to be an artist; I used to sketch and paint a great deal and I think, for a kid, I did pretty good work - at least I received a lot of compliments about it. But I have never thought what I was doing in terms of art, or 'this is great' or 'world-shaking', or anything like that. To me, it was always a job of work - which I enjoyed immensely - and that's it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

History of Film Criticism : Andrew Sarris on John Ford

‘History of Film Criticism’ is a new series that I will be starting to highlight important and/or influential film criticism essays. These pieces will be pulled from books and/or magazines, accessible or not, but which I think deserve more attention. They stand out due to their eloquent prose, critical position, and historical context.
For the first post in this series, which I would like to dedicate to the late Andrew Sarris, is his piece on John Ford – one of the fourteen Pantheon Directors – from The American Cinema – Directors and Directions: 1929 – 1968.
This is the first out of three blog-posts that I’m planning to post about John Ford. – D.D.
John Ford (1895-1973)
If John Ford had died or retired at the end of 1929, he would have deserved at most a footnote in film history. The Iron Hourse and Four Sons attractyed some attention in their time, and seem to be the only Ford silents in the American museum repertory. The Iron Horse  is clearly influenced by Griffith, and Four Sons by Murnau. Neither work is a revelation in itself, though there are privileged moments in these films that belong to Ford alone. Above all, there is a nostalgia for lost innocence on the family level of history.  Ford’s technical competence has been established even at this early stage in his career, but up to 1929 he cannot be considered one of the major artists of the medium. His personal vision has not been developed to the level of a Lubitsch or a Lang at this stage of film history.
            If Ford hard died or retired at the end of 1939, he would have deserved at least a paragraph for The Informer and Stagecoach, the former allegedly the first creative American sound film, and the latter representing the renaissance of the Western. He would now be a faded, dated establishing figure like Marcel Carné, a vulnerable target for all the New Critics after Bazin. Dated also would be the calculated expressionism and maudlin sentimentality of The Informer.  Ford’s style stil lingered in the shadow of Murnau’s in 1935, but no one had seemed to notice Steamboat ‘Round the Bend and The Whole Town’s Talking that same year. Ford has never been sufficiently appreciated for the verve and snap of his visual storytelling. Critics of the thirties always joked about the fact that the Hollywood system compelled Ford to make three Wee Willie Winkies for every Informer. The joke, then as now, was on the critics. Despite the monstrous mythology of Shirley Temple, Wee Willie Winkie contains extraordinary camera prose passages from the wide-eyed point of view of a child. What the critical establishment of the thirties admired in Ford was his ability to avoid so-called woman’s pictures despite studio pressures. Nor was Ford too much interested in the fancier forms of sexual intrigue. Being Irish and Catholic and action-oriented to boot, he tended to gravitate to public places where men spoke their minds openly. The Left has always been puritanical, but never more so than in the thirties when Hollywood’s boy-girl theology threatened to paralyze the class struggle. In such an epoch, even an Irish-Catholic conservative like Ford could be mistaken for a progressive force.
Ford’s critical reputation reached its peak and then began its decline during the forties. The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home and How Green Was My Valley firmly established Ford as the Hollywood director despite the extraordinary challenges of Orson Welles and Preston Sturges. The New Dealish propaganda of The Grapes of Wrath has dated badly, as has John Steinbeck’s reputation. Ford’s personal style was particularly inimical to Steinbeck’s biological conception of his characters. Where Steinbeck depicted oppression by dehumanizing his characters into creatures of abject necessity, Ford evoked nostalgia by humanizing Steinbeck’s economic insects into heoic champions of an agrarian order of family and community. By the time of How Green Was My Valley, Ford mastered his narrative style to the point that he could embroider it with those pauses and contemplations that expressed his feelings. Even in Tobacco Road, Charlie Grapewin’s Jeeter Lester was transformed from a greedy barnyard animal to a seedy but serious mainstay of tradition. Ford had more in common with Welles than anyone realized at the time. Ford was forty-six when he made How Green Was My Valley, and Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, but both films are the works of old men, the beginnings of a cinema of memory.
            Ford’s The Battle of Midway is ostensibly a documentary, but it is as personal a statement as any of his fiction films. He focuses her on the ordinary scale by which the most gallant heroes are measured. It is not the battle itself that intrigues Ford, but the weary faces of rescued fliers plucked out of the Pacific after days of privation. World War II was the last war to be endorsed by the intellectual establishment as a valid artistic subject. Ford proceeded into the fifties to photograph the Korean war, an act symptomatic of his downfall with the taste-makers.
            Only the Lindsay Anderson-Gavin Lambert generation of Sequence and Sight and Sound kept Ford’s reputation alive in the period beginning with They Were Expendable in 1945 and ending with The Sun Shines Bright in 1954.The British critics could appreciate Ford for the flowering of his personal style at a time when the rest of the world (this critic included) were overrating Carol Reed and David Lean for the efficient, impersonal technicians that they were. Finally, the New Critics in London and Paris rediscovered Ford after he had been abandoned even by the Sequence-Sight and Sound generation. The last champions of John Ford have now gathered around Seven Women as a beacon of personal cinema.
            The late André Bazin damaged Ford’s reputation with New Critics by describing Ford’s technique as a hangover from the scenario-dominated thirties. Bazin overrated the use of deep focus in The Little Foxes as the antithesis to Ford’s “invisible editing” in Stagecoach. What Ford had been evolving all through his career was a style flexible enough to establish priorities of expression. He could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot. A Ford film, particularly a late Ford film, is more than its story and characterizations; it is also the director’s attitude toward his milieu and its codes of conduct. There is a fantastic sequence in The Searchers involving a brash frontier character played by Ward Bond. Bond is drinking some coffee in a standing-up position before going out to hunt some Comanches. He glances toward one of the bedrooms, and notices the woman of the house tenderly caressing the Army uniform of her husband’s brother. Ford cuts back to a full-faced shot of Bond drinking his coffee, his eyes tactfully averted from the intimate scene he has witnessed. Nothing on earth would ever force this man to reveal what he had seen. There is a deep, subtle chivalry at work here, and in most of Ford’s films, but it is never obtrusive enough to interfere with the flow of the narrative. The delicacy of emotion expressed here in three quick shots, perfectly cut, framed, and distanced, would completely escape the dulled perception of our more literary-minded film critics even if they deigned to consider a despised genre like the Western. The economy of expression that Ford has achieved in fifty year of film-making constitutes the beauty of his style. If it had taken him any longer than three shots and a few seconds to establish this insight into the Bond character, the point would not be worth making.  Ford would be false to the manners of a time and a place bounded by the rigorous necessity of survival.
            Ford’s major works can be traced in a rising parabola from Steamboat ‘Round the Bend to Seven Women, but even when Ford is in less than top form there are marginal compensations. His sentimentality extends to his casting not only of leads but also of the most minute bit roles. As Jean Mitry once observed, there is a John Ford world with a distinctive look to it. How Green Was My Valley established Maureen O’Hara as the definitive Ford heroine just as Stagecoach established John Wayne as the definitive John Ford hero. The extraordinary rapport of the Wayne-O’Hara team through Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and Wings of Eagles adds a sexual dimension to Ford’s invocation of tradition in human experience. How Green Was My Valley is also notable for introducing Ford’s visual treatment of the past as a luminous memory more real than the present, and presumably more than the heroic future. Ford and Hawks, the directors closest to the Griffith tradition, project different aspects of Griffith’s personality: Ford the historical perspective and unified vision of the world, and Hawks the psychological complexity and innate nobility of characterization.
            Ford can never become fashionable again for the rigidly ideological critics of the Left. Too many of his characters wear uniforms without any tortuous reasoning why. Even the originally pacifistic What Price Glory is transformed by Ford into a nostalgic celebration of military camaraderie with the once-raucous Charmaine emerging from the dim shadows as an idealization of the Chivalric Code. As a director, Ford developed his craft in the twenties, achieved dramatic force in the thirties, epic sweep in the forties, and symbolic evocation in the fifties. His style has evolved almost miraculously into a double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy and yet also in its ultimate memory image of the horizon of history.
            Ford’s failures tend to be objective rather than subjective in that he tends to be faithful to his own feelings at the expense of his material. Mary of Scotland is patently biased in favor of Mary against Elizabeth even in Maxwell Anderson’s blank-minded verse version. Ford Completes the travesty of historical objectivity by treating Katharine Hepburn’s Mary as a soft focused, unfairly slandered Madonna of the Scottish moors. (Curiously, it is not until Seven Women that Ford can bear to look at women with a degree of sexual ambiguity.) When Willie Comes Marching Home seemed to be a Preston Sturges project that Ford directed with undue seriousness, and The Last Hurrah loosed much of its satiric sparkle in the transition from novel into film.  The Fugitive, like The Informer, runs counter to Ford’s sense of order. Graham Greene’s renegade priest and Liam O’Flaherty’s renegade informer are clearly beyond Ford’s comprehension and in both instances Ford’s causal Catholicism cannot grapple with the causal Catholicism in the two novels. Nor with the Left-wing politics of the two novelist. Cheyenne Autumn is a failure simply because Ford cannot get inside the Indians he is trying to ennoble.
            Ultimately, Ford’s cinema must be considered a continent full of mountain peaks and desert valleys. The Horse Soldiers is weakest when the characters are talking abstractly about war, but the march of the little boy soldiers lingers in the mind long after all the dialogues have been forgotten. Tyrone Power may have played very broadly in The Long Gray Line, but who can forget the first materialization of his family at the kitchen table or Maureen O’Hara’s standing in the doorway and watching a son-substitute go off to war. Ford is more than the sum of his great moments, however. A storyteller and poet of images, he made his movies both move and be moving.

Andrew Sarris