John Ford, on Uncommon Ground
Turner Classic Movies, Columbia Pictures and the Film Foundation have pooled their resources to create “John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection,” a most welcome boxed set that brings together five films directed by that dean of American filmmakers.
Three have not previously appeared on DVD in the United States: “The Whole Town’s Talking,” a Depression-era comedy with Jean Arthur and Edward G. Robinson; “Gideon’s Day,” a police procedural filmed in England in 1958, with Jack Hawkins as the Scotland Yard inspector created by the novelist John Creasey; and “Two Rode Together,” a major Ford western from 1961, with James Stewart, Richard Widmark and Shirley Jones.
The other two films in the collection have long been out of print: “The Long Gray Line,” the 1955 story of a long-serving West Point instructor (Tyrone Power) and Ford’s first film in CinemaScope, and “The Last Hurrah,” his 1958 adaptation of a best-selling novel by Edwin O’Connor, with Spencer Tracy as an aging politician facing his last campaign.
Most of these movies are outliers in Ford’s career, films that find him working in genres or formats with which he wasn’t usually associated. Even “Two Rode Together” — superficially the most Fordian film of the bunch, if only because it is a western — drifts off the beaten trail of the genre and touches on elements of gothic horror.
“The Whole Town’s Talking,” from 1935, is a brisk, topical urban comedy that allows the great Robinson to slip back and forth between the poles of his performance range — he plays both a shyly romantic office drone and a cold, sadistic thug. You’re automatically tempted to describe the film as Capraesque, until you remember that Frank Capra had only established himself as a comedy director a year earlier, with “It Happened One Night.”
It might be more accurate to call “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” Fordian. “Deeds,” released in 1936, cemented Capra’s reputation for social comedy. But it was Ford who uncovered Jean Arthur’s gift for comedy; previously, she was an undistinguished contract player. It was Ford who first cast her as a tough-talking, professional woman in tailored suits.
It may be the westerns and war movies that are the foundation of his reputation today, but throughout his long career — over 140 films, though most of the silent movies are lost — Ford remained, on the surface at least, a remarkably protean filmmaker. His sense of himself as an unflappable professional allowed him to take on the most unlikely projects — a vehicle for the child star Shirley Temple, for example — just as the strength of his vision and the power of his technique could conform those unlikely projects into works of deep personal import. (The Temple film, “Wee Willie Winkie,” was perhaps the first of Ford’s films to deal with a theme that would become central to his work after World War II: the social structure of a military encampment.)
As well as “The Whole Town’s Talking” turned out, the strong-willed Ford most likely chafed under the command of Columbia’s autocratic head of production, Harry Cohn. Twenty years would pass until Ford would return to Columbia, and then only because Columbia had inherited a property Ford very much wanted to film — the life story of Marty Maher, an Irish immigrant who arrived at West Point as a civilian kitchen worker and remained for 50 years as a beloved noncommissioned officer and swimming instructor (even though, at least according to Ford’s film, he didn’t know how to swim).
“The Long Gray Line” belongs to a cluster of films about marriage — a subject that rarely engaged Ford before — that pops up in his filmography of the 1950s. Contrasting the intimate union of a man and a woman with the social and emotional cohesiveness of the closed military communities that had long fascinated Ford, these movies conjugate marriage through many different forms — as dying and dysfunctional (“Rio Grande,” 1950), as a battle of equally strong-willed partners (“The Quiet Man,” 1952), as an artificial imposition of monogamy on a natural world of spontaneous desire (“Mogambo,” 1953), as a relationship narrowed by dependence and enforced domesticity (“The Wings of Eagles,” 1957).
In “The Long Gray Line,” the protagonist’s loyalties seem equally divided between the institution he serves (West Point) and the woman he loves (another Irish immigrant, played with uncharacteristic girlishness by the Amazonian Maureen O’Hara). The film ends by imagining a perfect union of these two apparently conflicting desires (as if Marty and his wife had become as permanent a part of West Point as the obsolete but immovable cannons that protect its perimeter) — the personal blending with the institutional.
In this context, the underrated “Gideon’s Day” — seen here in color, although Columbia had so little faith in it in 1958 that the studio released the film in black-and-white prints as “Gideon of Scotland Yard” — takes on a new significance. As Inspector Gideon (Hawkins, to whom Ford has lent his own trademark pipe) makes his way through a typically demanding day, he deals with cases that pointedly concern differently allied couples — including a Cockney petty criminal (Cyril Cusack) and his protective wife (Maureen Potter), and a corrupt member of his own staff (Derek Bond) who has betrayed his wife (Grizelda Hervey) as well as his colleagues.
Throughout, Ford cuts back and forth between Gideon’s office and his home, where his loyal wife (the wistful Ford regular Anna Lee) and marriageable daughter (Anna Massey, in her first movie role), proudly and patiently accept the responsibilities that come with a life of public service (Scotland Yard having become a branch of the United States Cavalry). In the late films, however, the issue of marriage drops away, and Ford’s heroes increasingly find themselves isolated (like Spencer Tracy’s widowed mayor in “The Last Hurrah”) or cynical and bluntly misanthropic.
“Two Rode Together” finds its most intimate moment in an unbroken four-minute shot in which a career officer (Richard Widmark) and a mercenary Indian trader (James Stewart) exchange their views on women and independence. But this comic sequence proves to be the lead-in to a nightmarish evocation of domestic life gone wrong, as Widmark and Stewart enter an encampment of traumatized families, each hoping that Stewart will be able to negotiate the release of a member held captive by Comanches. The love of a husband for his wife or a mother for her child proves to be pitifully inadequate in the face of the cultural divide that has risen between them.
Ford’s darkest and most bitter film, “Two Rode Together” opens into the mythic perspective of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), where the shortcomings of human relations are subsumed by the greater march of civilization — a glorious lie masking an unbearable truth. Ford’s questioning of his fundamental principles continued through his final feature, “7 Women,” in 1966, never abandoning the restless intellect, formal mastery and Shakespearean capacity for consuming and expressing the great and awful complexity of human emotion that made this son of an immigrant Irish saloonkeeper one of the greatest of all American artists. (Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection; DVD, $54.99; shop.tcm.com; not rated)