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Western Star

1.

One Fourth of July, early in the twentieth century, young John Ford and his father stood in the main street of Portland, Maine, to watch the parade. The name in those days was not Ford but Feeney. “When the flag passes,” the father said, “take off your cap.” But the boy was not wearing one. “Then cross yourself, damn it!”

Like many of John Ford’s stories, this one may even be true. True or false, it tells us that John Feeney, an emigrant from Galway’s poverty-racked coast, held patriotic sentiments toward his new nation, and identified it, perhaps by a momentary slip, with his religion, which of course was Catholic. Some of his neighbors may have taken note of the slip. An intense dislike of the Irish, bred out of fear and detestation, was strong in New England and especially so in Maine. The fear was nourished by their violent and drunken ways and the detestation by their childish devotion to rosary beads, outlandish miracles, ritual, and superstition. Even their virtues—loyalty, courtesy, brute courage, a love of tradition and song—were those common among subordinate races. Dan Ford, the director’s grandson, sums up the consequence with but slight exaggeration:

The Yankees had their Protestant church, with its steeple pointing straight up to heaven; the Irish had their saloon, with its swinging doors leading straight down to hell. The Yankees lived in the east end and ran the lumber industry, the shipping, and the counting houses, while the Irish huddled together in slums near the docks. There was little contact between the two cultures.

There was some, though. John Ford emerged from the public high school in 1914 with the football nickname of Bull Feeney, and may have briefly attended the state university. He claimed that he left the campus when a Yankee student shouted “Shanty!” at him, but students rarely shout at people named “Bull.” He nurtured, though, a lifetime edge against Yankees and their strait-laced Puritan culture, as Eugene O’Neill did, and for similar reasons. He himself was to embody every single one of their anti-Irish stereotypes, as he well knew.

Joseph McBride, whose superb biography is rightly called Searching for John Ford, has visited the time-battered cabin which John Feeney left in 1872, less than two decades after the great famine which swept his section of coast, near Spiddal. Himself of Irish descent, McBride knew as if by instinct to begin in the local pub, An Crúiscín Lán, “a smoky, stiflingly hot place by the sea,” where assorted Feeneys and Currans guided him to the broken walls and hardened clay of what had once been the sort of dwelling that could be built in a day with the help of neighbors. Like the timber cabins which western pioneers threw together. It may well be the Irishness which McBride shares with Ford that gives his account a warmth and an understanding which are at once severe, witty, and admiring.

But there is more to it than this. He has been studying Ford for thirty years or so, and he writes of him with great skill and even, when appropriate, with eloquence. He deploys his wide knowledge of American social and film history with tact, wit, and imagination—rare virtues in the blighted acres of film studies, where often appear those diseased vocabularies which then spread to other fields.

Ford’s father was summoned to America by an uncle, Mike Connolly, who, after various legendary wanderings in the new world, settled down into marriage to a prosperous Portland widow and set up shop as tavernkeeper and bootlegger. Maine had outlawed hard liquor in 1851, partly as a stern gesture of Puritan virtue and partly to shield the incoming Irish from one of their most pernicious vices. Feeney followed his uncle into the family craft, and by the time his children were growing up he owned several taverns in the Irish quarter, in flagrant disregard of the law. He married a Galway girl, the prettiest girl in Portland, his son was to say, and smart enough to marry the most successful Irish saloonkeeper. The Connollys seem to have been a bit embarrassed by their connection with liquor, but the Feeneys took pride in theirs.

John Ford’s call to the journey westward took a different form. His brother Francis, older by twelve years, handsome, clever, and ambitious in a lazy way, had drifted into the new but prospering world of motion pictures, first making two-reelers for Gaston Méliès in New Jersey and then for Thomas Ince and Universal in the streets and hills of Los Angeles. Now, after some pressure from the family, he promised John—who soon, like Frank, would be changing his surname to Ford—a job in what was still an engagingly improvised crapshoot, although one that was changing itself, year by year, into an industry.

Hollywood in 1914 was a small suburb with the scent of lemon trees and with bean patches and hayfields surrounding Sunset Boulevard. But Cecil B. DeMille had just made its first feature-length film, a western called The Squaw Man, in a barn at the corner of Selma and Vine, and D.W. Griffith was in the San Fernando Valley filming the battle scenes for the movie which he would later call The Birth of a Nation. Ford’s brother was waiting for him in his yellow touring car, a cigarette propped in his mouth, dressed in the appropriate directorial breeches and jodhpurs. At his side was Grace Cunard, his mistress, codirector, and leading lady. As they drove toward Universal’s new ranch for location shooting, Frank stopped so that his brother could admire the house he was building in the hills. At the ranch, though, Frank set him to humbler tasks, beginning with ditch-digging.

But John rose rapidly, a tough, quick-witted fellow. He was a handyman on Frank’s serial Lucille Love, but assistant property man on the next, The Mysterious Rose. He was able, as McBride says, “to try his hand at just about every filmmaking job at Universal,” which was pioneering the factory system of filmmaking. All the famous directors of the Twenties learned their craft this way, at one studio or another—Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Raoul Walsh, Allan Dwan. It occurred to few of them that they were in at the birth of a new art.

Only Griffith, part genius, part ham, part medicine-show man, believed otherwise. One day, Ford played hooky and traveled down to open country where Griffith was filming. Later, he claimed that that morning he played one of the white-robed klansmen sweeping across a stream. McBride believes him, and prints a photograph which seems to bear him out. I am less sure. It seems to me an early instance of his insertions of self into history—the history of the Civil War (in one extreme version) and the history of the first great American film. Later, famous himself, he would say that “if it weren’t for Griffith, we’d probably still be in the infantile stage of motion pictures…. Griffith was the one who made it an art—if you can call it an art—but at least he made it something worthwhile.”

They all learned from Griffith, but Ford the most of all. Among other things, he knew, as did all Hollywood, of Griffith’s uphill battle against his backers, with their money worries and fear of experiment. When he was making his own major films, he was ready from the first day on the set to do battle with the “front office” and the “people back East,” and those hapless pawns known as associate producers. He was stubborn and rough, and would earn more freedom than other directors then enjoyed. He was at Universal for seven years, three of them as a director, and earned a reputation for speed and reliability. He made about thirty films in those three years. Most of them were western two- or three-reelers, and all but a very few have disappeared, which says something about how film was then regarded. We know their titles—Gun Law, The Gun Packer, Bare Fists, A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman.

He most enjoyed the ones he made with Harry Carey as his leading man. Carey, like Ford, was an Easterner. So were many of the painters and writers and filmmakers who created our powerful and complex image of the West—Owen Wister, Zane Grey, William S. Hart, Frederic Remington. Much of what we know about the Carey of those years comes from Ford lore or from Ollie, Carey’s salty, sardonic wife, a great debunker of Ford lore. “Jack said that? He’s full of crap. God, how he romanced.”

Carey possessed a style, a way of moving and walking, an attitude toward the characters he played, which Ford savored and, in the mysterious ways of cinema, passed on to his later leading men. Carey often played Cheyenne Harry, a badman who is compelled by circumstances or his own better nature to throw in with the other, weaker side. He makes the difference, and then he rides off into the sunset. Ford and Carey wanted to show working cowboys “as they really were”—and so they did, when it came to Harry’s outfits. But they knew that in this figure, they were dealing an image of considerable mythical power.

Carey, more singlemindedly devoted than Ford to the vanishing West, built a small ranch house in Newhall, north of Universal’s acres, where the three of them at times shared quarters with a bunch of cowboys-turned-actors. Or Ford and Carey would sleep out in bedrolls, planning the next day’s shooting. In theory, there was a hired writer, but these scenario men were not held in high regard, more important, perhaps, than property men but not to be compared with the fellows at the camera. It was a casual, condescending attitude which Ford would hold toward writers to the end, to the injured pride of Dudley Nichols, Frank Nugent, and Nunnally Johnson.

Ford moved quickly from setup to setup. “Occasionally the services of a carpenter or two was required to put up a rudimentary set suggesting the interior of a frontier home…. If a more elaborate set was needed, such as a saloon, a church, or a prison, Jack and Harry grudgingly returned to the back lot.” Ford rarely looked at the rushes because, as Ollie says, “Ford didn’t really need a cutter except for the mechanical works of it, because he shot just enough film that would be necessary for the picture. He never overshot.” This too was a habit he carried with him, a useful guard against studio editing.

McBride is fine at creating for us the pioneer conditions under which Ford’s early silents were made, but perhaps does not stress sufficiently the obvious fact that a pioneer was taking as subject the pioneer experience. He quotes Andrew Sarris, though: “Here we are at a time when the Western was still relatively new, and the Old West was virtually dead, and yet Ford was already casting a somber spell on the screen, his mise-en-scène already in mourning, his feelings of loss and displacement already fantasized through the genre.” Sarris is on to something here, although it seems a heavy burden to rest upon the fact that Cheyenne Harry rides into the sunset at the end of Straight Shooting, the only Ford-Carey film to have survived intact, thanks to the film archive in Czechoslovakia.

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