FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: SEASON 2/EP 2 – JOHN FORD, ORSON WELLES, & GREGG TOLAND

The Grapes of Wrath' | Critics' Picks | The New York Times | 8Hours
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Here's why Citizen Kane fell below Paddington 2 on Rotten Tomatoes - CNET
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It’s February 26, 1942. The 14th Academy Awards are taking place at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood. With 9 nominations, Citizen Kane is poised to have a monumental night and the crowning of Orson Welles as the new king of Hollywood seems only to be a formality. But when the night is over, the Best Picture and Director categories would be swept by How Green Was My Valley, the epic tale of a Welsh mining town starring Maureen O’Hara and directed by none other than…John Ford.

Even the most arbitrary film fan could tell you that Citizen Kane is known as the greatest film of all time. An opinion shared by film fans and filmmakers alike, but most notably the American Film Institute. So why did it lose on Oscar night? Maybe Orson Welles himself is the best person to explain it. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Welles was asked by reporters which directors inspired him, to which he famously replied: “I prefer the old masters…by which I mean, John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” It is widely rumored that Orson Welles watched Stagecoach continuously while filming Citizen Kane. One needs only to watch the blocking and framing of both films as well as the practical sets used in both to see the similarities. But Orson Welles had more than just an affinity for John Ford while making his own masterpiece. He had Gregg Toland, one of the finest cinematographers in film history. Just before shooting Citizen Kane with Welles, Toland had just done two films with John Ford. 1940’s Oscar nominee The Long Voyage Home and the other was the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s quintessential Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath would not only win Ford his second Best Director Oscar but would also be another work of art to add to the outstanding portfolio Gregg Toland was already building. Before dying in his sleep of coronary thrombosis in 1948 at the age of 44, Gregg Toland was at the height of one of the finest bodies of work in cinema history. In addition to photographing The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath, Toland also shot classics such as Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, The Best Years Of Our Lives, and Wuthering Heights, for which he received his only Academy Award.

In The Grapes Of Wrath, Toland and Ford combined to bring Steinbeck’s classic novel to the screen and tell the quintessential story of the Great Depression. John Ford would trade in his stagecoach for the Joad family’s flatbed truck and run it through the wide open Western landscapes while Toland, drawing from photographer Dorothea Lange’s incredible series of portraits documenting the Depression era up close, produced shot after shot depicting the raw reality of Americans on the brink of poverty. With Henry Fonda, a John Ford favorite, playing the Depression era outlaw Tom Joad, Toland used both wide open spaces and tight framing in the opening shots to not only introduce the main character but also foreshadow where he is headed at the end of the film.

The film opens with Tom Joad walking down an empty country lane. In both wide shots and medium shots Joad appears as a shadow on the wide open, barren Midwestern landscape. It isn’t until he hitches a ride with a truck driver that we finally see a full shot of Henry Fonda’s face. Toland brilliantly frames Tom Joad in a tight shot inside the truck’s windshield. Joad who we will soon find out was just released from prison, already shows the feeling of confinement. Right away we can tell that the tall, thin man we just saw casually strolling along the country roads with his hands in his pockets is now stiff and getting increasingly uncomfortable with the truck driver’s inquisition about who he is and where is he going? When Joad gets out of the truck, he gives the driver a parting sneer as he sets off walking along the road, as he started the film and as he will end it…alone.

Moments later, after meeting the Preacher, Tom Joad returns to his family home and finds the farm and property deserted. Together, with the Preacher, Joad explores the dark, empty house with only the light of a candle. When the two men get spooked by a noise, they discover the Joad’s neighbor, Muley, hiding on the property. When they invite him into the house the three men crouch down around the candlelight as Muley relays the story of how the farm land was taken away from the families by the government. Leaning on the dark tone of the scene, Toland brilliantly exploits the darkness of the house. With the candlelight flickering off the faces of Joad, Muley, and the Preacher, Muley’s story takes on the air of a ghost story, with the Joad homestead resembling a haunted house. Muley caps off his tale of woe, one of the thousands shared by families of the Great Depression, describing himself as just “a ghost in a graveyard” as he remains unlawfully on the property that was taken from Tom Joad’s family.

The Grapes of Wrath would prove to be a monumental work for both Ford and Toland as it would cement Toland as a force behind the camera and it would give Ford his second Best Director Oscar, setting him up to become the first Director to win the award in consecutive years.

The other collaboration of 1940 between Ford and Toland was The Long Voyage Home based on plays written by Eugene O’Neill. A film about sailors coping with homesickness, threats from Nazi U-boats, and trying to sneak in a few drinks without the officers knowing is certainly not John Ford’s finest. The cramped quarters below deck handcuffed the man who was so talented at exploiting the wide open spaces of the American West. It is Toland who outshines Ford in this picture as we see his love for the Low Angle shot on full display. Using the narrow lanes of the ship’s port and starboard sides, Toland placed his camera on the deck and captured the sailors as they paced back and forth, having conversations, peering out to sea, or slipping and sliding as they try to take cover from a German aerial attack. One fabulous scene in particular is when the ship runs into bad weather. As waves crash on top of the deck, we see the camera being engulfed by the rushing water. It is clear that the low angle brilliance of The Long Voyage Home would only be a warmup for Toland’s next project with Orson Welles…Citizen Kane.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: SEASON 2/EP 1: THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE LEGEND

John Ford - IMDb
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John Ford was born John M. Feeney on February 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. In his late teens, the son of Irish immigrants followed his older brother, Francis to Hollywood where he changed his name to John Ford. Ford found work as an actor, stuntman, and set handyman before landing as an Assistant Director. Notorious for his sardonic humor, when Ford was asked in his later years by a documentary filmmaker, “How did you get to Hollywood?” The legendary filmmaker replied, “By train.” More comical than that remark is the thought that Hollywood’s most decorated filmmaker only got his first opportunity to direct while working on a Western as an AD and his boss failed to show up due to a hangover.

In the 1920’s, John Ford gained a reputation as a solid, efficient, no nonsense Director, which put him in demand among all of the major studios. By the time the 1930’s rolled around Ford went on a successful run of films that cemented his legend as Hollywood’s greatest director. Beginning with The Informer in 1935 for RKO, Ford began flexing his wide array of filmmaking muscles. Those familiar with Monument Valley John Ford would be shocked to see that the film is deeply inspired by German Expressionism. Ford himself stated that he drew from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise but there are also many similarities to Fritz Lang’s M. The film opens with the main character Gypo Nolan wandering through the fog drenched streets and alleys of Dublin, Ireland, where shadows lurk around every corner. When Gypo’s friend is murdered by the Black and Tans after Gypo informs on him for a cheap reward, Gypo sets off roaming through the city in a paranoid daze, reminiscent of Peter Lorre trying to evade the police and angry mobs in Berlin during M. True to German Expressionism form, Gypo begins seeing the Reward Poster and his best friend’s face appear on screen, tearing away at his guilt while at the same time he blows all of his reward money on drinks and celebration. The truth finally catches up with Gypo in a basement inquisition, equally reminiscent of the moment Peter Lorre meets his fate in M. Dabbling in German Expressionism definitely agreed with John Ford as The Informer would win him his first of four Academy Awards for Best Director. Four years later, Ford would direct a film that would not only become the greatest Western of all time but it would also launch the career of the most popular film star ever.

In 1939, John Ford released Stagecoach, the epic tale of eight people on a stagecoach ride through dangerous country, each passenger dripping with dramatic presence. Stagecoach was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture where it was up against Hollywood mammoths like Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. While it lost in the Best Picture category to Gone With The Wind it has certainly stood the test of time better than its competitors. Where Gone With The Wind’s disgraceful portrayal of African-Americans finally caught up with it, and The Wizard of Oz being reduced to a children’s fairy tale, Stagecoach has endured as a testament to the art of filmmaking.

With so many aspects that make it timeless, it really is the characters that stand out above all. Ford was way ahead of his time, having not one anti-hero in the film but three. While Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for his portrayal of the alcoholic but courageous physician, “Doc Boone”, and John Wayne launched his legendary career with his performance as the outlaw “Ringo Kid”, it is the performance of Claire Trevor as the much maligned prostitute, “Dallas”, and her status clash with the prim and proper wife of a soldier, “Mrs. Mallory” that outshines the typical action and gunfights of a Western film. The arc of these two characters is remarkable, going form Mrs. Mallory not even being able to sit next to Dallas at the dining table due to her disgust, to Dallas winning her over with kindness and compassion while she helps Doc Boone deliver Mrs. Mallory’s baby. John Ford’s greatest achievement in Stagecoach is not the action packed finale or the wide beautiful shots of Monument Valley. It is the compelling drama portrayed by two strong women, something that is still uncommon in 2021, let alone in 1939, when Hollywood was entrenched in the Dark Ages of racial and gender bias.

On the next episode of Director’s Spotlight: John Ford…by the time the United States entered World War 2, Joh Ford had already won his second Academy Award for Best Director, laying the foundation for his dominance of Hollywood. Everyone was now taking notice of John Ford, especially the “Boy Wonder” from The Mercury Theater in New York…Orson Welles.

SEASON 2/DIRECTOR’S SPOTLIGHT: JOHN FORD

15 Best John Ford Movies You Need To Watch | Taste Of Cinema - Movie  Reviews and Classic Movie Lists
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John Ford directed over 150 films in his career. From silent shorts to big screen epic features, Ford laid the foundation for the last century of filmmaking. On Season 2/Director’s Spotlight, I’ll talk about how his fingerprints are all over the films of some of the greatest filmmakers in history, from Orson Welles to Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa to Quentin Tarantino, and many others who have all been inspired by John Ford.

So let’s dig into the career and legacy of not only Hollywood’s most decorated filmmaker but also America’s Greatest Director.

ANATOMY OF A SCENE: The ‘Low Angle’ Brilliance of CITIZEN KANE

The making of the best film of all time
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“I like the old masters…by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” – Orson Welles

Citizen Kane has long been considered one of, if not the greatest American film in history. Orson Welles’ 1941 classic is a watershed moment in Hollywood history, signaling the beginning of filmmakers breaking away from the Studio system of filmmaking. When it was made, Hollywood was at the height of its “industrial” status of making movies. Welles, along with cinematographer Greg Toland, pulled out all of the stops for the young theater director and radio star from the Mercury Theater in New York. Although this film is as close to perfection as you can get, I believe one of its shining moments is the scene between Kane and Jed Leland after Kane has lost the election for Governor of New York.

How to Shoot Dialogue Scenes - Videomaker
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After Charles Foster Kane gets caught in a ‘Love Nest’ and exposed by his political rival ‘Boss’ Jim Gettys, he not only loses the Governor election but he also loses his marriage when his wife Emily decides to leave him. While crushing losses, both personal and political, would break a man Kane shows no signs of letting go of his power and arrogance. Even when his closest friend and partner Jed Leland comes to see him after the results are in. Welles’ inspiration from John Ford is all over this scene, two major aspects in particular are the set design and the blocking of the actors. Ford loved using real sets, especially with ceilings, not just to show the actors in a natural environment but also to allow himself to be more creative with low angle shots. Here, a 2 minutes-plus scene with minimal cuts and shot at an extremely low angle, this scene had to be done on a natural set. When Jed enters the room to talk to Kane he begins to show his disapproval of what has become of his boss, and his friend for that matter. Hiding behind his drunkenness he lays into ‘Charlie’ letting him know that he can no longer go on trying to control and manipulate people. The most effective use of the low angle camera is the way it portrays Kane, alternating between strength and weakness. Ordinarily the low angle shot of an actor shows them in a dominant powerful position with the audience looking up at them. Welles and Toland really flipped this notion on its head with this scene. At the start of their conversation Kane is standing right in front of the camera, so close that we can only make out his legs below the knees. Jed stands in the midground at an angle in a full shot. As his criticisms begin to get nastier, Kane walks back towards him and now we begin to see Kane looking weaker in the scene despite the fact that we are at his feet looking up at him. As he approaches Jed, Kane gets smaller and smaller in the frame, almost as if Jed’s words are cutting him down to size, until he stops and stands right next to Jed. It is at this point that we see both men, the same size and height, unbeknownst to Kane and his ego, they are on equal ground.

The blocking of the actors is not only an inspiration from Ford but also one of Welles’ greatest strengths as both a theater actor and director. Citizen Kane is one of the first films I can recall seeing and noticing that with its blocking, sets, and camera angles, flows like a Broadway play. The natural sets, most of them raised up on stilts or stages in order to get every angle possible, enabled Welles to perform his magic in every frame. In this scene, despite two cuts, the camera never moves with the actors. Welles and Joseph Cotten pace back and forth, around each other as they deliver their dialogue, mostly cutting and dramatic lines from Cotten. Early on in the scene Welles strolls away from the camera past Cotten and into the background, showing the depth of the frame the same way John Ford would have his actors ride deep into the splendor of Monument Valley back toward the horizon. When Welles returns and continues past Cotten in the other direction he walks right in front of the camera and we see by his eyes that Jed’s harsh words are registering. The scne concludes with both actor in a medium two shot. Kane pours a drink and tries to make a joke about Jed moving to Chicago. Jed brushes it off and demands to be sent, wiping the smile right off Kane’s face. He then delivers one of the classic lines in Hollywood history: “A toast, Jedediah, to love on my terms…the only terms one ever knows…his own.”

Just about any scene from Citizen Kane can be dissected and analyzed and praised. This was filmmaking on “Orson Welles’ terms.” And for that he may just be the greatest filmmaker of all time.