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

John Ford - IMDb
photo courtesy of imdb.com

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.