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John Ford

Discussion of the actors, directors and film-makers who 'made it all happen'

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JackFavell
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Re: John Ford

Postby JackFavell » March 16th, 2012, 11:58 am

I just re-watched Drums Along the Mohawk, and although I can understand why you find Blue Back cringe-worthy, I did not think so this time through. What I especially loved about the movie was the ending, so patriotic, and yet inclusive - the flag is raised over the newly independent land, and we are shown not Lana Gil, and the rest of the townspeople first, but Daisy the black maid, and Blue Back, both looking up to the flag with respect and dignity, showing an inclusive America. Maybe I'm a sucker for that, but it was done very well.

Some other things i noticed:

Obviously, the color cinematography. At the end, I noted for the first time that Lana is wearing red, white and blue as she and Gil turn to their new home. There are some beautifully shot opening scenes which I am quite sure must be based on specific paintings of colonial weddings. Granted this engraving is a bit earlier, but I can still see the influence of art similar in character to this one in the movie.

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Most of the film is shot with emphasis on reds, whites, blues and browns, which seems a familiar color palette in colonial paintings. I also noticed that the lighting in the film references those old paintings we have somewhere in our memories, whether colonial portraits with sun shining through clouds behind the sitting subject, or those patriotic scenes of our forefathers in various situations, where the light is filtering in from high above, rather beatifically. I loved the way the light clouds played palely against the blue of the sky in this movie, making everything seem fresh and new. Or the way smoke drifted over the landscape as guns flared or crops burned. I even found a painting of soldiers preparing an encampment at night that was far too large to reproduce here, which reminded me of some of the night scenes in the film.

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Many films were made throughout the classic era that were painterly, or that tried to copy a look for a specific time period, even some of the short subjects we see on TCM, but I think this is one of the most successful, because of the consistency of it's vision. The movie carries those aspects of realism (or should we use another word? since this is the world inside the painting of our imaginations?) through the entire picture - it's as if that colonial painting sprung vividly and vehemently to life. There are flourishes, little realistic touches in the film that I loved - the organ in the church gets an extra moment as we note that one person plays, while the other runs the bellows that sits on top of the organ rather than underneath with pedals. These little flourishes made me wonder if Ford said, "go and get me an organ from 1750", or if they found an organ somewhere and gave it a moment in the script? I guess I'll never know the answer. Anyway, normal things that we can identify with today are made amusing by the rusticity of their olden day counterparts. Just watching Gil light a candle in an odd shaped base with a flame protector on it, then kiss Lana while still holding the candle away from her dress gave me a little thrill, as if I peeped through time to discover something new in history that I hadn't known before. Ford's best movies are dense with folklore this way, and are endlessly entertaining because of it.

Lana's crying fit didn't bother me as much this time, I think Goddess is right about it being her journey into a more womanly form, able to take things in her stride. I also agree that it's horrifying to watch as all their possessions, like Lana's grandmother's teapot, but also the wheat they grew with their own hands, the cabin that Gil built, burn up uselessly. Ford really is able to put us in Lana and Gil's shoes. And I thought Claudette Colbert gave a really fantastic performance. She was just great, growing from shallow beauty to wiser nurturer. I totally felt that she and Fonda were youthful lovers here, they cracked me up in the first scene at the inn, sitting together, talking quietly, and the innkeeper comes up and laughs at them being newly married... they were spot on at showing how two people can be in love, but not know each other very well. :D

I think Fonda comes into his own in this film and Young Mr. Lincoln. You can see it coming a long way off, in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and You Only Live Once, then again in Jesse James, but he's unformed, it's off again on again in this films. In Jezebel, he's fully fledged, but lacking something.... I would say that Ford shaped Fonda as an iconic image just as he shaped John Wayne, and later on Ben Johnson. I don't think many people credit Ford with this, it's always Pappy and Wayne as the mentor and student. But Fonda's performance here in DAtM, while not quite the focus of the film, is iconic and distinctly American, which is where Fonda ended up, isn't it? Ford brought out something in Fonda that I don't think we see before their collaboration.

There are also touches that reminded me very much of Gone With the Wind, especially for instance in the amputation scene. The way the light flickers over the room, the shadows on the walls, the oblique angles showing only those watching, all of this reminded me strikingly of scenes in GWTW. Even the plot is structured similarly around a girl's reaching maturity ( no matter how long it takes). I think if any movie were to be compared favorably with GWTW, and so many are compared and fall short, Drums Along the Mohawk just might be that one. And why not? The country was facing war in that great movie year of 1939, and Americans had, as the last line of DAtM states so well, "a heap of work to do from now on."

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Re: John Ford

Postby movieman1957 » March 16th, 2012, 6:37 pm

You're so good. Thinking about it I think you're quite right about Ford and Fonda. Throw in "The Grapes of Wrath" in the following year and that supports your theory even more. Maybe in "Jezebel" he is (or his character) is overpowered by Davis. But he really comes into his own with Ford.
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Re: John Ford

Postby JackFavell » March 16th, 2012, 8:50 pm

I think you've hit the nail on the head with Jezebel. It isn't his movie. Same with Blockade, which we discussed somewhere around here recently.

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Re: John Ford

Postby MissGoddess » March 16th, 2012, 9:46 pm

That was a wonderful comparison with the paintings of the era, Wendy~--you have such a grasp of these connections between the arts. I love learning about such things. I am not that familiar with that period in American history or in its art, so this is a real eye opener. And I'm sure you're right about the influences in the look, the colors, etc. The research departments were pretty good at the big studios, they could assign several people to look up every aspect of daily life and help come up with remarkable recreations of life from other times. I like how you point out the denseness of the little aspects of every day life that enriches a film like Drums Along the Mohawk. I never would have thought to compare it to the southern epic of the same year...that's great! GWTW also showed loving attention to detail of life on a farm, a plantation, a town house. Drums takes us to two different worlds as well. And two remarkable roles for actresses, of many that golden year.

I saw this movie on the big screen and one of the things that struck me was the textures of all the interior and exterior shots (something interesting to look at in the foreground, middle and background as well as the sum of all the bits of "business" by supporting players), including one that struck me at the time. It was shot from very low angle, so that you could see the green blades of grass in the foreground. I almost thought I could smell the fresh newness of the scene, the turning earth under the rake, the hay, smoke from the fireplace. Movies are very powerful when they can stir all your senses, not just the eyes. And Drums wears well for that reason. You are getting a "history lesson", but the fun kind, the "day in the life of" kind which is so much more interesting.

And I've always thought Fonda was definitely a young actor who ascended to higher ground artistically when he partnered with Ford. His roles became expansive, more representative of things larger than the character as an individual, while at the same time we got a much more defined idea of who "Henry Fonda" was (on screen). Putting it simply, Fonda was able to express the thoughtful, interior side of Fordian leads, Wayne seemed to represent a more physical and reactive style. Makes for a nice balance overall.

Thanks for another fantastic, thought provoking read.
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Re: John Ford

Postby RedRiver » March 17th, 2012, 1:55 pm

Both actor and director were at their very, very best in GRAPES OF WRATH. Those of you exploring the many layers of "Drums" might enjoy Walter D. Edmunds fine novel. It's a little too detailed for my tastes. I don't need to know all the materials that go into the building of a cabin. But it's interesting history, and a story well told. I recommend it in spite of my own impatience.

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Re: John Ford

Postby MissGoddess » March 17th, 2012, 2:05 pm

That kind of minutia about daily life actually sounds right up my alley, thanks Red, for the recommendation. You sure know something, don't you? Is there a book you haven't read? I admit I haven't even read Steinbeck's novel. In fact, the only Steinbeck I've read, except short stories, is "The Red Pony" when I was a kid and I was so disappointed at the time. :D
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Re: John Ford

Postby JackFavell » March 17th, 2012, 2:07 pm

Thanks for another fantastic, thought provoking read.


Talk about thought provoking! I feel like you just gave me a feast! I now have about a hundred thoughts swirling around my brain after what you wrote.

That was a wonderful comparison with the paintings of the era, Wendy~--you have such a grasp of these connections between the arts. I love learning about such things. I am not that familiar with that period in American history or in its art, so this is a real eye opener. And I'm sure you're right about the influences in the look, the colors, etc. The research departments were pretty good at the big studios, they could assign several people to look up every aspect of daily life and help come up with remarkable recreations of life from other times. I like how you point out the denseness of the little aspects of every day life that enriches a film like Drums Along the Mohawk. I never would have thought to compare it to the southern epic of the same year...that's great! GWTW also showed loving attention to detail of life on a farm, a plantation, a town house. Drums takes us to two different worlds as well. And two remarkable roles for actresses, of many that golden year.


I am not familiar with the paintings of that era much, just something about the look of movie seemed familiar to me. I realized that I must have gleaned something from all those patriotic calendars and paintings of George Washington that hung in my grade school classrooms over the years, they always had that same look to them. I think the lighting in the film was just fantastic for capturing that early American look. I should probably go look up who the cinematographer and the lighting guy were, just to give them credit here, Oh, wait, I remember there were two DP's, I think it was Bert Glennon and Ray Rennehan? Forgive me if I'm wrong. I'd love to be privy to any correspondence that Ford had with them.

I just looked up the crew, and found no one mentioned for lighting, but there are about 10 names listed for the Technicolor processing. The art direction was by Richard Day and Mark-Lee Kirk, and the set Decoration was by Thomas Little. He must have been responsible for finding all those little teapots, knick-knacks, organs, candlesticks, etc.

I saw this movie on the big screen and one of the things that struck me was the textures of all the interior and exterior shots (something interesting to look at in the foreground, middle and background as well as the sum of all the bits of "business" by supporting players), including one that struck me at the time. It was shot from very low angle, so that you could see the green blades of grass in the foreground. I almost thought I could smell the fresh newness of the scene, the turning earth under the rake, the hay, smoke from the fireplace. Movies are very powerful when they can stir all your senses, not just the eyes. And Drums wears well for that reason. You are getting a "history lesson", but the fun kind, the "day in the life of" kind which is so much more interesting.


That's so interesting! I remember one from the Quiet Man, a shot up from the grass through the daisies, but I missed the one in DAtM. I love that the movie made you think you could smell the spring, the meadow and hear the birds singing in the distance. I find that every time I see a film on the big screen, certain things I never would have noticed on TV just leap at you. I have always thought Ford was one of the most complete of the great directors.... I mean they talk about Wyler and his deep focus, but Ford seems to have had the ability to create very full screen pictures, top to bottom, front to back (depth), side to side, even diagonally in all directions. And yet, there is always a VERY particular focus, nothing gets muddled up. It's kind of sad, since I sometimes find myself irritated during a movie if someone just walks in from the left, and another guy is standing on the right and they talk. Ford has spoiled me with his diagonals and action that moves on all planes, not to mention his entrances. I want horses coming at me and then swerving diagonally to the left out of the frame! I want men walking into a bar at the top left of the frame, and stepping down toward me along the bar till they are on the bottom left, then crossing in front to the right of the frame to make themselves at home in a perfectly composed tableaux that looks totally naturalistic! :D I don't want much, do I?

I also think that the thing that keeps Ford from crossing over into corny most of the time is his eye for detail and accuracy. If his props weren't so accurate, they would be goofy and quaint. Well, maybe they are both accurate and goofy! but very entertaining. If his knowledge of military procedure weren't so minute, we'd think that his soldiers were ridiculous. He had such a good grasp on the historical aspects of his films that they slide away from the history we can;t quite believe in some of the lesser historical films, and move toward bringing more authenticity to his stories.

One thing that really leaped out at me from the TV this time was when Gil shot his gun for the first time. Something about the way the gun fired caught my attention, it wasn't an automatic firing, like all the other movies you might see about the colonial period, the gun had an extra cocking mechanism, and you could see it spark metal against metal before the shot actually took. It was an agonizing second, waiting for that mechanism to kick in and fire, and we realize briefly how hard it must have been to try to protect yourself with this antiquated piece of machinery, even if it is new to them.

And I've always thought Fonda was definitely a young actor who ascended to higher ground artistically when he partnered with Ford. His roles became expansive, more representative of things larger than the character as an individual, while at the same time we got a much more defined idea of who "Henry Fonda" was (on screen). Putting it simply, Fonda was able to express the thoughtful, interior side of Fordian leads, Wayne seemed to represent a more physical and reactive style. Makes for a nice balance overall.


That's really a wonderful observation! I never thought about the differences between the two major players in Ford's world. Isn't it fascinating that he put them right up against each other in Fort Apache and let them battle it out?

And I find his Wyatt Earp a really fascinating blend... he knows when to act and when to think. It's an odd combination, for Fonda, but he pulls it off magnificently. You can't say he's all thought, or all action.

Red, that's so fantastic that you read the book! I might give it a try, it sounds like Pappy took some of his P.O.V. right from the book.

MissG, I love Steinbeck, or did when I was younger. I am not quite sure how he would play for me today. Of Mice and Men is really great, and it's small. :D :D

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Re: John Ford

Postby RedRiver » March 17th, 2012, 2:19 pm

Walter D. Edmonds (I misspelled it on my last post) often wrote for young readers. I assume "Drums" was a departure from that. If that book was for children, they had some pretty smart kids in those days! I like Steinbeck. GRAPES OF WRATH is my favorite novel. (Surprised?) OF MICE AND MEN is brief and beautiful. TORTILLA FLATS is actually funny. Steinbeck funny? Yup!

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Re: John Ford

Postby MissGoddess » March 17th, 2012, 3:04 pm

Grapes and Mice both scare me with their seriousness! This blonde prefers Hollywood's versions! Yet I still haven't seen Of Mice and Men and it took me years to finally watch Grapes of Wrath. I lumped them together with Charles Dickens, great stories and important movies, but about the hardships of the poor and that used to depress me too much in my shallower, Breakfast at Tiffany's years. :D

I went to an exhibit at the Met once that had all these rooms from early American homes. It was fascinating. I really loved the spareness, the careful attention to quality even if it meant having fewer but better furnishings. It reminds me now of Lana's Wedgwood teapot, her affection for the pheasant's feathers (that is so like my mother, too). I wish now I had paid more attention to the colors.

Did you notice Mrs. McKlennar's outrageous outfit? Ha! I loved how she tucked her skirts and under-skirts in such an individualistic way. it's just like her.

Ford's films are also dense in verbal references, just as with verbal. That's why watching them with the subtitles on has been such a learning experience for me. This is true will all great films. I miss so much verbally, when I'm engrossed in the visuals. Wendy, seeing movies on the big screen, like when we went to Wagon Master, is just a whole other ballgame. It' the REAL game, because only a big-screen projection can compare, and then you don't get the audience interaction which is part of the show. For me, it's like seeing even an old favorite for the first time.

Are you going to catch Casablanca on Wednesday? I wish I could, but it's in the middle of the week and that's difficult for me.
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Re: John Ford

Postby JackFavell » March 17th, 2012, 6:45 pm

No, I'm afraid my movie visits to the city are few and far between. It would have to be sometime when I can get away without wreaking havoc on the school schedule, and the family.

I like what you said about Mrs. McKlennar's outfit! I think she looks like she's ready to go to work in the fields or something, her skirts are tucked up pretty high, so she can get her work done without bother. It kind of reminds me now that you made me think of it, of Mildred Natwick in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, with her utilitarian "uniform". I bet Mrs. McKlennar would have been the type to wear pants had she been in a later era.

I also found it really funny this time that right before Caldwell's (Is that the right name?) raid on the house, she was lying abed taking a nap! Poor Gil and Lana were doing all the work!

I still have some postcards I got when I was in 6th grade and we had a class trip to Washington DC. We went to Mount Vernon. There is a photo of each room, plus I think they had a gallery of dollhouse rooms that they made up somewhere, behind plate glass, with tiny furnishings from colonial times. I got bunches of these postcards, because I just love that aspect of history too.

Red, Tortilla Flat was always my favorite, I read it numerous times when I was young. I have no idea how it would translate today.... the movie makes me cringe a little as it isn't politically correct by any means. :D

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Re: John Ford

Postby movieman1957 » May 21st, 2012, 10:28 am

Watching the new "Jesse Stone" movie last night they showed him getting into bed to watch a movie. The title came up - "The Last Hurrah." A quick shot of Spencer Tracy in the boxing ring and they were done.

Maybe a little inside joke as that may be the last "Stone" movie, at least for CBS.
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Re: John Ford

Postby Gary J. » May 21st, 2012, 11:37 am

MissGoddess wrote:That was a wonderful comparison with the paintings of the era, Wendy~--you have such a grasp of these connections between the arts.


So did Ford.
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Re: John Ford

Postby MissGoddess » May 21st, 2012, 12:32 pm

Where did you see the new Stone movie, Chris? On CBS?
"There's only one thing that can kill the movies, and that's education."
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Re: John Ford

Postby movieman1957 » May 21st, 2012, 12:33 pm

Yes. It was broadcast last night.
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Re: John Ford

Postby JackFavell » May 21st, 2012, 12:43 pm

Oh, dang it! We were so tired, we didn't even watch any tv last night..we went right to bed. I guess though I should really try to watch the older Jesse Stone movies first.

Gary J wrote:
So did Ford.


Exactly! He had this incredible way of mixing history and art and all these other artistic and thoughtful pursuits into his pictures... until they melded and gave you a perfect sense of the time period he was showing you. Brilliant.


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