Spiritual possession, screwball comedy, German kinks, and the quintessential American Western genre are among the disparate characters we shine a light on today as PopMatters counts down the 100 Essential Film Directors. Today we look at George Cukor through John Ford. Who falls in the middle might surprise you...
(1894 - 1973)
Three Key Films: Stagecoach (1939), Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Searchers (1956)
Underrated: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) Boasting a list of film credits as long as your arm, Ford was bound to have several overlooked gems in his oeuvre. But this alternative Western stands atop the pile with its mixture of historical drama, gorgeous early Technicolor, and standout performances from Henry Ford and John Carradine (as an eye-patched badass Canadian! Sort of.). Though its white vs. “Indians” racial politics don’t feel too comfortable anymore, and its gender relations are stereotypes all the way, it all works without slipping too far into formula in an era when formula often got in the way.
Unforgettable: The “you pick it up” scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In his early '60s elegy for a genre in decline, brilliantly constructed as a lament for an idealized American West, there are at least a dozen unforgettable moments. Indeed, in many critiques of the film, this is the central problem: that the film itself feels more like an homage to the great genre pictures that have come before, many of which starred the same actors in their younger days. Well, sure. But, isn’t that clearly the point of the exercise? A film about aging, about the end of an era, and about the ways legends are constructed around myths to serve as signposts in an uncertain future, Liberty Valance is supposed to feel familiar and comforting. That’s the reason it is so heartbreakingly nostalgic and evocative. Anyway, this is the best scene from one of the best films I can name. In it, the two soon-to-be anachronistic cowboys are arguing about nothing, ready to kill for it, and standing between them it’s the future in the person of James Stewart, a peaceful, rational, “Eastern” problem-solver. How the west was won, indeed.
The Legend: 140. That’s how many movies are attributed to John Ford over his 50 years in Hollywood. It’s an absurd number, almost impossible to imagine. How does one compare a filmmaker who was prolific to this extreme to someone as stingily unproductive as Terrence Malick? Indeed, and this is the most amazing part, even though most of us has never seen even half of these films (many are lost), what we are left with are at least a few dozen unassailable masterpieces. For a man who was tireless, obviously overworked, tied to a studio system which had him churning out picture after picture at breakneck speed for decades, John Ford managed to compile an unparalleled list of unqualified successes.
Born in 1894 in Maine, John Feeney moved to California in 1914 to begin a career in film production. His older brother had already established himself in Hollywood, and John was able to walk into a job. Before long, however, his brother’s star began to fade and John (now John Ford) took up the reins, transitioning to directing silent films at a breakneck pace. Highly respected by his colleagues for both the quality of his films and his astonishing work ethic, Ford would become president of the Motion Picture Director’s Association (today known as the Director’s Guild of America).
Though most often remembered for his Westerns -- indeed, any short list of the best this genre has to offer will be overrun with John Ford pictures -- Ford made something like 35 films between his last silent Western (3 Bad Men (1926)) and his triumphant, genre-defining Stagecoach (1939), so he clearly had other interests as well. Indeed, Ford was amazingly successful at translating major literary works onto celluloid. Though more commonly trivialized by film fans for having beaten Welles’ Citizen Kane , his only Best Picture Oscar was for the wonderful How Green Was My Valley in 1941. An inveterate weirdo, famous for his idiosyncrasies like munching on handkerchiefs while he worked (to the point that he started each day with a dozen fresh ones that he would set about gnawing to smithereens), his sporting of an unnecessary eye-patch, his solitary post-production days-long drinking binges, and his driving of a car so ramshackle that he was once refused entry to his own set because the guard refused to believe that the great John Ford would own such a piece of shit. The great poet of the American landscape, a master of the long shot, and perhaps the most influential American filmmaker one can name, Ford died in 1973 at the age of 79. Stuart Henderson