Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John Ford: A Changing Vision of the West

"John is half tyrant, half revolutionary; half saint, half Satan; half possible, half impossible; half genius, half Irish."
-Frank Capra

"(I admire)the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."
-Orson Welles

"He sees more out of one good eye than two producers see out of four."
-Martin Rackin

"I'm John Ford. I make Westerns."
-John Ford

He was born John Augustine Feeney on Feb 1, 1895 in a farm house on Cape Elizabeth, Maine., Later, when he followed his older brother Francis to the desert boom town of Los Angeles, he changed his name to Ford and picked up odd jobs as an extra (in Birth of a Nation he's the Klansman wearing glasses) and stuntman in the blossoming movie industry. Francis Ford, already established as an actor, went on to direct silent films while his layabout brother spent most of his time hanging around the back lots with out of work cowboys (the last of the real ones) and making the acquaintance of a retired US Marshall named Wyatt Earp. Then in 1917, John Ford got his first chance to direct because he was the only member of the crew to show up sober one morning.

The West of cowboys and Indians, gunfights and Tombstones, had ended a mere twenty years before and now a new West was taking shape on dusty back lots under the guidance of a young, half blind Irish-American who would, between 1917 and 1966, direct over one hundred films, win six Academy awards, a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the Medal of Freedom from the US government. It is ironic that before he died from cancer in 1973, Ford commented that: "I certainly had no desire to go into pictures or have anything to do with them. Still haven't."

Ford's work ranged from the stark fatalism of The Long Voyage Home and The Fugitive to the bucolic humor of The Quiet Man; the social concerns of The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley to the anti-social slapstick of Donovan's Reef and the just plain anti-social in Seven Women. The Western films, however, are the ones Ford is best remembered for. Not merely, as Howard Hawkes once said, because he did corn good, but because he took the Western genre and so extensively reshaped and personalized it that virtually every Western made within the past thirty years has been indebted to him. Of modern Westerns, the Italians pay him tribute in the Monument Valley sequences of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Sam Peckinpah - possibly the most self-consciously anti-Fordian director to ever work in the genre - gave homage in Ride the High Country before biting back in Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch.

The period of films this program is concerned with are the Westerns Ford directed between 1939 and 1962 and specifically with the changes that took place in the text of his films during that time. With Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, Ford creates his most eloquent statements on the survival of civil­ization against the hostile personifications of the wilderness. Nomadic and rootless, both the Ringo Kid (in Stagecoach) and Wyatt Earp (My Darling Clementine) appear out of the desert and they each carry with them a basic, primitive need for revenge, a need that could pose a threat to the community (the stagecoach and Lordsburg; Tombstone) they enter. Likewise both must confront evil families (the Palmer brothers and the Clantons) that are perversions of the values celebrated by Ford and both Ringo and Earp become a defender of communal life and values (even though the Kid and Dallas leaves Lordsburg and the "dubious gifts of civilization,"they do so only to go somewhere else and start their own families).

Their victories over these evil families (in effect, over the wilderness itself) reaffirms the moral and social order of the community, even if Ford does show at the beginning of Stagecoach some distrust of the self-righteous elements of society such as the Ladies Law and Order League.

In The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the nomadic figures of Ethan Edwards and Liberty Valance are at best destructive forces which must ultimately be rejected by society (the closing of the door at the end of The Searchers) and at its worst, a deranged thug who must be eliminated by a similar wilderness figure whose act of murder is in turn an act of self-destruction. The ceremonies and dances in My Darling Clementine re-enforces the shared values of the community,, In Fort Apache, the military and social rituals suggests the problems which divides the fort's self-contained society. The wedding ceremony near the end of The Searchers dissolves into chaos with Marty's and Ethan's return,. The fight which breaks out between Marty and Charlie is presented by Ford as rough house comedy but what it suggests within the larger context of both the film and Ford's work is a darkening of vision, a sense that what once seemed good and noble has turned sour and the values Ford once embraced are brought under critical scrutiny and found wanting. With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford grows nostalgic toward the wilderness past and, while recognizing the historic inevitability of the emerging civilization, he seems to dismiss the future as a cruel sham.

That Ford became disillusioned with the society around him is evident from most of the films he made after the Second World War,, How deep his despair went is most noticeable in his Westerns. Ford once said that when in doubt, make Westerns and he followed his own advise only to carry his doubts with him into a genre that is often (and wrongly) assumed to be morally simplistic,, Even in his lesser films of this period, such as Cheyenne Autumn, his faith gives way to pessimism as he shows his much loved Seventh Cavalry mowing down unarmed Indians. The Wyatt Earp of My Darling Clementine is a near mythological hero, but in the Dodge City sequence of Cheyenne Autumn Earp is presented as a cross between a card shark and a pimp and, though he is slightly more honorable than the cowboys around him, both he and society carries the smell of corruption.

Ford was the cinema's folklorist and his hopes, and later cynicism, on the myths of the American West act as a barometer for the changes which were to come. As Andrew Sarris wrote, the films of John Ford are "a double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy and also in its ultimate memory-image on the horizon of history,"

The Laughmakers: The Comedians of the '30s and '40s

One sign of the changes that took place in American culture between the 1930s and 1940s can be found within the comedy film genre of the period. The comedy films of the 1930s were dominated by the "zanies," broadly played and clownish figures who represented a mix of vaudeville and the circus. The 1940s was increasingly represented, however, by comedians whose talents had been honed on radio and who were more comfortable with the one-liner rather than the baggy pants. Slapstick, the physically expressive humor of the silent cinema, had already been tempered by the 1930s to the verbal demands of the "talking picture." It became almost extinct, however, in the 1940s as the ear became more important than the eye.

Aside from being one of the greatest comedy teams of the era, the Marx Brothers also represented the changing spectrum of American comedy. Harpo was an overt throw back to the silent period as he combined his nonverbal tantrums and barrages with an anarchistic sense of innocence. Chico was a continuation of the vaudeville ethnic humor tradition in which bad accents and fractured English played to a sympathetic ear among the immigrant laborers who were a prominent part of the early vaudeville audience. Groucho, on the other hand, was the verbal specialist of the team and his nonstop banter of puns, non sequiturs, and one-liners more closely resembled the audio gags of radio rather than the broad farce of vaudeville. The Marx Brothers' successful transition from stage to screen in the 1930s was not surprising. Groucho's ability to continue his own career as a radio, and then television, comedian was due to his unique position within the changing context of American comedy.

W. C. Fields was the embodiment of the vaudeville performer. First trained as a juggler, Fields was able to use his skills to develop an extremely idio­syncratic form of physical humor. He also had a reputation for his fast wit and sharp tongue and he began interjecting his own brand of commentary into his sight gags. Further, Fields had a deep conviction that humor was based on cruelty and that the audience was laughing at you, not with you. Fields had a distinctive, though erratic, film career and his screenplays (usually written by him under a preposterous pseudonym) veered between surrealism and barroom braggadocio. His jaundiced view of the world was developed, in part, from Fields own harsh upbringing and he had a strong distaste for hypocrisy and conventional morality. He was also not particularly fond of either children or dogs.

Laurel and Hardy were one of the few comedy teams of the silent period who discovered a successful niche in the sound era. Though they rarely received great critical support and their films were mostly "B" productions, they retained a surprisingly strong sense of affection from their audience. This was due, in part, to the "everyman" nature of their characters. Throughout their films, they portrayed men of limited skills, dreams, and ambitions who simply wanted to get through the day with the least amount of agony. Repeatedly, they discovered themselves in a world in which petty pride, misplaced envy, and duplicity would systematically reduce their existence to a state of violence and anarchy. They would wade through the chaotic universe of their films with a nonchalance based not upon bravery but rather upon their inability to completely comprehend the world round them. In the face of adversity, they neither overcame nor endured. They simply muddled through.

At the height of his career, Bob Hope was the ideal radio comedian. His brand of humor was based on story gags and so-called "groaners," jokes that were meant to be bad so that he could milk the real laugh by his defensive come back to a groaning audience. Hope lacked the slapstick skills and strong personality of the earlier generation of film comedians and throughout his numerous movies he always played variations of the same character, an average guy with a smart mouth. This was indicative, however, of the direction of the comedy genre in the 1940s. Increased competition from radio programs steered comedy films toward the verbal rather than the physical and a form of comic realism began to take precedent over the extreme exaggeration of an earlier era. Hope was indicative of these changes in which the large screen found itself increasingly influenced by radio and, by the end of the 1940s, television.

Like Hope, Red Skelton was most successfully connected with radio and television. Unlike Hope, however, Skelton was able to create comic characters and handle physical humor. Originally trained as a mime, Skelton also benefited greatly from the comedy coach that M-G-M Studios hired to direct him through his scenes. That Buster Keaton, his coach, never received any credit for his labor is a mute testimony to Keaton's "nonperson" status by that time in Hollywood. Yet it was through his direction of Skelton that Keaton was able to stage the silent cinema's last stand as he created some of his final visual gags on the screen. Through this connection, as well as his own talents, Skelton provided a bridge between two generations of film comedians.