Film #1 – The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934): This film is like Ford’s “Stagecoach” in that the most interesting thing about it is the way it inspired so many re-makes. It is a traditional Ford film – you could easily transform the British soldiers into US Cavalry and the Arabs into Indians and have the same movie. That isn’t a slight. Ford was a master at formulaic film-making, to such a point that he established his own formulas. This is one of them.
Film #2 – The Informer (John Ford, 1935): Ford won his first (of six) Best Director Oscars for this film. It is a wonderful study of temptation, betrayal, and guilt. It is also a showcase of John Ford’s ability to craft images. There is a wonderful short sequence where Margot Grahame is shown in close-up with a shawl pulled tightly about her face – an image full of innocence – the Madonna, if you will. Then we cut to this disturbing shot of a man leering (this film has the imprint of German Expressionism all over it) and right back to Grahame as she slips the shawl around her neck to show tousled hair and an air of weary seduction – the Whore, if you will. It says so much, and takes maybe ten seconds of film time. There is too much to describe here. If your only experience of Ford is his westerns with John Wayne, check this out to see why he is justly considered one of the greatest directors of the 20th century.
Film #3 – The Whole Town’s Talking (John Ford, 1935): This is a comedy featuring Edward G. Robinson in a dual role as a mild-mannered clerk named Jones and a dangerous gangster named Mannion. It is a quick-paced comedy of mistaken identity that works both because of Ford’s direction and because Robinson is just so good. Adding to this is Jean Arthur who was one of the best when it came to the “screwball comedies” of the 1930s. This is a fun movie to watch.
Film #4 – Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936): Not one of Ford’s best, but then a sub-par John Ford film is better than many other directors’ best efforts. Maybe it is that Ford’s best films tend to focus on characters at the bottom of society – he wasn’t a director of glittering period pieces. Maybe his devout Catholicism led him to overplay the idea of Mary as Catholic martyr. Or, maybe, the fact that he was falling for Katherine Hepburn effected his instincts. Certainly this film lacks many of the characteristic elements of Ford films – such as meticulously designed shots – while substituting more long close-ups of his heroine than we usually see. The film is at its best though when it deals with something we can see in many of Ford’s best efforts, the power that loss has on people. Again, not his best, but still worth seeing.
Film #5 – The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1937): This is a film adaptation of a play about the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Ford hated it. He fought with the playwright over the adaptation and with the studio over the finished product (which included re-shoots which he had no role in making.) Ford left RKO and didn’t make another film for them for ten years (and when he did it was as an independent producer). It is fairly uninteresting except in its juxtaposition of duty to one’s country and duty to one’s family (without any real resolution of that conflict). The highlight of it is Barbara Stanwyk, who makes the movie worth a look.
Film #6 – The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937): This is almost like one of the 1970s disater films in that the whole story is mostly just a set-up for the big storm at the end. This is one of those “exotic south seas” genre pictures, but it features a dichotomy you can see in many of Ford’s westerns as well. The Polynesian natives, played by Dorothy Lamour (I think this is the only non-“Road to…” film I’ve seen her in) and the startlingly white Jon Hall, are depicted as simple, pure, and naive – the racist pastiche of the noble savage. At the same time though, the French colonial system is depicted as rigid and brutal (Raymond Massey’s governor is almost like Javert in his devotion to law and John Carradine’s sadistic jailer is the picture of unchecked power) and the main action of the film centers on an encounter with a overtly racist white guy. Ford did this in many of his westerns where he shows some level of awareness of what the US did to the Native Americans, but still pictured them in pretty stereotypical terms. The film ends with the eponymous hurricane which is quite a special effects scene for a 1930s film.
Film #7 – Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939): FilmStruck had to end its series about Ford in the 30s with this – it was made in 1939, it is the only western he made during the decade (he’d left westerns in the late 1920s), and it is THE western. To really appreciate it you need to realize that all of the well-worn tropes of the western that you see in this movie are showing up here for the first time. Also, pay attention to the artistry of the film. Fords was a painter and you can see his painter’s eye at work here. Finally, this movie is also very much a reflection of the New Deal. A group of disparate people come together in the face of common problems and cooperate to survive. You also just have to love the ending (SPOILER) – Many people criticize media today for its lack of a moral compass. Well, here you have a director who was a devout Catholic making his best film ever and in the most American of all genres, and what do we have at the end? The convicted felon/escaped prisoner and the prostitute ride off into a bright future while the banker goes to jail. Happy ending indeed.