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Posts Tagged ‘John Ford’

 

John Wayne makes one of the movies' great entrances in "Stagecoach."

John Wayne makes one of the movies’ great entrances in “Stagecoach.”

 

“Stagecoach” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, August 23, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

 

From the moment it hit the nation’s movie screens in March of 1939, John Ford’s “Stagecoach” was declared a masterpiece.

Not just a pretty good Western, but a masterpiece. Never before had an “oater” earned that sort of praise.

Not only did “Stagecoach” redefine the possibilities of an overworked and underappreciated genre, but it made a first-class star of John Wayne,  who had been kicking around for nearly a decade in B-movie purgatory.

Today, 75 years later, “Stagecoach” remains on virtually every list of the best Westerns ever made.

Ironically, Ford almost didn’t get it made at all.

Though he had filmed dozens of silent Westerns in the 1920s, Ford was pretty much out of the cowboy business by 1939.  Throughout the ‘30s he had made comedies, adventures, costume dramas – just about every sort of motion picture. But Ford was considered a prestige director and Westerns were widely considered to be matinee fodder:  cheap, cliché-riddled, horse-heavy melodramas aimed at little boys and men who still thought like little boys.

The big studios hardly ever made Westerns any more, leaving them to a handful of low-budget production companies.  Most Westerns didn’t even get reviewed by the newspapers.

But Ford loved Westerns. He saw in the genre’s clichés possibilities for commenting on what would become his favorite cinematic theme: What it means to be an American.

Ford had purchased the screen rights to the short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” which appeared in Collier’s magazine. It was about a diverse group of travelers  thrown together by circumstance for a dangerous trip through Apache territory. They come from various professions and castes, and represent a microcosm of the larger society.

Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols went to work expanding the tale, adding characters and situations. But the studios weren’t interested. It was only a Western, after all.

Finally producer David O. Selznick (who at the time was hard at work on “Gone With the Wind”) signed on. But when he demanded that Ford cast big stars in the main roles – Selznick wanted Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich —  Ford backed out of the deal.

Because the director already had a cast in mind. For the role of Dallas, a prostitute who has been run out of town, he envisioned a young actress named Claire Trevor.  And for the role of Ringo, a young outlaw who has broken out of prison to seek revenge on his father’s killers, Ford wanted John Wayne.

Nearly a decade earlier Wayne, then a UCLA grad known as Marion Michael Morrison,   had worked for Ford as a prop boy. Now and then he was cast as an extra in a Ford film.

Leaving the Ford company, Wayne began getting roles  in Westerns. But “The Big Trail,” an epic wide-screen production about a wagon train that was supposed to be his big breakthrough, flopped. For several years Wayne’s career had been treading water in low-budget studios like Monogram and Republic.

Ford had kept an eye on his former protégé, studying the development of Wayne’s screen persona through a series of mediocre vehicles and awaiting a role that would show the struggling actor in the best possible light. Ringo was the perfect match.

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young-mr-lincoln

“Young Mr. Lincoln” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

In the essay “Mr. Lincoln by Mr. Ford,” the great Soviet movie maker Sergei Eisenstein – whose 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin remains embedded in most critics’ short lists of the best movies ever made – speculated on the one American movie he wished he had made.

He chose John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln.”

Ford had made films that were richer and more effective, Eisenstein wrote. But “Young Mr. Lincoln” “has a quality, a wonderful quality, a quality that every work of art must have – an astonishing harmony of all its component parts, a really amazing harmony as a whole.”

Seventy five years after its creation, the film still retains an astonishing ability to tap into our shared mythology. Much of Ford’s artistic output can be summed up in one question – What does it mean to be an American? – and “Young Mr. Lincoln” provides some essential answers.

As the title suggests, Lamar Trotti’s screenplay is about Lincoln before he became a famous icon. It covers the early months of his law practice in Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s, and centers on Lincoln’s first big case, a murder trial. (Actually, it is a highly fictionalized version of a murder case that Lincoln handled in 1858, shortly before he got into national politics).

Watching the film today one is struck by how much actor Henry Fonda looks like photos of the young Lincoln (Fonda donned a prosthetic nose and wart for the role, and at one point rides a miniature mule that makes his legs look ridiculously long). It’s an astounding performance, one that gives us a rough-hewn, unpretentious Abe but which is packed with intimations of the greatness that is to come.

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Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert

Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert

“Drums Along the Mohawk” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 8, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.

Director John Ford had a terrific year in 1939.

One of his films from that year, Stagecoach, was instantly recognized as a classic and was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. Plus, it turned around the career of a middling cowboy actor named John Wayne, who thereafter was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Another Ford effort from ’39, Young Mr. Lincoln (with Henry Fonda excelling as the future president), is recognized as one of the finest pieces of Americana ever captured on celluloid.

Given the stratospheric acclaim directed at those two landmarks, it’s not unusual that Ford’s third film from ’39, Drums Along the Mohawk, often gets overlooked.

Which is a real shame, since it’s a strong effort that dovetails seamlessly with Ford’s recurring theme of what it means to be an American.

In addition, it was Ford’s first Technicolor film, and right out of the gate he excelled at capturing brilliant, vibrant images.  In fact, he dismissed color as ridiculously easy to work with when compared to black-and-white.

Based on Walter Edmunds’ bestselling novel (it’s still a great read), Drums centers on the Revolutionary War as it was fought on the frontier, with Yankee settlers battling Indian tribes. The Indians have been convinced by the British that as an independent nation, Americans would waste no time in sweeping westward and seizing tribal land, and that their best interests are to be found by siding with the redcoats.

That’s the story’s background.  But the real meat of the yarn lies in the relationship of and Gil and Lana Martin, newlyweds carving a life out of the wilderness.

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