People sometimes ask me (possibly just to be polite) how I came to be interested in those great old silent movies of another age. Not wishing to bore them to death, I generally laugh it off by saying that I’m old enough to have been there at most of the premieres.
Which today, given my memory or lack thereof, doesn’t seem all that amusing.
So… where were we? Ah yes; Silent Cinema Galway is privileged to have been given permission by author Steve Mayhew to publish his fascinating look at the silent movies of one of the true legends of film. Steve is an authority on cinema in general and the films of John Ford, John Wayne, and Ray Harryhausen in particular.
Steve, thanks again from Adam and myself.
And awayyyyy we go!
— Steve Mayhew —
THE SILENT FILMS OF JOHN FORD
This chapter reviews key secondary sources, to establish both the body of existing work on John Ford’s authorship, and the limits of that existing work, in terms of its relevance to both the research on Ford’s silent films, and to the research questions posed in the introduction. The texts discussed include biographical writings that cover the director’s early career – the biographies considered here being chosen mainly for their coverage of that particular period; publications that approach his work from an academic perspective, with emphasis on the director’s status as auteur; and literature specific to the subject of silent film that incorporates material on Ford’s silent films.
John Ford, written by Peter Bogdanovich, was first published in 1967 and revised in 1978. The film critic-turned-director interviewed Ford on location in 1963 for his final Western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964). The book is an edited version of the interview with Ford framed within a short biographical section on the director and a comprehensive filmography. It is also a companion piece to the documentary Directed by John Ford (Peter Bogdanovich, 2006).
Peter Bogdanovich (left) with John Ford
The book successfully captures the characteristic contradictions in Ford’s approach to his work; a man secures in his status alongside the pantheon of directors such as Welles, Hawks, and Kurosawa, yet elusive when pushed on the question of artistry in his work. ‘To me […] it was always a job of work – which I enjoyed immensely – and that’s it’ (in Bogdanovich, 1978, p.108).
During the interview, Bogdanovich elicits a response from the director that gives some clue as to the working practices of Ford as a young filmmaker and thus points towards an early auteurist approach to his craft. Ford answers the question, ‘How did you make films in those days’ by stating that ‘with (Harry) Carey, he and I usually wrote our own scripts. We finally got a writer who’d take it down in shorthand and tap it out for the crew’ (in Bogdanovich, 1978, p.40).
Ford’s silent directing career takes up only twelve of a seventy-two-page interview, beside the fact that the director made nearly just as many films in the period from 1917 to 1930 as he did from 1930 until the end of his career, although the lack of coverage on the silent films is more than compensated for by an extremely detailed filmography.
Searching for John Ford, by Joseph McBride, was published in 2003; one of a number of biographies on Ford produced in recent years. The author worked on the book intermittently over a period of approximately twenty-five years, managing to interview his subject during the course of his research. McBride’s biography is extremely useful in its detailed recounting of John Ford’s pre-directing career. It is obvious that Ford’s apprenticeship in varying roles such as property master, stunt man, assistant director, and actor, to name just a few, stood the director in good stead when it came to directing his own films. The studio and technical factors that contributed towards Ford’s aptitude both in front of and behind the camera informs the approach taken in Chapter Four through to Chapter Seven, in which the influences of both the institutional and technological upon Ford’s evolving style are interrogated in detail.
Sent by Steve Mayhew to Charley Brady over the years - and often referred to!
This biography eclipses the Bogdanovich book when covering Ford’s early days as a director, McBride emphasising the cinematic link between Ford and his older brother, Francis. As Joseph McBride himself maintained, however, he wished he had ‘spent more time on Ford’s earlier films in the biography’ (Interview with author, October 2007), an omission the thesis will also rectify in its close analytical readings of Ford’s silent work.
First published in 1986, Tag Gallagher’s book, John Ford: The Man and His Films, is a mixture of biography, critique, and textual analysis. The opening chapters are especially relevant, being dedicated to Ford’s silent era; and Gallagher, like Joseph McBride, makes the connection early on between the affinity of style and narrative content of the director’s first films and that of D.W. Griffith, a point developed further on in the later chapter on Ford’s pre-directing career. The writer also highlights the link between the laconic outsider persona of the star of Ford’s early Universal Westerns, Harry Carey, and that of later Fordian figures such as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) and Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (1946). The connection between Carey and the character types to be found in Ford’s sound work is discussed in more depth in Chapter Five dealing with the Universal years 1917 to 1921, which suggests that Carey was more than just a passing influence on Ford; he was a major collaborator who helped set the foundation for the archetypal Fordian protagonist.
Steve Mayhew (right) visiting the late Harry Carey Jr. at the latter's home in Santa Barbara, California.
Like a number of earlier books on Ford, the writings of Gallagher and his peers suffer from a dearth of available silent Ford film material. In Gallagher’s case, he is able to view only one Universal title, as opposed to the now extant footage from eight films made by Ford for that studio. Gallagher fares better with the Fox films, critiquing nine films out of the fifteen surviving extant Fox titles in his biography. Another key point to remember is that, presumably, Gallagher and other Ford scholars were limited in their scope when attempting to analyse the films in detail, mainly due to the unavailability of a number of the extant titles on video, which in turn resulted in the need to watch the films over and again from a print projected onto a screen. The current accessibility of Ford’s silent materials on both video and DVD, however, provides the technology to closely interrogate the mise-en-scène of Ford’s early work numerous times in a more convenient fashion.
First published in 1981, About John Ford, by Lindsay Anderson, is an amalgam of critique and personal memoir by the critic-turned-director. Anderson recounts a number of face-to-face interviews and aspects of his correspondence with Ford from 1947 to 1973, along with a detailed analysis of the director’s body of work. His book is a much more personal overview of the director and his films, the author bringing to bear his own directorial experience when it comes to the appreciation and criticism of Ford’s work. Anderson ‘enjoyed a kind of friendship with him’ (Anderson, 1981, p.10), and their relationship, via correspondence and the occasional interview, continued up until Ford’s death in 1973.
Anderson’s book also underlines the need to take Ford’s silent work just as seriously as his later and more well-known films. As he points out ‘the [silent] films he produced so spontaneously are far from worthless’ (Anderson, 1981, p.51). Anderson goes on to say that Ford’s ‘formation in silent cinema gave him expertise and a narrative mastery that became second nature to him’ (Anderson, 1981, p.53). The author is therefore one of the first scholars on Ford to articulate the role that his early silent work played in contributing towards the director’s eventual Fordian style. As with Tag Gallagher, hardly any examples of Ford’s silent titles were available when Anderson first started to write the book from the notes, articles, and interviews he had compiled over the years. This leads to a number of revisions to the original text written prior to 1981 when newly discovered silent Ford films compel Anderson to rewrite and add new sections in the opening chapters.
John Ford: The Complete Films, written by Scott Eyman and Paul Duncan, was published in 2004, five years after Eyman’s biography on Ford, Print the Legend. Covering in detail all of Ford’s films from the silent period to his last film, Seven Women (1966), the book is lavishly illustrated with stills and posters, including a number of images from the earlier films that were never previously published. It appears to be the first publication to give as much credence and attention to Ford’s silent period as it does to the later sound films. Over 50 pages are dedicated to Ford’s pre-directing career and his prolific output of films between the years 1917 to 1929, although this particular aspect of the book does not offer a close analysis of the sensibility of the director’s early work.
One of the main strengths of the book, and its relevance to the research process, is in the sheer volume of images from Ford’s silent work, the illustrations in the book also encompass promotional materials such as posters and newspaper advertisements. The pictures are crystal clear and knowledgeably captioned. The presence of lobby cards from films such as The Wallop (1921) and Action (1921) is testimony to the skills of both Eyman and Duncan in bringing to light images from films still presumed to be lost.
Examples of some of the thematic motifs identified in Eyman and Duncan’s book include religion, the notion of the outsider as both a thinker and a man of action, and integration into society. The section on visual motifs includes doors and fences, graves, and the numerous rituals of society that Ford constantly refers to in his work, such as eating, fighting, drinking, and dancing.
Eyman and Duncan’s book also indicates how research on the silent films of John Ford will never be definitive. The captions for both The Scarlet Drop (1918) and Upstream (1927) indicate that these are lost films. Since the publication of the book, copies of both titles have been unearthed in the Getty Images collection and the New Zealand Film Archive respectively.
Published in 1973, J.A. Place’s The Western Films of John Ford is one of the first books to seriously attempt a critical analysis and understanding of Ford’s oeuvre. At the time of publication, only three of Ford’s silent Westerns were available for viewing, Straight Shooting (1917), The Iron Horse (1924), and 3 Bad Men (1926). In considering the first title, Place coincidentally references one of the main arguments of this thesis, stating that ‘many elements appear in this first little feature in essentially final, well-developed form – elements that will remain important visual motifs and themes of later, more sophisticated work’ (Place, 1973, p.14). The author emphasises this claim (subsequently developed in the work of Eyman and Duncan) by examining, among others, Ford’s use of doors as framing devices and the characteristic composition of formal three-shots, visual motifs that the director incorporates time and again in his later work.
Referencing the main protagonists in 3 Bad Men (1926), Place recognises that ‘Ford seems fascinated with renegades, outsiders – men who do not conform to the demands of their society’ (Place, 1973, p.25). She further makes the important link between the nature of the early Fordian figure, as personified by Cheyenne Harry in Straight Shooting (1917), with later characters such as Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), defining both as ‘heroes [who] function outside of society’ (Place, 1973, p.25), an idea considered in more detail in the later chapters of the thesis.
Place also wrote The Non-Western Films of John Ford, a companion piece to the earlier book, published five years later in 1979. Her second book on the director is particularly helpful when defining some of the genres and forms Ford worked in outside of the Western. For example, her grouping of certain films such as the Will Rogers trilogy Dr Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat Round the Bend (1935), and The Informer (1935) under the category of Americana and Irish films respectively, serves as a template for the grouping of some of the silent films considered in this book, even though Place, as opposed to her first volume on Ford, does not touch upon his pre-1930s directing career at all.
Obviously of relevance to the research process undertaken for this work, Visual Style in the Early Films of John Ford: From “Straight Shooting” to the End of the Fox Contract (1934), a PhD thesis by Peter Harry Rist, written in 1988, is restricted by the number of extant silent Ford films available for viewing at the time, his thesis is confined to only eight titles, Straight Shooting (1917), Just Pals (1920), Cameo Kirby (1923), The Iron Horse (1924), 3 Bad Men (1926), Hangman’s House (1928), Four Sons (1928), and Riley the Cop (1928).
Rist adopts a rigorous methodology of analysis that includes statistical data on shot length, camera movement, and editing, ‘in order to locate consistencies and discrepancies in a Fordian visual style’ (Rist, 1988, p.8). He contends that his thesis is written in opposition to what he calls the ‘overstatement of Fordian authorship’ (Rist, 1988, p.9), by film scholars such as Tag Gallagher, although he does accept that Ford is an auteur (Rist, 1988, p.7). This book takes a different approach, arguing throughout that Ford develops an individual authorial style that is shaped by a range of factors, both internal – biographical and personal – and external, such as developments in technology and the conventions of the studio system.
Published in 1977, the obvious relevance of Big U: Universal in the Silent Days, by I.G. Edmonds is that it encompasses the years in which John Ford was employed by Universal. Edmonds dates the beginning of Ford’s pre-directing career as 1913, claiming that stills exist showing him as an actor in The Battle of Bull Run (Francis Ford, 1913). This goes against the commonly held belief, by Joseph McBride and other biographers, that Ford did not arrive in Hollywood to start working with his brother, Francis, until 1914.
Of equal relevance is the wealth of information relating to the career of Francis Ford, an acknowledged influence on his younger brother, with the book tracing the beginning of the elder brother’s career at Universal from 1912 through to the end of the silent era. There are numerous stills illustrating many of the titles directed by Francis Ford, some of which also feature John Ford as a co-star, such as Three Bad Men and a Girl (Francis Ford, 1915) and Peg ‘O the Ring (Francis Ford, 1916). Although the book is also very informative on the partnership between John Ford and Harry Carey, it does not cover the director’s films in enough depth to serve as a reference point for Ford’s early work, either from a critical or historical viewpoint.
This thesis emphasises the presence of music in practically all of Ford’s film titles, and how the director uses this device to define issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and character in his work. How the West Was Sung, by Kathryn Kalinak, published in 2007, is therefore of extreme relevance to the research process, the author devoting a complete chapter, entitled ‘Hearing the music in John Ford’s Silents’, to the subject of the use of songs in Ford’s early work. Commenting on the contradiction of ‘hearing’ music in silent film, the author argues that ‘Ford’s musical aesthetic was forged in the silent era and tempered in the early years of sound’ (Kalinak, 2007, p.23).
Kalinak suggests that the ethnicity of the Fordian protagonist is underlined through the use of music and song. For example, in The Iron Horse (1924), the Irish and Italian workers have their own special set of lyrics to the railway-builder’s song, ‘Drill Ye Terriers, Drill’, implying a union of ethnic outsiders. The Asian workers, however, are referred to as both ‘Chinneymen’ and ‘Haythens’ in their version of the song, suggesting marginalisation by the community. The other issue that Kalinak mentions, relative to the subject of the outsider in Ford’s films, is the way in which music denotes masculinity. As Kalinak maintains, ‘Ford gave his cowboys songs to sing, and such musical performances become part of their manliness’ (Kalinak, 2007, p.47).
The gap in Kalinak’s otherwise comprehensive study of the part music plays in Ford’s early films is in the lack of reference to the highly important transitional period to sound that literally gave voice to this most Fordian of motifs.
Theories of Authorship, edited by John Caughie, is of extreme significance, especially as it collects into one volume a number of seminal essays specific to Ford’s status as auteur, a subject covered in more detail in the following chapter on the auteur theory and the ‘Fordian sensibility’. Caughie pulls together writings by Robin Wood, Edward Buscombe, Peter Wollen, Louis Marcorelles, Michel Foucault, and others that reinforce the perception of Ford as an auteur. In fact, Ford is referenced more often in Caughie’s collection of essays than any other filmmaker, highlighting the importance and relevance of the director when considering the nature of authorship in film. Of particular relevance to the research question on authorship is Edward Buscombe’s essay ‘Ideas of Authorship’, in which he provides a useful chronological history of the evolution of the auteur theory.
Recognition should also be given to other works that at some point deal in passing with specific aspects of Ford’s career and the influences that shaped his work. For example, Edward Buscombe’s The BFI Companion to the Western, published in 1991, serves as a very useful and comprehensive reference for all aspects of the Western film, thus justifying its relevance when researching the form that John Ford is associated with the most. Peter Cowie’s book, John Ford and the American West illustrates the link between the paintings of Frederic Remington and the mise-en-scène of films such as Fort Apache (1948) and My Darling Clementine (1946). This in turn leads to an investigation of the similarities between Remington’s work and Ford’s silent films, along with the very early influences on the director of Charles M. Russell and Charles Schreyvogel as well. There is clearly a large body of work available on all aspects of Ford’s career, but a number of these books are thwarted in their attempts to closely interrogate the director’s silent work. This is due to the lack of available titles and, to a certain extent, the limitations of the prevailing technology of the time when it came to examining films in close detail. The reach and ambition of this thesis, however, are nonrestricted in such a manner. There are now a much larger number of extant silent Ford films available, and the media upon which the films are displayed provides the opportunity to engage with the text of these materials in a more rigorous and disciplined manner than has previously been afforded other by scholars of Ford.