¬†Victor McLaglen, shrouded in the Dublin fog, guiltily contemplating the reward poster which looms over him; Henry Fonda, crouched in shadow, the gleam and intensity in his eyes penetrating the darkness; John Wayne standing alone in the desert, isolated by the blackness of the doorway that surrounds him. These are the images that flicker across our collective consciousness when the name of John Ford is mentioned – the poster images of the John Ford oeuvre. They testify to Ford’s talent for the lighting and composition of human subjects; for the depiction of figures whose fates are totally bound up in the plays of light and shadow that surround them, and the landscapes that dominate their world. They also give us a beauty that, if not exactly austere, certainly does not testify to Ford’s great talent for comedy.
It is a shame that so many of the films which have now become canonized as the ‘classic’ Ford pictures are so often unrepresentative of the playfulness and comic sensibilities that characterise so much of his work. His popular legacy as a director of westerns means that his comic films are often overlooked, and when they are not it is often assumed that his later comedies are more meaningful, bringing with them a more deeply ingrained sensibility. What follows is a revised and expanded version of an academic dissertation I completed a couple of years ago which attempts to demonstrate that not only are Ford‚Äôs comedies just as rich and rewarding as some of his more acclaimed works, but that the roots of the comic style he utilised in later films can be found in the very earliest years of his career.
I‚Äôm dividing the piece into three separate posts. In the first I‚Äėve looked at Ford’s earliest comedies, and discussed how far they were influenced by his Irish heritage. In the second I examine the star comedies that Ford made at Fox, and ask how he was able to modify their generic demands to suit his own style. In the third I will demonstrate what implications Ford’s working methods have for his status as an ‚Äėauteur‚Äô.
Because of the critical neglect that many of these films have suffered, I have tried to evoke them not only as part of my central argument, but also as fascinating pieces in their own right. As this was originally written as a dissertation there may still be passages which seem a little too eager to prove my engagement with relevant theory, but I hope these parts, particularly my conclusion – which questions the usefulness of certain methodologies when dealing with historical films – will still prove to be interesting and thought-provoking reads.
‚ÄúI feel I’m essentially a comedy director, but they won’t give me a comedy to do.‚ÄĚ
John Ford, 1960s
At the beginning of his career, John Ford spent six years making Western programmers for Universal under the name of ‘Jack’ Ford, before signing with Fox in 1923 and adopting the name by which we now know him.[i]
With this change of name came a more diverse range of films, and as well as Westerns he began to make rural melodramas, moody experiments in expressionism, and comedies. Although the three silent comedies he made in the twenties represent the minority of his work during this period, they still provide a useful model of his comic style, introducing devices that would continue to characterize his films throughout his career. In particular, they provide strong examples of Ford’s attitude toward his Irish ancestry, and to his own brand of stereotyping. Though his two Irish comedies provide more fertile ground for analysis, it is useful to first look at Lightnin’.
As the majority of Ford’s silent work is now lost, it is difficult to say when he directed his first comedy, or indeed when he began to incorporate humour into his work. Of the films that survive, the earliest that displays any real comic tendencies is Lightnin’ (1925), an adaptation of a hit play of the same name which had begun on Broadway in 1918, becoming a box office smash and breaking the record for the longest consecutive run of a single play of all time with 1,291 performances.[ii] Eager to capitalise on this success, Fox bought the rights from producer John Golden as part of a $1 million deal that was encouraged by MPPDA president Will Hays as a means of creating clean but commercial entertainment.[iii] It was then assigned to Ford, who was fresh from the success of one of 1924′s biggest pictures, The Iron Horse, and would therefore provide capable hands for an adaptation.
The play tells the story of the ironically named ‚ÄúLightnin’‚ÄĚ Bill Jones, who is thrown out by his wife when he refuses to agree to the sale of their hotel, built on the California/Nevada state line, to protect her from swindlers. The land scam plot is similar to the kinds of stock Western stories that Ford had worked on in his days at Universal, but this time he had the added burden of adapting the comedy from a dialogue-driven play into a form suitable for a silent film. Ford had always disliked excessive dialogue,[iv] and consequently many of the jokes seem to have been lost in the process. A 1918 review of the play in The New York Times described the titular character thus:
‚ÄúIs crime the subject under discussion? Lightnin’ has been a detective. Or if law comes up, Lightnin’ has been a judge. Should the conversation veer to bees, Lightnin’ is none the less at home. He drove a swarm of bees across the desert in the dead of winter, and without losing a bee.‚ÄĚ[v]
Only the last of those conversations ever makes it into a film, and when it does it feels more like a throwaway one-liner than an attempt to deepen our understanding of the character. Lightnin’s great talent for telling tall tales seems to have been largely excised, and Ford settles with depicting him as being simply a shiftless drunk. As with Riley the Cop, the fact that the film was made in prohibition era meant that the depiction of excessive drinking, a favourite comic motif of Ford’s, could almost be used a punchline in its own right, as it now became an act of gleeful subversion.
One of the most comic scenes in the film is one in which a sheriff attempts to arrest a lawyer who is jumping back and forth across the state line, and in and out of his jurisdiction. This lengthy scene is played in one long shot, looking directly into the room, and is clearly taken wholesale from the play, as it is one of the few times that a shot feels like it has been staged from the point of view of a theatre audience. Elsewhere there are a number of visual gags which were clearly invented for the film, such as a scene involving two drunks sitting on top of a trapdoor and bouncing confusedly as someone tries to come up from beneath, a close-up of a pompous poster of J. Farrell MacDonald which cuts back to show him in the exact same pose, admiring his own image, and several cutaway shots of a pampered dog in a sweater.
In all there is perhaps just enough visual invention to compensate for any jokes which got lost in translation, a view confirmed by The New York Times review of the film:
‚ÄúMr. Ford has done a difficult job mighty well. Too much praise cannot be given for the way he has chosen his material out of the play and invented other material in keeping, and for the taste he has displayed and shrewd observation of the entertaining foibles of everyday humanity…There is plenty of real humor and genuine pathos in “Lightnin’”. If you insist on more complicated emotions, try elsewhere.‚ÄĚ[vi]
In retrospect, this review seems remarkably astute. Throughout Ford’s career he would be consistently praised for his skill in finding small touches to illustrate character, for his keen observation of the ‘foibles of everyday humanity’, and for the way in which he used moments of humour and pathos to make up for a lack of complex characterization.
Though it may have been a portent of things to come, Lightnin’ has largely been ignored by critics and Ford biographers since, with Scott Eyman writing that ‚Äúthe humour seems ponderous and mostly in the subtitles.‚ÄĚ[vii] Even Tag Gallagher’s fairly comprehensive study of Ford’s films overlooks it, and he charts Ford’s comic style as beginning a year later, with The Shamrock Handicap.[viii]