Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bob Levinson on John Ford


John Ford from Bob Levinson

Ed here: Several years ago I went way overboard dissing John Ford. My good buddy Bob Levinson soundly and roundly took me to task. I've never been put down with such undeniable good sense. 

Re my comments about John Ford the other night Bob Levinson noted:

1. Ford won more Oscars than any other director. None for a western, although "Stagecoach" was nominated. The wins: "The Informer," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley," "The Quiet Man." He didn't write 'em, but he sure knew how to get 'em on the screen. (Thinking about it, "The Quiet Man" is sort of a western in civvies, with an Irish brogue...)

2. Ford wasn't a right winger (like Wayne). When C.B. DeMille was pushing the Directors Guild to oust president Joe Manciewicz and other lefties, it was Ford who stood up to DeMille and won.

3. Think it was "Sgt. Rutledge" that dared build a (military) western around a black lead, Woody Strode. That was 1960, and a first.

4. "Red River" is the best western Ford never made. Hawks, but you constantly hear movie buffs (so-called) mistake it for Ford.

(later from Bob)

Agree with how you peg Ford's vision of the west, but he was always a man who preferred myth to reality (including the one he continually manufactured for himself as a director). Think "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." "The Searchers" is a terrific film, one I've seen a number of times, but even here, were Ford playing full fair with the truth, Ethan Edwards er would have killed Debbie once he had her, knowing what the Indians would have turned her into, etc., etc. Ford always had one eye on the screen, the other on the box-office, and the eyepatch made it impossible to always detect which was which. ; )

Making an excuse for Hollywood "back when," since the cameras first rolled, the concern was always for box-office and that invariably meant serving the public's need for escapism and uplifting themes; truth be damned, if necessary. Exceptions abound, of course, but you don't find them a lot of them listed among the top grossers overall. People like DeMille, going all the way back to "The Squaw Man," and Ford caught on fast and used it to create and fortify their own myth of directorial greatness.

The Mann (Stewart) movies, excellent; ditto Boetticher's output. Fuller was possibly the one writer-director least distracted by entertainment protocols. "The Steel Helment." "Park Row."
"Pickup on South Street." "The Big Red One." On and on, but never the box-office returns of a Ford or DeMille. Peckinpah and "The Wild Bunch"...


When I was that kid collecting autographs, often stationed myself along with other "hounds" at Paramount's DeMille gate, the major drive-on point for stars, about thirty or so feet from the DeMille building. Whenever DeMille appeared, he was always pleasant, polite and gracious to us, always coming over when someone called out for an autograph.
(Our home is about a mile from his home atop DeMille Drive...)

When Ford was prepping the "What Price Glory" Fox remake, he staged the play at Grauman's Chinese as a one-night fund-raiser, hoping it would convince Tracy and Cagney to co-star. They were in the audience, watching an all-star cast perform, including stars in bit parts, e.g., Wayne with one line as a wounded soldier). I asked for his autograph after he parked and headed for the stage door; got a grunt as well as a signature. (Cagney wound up co-starring with Dan Dailey after Tracy refused to be second-billed to his old drinking buddy...)

Here's an add-on I may have written you once before (or maybe it was to Bill Crider). I bought my way into Grauman's and the show that night, a buck and a quarter for what turned out to be an aisle seat in the last row of the orchestra section. Cagney and Tracy were seated side by side in the front row. When I saw them, I made a beeline down, autograph book and pen in hand, and made the signing request. Both were notorious for not signing, more so Tracy than Cagney. Cagney wondered if I should be there doing this, but took the book and signed. Tracy refused, so I challenged him--as only a kid could do--wondering how he had said no when Mr. Cagney had said yes. He gave me a look, took the book, and signed...


mybillcrider said...

Great stories. I hadn't heard the one about Cagney and Tracy, but I'm glad to hear it now.

Mathew Paust said...

Fascinating! Did I say fascinating? Fascinating!

Many thanks, Ed, for posting this!