Blu-Ray Review – John Ford at Columbia, 1935-1958

This is the latest box set from the esteemed Indicator label, all John Ford movies. It starts out in 1935, with the other films from the mid-to-late 50s. It shows a different side to Ford, as none of these films are Westerns, the genre he is most associated with. He did a lot of films that weren’t Westerns, however, and you could make the case that the rest are mostly Navy porn or Irish porn—although two of these don’t fall into either of those categories at all. It’s a very strong set of movies: the only one that I think doesn’t quite match up is Gideon’s Day, but more about that later.

First up is The Whole Town’s Talking, which is also the only one from the 1930s. At this point in his career, Ford was mainly making comedies and dramas, and had not made a Western since the 1920s. This one is a screwball comedy with Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur. It’s basically a send-up of Robinson’s usual films: Robinson had made his career as the star of gangster movies like Little Caesar and The Smart Money. The Whole Town’s Talking is based on a novel by R.W. Burnett (also the author of the book that Little Caesar was made from), which was reworked into a screenplay by Robert Riskin and Jo Swerling. Riskin is most closely associated with Frank Capra, especially his 1930s screwball comedies; Swerling did some uncredited work on It’s a Wonderful Life, amongst other films.

It’s a simple set-up. Arthur Ferguson Jones (Robinson) and Wilhelmina Clark (Arthur) work at the same advertising firm. There’s a murderer known as “Killer” Mannion (also Robinson) who is terrorising the city. Robinson is a quiet loser type at work—and he looks exactly like Mannion. As you’d expect, he’s mistaken for the killer and arrested, Mannion tracks him down, etc. It’s a very fine movie, with two fantastic performances from the leads. When both of Robinson’s characters appear in the same scene, the special effects work quite well. It’s a nice change of pace from what Ford is best known for (but he made over 140 films, and probably many more between 1917 and 1967—he made three in 1935 alone!)

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The Long Gray Line is one of Ford’s Irish immigrant movies, of which he made several (along with many set in Ireland). This one is based on a true story about Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), a buffoonish Irishman from County Tipperary who ends up going to West Point, the elite military academy of the U.S. He begins as a waiter and works his way up. The films starts very strangely, as this whimsical, broad Irish comedy, and gradually becomes much more serious, with a surprisingly moving ending. I would not be surprised if it was a big influence on Scorsese’s The Irishman, as there are many similarities. It’s a good movie—maybe not as good as some people say, but solid, and about as good as The Quiet Man. It’s the longest film in this set by some distance. Power’s Irish accent is a bit Lucky Charms, but his performance is fine.

Third in the set is The Last Hurrah, a film about old Irish-American politics in New England, where Ford was from. It’s based on a novel by Edward O’Connor, and stars Spencer Tracy as Mayor Frank Skeffington, a part that had been offered to Orson Welles (there was no American filmmaker who Welles revered more than Ford, but Welles was away at the time and his lawyer turned it down on his behalf…) Skeffington is a bombastic populist who has stayed in office for decades. This election is his last hurrah—but this is the age of television, and it may not work out as well as he thinks. In some ways this is Ford’s A Face in the Crowd. Skeffington’s party affiliation is deliberately kept vague.

It’s one of Tracy’s great performances—he should have been nominated for a Oscar for it that year, but he was nominated for The Old Man and the Sea. The cast is full of Ford’s go-to stock company of actors, like Donald Crisp and John Carradine. It’s an astute film about a particular time in politics, and is of course incredibly well-shot—it’s hard to find a technical flaw in a Ford film, and the storytelling is always fantastic.

Gideon’s Day is an odd police procedural, something Ford allegedly loved to read but only made a couple of. Of course, some of his Westerns fall into that territory, like My Darling Clementine, which is a sort of noir-Western, as is The Searchers. It’s also notable as the only film Ford ever shot in the UK.

The storyline follows a day in the life of PCI George Gideon ( Jack Hawkins). At that point Hawkins was one of the best-known actors in the UK, having just done The Bridge on the River Kwai, the biggest film of the year. It’s a whimsical film, showing all the hectic things that happen as Gideon tries to get home to his family for dinner. It was known in the US as Gideon’s Day of Scotland Yard, where it was cut and released in black and white as the bottom half of a double bill.

Gideon’s Day is a rather goofy, silly movie, and there’s not much to it. Ford did shoot almost every part of London that he could, which is pretty impressive for a 90-minute film. It was shot after Ford finished The Rising of the Moon in Ireland, presumably as a quick time-filler in nearby England. It was based on the first in a series of Gideon novels by John Creasey, which was also made into the Gideon’s Way series for ITV in the mid-60s. Creasey was one of the most prolific writers in history, with over 600 novels to his name and many pseudonyms before his death in 1971.

The set includes an introduction to each film from Leonard Maltin, recorded in 2014 for Turner Classic Movies festival. There are new appreciations, interviews, commentary tracks, video essays, trailers, image galleries and so on for all. I’d like to highlight one very fun thing amongst all the extras: silent footage of John Ford visiting the NFT, where he is seen chain-smoking (along with everybody in sight) behind the scenes of the interview with Lindsay Anderson (besides being the director of If…. and O Lucky Man!, Anderson was one of the foremost experts on Ford and wrote one of the first big film books on the director—and surprisingly, he was one Ford fan who didn’t like The Searchers.) The set is rounded off with booklets for each film featuring essays and various archival material.

★★★★½

Ian Schultz

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