I still haven’t received my copy of the massive Ford at Fox collection so I’m unable to review the films that are included in the set, but I can tell you what’s in it and what’s not.
Ford’s career at Fox took off with 1924’s The Iron Horse, a blockbuster about the westward expansion caused by the building of the railroad. It was the 50th film he directed in seven years. While there have been other films on the subject since, this one, which has been restored and scored for the collection, was the first.
Ford steadily made films for Fox through 1941, though for a period from 1934 through 1941 he also made six films at RKO and one at Columbia. After his World War II service for the Navy Department he made They Were Expendable for MGM in 1945, My Darling Clementine for Fox in 1946 and subsequently made films for RKO, Republic, Warner Bros., Columbia, MGM, United Artists and Paramount, returning to Fox just once more.
Many of Ford’s fellow directors as well as film historians and just plain folk consider him the greatest director in the history of the movies. I personally consider The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, two films made at Fox and included in the set, to not only be his two greatest films, but the two greatest films of all time. Both deal with subjects specific to their time, but shine a light on situations that haven’t changed in the nearly 70 years since the films were made.
1940’s The Grapes of Wrath is specifically about the Great Depression, most specifically about the people of the dust bowl of Oklahoma who were uprooted and forced to find work elsewhere. Today’s migrant workers are more apt to be emigrants, both legal and illegal from Mexico and South America but the problems they face remain largely the same.
1941’s How Green Was My Valley is specifically about the people of a Welsh coal mining town at the turn of the 20th Century, but it could be set in any coal mining town in Appalachia. Safety issues and poverty in those towns are not much different than they were in the Wales of over a hundred years ago.
Aside from the great social messages conveyed by these two films, they are essentially about family, both specific family units and the larger family of man to which we all belong. Everything about them, the writing, acting, cinematography, musical scoring and more, is first rate. How Green Was My Valley gets a bum rap in certain quarters because it was the film that beat Citizne Kane for the Oscar. Both are great films, but while Kane may have been the more innovative, Valley is the more emotionally involving.
Kane also gets extra points from the print journalists who keep voting it the greatest film of all time because of lore surrounding the making of the film. It was a thinly disguised biography of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who tried to suppress the film, refused to carry ads for it in any of his newspapers or allow critics for those newspapers to review it. Hearst’s main objection was the vilification of his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Orson Welles admitted many years later that the one thing he regretted about the film was the way he treated the Davies character. At the time of the making of the film, though, Welles was a great Ford supporter. When asked to name the three greatest directors he said “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”
I have yet to see Ford’s silent films or early talkies so I cannot comment on them. The earliest Ford film I’ve seen is 1931’s Arrowsmith which has been available for several years. The earliest one I’ve seen in this collection is 1933’s Pilgrimage. This underrated gem features a magnificent performance by Henrietta Crosman (The Royal Family of Broadway, Charlie Chan’s Secret) in a story of atonement as affecting as the current film of that name.
Three of Ford’s 1934-1936 films, The Lost Patrol, The Informer (for which he won his first Oscar) and Mary of Scotland were made for RKO and are included in the Films of John Ford collection released last year by Warner Bros. The Whole Town’s Talking, made for Columbia was previously available on VHS, and The Plough and the Stars, made for RKO, has never been released on home video.
Ford’s films for Fox, during this period, include Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend, both with Will Rogers; The Prisoner of Shark Island about the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after the assignation of President Lincoln; and Wee Willie Winkie with Shirley Temple. All are included in the collection. Judge Priest and The Prisoner of Shark Island have been available on DVD in region 2, but not region 1. Both have been re-mastered with improved picture and sound for this collection. The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of Ford’s best films, with great performances by Warner Baxter in the title role and John Carradine as a hateful prison guard who becomes one of Dr. Mudd’s biggest champions.
Steamboat Round the Bend was recently released as part of Fox’s Will Rogers Collection, Volume 1, so it’s safe to assume it’s the same disc. Wee Willie Winkie has previously only been available on VHS. It wasn’t even made available on DVD in region 2 where all of Shirley Temple’s other Fox films have been released.
Also from this period, and included in the collection, are three films I either haven’t seen or saw so long ago I don’t remember them. They are The World Moves On, a sort of American version of Cavalcade that takes Madeline Carroll and Franchot Tone from the Civil War through the Great Depression; Four Men and a Prayer
r, a Four Feathers-type tale of lost honor with Loretta Young, Richard Greene, George Sanders and David Niven; and Submarine Patrol, a World War I drama with Richard Greene, Nancy Kelly and Preston Foster.
Ford’s great period began with 1939’s Stagecoach, an RKO film that was part of last year’s Warner Bros. collection, for which he won his second directing Oscar nomination. Also released as part of that set was 1940’s The Long Voyage Home. Included in the Fox collection are 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln, as well the previously-mentioned The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley and the previously-unavailable Tobacco Road from 1941.
Fox has restored the previously released Drums Along the Mohawk to greater brilliance. This film, with Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda and Edna May Oliver in her only Oscar-nominated performance, usually gets passed over on lists of Ford’s greatest films, but it is one of his most assured, effortless mixing of comedy and drama. The scene in which a screaming Oliver is carried against her will from her burning home is horrific and terribly moving, but also quite funny in the way Oliver plays it.
The discs of Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath are the restored versions. In fact, the disc of Young Mr. Lincoln carries the Criterion logo as it is actually the first disc in Criterion’s Special Edition of the film released just last year
Young Mr. Lincoln is a leisurely-paced tale of the early life of the president-to-be, culminating in a sensational murder trial in which young Abe, played by Henry Fonda in his first collaboration with Ford, must trap the real killer in order to save his clients, two brothers each of whom thinks the other committed the murder. Fonda makes a terrific young Abe, folksy, yet urbane; of the people, yet apart; someone for whom you sense great things lie ahead – both for the real life character and the actor who plays him.
Fonda would win his first Oscar nomination for his Tom Joad, the everyman protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath the following year. The film would also win Jane Darwell an Oscar for her great portrayal of the indomitable Ma Joad. John Carradine, who should have been nominated for The Prisoner of Shark Island, was once again cheated out of a nomination for his portrayal of preacher Casy. Ford himself won his second best director Oscar for it, though the film itself lost to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
I have been unable to determine if How Green Was My Valley has been given yet another restoration. It had been given a cleaned up second release.
While we’re on the subject of great performances, Valley has a slew of them. It includes Donald Crisp, who won an Oscar as the patriarch of the Welsh coal mining family; Sara Allgood, who should have won one as the matriarch; Roddy McDowall, who should have gotten one of those special children’s Oscars as the youngest child of the family whose grown character is the film’s narrator; Walter Pidgeon as the town minister, Maureen O’Hara as the family’s only girl; and Anna Lee, who also does the film’s commentary, as the eldest son’s wife. Ford won his third best director Oscar.
Tobacco Road is the only Ford film of this period I’ve never seen in its entirety. A raucous comedy in the mold of God’s Little Acre, it stars Charley Grapewin, Marjorie Rambeau, Gene Tierney, Elizabeth Patterson and Dana Andrews.
Ford joined the Navy shortly after the outbreak of World War II, for which he made several documentaries and shorts. Two of these won Oscars generally credited to Ford. Technically they were given to the films, not the director. Both the documentary, The Battle of Midway, and the short, December 7th, are available on DVD. The version of the latter that won the Oscar was 20 minutes long, but it has been restored to a feature length 82 minutes for its DVD release.
Ford’s first post-war film, They Were Expendable, which was made for MGM, has long been available on DVD.
Ford’s last film during his principal relationship with Fox was 1946’s My Darling Clementine, included in this collection. Previously available on DVD, this is a newly restored print of the western about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, played by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature.
This marked a return to the western for Ford, who would win even more acclaim for the westerns he made outside of Fox during the next few years such as 3 Godfathers and the cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. These are all available on DVD. Still missing are The Fugitive and Wagon Master.
Ford’s inauspicious return to Fox in 1952 was for the disappointing remake of What Price Glory with James Cagney, Dan Dailey and Corinne Calvet. It is included in the collection. This film was previously available. I’m unable to determine if the included disc is a restoration or not.
Fortunately for Ford, he made another film in 1952 for Republic called The Quiet Man, which won him his fourth Oscar as best director.
Though he subsequently won a National Board of Review award for directing The Last Hurrah and DGA (Directors Guild of America) nominations for The Long Gray Line, Mister Roberts, The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers, all of which are available on DVD, he was never again nominated for an Oscar. He was awarded the first life achievement award given by the American Film Institute in 1973.
The rip-off of 2007 has to be Paramount’s Titanic 10th Anniversary Edition which contains the first two discs of last year’s Three-Disc Special Collector’s Edition. Originally retailing at $30, Amazon is now selling the 3-disc set for $9 vs. $15 for the 2 disc set.
Another re-issue is Fox’s 30th Anniversary Edition of New York, New York but at least this one comes with an added disc of not-especially-illuminating documentaries on the making of the film including the reminiscences of Liza Minnelli. The best thing about it is the DVD cover art which reproduces Al Hirschfeld’s 1977 drawings of Minnelli and Robert De Niro.
Anyone still waiting for Liza to reprise mother Judy Garland’s famed Carnegie Hall concert can forget it. It’s been done, not by Liza, but by the grandson of Judy’s Hollywood neighbor, Loudon Wainwright II, long time editor of Life Magazine. Judy and Loudon’s children, Liza and Loudon III, were the same age and Loudon had a huge crush on Liza. He was devastated when she moved away at 13. Flash forward a few years and Loudon is a major folk rock star as is his wife, Kate McGarrigle of the duo, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Growing up singing to Kate’s copy of the legendary recording of 1961’s Judy at Carnegie Hall, their singer-songwriter son, Rufus Wainwright, has come full circle.
Rufus does full justice to the great songs and Judy’s memory on both the CD of Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall and the DVD of the extended London version of the concert, Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live from the London Palladium. Anyone expecting camp can forget it, this is a full on tribute performed with great affection. Not only does the CD and DVD include every song Judy sang in the original, the DVD also includes five encores of Judy’s songs not done in that particular concert.
Joining Rufus are sister Martha Wainwright, mother Kate McGarrigle and Judy’s other daughter, Lorna Luft. Martha does a haunting version of “Stormy Weather” that’s more Lena Horne than Judy Garland, but that’s perfectly fine. Kate accompanies Rufus on piano as he sings Judy’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow” and Lorna joins him on “After You’ve Gone”. All three are back for the Palladium encores which include “Get Happy”, “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Every Time We Say Goodbye”.
Changing gears completely, if you liked the sentimental gross-out comedies, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, chances are you’ll like the latest film from the same folks called Superbad. With the ages of the characters in Judd Apatow’s films going from middle-age to young adulthood to late teens, you have to wonder if his next film will be about the bathroom habits of nine- and ten-year-olds.
I’ll be back next week with reviews of new films on DVD and in two weeks with the third and final installment of my series on film musicals.
Peter J. Patrick (December 11, 2007)
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