By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Indeed, no one was more — and less — into the trappings of directorial authority than Ford. He was piped onto the set every morning with some poignant musical accompaniment, while the cast and crew stood respectfully by — as if he were some battleship returning to port after months at sea. At the same time, this Sun King of the set, at least in his later years, would be decked out as if he’d just spent the night on Skid Row, shuffling onto the set in untied shoes, sagging pants, a baseball cap, and sucking on an old handkerchief.
This weird tableau was all of a piece. These ceremonies that he mandated mattered deeply to him. His mockery of his own ceremonies mattered deeply to him, too. The authority that he wielded, the authority that these ceremonies and his mockery of these ceremonies both reflected, mattered to him most of all. Hollywood might be full of devils who took pleasing forms; in John Ford, Hollywood had itself a god who took any damn form he pleased.
When this godlike status crashed against the more Ă¢ mundane demands of everyday life, however, Ford crashed with it. The term “manic-depressive” does not even begin to do justice to the cycle of Ford’s adult life. He’d work with his writers on the script for months, and on all aspects of preparation; he’d shoot the picture quickly, never covering a scene with more than one camera, holding the whole completed picture in his head every day, striving and usually succeeding in not giving the studio one single scene that they could re-cut in any way but the way he envisioned; he’d make not just a movie but an alternative world on the screen, and on the set. And then he’d try to extend it off the set, where the world proved much less orderly, where his creative powers and the trappings of genius didn’t matter all that much, where his family life was in continual disarray, where he needed to unwind. And where, between pictures for a full half a century, he’d drink himself into oblivion, staying in bed for weeks on end, sobbing, drinking, dehydrating, until his family or his friends sent him to a hospital to recover. And then it was time to make the next movie.
This bizarre, contrarian and absurdly productive life is the subject of Joseph McBride’s new biography, Searching for John Ford. Ford has been the subject of several biographies and numerous critical studies; he’s even the main character in other people’s autobiographies (notably, director Robert Parrish’s wonderful memoir Growing Up in Hollywood). But McBride’s immense, 800-plus-page volume is the definitive one, an authoritative, judicious, insightful (if not especially eloquent) account of this impossibly complex subject. It’s a long book. But then its subject made 150 films, 20 of them masterpieces; helped organize the Directors Guild of America; photographed both the Battle of Midway and the Normandy invasion; fought the House Un-American Activities Committee and funded some of Hollywood’s most reactionary redbaiting organizations; movingly depicted family life onscreen and all but destroyed his own family offscreen. Ford is not a man easily explained, if indeed he can be explained at all.
Explaining Ford is a “job of work,” to use Ford’s phrase, that McBride has been at for over 30 years now — since he co-authored a critical study of Ford back in his college days. In the early ’70s, I met McBride at local screenings of Ford films; we were two of the 40 or so Fordians who could be counted upon to show up for any Ford picture. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve occasionally encountered McBride in the years since.) In the intervening decades, McBride has reviewed films for a range of publications, authored excellent biographies of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg and a number of critical studies, written some of the American Film Institute’s annual salutes to filmmakers — and researched the bejesus out of John Ford.
Like all of Ford’s previous biographers, McBride has had to sift carefully through Ford’s own accounts of his life, which run the narrow gamut from blarney to bullshit. More than Ford’s previous biographers, however, McBride has found the studio memos, the bit players, the Directors Guild minutes, the military comrades, to set the record straight (or, at minimum, straighter). He’s particularly judicious in making sense of Ford’s dizzying left-right-left political oscillations, and in sorting out the facts of Ford’s two great midlife adventures: his service heading up the photographic arm of the OSS during World War II, and his ecstatic mid-1930s affair with Katharine Hepburn, for whom he almost decided to break up his not-very-happy marriage.
Ford’s reluctance, finally, to commit to Hepburn is certainly of a piece with his preponderantly uncoupled screen heroes; I can’t think of another Hollywood filmmaker who turned so frequently to the motif of boy-loses-girl. Whether for reasons of national duty, simple bad luck, overall orneriness or just general indifference, Ford’s heroes usually end up by themselves. (As McBride points out, in The Wings of Eagles, a biopic Ford made of a close friend who was both a Navy man and a screenwriter, the protagonist loses his family largely because he prefers the company of the very lowlife stooges whose company Ford himself preferred.)