- The Washington Times - Friday, December 28, 2007

“Ford at Fox” is the most commendable retrospective blockbuster of the holiday DVD season.

Not that I was prepared to go the limit and purchase the entire package, which retails at about $300 and consists of 24 of the 50 movies John Ford directed under contract to William Fox’s company and then its still-flourishing successor, 20th Century-Fox Film Corp., between 1920 and 1952.

Several famous titles have been bundled into a minicollection (priced at $50) called “The Essential John Ford.” Because I own separate copies of its principal attractions — “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Drums Along the Mohawk” — I felt no urgency about adding duplicates. I also was puzzled by the failure to incorporate a fourth John Ford-Henry Fonda collaboration, “Young Mr. Lincoln,” in this grouping. It’s part of the big set but obviously belongs among the “essentials” as well. A movie directed by someone else, Allan Dwan’s “Frontier Marshal,” has been inserted, evidently because it shares the subject matter of “My Darling Clementine.”

The selection process seems to tolerate whimsies and head-scratchers.

A minicollection called “The American Comedies” might tempt me to reassess its offerings at a later date — the three Will Rogers movies John Ford directed during the 1930s, along with a pair that featured Dan Dailey in the early 1950s.

For the time being, I was content to make the belated acquaintance of five titles in yet another minicollection, “The Silent Epics.” At least two are far from “epic,” but it was gratifying to become a little more familiar with aspects of Mr. Ford’s career during the 1920s. Indeed, I took such a liking to two movies, “The Iron Horse” of 1924 and “3 Bad Men” of 1926, that I would be susceptible to a follow-up anthology that consisted of Mr. Ford’s remaining output of the decade — or as much of it as the studio and collectors have preserved.

The “Ford at Fox” set includes a preponderance of titles made in the 1930s, when John Ford (1895-1973) was still an active, top-flight contract director at Fox but also worked with some frequency at other studios — Goldwyn for “Arrowsmith” and “The Hurricane” for example, or RKO for “The Informer” and United Artists for “Stagecoach.” In the 1920s, he worked almost exclusively for William Fox, attracted by a series of Westerns at Universal that started in 1917 and matched the young Mr. Ford with leading man Harry Carey.

The director was 25 when he made the shift from Universal to Fox. Over the next prolific decade, he completed 29 features, two dozen of them silents. The titles chosen for “Silent Epics” suggest that it was during the 1920s that Mr. Ford, still quite young, became a versatile and accomplished popular filmmaker. They also suggest that this phase of his career remains much too obscure and probably undervalued.

Another useful enhancement to a future collection of vintage John Ford might be samples of the movies directed by his older brother Francis, who emerged as a popular producer-director-star in the years before America’s entry into World War I. He and his consort, Grace Cunnard, co-starred in a series of successful adventure serials. Soon after graduating from high school, John Ford, the youngest of 13 children in an Irish immigrant family named O’Feeney that had settled in Portland, Maine, began serving a Hollywood apprenticeship as an assistant and stuntman for Francis Ford.

Francis Ford’s once multifaceted career had faded by the close of the silent period. He often was cast as grizzled bit players by his kid brother, who might have been known as Sean O’Feeney if Francis hadn’t altered his surname. Several legends account for this partial alias, but the most straightforward explanation recalls Francis retaining a new name after replacing an incapacitated stage actor who happened to be named Ford.

Until 1923, the youngest O’Feeney (or sometimes Feeney) was known professionally as Jack Ford. It seems an oversight to have omitted the 1923 movie that changed the credit from Jack to John — “Cameo Kirby,” which starred John Gilbert as a riverboat gambler and featured Jean Arthur in her film debut.

“The Iron Horse” and “3 Bad Men” happen to be Westerns — and Westerns that evoke epic events, respectively the building of the transcontinental railroad and the gold rush in the Dakotas — so they provide earlier impressions of the genre that became indelibly associated with the “classic” John Ford of “Stagecoach” and the decades after World War II. It’s revealing to see what a distinctive and satisfying affinity for landscape, historical legend, social interaction and character nuance he brought to Westerns 25 years before “Stagecoach” and 30 years before “The Searchers.”

Moreover, he’s playful with the genre in ways that remain surprisingly fresh and amusing. This is particularly true of the romantic interplay between George O’Brien (who possessed one of the most winning smiles in movie history) and Olive Borden in “3 Bad Men.” Their rapport is reinforced when the outlaws of the title — Tom Santschi, J. Farrell McDonald and Frank Campeau — start taking a wistful, redemptive interest in Miss Borden’s welfare shortly after coming close to robbing and killing her.

The trio of non-Westerns in the “Silent Epics” set includes a tear-jerker with a World War I backdrop, “Four Sons.” It deals with a Bavarian family group and clearly reflects the influence of F.W. Murnau, a prestigious European recruit to Fox in the late 1920s. Part of the fog-shrouded set built for Murnau’s “Sunrise” was used in a battlefield sequence by John Ford, who was quick to recognize Murnau’s formidable talent for imagery, mood and pathos but didn’t lack resources of his own.

“Four Sons” is dated in certain respects, but it also demonstrates that Ford in his early 30s was admirably ambitious and adept. He’s good across the board — when intent on intimacy and human interest; when staging large-scale set pieces; when showcasing performers of divergent personalities, ages and potentialities. You get the feeling from this relatively small sample that you’re watching a young filmmaker prove himself and polish the skills needed for vivid, reliable movie storytelling.

The collection finds room for early evidence of John Ford’s collaboration with John Wayne. While an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, Mr. Wayne also worked as a prop man, set dresser and stunt extra for Ford movies at Fox. Behind the scenes in “Four Sons,” he got a conspicuous bit in “Hangman’s House,” cast as a race-track spectator who gets so excited he demolishes part of a restraining fence. Though a recurrent muddle, “Hangman’s House” will provide you with this gratuitous highlight.

The sheer volume of the Ford filmography suggests that there’s a lot more where the strong points of “The Iron Horse,” “3 Bad Men” and “Four Sons” come from. Let a companion anthology blossom. I’m game for “Ford in the 1920s: The Rest of the Story.”

TITLE: “Ford at Fox”

CONTENTS: Collection of 24 movies directed by John Ford at Fox Film Corp. and 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. from 1920 to 1952, plus biographical documentary feature “Becoming John Ford.” All the Ford titles were made before the advent of the film rating system

DVD EDITION: 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.foxhome.com

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