The Star Creators of Hollywood — John Ford (1936) 🇺🇸

John Ford  and Katharine Hepburn |

January 17, 2022

The first of a series of brilliant articles about the men whose genius lifts pictures and personalities to fame — the directors. This month, John Ford

by Howard Sharpe

Editor’s Note: Late last winter, in search to bring you new and different material about Hollywood. Photoplay started that amazing series of articles called The Private Life of a Talking Picture, a study of the technical side of the motion picture industry.

That series brought such as immediate response from intelligent readers, and upon its completion created such a demand for more original material that, in response to your requests, Photoplay is here starting a series on the men who make pictures.

Hollywood calls these men directors. The term is guilty of understatement. Their task is one of creation, since no single portion or phase of any motion picture is independent of their touch; and the success or failure of any production is primarily due to them, secondarily to the actors.

In this series, written by the same brilliant author who wrote The Private Life of a Talking Picture, Photoplay’s objective is not so much to bring you a personal history of these men, but rather detailed analysis of the work they do; so that in the end you may, for yourself, understand the complicated processes of the directing and molding of a modern movie. Also, to see Hollywood not in the phoney light of stars’ “love lives” but rather in the full glory of its undeniable influence upon the thought of our times.

Out at RKO, just now, a company is making that symphony of courage and hate and love called “Plough and the Stars,” under the direction of one Sean O’Fienne — a tall and typical Irishman whose beautiful name was Anglicized by an unfeeling Saxon people to Jack Feeney and later changed by himself (he is a simple man) to John Ford. I chose him as the object of my first bombardment of questions because he made “The Informer,” which is the greatest motion picture ever filmed, and because in himself he represents all that is the best of Hollywood and its industry.

The set I walked into was an entire section of Dublin enclosed by a sound stage; from the asphalt studio street to the cobblestones of this Irish square was only a step or two, but the difference in mood was an ocean and eight thousand miles. Ford had a couple of scenes to finish before he could settle into a chair and bite through a pipe stem and analyze his technique, so I sat and watched— and learned almost as much about him as I did later from his own introspective conversation.

The sequence was one in which Preston Foster, and one of the imported Abbey Players, were to help a wounded companion (the picture is set during the 1916 “Uprising”) down a street and around a corner and into an alley; meanwhile machine guns and snipers were to create peril and terrific din. The miserable little shops, the tenements, the sullen dirty brick walls and the sightless, boarded windows were in deep shadow: from nowhere the oily Irish fog ribboned in. There was gloom in the air, and terror.

Ford, casual in old pants and old shoes and old shirt, said, “Come on now, me lads. Double quick!” and the three stumbling, frightened rebels began to dodge along the cobblestones and barricaded side-walks.

“All right. When you go past that window, Preston, be careful. It’s going to break and there might be glass flying around.”

“Okay,” Foster and the other two said together.

“Try it again,” Ford said, sitting back. To the cameraman, in a low voice, he murmured, “Now!”

The three shabby refugees began their action again in what was to them the second rehearsal. But the film was clicking silently past the lens.

Out of the careful set silence there sounded the sudden, fearful clatter of a machine gun. Foster and his companions, really surprised and for a moment really terrified, scurried around a corner and past the plate glass window Ford had warned them about.

Six shots burst through it, crashing in quick succession. Sharp slivers spattered through the fog. Echoes bounced.

The three soldiers looked back, aghast, and then ran for their lives.

“Wasn’t that a pip?” Ford said delightedly to the script girl.

“You’ll have to replace the window for the take,” Preston said, coming up. He wiped his forehead.

“That was the take,” Ford told him sweetly.

There’s very little news available about the private life of this Sean O’Fienne. He may have led a sort of Anthony Adverse existence, and probably has, since occasionally he mentions (in a non-committal tone) that he saw this war in China or that revolution in Mexico, and that such and such a thing happened to him in the South Seas. But he will tell you, if you ask long enough, merely that he was born of Irish parents in Portland, Maine, and that he went to school there, and that after graduation he came to Hollywood to join his famous brother, Francis Ford.

Having arrived with the firm intention of becoming a producer at once, he became a prop boy — and liked it. That was twenty-two years ago. Twenty-one years ago he became his brother’s assistant director. And twenty years ago he was given a camp chair of his own.

Universal kept him on for several years, during which he turned out the tidy sum of fifty pictures, and then he went to Fox. Nineteen-nineteen was the beginning of the industry’s adolescent period, and Ford was one of the greatest influences of maturity.

He made “The Three Godfathers,” which was pretty grown-up for that period, and helped introduce the art of light and shadow on the screen; he broke the collective hearts of American audiences with Four Sons, a four handkerchief picture, and then made the same hearts pound wildly with excitement at The Iron Horse.

He made “Three Bad Men,” and “The Black Watch,” and “Arrowsmith.” He made Men Without Women, which contrary to all expectations really didn’t have any women in it, and he made The Brat and “The Lost Patrol.”

When a grateful committee, finally, gave him the Academy Award for his superlative “The Informer,” he put the gold statue on some shelf or other and began Mary of Scotland.

“How?” I asked him. “How do you do these things? I want to know how you get your effects, what your technique is, all your methods, whether you work more with camera than with sound, what you do about easting, what you do with a bad script, how you direct a picture — everything.”

He didn’t even flinch. Sitting there, striking match after match, his hair rumpled by thoughtful fingers, he started, surprisingly, at the beginning.

The routine of his first efforts on any picture is of course dependent on the circumstances, the type of story, the particular stars who are scheduled to work in it.

“When they gave me ‘Mary of Scotland’ to do, my first thought was of Hepburn.” Ford said, with only a trace of brogue in his voice. “She was already set for the role, and it wasn’t as if she were just any talented pretty young actress who could be dressed in anything and photographed casually. In that case the primary problem was the star and we had to solve it before we could start on story or script.

“I asked the studio for a print of every picture Katharine had ever made — A Bill of DivorcementMorning GloryLittle WomenAlice Adams, all of them — and then I called in the wardrobe department and set men and the story adaptors; together we looked up portraits and old woodcuts of the period costumes Mary Queen of Scots wore, and photographs of the rooms in her castle. We sketched gowns and ruffs, we planned backgrounds and settings in rough outline.

“When we had some sort of working basis for departure, we lucked ourselves in a projection room and, one each night so long as they lasted, ran the Hepburn pictures. We studied every angle of her strange, sharp face — the chiseled nose, the mouth, the long neck — and then adjusted the sketches to lit her personality. We planned photographic effects, decided how best to light her features and what make up to use in order to achieve for her a genuine majesty.”

He paused to relight the inevitable Ford pipe. “After that was time enough to worry about the story.”

With “The Informer” the approach was entirely different. It was a picture, in the first place, which the studio was not enthusiastic about making — Ford had met the author in Ireland, liked his masterpiece, and had come back to Hollywood aflame with the desire to put it on celluloid. Producers read the book with indulgence, muttered that it was too realistic and too gloomy for popular appeal, and turned away. Ford persisted for four years, and during that time studied every detail of the story, planned every scene of the picture in his mind.

So that when RKO gave in finally (he offered to make his little film portrait for $300,000 in a corner of an unused sound stage) the director was ready. He invited Dudley Nichols, who did the adaptation, for a week’s cruise aboard his boat, and in seven days together they wrote the script.

A few extras, Victor McLaglen, and three weeks of shooting, were all the necessary requisites. Ford sent his picture to the cutting room with $40.000 left from the budget.

But his approach to “The Informer” and to ”Mary of Scotland” were admittedly exceptions. “Usually I take the story,” he told me, “and get every line of printed material I can find on the subject. And then I take the boat and simply cruise until I’ve read it all.

“I eat, sleep and drink whatever picture I’m working on — read nothing else, think of nothing else; which is probably the reason the continuity and mood of my products stay at an exact level.”

He works directly with each department during the long preparations for any of the motion pictures he directs. His hand draws the design for a set fireplace. His own suggestions are the inspiration for certain gowns and coiffures and uniforms — and most important of all, much of the dialogue (especially in his Irish portraits) comes from the Ford typewriter. His is the quality of versatility, coupled with good ability and complete knowledge of whatever trade he puts his hand to; so that you are inevitably aware of his special genius when his pictures live their sixty minute lives on your favorite theater’s screen.

For the sake of simplicity, the various basic secrets of John Ford’s great success must be classified into four or five distinct divisions. Seated across the stained, round table in the prop Dublin pub — with the tangible mood of fog enclosing the windows and the smell of onions and old beer heavy in the air. lie analyzed, in a detached good-natured voice, the elements that make him 1936’s ace of directors.

Casting was first, and of supreme importance. “After all,” Ford said sitting back, “you’ve got to tell your story through the people who portray it. You can have a weak, utterly bad script and a good cast will turn it into a good picture. I’ve thwarted more than one handicap of that kind with the aid of two or three really fine actors.

“With the exception of the stars who are signed for parts by the studio in advance, I insist on choosing names for myself. And I spend more time on that task than on any other.”

He’s enough of an egoist to resent really big stars on one count alone; they have their own styles of acting, their own very vivid personalities, their own settled methods. So that instead of molding them into the picture he has visualized (an impossibility on the face of it and in any case), Ford has to rebuild his story and his mood around their concrete, unplastic entities — which is gall to his palate and hellish torment to his peace of mind.

Wherefore, when the choice is his, he selects lesser but capable lights, and through sheer labor builds the performances he wants — with the mood and the aura and the detail of the story he is telling inexorably intact.

McLaglen is the classic example of this premise. “The studio spent weeks trying to foist better known heavies on me,” Ford went on, “but I knew Vic could do the job, and I knew I could handle him exactly as I wanted to. I won in the end — and you saw the performance he gave.”

But the strongest forte of Ford is his selection of bit players. You may have noticed in his pictures the constantly recurring faces of ex-celebrities, men and women who once rode the crest of the Hollywood wave and who have, through various adversities, but mostly because of changing public opinion, been relegated to the motion picture backwash. These people he hires for two reasons: one based on objective intelligence, one on mere subjective sentiment.

‘From my chair as a director,” he said seriously, “I’m able to see that these ex-stars will, after all, give a better performance even in the smallest part than any casual extra would; and it’s my contention that the bits in any picture are just as important as the starring role, since they round out the story — complete the atmosphere — make the whole plausible. You’ve seen, certainly, a good many really fine scenes spoiled suddenly by a background player who is obviously reciting his lines, or blundering awkwardly through his action. I won’t have that. A woman walking down a street, while people like Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster create a love scene, must walk as well and as naturally as a star would do it, or the effect is lost.”

He paused for a moment, and then grinned. “The other, and just as important reason, is that when I was starting in this town those people were kind to me. I want to repay a little of that if it’s in my power.”

On Ford’s private lists are one hundred names — not all of the once great — from which he picks his cast for every picture he directs. Always the same people, always the same results; they know his techniques and his wishes, they are capable and hard-working. To my knowledge it’s the only list of its kind in the movie colony.

They help, too, these people, in the building of story. “A good many of the most outstanding incidents I have filmed have been things that members of the company have actually seen or actually done during their lives. For these pictures that deal with the Irish uprising I’ve looked up former black-and-tan soldiers, former rebels, former onlookers, and given them parts; it adds to the sincerity because in the mass demonstration scenes they remember their own experiences and have real tears in their eyes — and every now and then some extra will offer a suggestion that lends to the authenticity of the production.

“Some of them — George Shields for instance — were really in the Dublin post office when it fell. They were in this pub we’ve reproduced when the call came to mobilize. I talk with them all informally, and get their opinions, and listen to their anecdotes, and as a result get a better picture.”

Which explains, in a measure, some of the superlative effects that have startled you in the multiple John Ford productions you have seen. You remember, of course, the unforgettable scene in “The Informer” where the boy is shot and drops lifeless from a window, while in the agonizing silence his fingernails scratch loose down the wooden sill: one of the extras in the “ Informer” company had watched (and heard) that happen at some lost time in his life, and had carried the memory of it through the years until the day came for Ford to use it.

“That particular sequence almost caused me a lot of trouble.” The pipe quivered with Ford’s laughter. “There was a convention of producers being held at the time, so the rushes were sent up for them to see one afternoon; I asked them what they thought of the scene — and they told me it was all right, not to worry because the sound department could cut out the unfortunate sound of the scratching nails! I’m really afraid I insulted them a little during the next five minutes.”

But not all of the touches of realism are garnered from the well-stocked memories of carefully chosen extras; more than a few are transplanted to the scene direct from the storage vaults of Ford’s own subconscious. In “Plough and the Stars” you will see a little comic interpolation which to many will seem an improbable bit — merely because the banalism about truth and fiction is still true.

Ford was in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese war (he recounted this to me as if he were discussing a bridge game) and found time during a particularly cluttered afternoon to sir and store away this amusing slice of experience. Shells, as he remembers it, wen bursting like exaggerated fireworks over the narrow streets of the old city, and he stood sheltered in a doorway while bits of metal whizzed down at count peed. Suddenly, around a corner, a plump Chinese nobleman came running — retarded by his heavy silks and splendid trappings, tripping and terrified. His attendants lay dead Inside his overturned sedan chair in the street behind; the sky was bursting; and there was no place of refuge.

Then, as an exceptionally huge shell boomed overhead, he stopped short, looked up, and with a quick motion opened his painted umbrella.

He lifted it above his head, took a long breath of relief.

In his new safety he waddled sedately down the sidewalk and out of sight.

Ford shot that scene, translated of course to the mood and circumstance of the Dublin neighborhood, on the afternoon I was there. Sometimes accidents have happened too — it’s the luck of the Irish — which have brought him more credit for certain gorgeous shots than his genius really deserves.

The Iron Horse, as an entire picture, was great through the sheerest luck and the grace of God, he admits. They had planned it, you see, with the intention of making a class B picture. George O’Brien, the star, wasn’t so much then, and all they wanted was a little story about the building of a railroad. The script was written to fit California weather, of course, and the company was dressed for sunshine.

But when they detrained at Reno there was a blizzard that blinded the entire town, snow lay in five-foot drifts, and the shrieking wind was penetratingly painful. They’d spent too much money to go back.

So they filmed their picture in the snow, while each man’s breath made frosted plumes like fantastic comic-strip balloons and each man’s clothes were glued to his body with frozen perspiration. They shot the Indian raid scenes during a storm, remembering that such hardy savages as these did not, probably, wait for the summer months for massacre. And when spring finally came they utilized it naturally, in the course of things.

The result was a masterpiece of movie-making.

John Ford is great, then (secondly) simply because he visualizes a motion picture as a whole, and in terms of the complete production, rather than as a grouping of scenes; “I very seldom play a sequence to its full effect,” he told me with careful emphasis, “and so my stuff is usually confusing to both cast and producers in its uncut form. Before l make a single set-call I outline the story, as it will appear on the screen, in my mind, and separate details are subordinated to the final complete effect.”

Third, this unpretentious Irishman works with a camera as a 1936 Aladdin would work with his lamp; he carries under contract — year after year — one super-cameraman named Joe August, and since the two of them work upon the same basic premise, and since both follow mentally the same artistic groove so far as motion pictures are concerned, between them they manage to achieve a special end that no other director, and no other technician, has managed to reach in all the years Hollywood has been a movie center. Joe is allowed to dream as much as he likes, and insofar as common sense will allow, photograph as he likes — a system which, according to Ford, helps Joe to feel that he really has something to work toward and a responsibility of his own; not deliberate psychology, perhaps, but good.

Sound is of secondary importance to Ford, but nevertheless of great consequence. Forty per cent of the time (and this will amaze you) he uses a silent camera without even a mike for moral persuasion on the set.

“In the first place I can talk to my people while a scene is shooting,” he explained, “and give them suggestions about expression or movement; as a result I don’t have to make so many takes. I’ve discovered that if you rehearse a scene too much it looks artificial and — well, rehearsed.

“Lighting, as a matter of fact, is my strong point. I can take a thoroughly mediocre bit of acting, and build points of shadow around a ray of strong light centered on the principals, and finish with something plausible — anyway that’s my one boast. If you’ll watch in any of my pictures you’ll see the trick I use for special effect: while the stars are manning through their lines a diffused glow settles over the background assemblage, which at the same time begins to murmur and then to talk intelligibly. And the louder the voices, the* stronger the glow, until the main actors are merely part of a group and the general realism is achieved. It always works. Good technique is to let a spot follow a bit player with an important line or two of dialogue across a shadowed set until his part of the scene is finished, too.”

So far as the industry — as an industry — is concerned, he has pretty definite opinions. “Just now we’re in a commercial cul de sac,” he complains mildly. “We have time schedules, we are ordered to direct a certain story in a certain way because that’s what the middle-west wants and after all the middle-west has all the money. But the profession on the whole is progressing steadily. Actors are getting to be better actors, technicians are learning more about their trade every day, and the success of such simple deathless portraits as ‘The Informer’ is making it easier for those who have ideals about pictures, to make blasting demands in the interests of their convictions.

“Eventually motion pictures will all be in color, because it’s a success and because it’s a natural medium. And we’ll go out to a Maine fishing port or to an Iowa hill and employ ordinary American citizens we find living and working there, and we’ll plan a little story, and we’ll photograph the scene and the people That’s all pictures should do anyway, and it’ll be enough.”

Agree with him, or not; but in his very definite statement you must discover the essence of his personality, both as a man and as a director. Simplicity, real sincerity, hatred of ostentation: greatness.

Sincerity is the keynote of Ford and his work.

Above, he fought the studio for years to make “The Informer.” It won the Academy Award! In 1928 he directed “Four Sons.” It was a four handkerchief picture and remains one of the screen’s greatest miracles.

Only a true son of Erin could so perfectly depict Irish woes and glories. Ford is now directing Barbara Stanwyck in “The Plough and The Stars”.

When he directed “Mary of Scotland” the temperamental Katie Hepburn met her match in this quiet, unpretentious man who thinks the picture is more important than a star, and has proved it. “Mary” is another hit.

Source: Photoplay, October 1936

The Star Creators of Hollywood: John Ford Frank Lloyd W. S. Van Dyke