Category: Film history

John Ford’s legacy in the 21st Century

John Ford on location at West Point for ‘The Long Gray Line’ (1955)  produced by Columbia Pictures. ©SPE Archives & Collections

John Ford (1894-1973) was born to parents who arrived in New England in 1872 as migrants from the West of Ireland. ‘Jack’ Feeney was the 10th of 11 children. He moved to Hollywood in 1914 where his older brother Francis was already a successful actor, director and producer. He became first Jack Ford and then John Ford in 1923. He directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1966. In the intervening years he became the most successful Oscar winner as a director winning 4 times plus two more wins for his wartime documentaries. This is a ‘global film’ blog, so why the interest in Ford? Hollywood is too important to ignore but most of contemporary mainstream Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I am interested in some aspects of American Independent cinema and certainly in African American cinema. I’m also interested in 1940s-1970s Hollywood, especially if it has been influential in global terms.

John Ford made films in Ireland (2), UK (1) the South Pacific (2) Mexico (1) and Kenya (1) as well as numerous territories as required by the US military. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century with ardent admirers such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, Xie Jin in China, Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and many other leading filmmakers worldwide. His impact on global film was considerable.

But I wonder what younger filmmakers and younger audiences make of a director who died over 40 years ago? The Ford film that is arguably the most remembered is The Searchers (1956), a film that was successful at the time with audiences but took much longer to become a critics’ favourite. Younger audiences are most likely to know it because it became an important influence on George Lucas who refers to it in Star Wars (1977) and perhaps also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) which borrows narrative ideas from it expressed in Paul Schrader’s script. Many younger cinephiles might not have seen The Searchers but they will know the opening and closing shots of the film which have been endlessly re-cycled over the last 40 years. But there is still resistance to The Searchers, exemplified by a recent Guardian piece by a senior film writer who agreed to watch the film having avoided it during his career as a film journalist. In fact, he hadn’t seen any of Ford’s films. Why is that? The answer is that, like several of Ford’s films, this is a Western starring John Wayne. Not only that but Wayne’s character is an embittered racist – or at least that is what is assumed. I’m not criticising anyone who has avoided a Wayne film for that reason – there are several Hollywood stars whose performances I don’t particularly enjoy and therefore whose films I don’t watch (including several of Wayne’s). However, Ford’s relationship with Wayne is complex and The Searchers is, on every level, a remarkable film that does not succumb to straightforward readings.

There are several reasons why John Ford’s films (over 140 of them in all, but a more ‘modest’ 50 or so features since 1929) are still important in 2020:

  • his ideas about African American social history and the Civil War
  • his ideas about Native American history
  • his sense of Irish identity
  • his respect for the US miltary
  • the roles for women in his films
  • his ‘independent’ status throughout the years of the Studio System
  • his status within the industry as a highly-skilled visual technician, editor, director and dialogue writer
  • his position re the concept of ‘film author’

No doubt there are more but that’s quite enough for now. I will attempt over the coming weeks to explore some of those 50 films and their associated discourses. Perhaps Keith will say something about Ford’s silent cinema films about which I have very limited knowledge? At this time of lockdown, it’s worth pointing out that three Ford Westerns are on BBC iPlayer for the next few months. Otherwise it is becoming quite difficult to find the films on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Presumably quite a few are available on Amazon Prime and Netflix? Over the years I have worked with several of the films, but few have made it onto the blog from ‘draft’ to ‘published’, mainly because there is so much to say and they never seem to be completed. One you might find interesting is Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960), a landmark film in some ways.

Spark – A Festival of Revolutionary Films

This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.

Citizen Kane (US 1941)

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspapers

This is the film that was voted top in the Sight & Sound ten-yearly critics’ polls from 1962 until 2002. Even when it was toppled by Vertigo (USA 1958) it still secured the second spot. Top or ‘greatest’ films are conjecture rather than indisputable masterworks. But the sheer longevity of Kane speaks to its capacity to be seen and re-seen; for me at least ten cinema screenings. So now, thanks to the Hebden Bridge Picture House, cineastes in West Yorkshire have an opportunity to assess or re-assess the film. And it is screening as it should be experienced, on 35mm.

The film was directed by Orson Welles, his first outing with a feature film. Welles’s career is often seen as a series of failures. If so, what artist would not relish such failure. He also directed The Magnificent Ambersons (USA ), which, despite being cut by the studio, remains a fine and beautifully realised adaptation. Then we have the three great adaptations of William Shakespeare, Macbeth (USA 1948), Othello (USA, Italy, Morocco, France 1951) and Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff, Switzerland, France, Spain 1965). There is one of the finest film noirs Touch of Evil (USA 1957) – with the memorable opening combined track and crane shot that Robert Altman homaged in The Player (USA 1992 ). In between he filmed a memorable adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (France, West Germany Italy 1962). And then right at the end of Welles’ career the delightful, playful F for Fake (France, Iran, Germany 1975). Then there are his 123 screen appearances, plus many more on television. Some were pastiches, some were very poor films. But the outstanding performances, including Kane, Touch of Evil and that other classic The Third Man (UK 1949), are up there with the other greats.

Welles cinema was full of innovations. If you doubt that, after Kane, watch any Hollywood sound film from 1930 to 1940. This was in part because as a director Welles recruited the best talent he could find and both inspired and challenged them. He was, like many directors, similar to a conductor of an orchestra, providing the overall interpretation and offering the players scope for their individual talents. But it was also because Welles bought imagination to his art work.

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Citizen Kane has an original screenplay, produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz working with Welles. Mankiewicz had started in Hollywood in the 1920s and worked right through the 1930s. He had a background in newspaper work and bought an ability to write fast, witty dialogue and to provide a satirical view of human foibles. Both are apparent in Kane: there are many memorable lines and the rise and partial fall of the protagonist is delivered with great aplomb. Mankiewicz had addiction to alcohol and during the writing phase he was kept in line by Welles’s talented producer John Houseman who also contributed to the script.

The Art Design was supervised by Van Nest Polglase with Perry Ferguson; Set Decoration by Darrell Silvera; Costume Design by  Edward Stevenson, all members of the RKO Art Department. The film involves an incredibly varied range of sets and period costumes. It also involved settings that even by Hollywood standards were large, impressive and [at times] overbearing. The opening sequence as the camera tracks in on Kane’s fabulous Xanadu exemplifies the range of materials and props and the use of special effects. The film was unusual for the period as most of the sets have visible ceilings, an aspect that Hollywood films tended to avoid because of the need for the lighting rigs.

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Welles and Toland on set.

One of the outstanding features of Kane is the cinematography by Gregg Toland. He started on camera work in the 1920s and worked through the 1930 and it was then he developed his skills in ‘deep focus’ techniques where the image has a noticeable depth of field. Kane is full of remarkable depth of field: there are impressive long shots of characters ‘lost’ in the vast grandeur of Xanadu. Toland used the latest film stock and lenses to innovate in filming. The film has impressive camera movements and angles, emphasising the vastness of Kane’s empire. There is also a strong expressionist feel in the use of chiaroscuro, something that is a Welles trade mark. Toland wrote up his work on the film for the ‘American Cinematographer’.

The Special Effects with the cinematography were by Vernon L. Walker, an experienced and skilled professional in the field. Two of the key sound engineers were John Aalberg Sound Supervisor and Harry Essman Special Sound Effects. Welles’ films are notable for their use of sound, a skill he bought with him to Hollywood after his extensive work in radio.  The original Kane enjoyed the high fidelity RCS Sound System.

The editing was by Robert Wise who went on to direct his own films. The film is beautifully put together, often relying on dissolves rather than cuts. But there are fine transitions and rapid montage: notably the sequences depicting the failing marriage of Kane and his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). However, Wise later blotted his copybook when he worked on the studio ‘version’ of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

Integral to the film and the soundtrack is the music of Bernard Hermann. Welles bought Hermann to Hollywood where he enjoyed a long career as one of the greats of Hollywood music. His core for Kane is Wagnerian, especially in the specially composed opera excerpt, ‘Salammbo’.

Welles also bought a number of the players from his Mercury Radio Theater. Joseph Cotten is Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland; Everett Sloane is Kane’s manager Berstein and Agnes Moorehead, in only one short scene, is Kane’s mother Mary. Another key character is Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander player by Dorothy Comingore. There are numerous other supporting players, the cast credits run to over a hundred. William Alland offers an excellent investigate reporter Jerry Thompson and Paul Stewart is memorable as the oily manservant Raymond.

The quality of the film owes much to this supporting cast, including many minor roles only seen and heard in one or two scenes. Equally the production values owe much to the supporting technicians who worked with the director and his team leaders. The film enjoys the high quality of a Hollywood studio production coupled with an adventurous and innovative approach.

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Thompson’s instructions.

There is one other star in the film, a single word ‘Rosebud’. This invention by either Welles or Mankiewicz is a brilliant trope in the film, both binding the narrative together and providing an audience hook for the film’s exploration of Charles Foster Kane. It is also a ‘cheat’: watch the first sequence of the film carefully and then pay attention to the instructions to Thompson by his producer.

Some commentators suggest that ‘Rosebud’ is one factor in the campaign against the film by William Randolph Hearst, the great newspaper proprietor. Certainly, despite disclaimers. Kane’s character and career offer a number of parallels to that of Hearst in real life. Citizen Kane‘s relatively poor box office showing owed much to the campaign against the film in Hearst’s newspapers. And despite several nominations its only Academy Award was for Best Original Screenplay. In a long interview for the ‘BBC Arena’ Welles claimed that on the night of the films’ premiere, at RKO’s Radio City in New York in May 1941, he got into the hotel lift and saw before him W. R. Hearst. Both recognised the other. Welles claims that he offered Hearst a ticket to the film premiere which Hearst declined. Welles then quipped

“Kane would have taken it.”

Follow his example.

Check out the film in detail at the American Film Institute.

Eisenstein in Mexico

A still from Eisenstein's footage in Mexico.

A still from Eisenstein’s footage in Mexico.

Famously Sergei Eisenstein worked on an unfinished film in Mexico in 1931 and early 1932. The visit to this country came at the end of a tour that took in Europe and the USA, including Hollywood. Europe was productive, Eisenstein was involved in making a short avant-garde film at a conference of progressive filmmakers. Hollywood was [predictably] unproductive though Eisenstein did work on some unfinished screenplays. In Mexico he found an empathetic environment and, for a time, was supported by the US socialist Upton Sinclair in producing a film. The film was to be ¡Que viva México!, which remains one of those lost but tantalising projects in film history.

Now Peter Greenaway has written and directed a film about Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico. It is typical Greenaway fare, with his usual stylistic flair but also his idiosyncratic treatment of a subject. I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) at the Leeds International Film Festival. This screening was the low point of the Festival if not the entire year.

The characterisation of Eisenstein offered in the film clearly possesses some of his known traits, in particular his sexual orientation. There is an incredibly long sex scene. But there is little attention to his intellectual and artistic prowess. And whilst there are number of sequences where we see Eisenstein, with his colleagues Eduard Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov, filming, Greenaway’s treatment shows little real interest in this lost but much discussed film.

In addition Greenaway includes sequences from the seminal films that Eisenstein had already made in the Soviet Union. However, these appear to be from not great quality video and [even worse] they have been reframed in to the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame. There are other recent perpetrators of this practice, but few of them have actually inflicted the very wide letterbox on archive footage.

Greenaway does show more interest in the erotic drawings that Eisenstein produced during his stay. A whole truckload of these were confiscated by the US customs on his return journey. Some of them could be seen in the recent exhibition in London, Unexpected Eisenstein.

Greenaway’s film is now receiving a limited general release. It is recommended only for masochists and anti-Bolshevik types. What would have been more illuminating would be the event held in April at the Regent Cinema Eisenstein in Mexico. This event, jointly organised by A Nos Amours and Kino Klassica, included screenings of several films developed from the some 200,000 plus footage shot by Eisenstein and his colleagues. There was Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939), Alexandrov’s  ¡Que viva México! (1979), and a film I have yet to see. Mexican Fantasy (1998). There were also talks and discussions during the event.

My fantasy wish is that the Metropolitans get the Greenaway film and that we deprived northerners get the three-film event.

Widescreen Weekend 2015

Widescreen

This event took place at the National Media Museum in the third weekend in October. As in previous years the event was extremely well attended. There was a programme of films and digital versions in CinemaScope, 70mm, Todd AO and Cinerama. Partly because I have to be careful where I sit at present [following an operation] I only made it across from Leeds on the Sunday. But the Festival was steaming along and friends filled me in on some of the goodies they had enjoyed.

What I did make was an illustrated talk by Pasquale Iannone on the ‘Widescreen Aesthetic’. He talked about the use of widescreen by film artists with a distinctive approach, including European directors and some US and UK directors. The latter included Richard Fleischer, Sam Fuller and Frank Tashlin.

However, his main focus was the European cinemas. So we had clips from The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie, 1965), Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) and Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nicholls, 1971). I assume he was using Blu-Ray sources, and the clips were pretty good visually: though The Ipcress File looked like the transfer was slightly fast and Le Mépris had poor definition.

However, the commentary and its illustration was excellent. There is clearly a very interesting study in the technical and stylistic usages of these filmmakers. This is CinemaScope practice which really exploits the format and provides interesting, and indeed at times challenging, visual imagery.

It would have been good to have an illustrative film in the programme. it may be that there were problems about availability, but one title, Jean-Luc Godard’s masterful Pierrot le Fou (1963), has been restored and is available. This is an aspect of the programming that I find a little limiting. The focus is very much on Hollywood, partly I assume because of the Festival’s constituency. However, only a couple of years ago we did have the very fine Goya – oder Der arge Weg der Erkenntnis (Konrad Wolf, 1973) from the DDR. And there are some very fine widescreen films from beyond the boundaries of the trans-Atlantic industries. One film which I think would be well worth viewing is the first Hindi film in CinemaScope, Kaagaz Ke Phool (Guru Dutt, 1959) with very fine black and white cinematography by V. K. Murthy. And the film has been restored and is now available in its original widescreen format.

 

The First Film (UK 2015)

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince

This is a new study of Louis Le Prince, who in 1888 shot three short sequences of film in Leeds in West Yorkshire. Two were filmed in a garden in the Roundhay suburb and one on the Leeds Bridge in the City Centre. Le Prince designed and constructed his own camera. He used a paper strip combined with cellulose. At the time he was also working to use the new celluloid material and it seems he had also solved the problem of projecting his film. These films precede the far more famous Thomas Edison in New York and the Lumière Brothers in Paris. Yet Le Prince is far less well known than the other pioneers of cinema.

The director, David Nicolas Wilkinson, wants to change this and give Le Prince [and Leeds} their proper place in the early history of film and cinema. His film provides a biography of Le Prince and a study of the technology and techniques he developed and the short films that he made. The film also addresses the fact that he only made these three films – a mystery surrounds the failure to follow on his pioneering work. The mystery is also investigated in the new study.

The area does offer memorabilia to Le Prince: there are blue plaques on Leeds Bridge and alongside the old BBC building where Le Prince had a workshop. Both the Armley Industrial Museum and the National Media Museum have displays about Le Prince and the Museum has a series on on-line pages.

The film itself has a Charity première at the Hyde Park Picture House, another historical film site, on Wednesday July 1st at 8 p.m. The event will include a presentation on Le Prince, examples of early film technology on display: and the added bonus of a DVD and the seminal book on Made In Yorkshire [by Tony Earnshaw and Jim Moran]. I suspect the event will sell out quickly, recognition that seems to have eluded Le Prince in his own lifetime. There is another screening at the National Media Museum on July 2nd at 6.30 p.m.