The Long Career

Between 1920 and 1952, John Ford made more than 50 movies at Fox Studios (which became Twentieth Century Fox in the '30s). Some of those movies were among his best, and some were among the best movies anyone has ever made. He won two of his Oscars for Fox pictures: "How Green Was My Valley" and "The Grapes of Wrath." There he also made the first epic Western, "The Iron Horse," and numerous others (including "My Darling Clementine"), three wonderful comedies with Will Rogers, a Shirley Temple movie, several historical dramas and his first picture in color, "Drums Along the Mohawk." Now Fox has given Ford the genius treatment: a box set of 24 films, complete with commentary tracks, a hardcover coffee-table book, a new documentary about the director and two facsimile programs that would have been distributed in the theaters showing the silent films they celebrate: "The Iron Horse" and "Four Sons." No director ever deserved it more.

Several films, especially the silents, come with one of those "best source material" disclaimers, but don't worry. Whoever put this collection together did an excellent job of finding the finest possible prints of these movies (I've never seen a decent print of "Judge Priest" before this). The supplemental material (commentaries, still galleries, etc.) is ample if not especially inspired. Best of all, you can buy everything here individually or as part of smaller, more affordable box sets (the comedy box, for example, contains all the Will Rogers movies).

Irascible and often downright cruel to his casts and technicians, Ford was no company man. He reserved his greatest scorn for producers and usually found ways to keep them off his sets. Despite that reputation, he worked well in the studio system. When he encountered a producer with brains, such as Darryl F. Zanuck, he often took advice, and the movies the two made together are among Ford's best. Zanuck's tinkering with "My Darling Clementine" didn't add anything, and the collection's producers admit as much by allowing us to see Ford's cut without Zanuck's editing and his reflexive habit of smearing music over scenes that don't need it.

As big as it is, the "Ford at Fox Collection" is not a complete record of the films he made for the studio, and if I have a complaint, it's that the compilers have erred on the wrong end of the partnership by including the last films Ford made for the studio and excluding several silent films. Ford was a mature artist in the '20s, and his silent films invite the question: did he really need sound? As much as anyone, he knew how to tell a story through images, and it would be good to see more of what he accomplished before the movies learned to talk.

Ford is perhaps America's oddest Great Director. Unlike, say, Hitchcock, whose movies, even the old ones, seem perfectly modern even today, Ford is a throwback to another age. The values he appreciated and promoted in his movies (loyalty, tradition, the value of family and home) now seem almost quaint. And always, even in the films about family, it's a man's world; this was a director who never saw a bar fight that couldn't be improved by making it longer. Of course, Ford was no mere family-values propagandist. His movies about the value of family are almost always about families disintegrating. He was, if anything, a man weeping for what could and should have been. "The Grapes of Wrath" is the premier example of this theme, but, if anything, "How Green Was My Valley" expresses the idea with even greater genius. The miracle of this movie, one of the darkest ever made, is that it never feels oppressive. As we watch the Morgan clan disintegrate, we are never pummeled with the idea that we are watching a tragedy. It slips up on you in bits and scraps, but when the movie ends, the only thing between the viewer and outright despair is the esthetic satisfaction that only a first-rate work of art can provide.

"How Green" has always been slightly reviled by purists because it beat out "Citizen Kane" for the best picture and director Oscars, but if Orson Welles had to lose to anyone, I'm sure he was consoled by losing to Ford. After all, it was Welles who, when asked for his filmic forebears, replied, "The old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."

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