Turner Classic Movies, Columbia Pictures and the Film Foundation have pooled their resources to create “John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection,” a most welcome boxed set that brings together five films directed by that dean of American filmmakers.
Three have not appeared on DVD in the United States: “The Whole Town’s Talking,” a Depression-era comedy with Jean Arthur and Edward G. Robinson; “Gideon’s Day,” a police procedural filmed in England in 1958, with Jack Hawkins as the Scotland Yard inspector created by the novelist John Creasey; and “Two Rode Together,” a major Ford Western from 1961, with James Stewart, Richard Widmark and Shirley Jones.
The other two films in the collection have long been out of print: “The Long Gray Line,” the 1955 story of a long-serving West Point instructor (Tyrone Power) and Ford’s first film in CinemaScope, and “The Last Hurrah,” his 1958 adaptation of a best-selling novel by Edwin O’Connor, with Spencer Tracy as an aging politician in his last campaign.
Most of these movies are films that find Ford working in genres or formats with which he wasn’t usually associated. Even “Two Rode Together” – the most Fordian film of the bunch, if only because it is a Western – drifts off the trail of the genre and touches on elements of gothic horror.
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“The Whole Town’s Talking,” from 1935, is a brisk, topical urban comedy that allows the great Robinson to slip back and forth between the poles of his performance range – he plays both a shyly romantic office drone and a cold, sadistic thug. You’re automatically tempted to describe the film as Capraesque, until you remember that Frank Capra had only established himself as a comedy director a year earlier, with “It Happened One Night.”
It might be more accurate to call Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” Fordian. “Deeds,” released in 1936, cemented Capra’s reputation for social comedy. But it was Ford who uncovered Jean Arthur’s gift for comedy; it was Ford who cast her as a tough-talking, professional woman in tailored suits.
It may be the Westerns and war movies that are the foundation of his reputation, but throughout his long career – more than 140 films – Ford remained a remarkably protean filmmaker. His sense of himself as an unflappable professional allowed him to take on the most unlikely projects – a vehicle for the child star Shirley Temple, for example – just as the strength of his vision and the power of his technique could conform those unlikely projects into works of deep personal import.
As well as “The Whole Town’s Talking” turned out, the strong-willed Ford most likely chafed under the command of Columbia’s autocratic head of production, Harry Cohn. Twenty years would pass until Ford would return to Columbia, and then only because Columbia had inherited a property Ford very much wanted to film – the life story of Marty Maher, an Irish immigrant who arrived at West Point as a civilian kitchen worker and remained for 50 years as a beloved noncommissioned officer and swimming instructor.
Ford’s darkest and most bitter film, “Two Rode Together” opens into the mythic perspective of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), where the shortcomings of human relations are subsumed by the greater march of civilization – a glorious lie masking an unbearable truth.
Ford’s questioning of his fundamental principles continued through his final feature, “7 Women,” in 1966, never abandoning the restless intellect, formal mastery and Shakespearean capacity for consuming and expressing the great and awful complexity of human emotion that made this son of an immigrant Irish saloonkeeper one of the greatest of all American artists.