Friday 24 November 2017

Review: Hollywood Irish by Adrian Frazier

Lilliput Press, €20

Maureen
O'Hara, was once
punched in the face by
John Ford
Maureen O'Hara, was once punched in the face by John Ford

THE Irish-American film director John Ford once, without warning, punched Maureen O'Hara in the face. "He turned on me," she wrote, "and socked me square on the jaw.

I felt my head snap back and heard the gasps of everyone there." She had what might seem a belated revenge when, in her 2004 memoir 'Tis Herself, she claimed that Ford's much-debated monogamy was not attributable to strict Irish Catholic views but to the fact that he was primarily homosexual.

She says that, in 1954, she went to Ford's office to discuss costume matters relating to The Long Gray Line and found him at his desk doodling on a pad. She saw what he was drawing: "Penises. Big ones and small ones. Thin ones and fat ones." A few days later, O'Hara claimed, she came into Ford's office again and found him kissing an actor. (She doesn't name the actor but Adrian Frazier, in this well-documented and well researched study, says it was "suspected" to have been Tyrone Power.)

Whatever about his sexual orientation, John Ford (born Sean O'Feeney or O'Fearna -- the reference books vary) was in many ways what he told his wife "an exec had to be": an SOB. The sudden violence wasn't reserved for Maureen O'Hara: he once sucker-punched Henry Fonda, with whom he had worked on a number of films. Fonda (though it's not recorded here) described the director as "an egomaniac".

He enjoyed humiliating people in public, once subjecting an associate producer on The Informer to a display of public cruelty. The hapless Cliff Reid had the temerity to show up on the set on the first day of shooting, unaware seemingly of Ford's sense of his own unassailable power. Calling the company together, he gripped Reid's chin and said, "This is an associate producer. Take a good look at him, because you will not see him again until the picture is finished shooting. Thank you Cliff, I'll see you at the rushes."

Ford hated any suggestion of advice on set: he was the boss and no one else was entitled to express an opinion. During the making of Mary of Scotland, Katharine Hepburn volunteered an idea. "All right, if you know so much, you direct," snapped Ford, and walked off. Unmoved by this petty display, Hepburn clowned around for a while, looking through the camera lens. Despite this childishness on Ford's part, Hepburn is said to have been briefly smitten by the director, who returned her feelings; the general view, though, is that the relationship didn't become a sexual one.

In fact, Ford can't have been love's young dream -- or even love's middle-aged dream -- with a pipe permanently stuck in his mouth and his habit of chewing handkerchiefs; he slobbered and, except in movie matters, wasn't particularly articulate.

Was he a great director? The Grapes of Wrath, is uneven and unconvincing and often sentimental where it should be austere. The greatness, if that's the word, of The Informer is largely visual and comes from the dark, moody photography of Joseph August (though Ford would never have admitted to the importance of anyone but the director.)

While reading this book I took time to watch How Green Was My Valley (1941) for which Ford built a Welsh mining village in the San Fernando Valley; 500 workers spent six months on the construction, rivalling David Lean's later Kerry village for Ryan's Daughter. The problem was it didn't look like a habitable village anywhere.

The cast offered a grand medley of accents: American, English, Irish, not a Welsh intonation anywhere. Maureen O'Hara is absurdly glamorous as a miner's daughter; Roddy McDowell goes from boy on his first day at school to maturity as a miner without ageing by a day. The much-praised Sara Allgood (an Abbey Theatre alumna) looks lost and petulant. And some of the plot points are incomprehensible. The few scenes with Barry Fitzgerald and Arthur Shields (his brother) are the liveliest in the movie. For all that it somehow manages to be an enjoyable piece of hokum. All three of these films won Oscars for Ford.

Admirers of Westerns, that tedious genre that almost always eschews any hint of historical verisimilitude, see Ford as a giant of cinema, but some may prefer the snappy put-down of David Thomson's entry in his influential A Biographical Dictionary of Film: "Sheer longevity made Ford a major director."

But Sean, as he liked his friends to call him, had his virtues. At a time when it wasn't universally the case, in Hollywood and in the US generally, he was vigorously anti-racist. And when Cecil B DeMille, during the anti- communist hysteria of 1951, wanted members of the Screen Directors Guild to take an oath of loyalty to the US, Ford, who had been an admiral in the navy and proudly bore a Purple Heart, publicly refused and totally deflated the bumptious de Mille.

The book is not all about Ford, though he does dominate. There is fascinating material about the successful Abbey Theatre tours of America in the Thirties and the escape from the poverty-stricken and increasingly sectarian Free State by Abbey hands such as Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields (who were Protestants), JM Kerrigan, Sara Allgood, and non-Abbey players such as Maureen O'Hara and Donal Donnelly (who doesn't get a mention, though he is in the cover photograph, unidentified. The captioning of the pictures generally is woefully inadequate.)

The most interesting of them all was Fitzgerald. Often dismissed as a stage Irish one-trick pony, he was a strong and versatile actor and took joint star billing with Bing Crosby in Going My Way and the powerful lead role as a cop in Jules Dassin's groundbreaking The Naked City.

Adrian Frazier, Professor of English at NUI Galway, has written an enjoyable and informative book, with only the odd mysterious academic flourish. I abandoned the struggle to decipher this: "Like many other Americans, Ford required an ethnic personality profile as an intermediary between the abstract individualism of the capitalist metropolis and the nation state."

"Sean," I suspect, would have been puzzled too.

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