Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has declared Friday John Ford Day, in honor of our city’s greatest gift to cinema. (Sorry, Judd Nelson.) To celebrate both Ford’s Portland and Irish roots, the Maine Irish Heritage Center (maineirish.com) is inviting Ford fans over to the corner of State and Gray streets for a night of Ford tales, talks and discussion with Ford scholars Kevin Stoehr and Michael Connolly (co-editors of the book “John Ford in Focus”), former Portland mayor Jack Dawson (organizer of the city’s 1998 Ford tribute) and Ford relative Jane McPhillips.
In addition, there will be a screening of excerpts from the hilariously enlightening 1971 documentary “Directed by John Ford,” where the then-septuagenarian filmmaker breaks up glowing testimonials from frequent stars Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne with gruffly dismissive answers to director Peter Bogdanovich’s attempts to analyze his body of work. Famously defying the overwhelming critical acclaim he attracted, the notoriously cantankerous Ford rebuffed it, saying, “It’s no use talking to me about art. I make pictures to pay the rent.”
Well, far be it from me to contradict Portland’s favorite son, but I speak for film geeks everywhere in saying Ford was a lot more than the workmanlike hired hand he portrayed himself as. Heading to Hollywood from Maine in the silent era, Ford forged his cinematic legacy over the course of some 150 inventive, energetic, uniquely American movies that directors as diverse as Martin Scorcese, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa cite as an influence.
So here, out of that impressive roster are my picks for the Ford films you should check out before the big night on Friday.
• “Mister Roberts” (1955). Endlessly crowd-pleasing WWII film about the dysfunctional crew of a run-down ship (including Fonda, Jack Lemmon and William Powell) dealing with dictatorial captain James Cagney. Mix of wacky comedy and seriously jerked tears ends with one of the best last lines ever.
• “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). Still-powerful adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel about the poverty-stricken migrant workers of the Dust Bowl holds up 60 years later, both as a rare Hollywood film that addresses class and as a vehicle for Fonda’s greatest performance as noble Tom Joad.
• “Stagecoach” (1939). Template for the Hollywood disaster picture featuring a cast of colorful, disparate characters thrown together in a crisis, “Stagecoach” sees a charismatic young Wayne (in his first of many collaboration with Ford) trying to protect the titular wagonload of travelers against Geronimo’s raiding Apaches. Packed with great character performances from the Ford stock company and a last third of solid, inventive action.
• “The Searchers” (1956). Widely regarded as the greatest Western of all time (it’s not, but it’s pretty close), the film, about an obsessed, racist Civil War vet out to rescue (and then murder) his niece who’s been kidnapped by Indians, remains dark, complex and contains Wayne’s greatest performance.
• “Wagon Master” (1950). Supposedly Ford’s favorite of his own films. He should know …
• “Young Mister Lincoln” (1939). A half-century before that Day-Lewis guy came along, Ford directed a young Fonda as the pre-presidential, idealistic young Lincoln. Hokey? Sure — but Fonda, like Day-Lewis, embodies the Lincoln we’d all like to believe in.
• “The Quiet Man” (1952). Ford traveled to his beloved Ireland to film this rambunctious romance, with Wayne’s disgraced American boxer returning to the old country, romancing fiery lass Maureen O’Hara, and punching his way to a happy ending in one of the most elaborate, entertaining brawls in movie history. The perfect warm-up for John Ford night at the Heritage Center.
Festivities start at 7 p.m. Admission is $5, free for MIHC members.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.