It’s the John Ford Blogathon, friends! Thank you for being reading along; please be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the post for other participating authors during this week of celebrating one of cinema’s most loved directors. I have a handful of posts for this week, all based around films from the Ford at Fox boxset. For classic film fans, this is an essential addition to the collection, although the sheer physical size of it is a bit intimidating. There are several treasures to uncover right next to time-honored Ford films, and for the most part the set has a high rewatch value.
I am admittedly a relative newcomer to John Ford’s body of work, and every film in the Fox boxset was a first time view for me, including popular works like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), My Darling Clementine (1946), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Yes, I know. My introduction to Ford came way back in college, in a WWII telecommunications class where we watched his social guidance and short documentary films made for the Army and Navy. After that, I largely avoided Ford because of his iconic association with the Western genre, which is historically ignorant toward native peoples and often a genre I don’t seek out. That said, I knew there was still a large gap to fill by not seeing his films, and I knew that he directed films outside of that particular genre. When the Ford at Fox set hit a record low price, I grabbed a copy and made the decision to read as little about the films inside before viewing them, to keep the content a surprise. I was delighted to find several films within that were indeed pleasant surprises, particularly from Ford’s early works.
Much has been written and discussed on the topic of motherly love in John Ford’s films. I wasn’t aware of that until I was well into the Fox collection, but looking back on two of the films in the set, it’s easy to see this theme as a particular standout. Four Sons (1928) is a silent film about a matriarch in Bavaria who has to let her sons go to their fates — whether good or bad. Similarly, Pilgrimage (1933) focuses on a mother who has so much trouble letting her only son live his own life that she inadvertently causes a tidal wave of heartbreak in both herself and her son’s lover.
Four Sons begins with beloved old Mother Bernle’s birthday as she is surrounded by her four loving sons Franz, Johann, Joseph, and Andreas. Joseph is given an offer by a cousin to come over to the United States to work while Franz and Johann join up with the German army. Andreas, the youngest, stays close to his mother as World War I makes its way nearer and nearer to the homefront. As the film progresses, Joseph proves to be a successful businessman and loving husband and father. Soon, the call to arms lures him to enlist in the US army in a war that truly pits brother against brother. Andreas is also, at the news of Joseph’s enlistment and the losses suffered by the German army, forced into the western front. Through all of this, Mother Bernle endures the tragedy of sending all of her children to their destinies with a deep strength and only the purest love. Eventually, she is invited to the States by Joseph; however, she must learn the English alphabet before becoming a citizen. The language barrier cannot keep her from her family, though, and she is reunited with the son she sent the furthest away from home.
This early Ford film is a bittersweet drama with a Movietone soundtrack that restrains from slipping into melodramatics. Four Sons drifts between lighthearted moments and painful tragedy with a sense of ease, and it rarely loses its brisk pace. This was one of my favorite discoveries in the Fox collection, because the story is quite timeless and is wonderfully well-acted, particularly Margaret Mann as Mother Bernle.
On a similar note, Pilgrimage is the pre-Code tale of a mother, Hannah Jessop, who lives with her son Jim on their farm in the South. Jim is in love with their neighbor Mary, who Mrs. Jessop regards as common trash not good enough for her son. One night Jim and Mary run off together and out of spite, Mrs. Jessop enlists Jim into the army to fight overseas in World War I. As he is boarded onto a train to boot camp, Mary reveals that she is pregnant, and they resolve to marry when he returns. Unfortunately, Jim dies in combat, leaving his hardened but distraught mother and heartbroken lover behind.
Years pass, and Mrs. Jessop is just as bitter toward Mary as ever. Her bitterness even extends to Jim and Mary’s young son Jimmy, who is mocked at school for being a fatherless child. Mrs. Jessop is soon invited on a trip to New York and Paris along with several other Gold Star mothers who lost their sons in the war. On this trip, she is given a unique opportunity to discover that her hardened personality has been hiding the pain of sending her only child into death, as well as to help another mother overcome her fears of losing her son to another woman. At the end of the film, Mrs. Jessop makes the first steps toward accepting the woman her son loved as well as becoming a better part of her grandson’s life.
If there is one misstep Pilgrimage makes in its depiction of motherly love, it’s that it portrays Hannah Jessop as too controlling so early in the film with almost no moments of kindness from her. Her love for her son is so overbearing that the compassion she discovers is almost too little, too late. However, Henrietta Crosman is such a complete force of nature as Mrs. Jessop; she truly carries the film even through the scenes where she seems completely unbelievable. Pilgrimage also makes a fairly major shift in its second half, from serious drama to light comedy when the Gold Star mothers make their way through the streets of Paris. A scene where Mrs. Jessop and new friend Mrs. Hatfield (presumably of those famous feuding Hatfields) one-up a group of men at a shooting gallery is a particular joy to watch.
Films centered around women in a largely sympathetic way were one of the last things I expected in a collection of John Ford films, so both Four Sons and Pilgrimage rank quite high in this set for me. I was charmed by both movies, and gladly recommend them to you all.
John Ford Blog Roll: collecting the current posts from the John Ford Blogathon participants –
David Meuel leads us to other female leading roles from Ford with six under-appreciated women’s roles
Silver Screenings burns into The Sun Shines Bright (1953) and finds that, although it was one of Ford’s favorites, it comes up short of a classic
Jon Oye offers an extensive and wonderful piece on My Darling Clementine (1946)
Submarine Patrol (1938), a film missing from the Ford at Fox set, gets a good look from Mayerson on Animation
The Stop Button goes forward with The Whole World’s Talking (1935), a comedy starring Edward G. Robinson and…Edward G. Robinson?
They Were Expendable (1945), but The Joy and Agony of Movies‘ post on this film is decidedly not
Ferdy on Films trains a sharp eye on 1966’s 7 Women
The Round Place in the Middle focuses on Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
Minor, later Ford film The Horse Soldiers (1959) is featured on The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog
Special shout-out to Directed by John Ford, the place for all things John Ford