It’s day 5 of the John Ford Blogathon, which means just a couple more days of fantastic posts from all over the ‘net, celebrating the works of director John Ford. We’ve had so many amazing pieces of writing so far, so please be sure to check out today’s blogroll at the bottom of this piece, which takes a look at three more of Ford’s films, this time featuring children in significant roles: Just Pals (1920), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), and How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Just Pals is largely the story of town bum Bim, who has a big fan base in all the local youth and an even bigger crush on schoolteacher Mary. Bim is a nice chap, but his lack of motivation to get a job casts him in a bad light with most of the townsfolk. He saves a young drifter, Bill, who was ejected from a moving train, and soon becomes a father figure to the boy. When Mary gets caught up in a financial scam by her shady fiance, Bim and Bill come to the rescue.
Chronologically the first film in the Ford at Fox set, Just Pals is a delightful silent tale with a message about how everyone has worth, even if they are perceived as worthless. Bim is scoffed at and treated as useless, but he’s one of those characters who seems to have everything figured out. He understands the pointlessness of being tied down in a day to day job. I like Bim. He’s a smart cookie. Scenes where he poorly attempts to help Bill at school and where the two ultimately realize that they’ll finally be a family are both touching and humorous. Just Pals is a sweet little bit of film.
In Wee Willie Winkie, Shirley Temple plays Priscilla Williams, the granddaughter of a stern British colonel stationed in Northern India. She and her widowed mother Joyce are invited to move in with the colonel, as he feels a duty to care for them after his son’s death. As they arrive to their new home, Priscilla witnesses the arrest of local rebel Khoda Khan, retrieving his pendant after the scuffle. She quickly endears herself to Sergeant MacDuff, who begins training her to be a soldier, and to Khan when she returns the pendant as he is taken to jail. MacDuff nicknames her Wee Willie Winkie, after an old Scottish rhyme, and soon she becomes a beloved fixture at the army base. However, any pretense of peace is short-lived, and Wee Willie quickly learns the harsh realities of life in wartime.
Full disclosure: I’m not entirely sold on Shirley Temple’s early movies. Little singing moppets are not typically my bag, nor were they John Ford’s, apparently. Word is that he was none too thrilled to be directing America’s Cutest and Most Beloved Child Star, at least until they shot the scene where Temple sings “Auld Lang Syne” to a dying Victor McLaglen. Ford was genuinely pleased with the restraint she showed during this moment and so began a lifelong admiration for both director and actor. Ford would later employ Temple in one of her last films before retiring from cinema, Fort Apache (1948).
I have similar feelings toward Temple here as Ford did. In early scenes, she’s almost too cute, too sweet. As the film progresses, she maintains her optimism but becomes far more aware of how hard life can be, particularly in times of conflict. The ending of the film brushes up against being almost unbelievable, with more than a whiff of “and a little child shall lead them” about it; however, Temple does quite a good job in bringing two warring factions closer to peace. And as in many of Ford’s films, the supporting cast is stellar, particularly McLaglen, who quickly switches between gruff and kind. Overall, Wee Willie Winkie is charming with a bit of bittersweet on the side.
In How Green Was My Valley, a Welsh coal-mining family navigates through a time of great change, both inside and outside of their home. Narrated by Huw as a grown man leaving the valley where he grew up, the film is a series of reminiscences focused on his youth and life in a village where mining is the only means of sustaining a living. Huw endures the heartache of a first crush — on his older brother’s financee Bronwyn — and briefly losing the use of his legs — an injury sustained while saving his mother from drowning in an icy river. He survives his first fight at school and eventually ends up working in the mines, passing on the opportunity for an education in favor of supporting his family. Much like Wee Willie Winkie, Huw matures greatly on having seen how brutal the world can be.
Once again, Ford shows how masterful a director he is in eliciting such bravura performances from child actors. On the flip side, when you have young talent like Roddy McDowall, that certainly helps. McDowall is never cloying nor too precocious here, instead embodying Huw with a full range of emotions, and with a small amount of dialogue, too. At the end of the film, when Huw is faced with the largest loss in his life, his face registers shock, despair, and a certain amount of bitterness. How Green Was My Valley presents to us a truly stunning performance from an actor just beginning his career, and a deeply heartfelt piece of cinema from John Ford.
John Ford Blog Roll: collecting the current posts from the John Ford Blogathon participants –
Jenni at portraitsbyjenni writes on the lesser-seen Sergeant Rutledge (1960)
Leah at Cary Grant Won’t Eat You (awesome blog name alert) spotlights the fine, strange mess of Mister Roberts (1955)
Lee Price‘s fifth essay on Wagon Master is up and away for your perusal!
Partner in crime and blogathons Christianne of Krell Laboratories shares an older piece on Ford’s masterpiece Stagecoach (one of my personal favorites)
Marilyn at Ferdy on Films spends quality time with The Quiet Man (1952)
The Cinephiliaque spotlights Ford’s final film, 7 Women (1966), a film outside of Ford’s usual comfort zone
Critica Retro delves into early silent epic, The Iron Horse (1924) — site is in Portuguese, with a handy translation button for several different languages
Emily at The Vintage Cameo details the mythology of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (a personal favorite from the ‘thon)