John Ford Intersects with Vaudeville

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Today is the birthday of the great American film director John Ford (1894-1973). God willing, my third book is going to be about westerns, so you’ll be hearing lots more from me on the subject of Ford in a couple of years.

But (as I’m sure a lot of people don’t know), John Ford is a much broader and complicated subject than the sum of the westerns he made, which were only a portion of his huge output anyway. (He made no westerns at all between 1926 and 1939, for example).

Like Longfellow and Artemus Ward, he hails from one of my favorite towns in the world — Portland, Maine. You could get a whole post out of me on that topic alone.

And I could certainly do a whole post on The Grapes of Wrath, one of my favorite movies, which I’ve always related to my father’s Depression era experiences.

Now that we are still in our vaudeville phase however, I can think of more than one aspect of John Ford’s long career of direct relevance to our usual turf.

This is what passes for comedy in a Ford movie

For example, he is one of the last prominent purveyors of an old variety and vaudeville staple: the paddy stereotype. Ford’s real last name was Feeney, as if you didn’t already know it from watching The Quiet Man. Like a lot of Irishmen, he takes great joy in perpetuating what the rest of the world would consider a negative stereotype. The comic relief in any John Ford western (as well as a lot of his other movies) usually involves two drunken Irishmen (one of whom is usually Victor McLaglen) having a messy fist fight, destroying a lot of crockery and furniture in the process. I am almost never amused by these interminable scenes, but Ford clearly is. At any rate, he is tapping into a thing that was much beloved by American audiences (including Irish ones for the most part) going all the way back to the variety halls of the mid 19th century. He takes on multiple ethnic stereotypes in his version of O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. This, too, a vaudeville instinct. He was of that generation.

Ford finds “types” funny. Think of Stagecoach: drunken Thomas Mitchell; the mild-mannered drummer Donald Meek; Andy Devine as the stage driver; and all those old biddies who run scarlet woman Claire Trevor out of town.

Another vaudeville strain in Ford’s work is his so called Will Rogers trilogy. (It was not a trilogy by design. It only stopped at three because Rogers died in a plane crash). The films, Doctor Bull (1933), Judge Priest (1934), and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) usually cast Rogers as a homespun, small town authority figure, full of common sense wisdom and Abe Lincoln style wit — just like Rogers himself was. Rogers (like many Ford actors) was no great thespian, but he had a great, homely, charming quality that audiences (particularly rural audiences) appreciated. Often he battles against small-mindedness and hypocrisy, even prejudice (although some vaudeville style African American stereotypes do creep into it, especially with Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel in Judge Priest).

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous 

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