The Hermeneutics of Henry Ford

With his 10 millionth car and his first

Henry Ford (1863-1947) was born of a July 30. Why post about him on a blog that’s focused on the history of show business? Well, I’ll tell yer!

I mentioned Ford no fewer than four times in my book No Applause, Just Throw Money. As that is a book that chronicles the birth, life, and death of the entertainment form known as vaudeville, Ford’s relevance would seem to be marginal, so why include him? Two reasons, and if vaudeville had lasted longer there might have been a third.

If you lack an elementary school education, and judging by the last few national elections the chances are really excellent that you do, Ford revolutionized: the automobile industry; the techniques of mass production throughout all industries; labor relations; and American culture overall, roughly in that order. He didn’t invent the automobile, but he harnessed the ideas of Adam Smith (“division of labor”) and Frederick W. Taylor (“scientific management”) to perfect and implement assembly line manufacture, resulting in the mass production of affordable cars. The same sort of revolution in management, organization, and production was put into practice by the vaudeville bosses and the men who founded the Hollywood movie studios. A former employee and protege of Edison, Ford began developing his own cars in the 1890s, the very same time that vaudeville and the movies were coming into being. And yet…

A major cultural difference separates Ford from vaudeville and Hollywood, however. Those last industries were among those in which American Jews were able to excel, thrive, and even preside over. Almost proverbially so! And by contrast, Henry Ford was one of America’s most virulent, outspoken, influential, and destructive Anti-Semites. And if this is too “Woke” for you to even discuss, to even merit a mention, you need to find some other thing to be reading, some other place to go, and some other person to talk to. Like America itself (an aspiring bastion of liberty tarnished by a bloody, racist, and exploitational past), Henry Ford was a self-contradictory conundrum. He did good and he did bad. He was great to his workers, pioneered the 40 hour/ 5 day week, decent wages, and other benefits. At the same time, he was obsessed with the idea of Zionist conspiracy. His writings from his self-published newspaper were repackaged in a book called The International Jew, which literally converted some Germans to Nazism. Ford did business with Nazi Germany, and even received a medal from them. Hitler’s admiration for the Model T resulted in the development of the Volkswagen, literally, “The People’s Car”. That happens to be a benign outcome. But it must also be observed that American techniques of industrial mass production, distribution, etc, were emulated to implement the Holocaust. And yes, Ford later repudiated his anti-Jewish writings and utterances, but not until after America entered World War Two, timing which would appear to be both reluctant and self-serving. As an American Nazi-lover, Ford would seem to fall somewhere between Charles Lindbergh and George Lincoln Rockwell. And yet, Google his name. You’ll find no end of fawning admiration for him, inspirational “can do” quotes, and so forth. That’s all well and good. But I say that if you mention the one and not the other, oh, boy, are you part of the problem.

So those are the two aspects of Ford I discuss briefly in No Applause. If vaudeville had lasted longer (into the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, as in the UK and Australia), a third mention might have included something about vaudevillians travelling the circuits by automobile. But vaudeville was fading by the end of the 1920s and the circuits were done by 1932. While the automotive revolution was indeed already happening by then, it was not yet universal. The Model T came out in 1908. By the 1920s the middle class was beginning to acquire them. The complete emergence of universal car culture can be said to happen in the post World War 2 era. So vaudevillians travelled mostly by train, until the very last years, when a few began to go by car. By mid-century, cars came to rule, and I’d go so far as to say to tyrannize American culture, increasing reliance on fossil fuels, cutting up the landscape with roads and highways, changing the way we shop, vacation, do business, etc. There are positive aspects and negative ones, and as you can see, I am not the hugest fan. I could easily write a book-length screed or make a documentary film excoriating the automobile.

Henry Ford possesses another, happier relevance to this blog, however. Ford’s cars play a major role in silent comedy films! And this goes way back. Barney Oldfield, who won a 1902 car race in Ford’s early “999” model, was in some of Mack Sennett’s earliest screen comedies. The Model T, nicknamed the “Tin Lizzie” was central to so many silent comedies, in particular Sennett’s and those of Larry Semon. Speeding, smashing, crashing, flying off of piers into the ocean. Billy Bevan starred in lots of these, like Lizzies of the Field (1924) and Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925). Get Out and Get Under (1920) is one of Harold Lloyd’s prime automobile comedies. And there just as many movies about car trouble. Buster Keaton has that great gag in Three Ages (1923) where he hits a bump and his entire car falls apart underneath him (recalling Harry Langdon’s old vaudeville routine). The destruction of cars forms the hilarious climaxes to the Laurel and Hardy comedies Two Tars (1928) and Big Business (1929). And this of course never went out of style. In 1980, John Landis staged the biggest motorcar mayhem in history in The Blues Brothers. I’m not sure if it’s been surpassed.

Anyway, to return to the Man of Hour, as they call the subjects of celebrity roasts. A lot of people don’t know this, but Francis Ford Coppola was named not after silent western star Francis Ford (a logical assumption), but Henry Ford. Coppola’s father Carmine (who I met once!) was a flutist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when his son was born. At the time (1939), he was also an arranger and conductor on the radio program The Ford Sunday Evening Hour. And Francis was born at Henry Ford Hospital for good measure. Naming his son after the inventor was clearly Ford-ordained. (Ha!) Anyway, this explains another piece of the Coppola puzzle: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Preston Tucker had been a Ford employee. Carmine Coppola had invested in his fledgling company (founded in 1948, right after Ford died), and the Coppolas actually owned a Tucker automobile. Hence, the film-maker’s interest in the topic and the desire to make a bio-pic about this wayward Henry Ford disciple.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.