John Ford

Henry Fonda, who somehow didn't win an Oscar as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell who did win the Oscar as Ma Joad in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Henry Fonda, who somehow didn't win an Oscar as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell who did win the Oscar as Ma Joad in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

  • Born:  1894
  • Died:  1973
  • Rank:  15
  • Score:  743.70
  • Awards:  4 Oscars / DGA / 4 NYFC / NBR
  • Nominations:  5 Oscars / 5 DGA / Golden Globe
  • Feature Films:  59
  • Best:  The Searchers
  • Worst:  The Sun Shines Bright

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. The Searchers – 1956
  2. The Grapes of Wrath – 1940
  3. The Informer – 1935
  4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962
  5. Mr. Roberts – 1955

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk News):

  • 1931-32 – 10th – Arrowsmith
  • 1935 – 1st – The Informer
  • 1936 – 9th – Prisoner of Shark Island
  • 1939 – 5th – Stagecoach
  • 1940 – 1st – The Grapes of Wrath
  • 1940 – 10th – The Long Voyage Home
  • 1941 – 8th – How Green Was My Valley
  • 1945 – 1oth – They Were Expendable
  • 1946 – 1oth – My Darling Clementine
  • 1948 – 9th – Fort Apache
  • 1952 – 5th – The Quiet Man
  • 1955 – 6th – Mr. Roberts
  • 1956 – 2nd – The Searchers
  • 1962 – 4th – The Man Who Liberty Valance

He is Martin Scorsese’s favorite director.  Andrew Sarris placed him in the Pantheon and wrote “Ford is more than the sum of his great moments, however.  A storyteller and poet of images, he made his movies both move and be moving.”  In 1965, Stanley Kauffmann wrote “John Ford is, after Griffith, probably the American director who has won the greatest admiration among professionals abroad.  This has long seemed clear, but it was confirmed for me when I asked a couple of dozen directors throughout Europe who their own favorite directors were.  Ford was not only on most lists, he was often the only American.”  Roger Ebert said “certainly he did more than any other director to document the passages of American history.”  In the external Top 1000 list, he is one of three directors who gets the maximum 100 points (Hitchcock and Bunuel are the other two).  So I suppose the only question remains is how could I possibly rank him so low?

I suppose there are a few reasons.  The first is his choice of genre.  It is strange to look back and realize that until 1939 he hadn’t made a Western since the Silent Era.  But after he returned from making films for the Army in World War II, the Western became his.  Seven of his next eight films were Westerns and they have never been a genre that I enjoyed.  There are great ones to be certain, but those are films that transcend genre.  Then there is his choice of star.  I don’t like John Wayne, never thought he was much of an actor.  If he had stuck to Henry Fonda, it could have been gold (think of Fonda’s films with Ford: Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine, Mr. Roberts).  Then also, before he returned to Westerns in 1939 his films weren’t great.  They weren’t bad (he really didn’t ever make bad films), but until 1939 his only film that ranked up *** was The Informer.  There was so simply too much mediocrity in his career.

But there was greatness too – including many of the greatest Westerns ever made.  And he wasn’t confined to Westerns.  The Informer is a great drama, The Grapes of Wrath is one of the great social statements on film, The Quiet Man is a wonderful comedy and Mr. Roberts manages to hit the high laughs of comedy and the low tragedy of drama.

The Grapes of Wrath – #1 film of 1940

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be ever’ where – wherever you can look.” – Tom Joad

Some years stay the same.  From the second I saw GoodFellas, it was my Best Picture of 1990 and has remained so.  But some years change over the years, as my taste changes, as I re-watch and I mull things over.  1940 is one of those years.  So a year that has seen Rebecca (the actual Oscar winner), The Great Dictator and The Philadelphia Story all sit atop the list, I have come to The Grapes of Wrath.

I’ve been doing the drive on I-5 through Central Valley for 25 years now.  And that whole time, I have thought to myself, this is just dust and dirt.  How can anything grow out here?  But that’s the Western part of the valley and over in the east is where the fruit grows, where the people came from Oklahoma to try and start over.  It never was a promised land and Steinbeck understood that.  He saw the darkness and misery that came along with starting again, even in his beloved California.  And I don’t doubt from Steinbeck’s writings that he did love California, a love you feel for your native land.  I understand that more than many because though I was born in New York, my roots in California go back to September, 1781 when my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was one of the members of the Zuniga expedition that founded the city of Los Angeles.

But a great book alone, a great story alone, is not enough to make a great film.  Many of the greatest novels in history have been filmed without becoming great films (The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, The Brothers Karamazov, The Stranger), yet this is one of the few works to make both my 100 Greatest Novels list and my 100 Greatest Films list.  And a lot of that praise can be passed around.  The film is marvelously directed, has some truly wonderful performances (not the least of which are Jane Darwell and John Carradine), was fantastically adapted (it’s hard to take a 500+ page novel and turn it into a coherent film, let alone a great one) and though they may have omitted the haunting final scene of the novel, there was no way that was getting past the censors anyway.   There is the story itself, of course, the timeliness of dealing with a story of such bleak outlook while the country was still struggling to come out of the Great Depression.

Then there is Henry Fonda.  Nominated only once before his final film (when he won an Oscar for one of his weaker performances) for this film, Fonda is one of the greats in film history.  He had already prove with You Only Live Once that he knew how to play desperation and he was maybe the only Hollywood star who could utter the line “I’m just trying to get by without shovin’ anybody.” and make you believe that he meant it.  His Tom Joad is one of the great characters ever put on screen, the kind of performance that echoes so strong through the generations that Bruce Springsteen would later write an entire album derived from the character.

Then there is that final speech and everything about is so perfect, so amazing that you forgot that it’s not the end of the film (there’s still Ma with her little speech afterwards to Pa).  But Tom must go out on his own, but he leaves behind him a desperate hope for people who struggle, and the way it is shot, the way it is lit, the feeling between Tom and his mother, the heartfelt emotion in the speech, and we remember why we go to movies, even movies that don’t necessarily make us enjoy ourselves.  Because we hope for a better world out there.  And that ghost of Tom Joad hangs over those hopes.

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