Posted by Moira Finnie on March 12, 2008
The penultimate John Ford feature film, Young Cassidy (1965), completed by master cinematographer and underrated journeyman director Jack Cardiff, airs this coming Monday at 6 PM ET on TCM. It is, appropriately enough, scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th. The film, which is not available on vhs or dvd, sank from sight soon after it premiered in March of 1965, but eventually became a vivid part of the annual celebration of that day, thanks in large part to the repetition of this “beautiful failure” on the Million Dollar Movie on New York channel WOR in the sixties and seventies.
Growing up in the Finnie household, St. Patrick’s Day brought out all the contradictions in our Irish-American family. My father, who came from a family rooted in the Irish tradition of potato farming, was trained as a lawyer but had an introspective, scholarly nature and a keen awareness of history. He was always a bit leery of my urbane, educated half Irish mother’s enjoyment of the day. Mom would always have green carnations waiting in a vase for us to wear to school on THE day. The house was redolent with the steamy smell of corned beef and (alas) boiled cabbage. The coverage of the rowdy NYC St. Patrick’s Day by “Captain” Jack McCarthy of WPIX Ch. 11, laced with frequent rotations of rapturously beautiful Aer Lingus commercials, would blare from the idiot box for at least an hour that day. Our day at St. Patrick’s School would, of course, begin with attendance at a special Mass which climaxed with a hellacious rendition of the hymn, “Great and Glorious St. Patrick” by hundreds of kids who loved to wail out this most pugnacious paean to the patron saint of Eire.
My parents tended to regard many of the treacly St. Paddy’s Day movies on tv with ill concealed condescension, but Young Cassidy was an exception. The rambunctious, tender-hearted drama, punctuated with numerous, vivid characterizations from one of greatest casts of English and Irish actors ever, grappled bravely with themes of familial and romantic love, poverty, sorrow, adventure, lust, and even the pain of intellectual growth. Sometimes the filmmakers lost this battle, but still rendered a lovingly crafted, picaresque story filled with period detail and a sense of place.
Like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, this MGM production had a troubled history, but has much to recommend it. Perhaps Ford and author Sean O’Casey seemed to be a natural fit to the producers of Young Cassidy originally. Yet, when their director arrived in Dublin to begin pre-production immediately after a grueling shoot of Cheyenne Autumn, his work load combined with the alcoholism that had plagued him throughout his life, soon made it apparent that it would no longer be possible for him to continue with the film after two weeks of shooting. Young Cassidy had been adapted by director John Ford and scenarist John Whiting from the six volume memoirs of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey , A Mirror in My House, it compresses events into a film about Irish people struggling financially, socially and spiritually to survive during the upheaval before and after the independence of Ireland. Ford had previously adapted O’Casey‘s scathing anti-war play about “The Troubles”, The Plough and Stars, into a tepid, confusing and lachrymose RKO film in 1936 with two badly miscast leads, Preston Foster and Barbara Stanwyck, complete with wavering Irish accents and false bravado. While O’Casey tended to favor grittier urban portrayals emphasizing the futility of warfare, his stories shared a love of small character touches with those of Ford. Philosophically and politically the two men were, in many ways poles apart. Ford also found himself at odds with his producers, who wisely urged him to film in Dublin, (where O’Casey lived) instead of the countryside the director favored, to use color, and to avoid some of the more “patented stage Irish” aspects of a typical Ford movies. Yet Ford‘s shooting script was said to have many of the grace notes of character detail found in O’Casey‘s remembrances, but the story line also tended to be punctuated by periods of rather tedious brawls, a feature of the film that was emphasized in the misguided advertisements and the trailer of the film as well, (see below for an example of the poster art that seemed to promote the film as another rowdy romp along the lines of the recent international hit of 1963, Tom Jones).
While treating all its characters with affection, the beautiful, yet flawed film presents a range of humanity as complex, ambivalent and contradictory as the Irish. The fast moving movie is almost too full of smaller characters we’d like to know better, whether a storekeeper scrutinizing a suspicious check being cashed by Johnny Cassidy (Rod Taylor) or an officious hearse driver (played the marvelous Donal Donnelly) who won’t nail a coffin shut until he’s paid or a prissy young man (Phillip O’Flynn) too old before his time. In much of O’Casey‘s writings and his fictionalized autobiographies the political questions are of secondary importance to the author who is more interested in the people.
As a viewer, we are drawn to this range of vivid personalities as well, but the filmmakers, who were reportedly on a very short schedule, present us with a fascinating, rapidly paced mosaic at times. The swiftness of Johnny Cassidy’s rise from ditch-digger to Abbey Theatre playwright is partly blurred by vivid cameos of Michael Redgrave as W. B. Yeats and Edith Evans as Lady Gregory, though, Evans manages to be a fascinating mixture of intellectual seductress and maternal muse to the playwright he becomes. Another part of that colorful background are the beautifully rendered period details, such as a horse and coach, the lamps and oil that lit the homes, and the wonderful sense of mise en scène created by photographing many scenes in recognizable Dublin locations used throughout the movie. It is a “leprechaun-free” portrait of literate Irish people struggling financially and socially to survive during the upheaval before and after the Easter Uprising of 1916. Most interestingly, though the Black and Tans are depicted as brutal, the English and the Irish characters, even when they are in conflict are not generally portrayed as walking clichés. The protagonist’s brother is shown as having become somewhat upwardly mobile by joining the British military, which was true of many Irish families during the First World War. By the same token, the misadventures of the Irish rebels, particularly in one very funny scene about the “need” for uniforms, are shown as pompous and foolish as well as brave. This refreshing approach to Irish subject matter reflected the humanistic view of the author Sean O’Casey, but the sensitive performance of Rod Taylor, (in the best role of his career), holds this film together.
In a performance that is by turns jaunty, soft-spoken, poignant and angry to the point of tears, this actor, whose long career includes memorable work with such diverse filmmakers as George Pal, Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni, went on to work with this film’s director, Jack Cardiff, in the facetious spy film, The Liquidator (1965) and the memorably violent movie Dark of the Sun (1968), (which is allegedly a favorite of Martin Scorsese). He’s better than alright in this movie. Taylor, whether he’s spitting at the feet of the gentry, charming a young woman, feeling awkward in a manor house or tenderly comforting his mother, imbues his role with a mixture of tenderness and rage that allows him, for at least once in his career, to transcend his all too frequent typecasting.
Critics seemed to overlook his performance and generally dismissed this film as too picaresque to hold audience’s attention. Knowing that John Ford had originally been involved in the production until he became to ill to continue, they often incorrectly ascribed scenes such as a vividly rendered labor riot toward the beginning of the film as the work of the great director. As Jack Cardiff mentioned in his memoir, Magic Hour, “I suppose I should have been flattered that my work should be considered to be the work of the master, but in fact I was indignant. I measured John Ford‘s work on the film…[which]…totalled four and a half minutes out of two hours’ screen time.” Still it does seem that Cardiff, whose adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1960) had earned him a well deserved Oscar nomination as a director had been given short shrift by the critics for his work on this film as well.
Interestingly, Ford, whose last film, 7 Women (1966), would focus on a group of women, was said to have been attracted to the O’Casey piece because of the role of the vibrant, defeated and enduring women who enlivened his work. In O’Casey‘s plays his women are often the conscience of his work, giving the lives of the often blind male characters shape, a soul, and a reason for going on, despite defeat. Under Jack Cardiff‘s caring direction, the movie highlighted the strengths of each of the talented actresses in their respective roles.
In Young Cassidy the memorable women are played by legendary character actress Flora Robson as Taylor’s mother, who brings her great dignity and warmth to a character ground down by poverty but full of love. Delicate Sian Phillips as Taylor’s dying sister is too briefly seen, but her death and the child who comes to tell Taylor of the event is among the most tenderly acted scenes. The scene in the aftermath of his sister’s death, with Taylor brooding at the foot of a small, struggling Hawthorn tree, is among those said to have been directed by Ford. In a 2001 symposium on John Ford , Rod Taylor reminisced that Ford allowed him to play the scene for so long that the actor “kind of trod across the rubble and went to cry”…”I drew the tweed cap off of my head and I had a little weep. And I wept. And wept. And shuddered and wept. I wept. I thought, ‘Isn’t the son-of-a-bitch going to tell me to exit?’ I got up, put my hat on, and walked slowly to where I knew the camera couldn’t follow me.Then I went up to the camera and said, ‘Jesus Christ, Jack–enough is enough!’ And he got up and kicked me in the shins, and said to me, ‘You Australian son of a bitch! You made me cry. That’s a wrap!’ He knew it was about time for the pubs to be open.” Taylor, who bore a youthful resemblance to the legendary director’s brother Frank Ford, was reportedly told by the ailing man to take over the direction of certain scenes, though that was apparently not done once the gifted Cardiff came on board the project. As the actor explains it, the relationship between himself and Ford, despite the fact that they came from very different generations, appears to have been one of gruff affection–though it couldn’t have helped Ford‘s health to try to compete in the pubs with the capacity of a man who was 35 years younger for mischief.
Interestingly, another scene that Ford is said to have spent considerable time directing during his brief work on the film was an extended seduction scene between Taylor and the luminous, almost unknown Julie Christie as a sensual, high-spirited girl of the streets. If this is true, it is among the frankest portrayals of sexuality ever presented by John Ford on film.
The feminine heart of the movie, however is played by the appealing Maggie Smith in a very early role as a bookstore clerk whose loving spirit is inhibited by her sense of the respectable. Dame Maggie, as she’s now known, had developed a rapport with Rod Taylor a year before Young Cassidy, when the pair formed one of the few believable couples in the glossy The V.I.P.s (1964). In Young Cassidy, their complementary teasing and their tender relationship, as he draws her out of her shyness and she softens his rough edges, is probably among a handful of unforgettable portraits of memorable couples that I’ve ever seen in the movies. The timid Smith character of Nora, who, as one critic noted, “makes even reticence seem a powerful emotion” completely broke my heart when she finally finds that she must leave him because “I need a small, simple life—without your terrible dreams and your terrible anger.”
I hope that you’ll share your opinions of this interesting film as well.
Cardiff, Jack, Magic Hour, Faber and Faber, 1996.
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