Posted by Moira Finnie on March 17, 2010
For the director John Ford, this roughly 84 minute black and white movie, made in Ireland, which he did for free and “the sake of my artistic soul,” may be among his most personal films–even though today it is probably the least seen of this celebrated filmmaker’s movies from the sound era. As revealed in a piece by the New York Post’s film critic Lou Lumenick last year, even the director’s grandson, Daniel Ford, has only a videotape of this now rare movie, and the exact copyright ownership of the movie appears to be a bit mysterious. Preoccupied, as almost all of Ford’s movies were, with the inevitable dissolution of traditions, communities and ties, it was not a realistic movie, having about as much to do with “life as we knew it in the ’50s in Ireland as Prince Valiant did to life in the Middle Ages,” as one Irish-born friend pointedly told me once. The stories woven in this anthology film also feature magnificent casts, with Noel Purcell, Cyril Cusack, Donal Donnelly, Frank Lawton, Dennis O’Dea, Jack MacGowran and Eileen Crowe giving life to these off-hand tales.
The quirky The Rising of the Moon (1957) looked back nostalgically through Ford’s somewhat foggy, affectionate lens at an imagined world as it might have been or as the director wished it to be. Originally entitled The Three-Leaf Clover, (as well as Three or Four Leaves of the Shamrock, according to some sources), it tells a trio of stories, all related to the theme of personal freedom, in a loose-limbed way. Each of the segments adapted by longtime Ford screenwriter Frank S. Nugent for scale, unfolded, in their seemingly ramshackle way, and celebrate the rituals of comradeship, tradition, chaos, and wholesale blarney that underpinned Ford’s vision of Irish life. These casually told and seemingly rambling stories are all tinged with the melancholy that a child of immigrants might feel about a romanticized past he could never fully experience first-hand.
The first part, based on The Majesty of the Law by Frank O’Connor, describes the ritualistic, deferential way that two friends accept certain realities when one is a policeman (Cyril Cusack) and the other is a beloved and dignified miscreant (Noel Purcell), who must turn himself in for a prison term or pay a fine after he has struck a purveyor of poorly made home brew. This story was, for me, the most memorable portion of the film. Like Ireland itself, the central figure in this story, the elderly, arthritis-plagued tenant farmer Dan O’Flaherty, played by the compelling, majestic Purcell, is a man out of time, living on his ancestral land in a thatched cottage in the shadow of an ancient tower built by his forbears. His family had seen better days, but the man bristled with a bearish pride and bonhomie, and was mournful that “the old secrets” were being forgotten. As one character (a nervous, ferret-like poteen maker played by Jack MacGowran, who is concerned about O’Flaherty, but also skittish about possible police interest in his own stash of homemade whiskey) says mournfully to the policeman as he points out the ruined tower and national monument that overshadows the humble home of Purcell, “From there to a wee thatched cottage…” Cusack immediately retorts that “Well, ’tisn’t the castle that makes the king.”
All parties are aware of the reason in back of this visitation by the law, and the local inspector, (Cusack), who arrives to gingerly broach the subject of O’Flaherty’s assault on a local moonshiner, is greeted warmly by Purcell and invited into his home with a flourish nevertheless. Other locals, along with MacGowran, also poke their noses through the door, half protectively and curious about the way things may go, but ultimately, these neighbors–and even the victim–arrive on scene to offer to pay the fine to prevent the imprisonment of this man–Purcell’s character reveals that he has the money to pay the fine, but chooses not to pay out of stubbornness and his own sense of the fitness of things. Cusack’s quiet character listens carefully to O’Flaherty, comprehending some of the poignancy of the felon’s rambling commentary on how life has changed.
The words pour out of Purcell, whose character is clearly a rather lonely man, longing to put into words his feelings about his reasons for striking the bad whiskey maker. He rails against the lost art of liquor-making, though perhaps Ford is speaking about something greater that was being lost. “There was never a good job done in a hurry, for there are secrets in it. Every art has its secrets, and the secrets of distilling are being lost. Hear, when I was a boy, there wasn’t a man in the Ballanee but had a hundred songs in his heart. But with the people going here, there and everywhere, and off to Canada, Australia, America, So’ Boston, with the coming of the automobiles and…and…and the films, and the raddio and that other new thing along with it–all the songs are lost, and all the secrets are lost.”
The respectful, uncomfortable policeman’s duty to serve his warrant, referred to only briefly in passing just before he leaves as “the other thing”, compels Cusack to delicately arrange a “convenient time” for Purcell to turn himself in to begin his sentence, allowing O’Flaherty to decide that “the best day all to be Friday…Friday after dinner, [since] I’ve never gone to prison before and I don’t expect they’ll be many people there that I’ll know.” Dutifully, O’Flaherty leaves his home for jail that day with his neighbors and kinsman watching him go. Pausing to gently remove a stone from his home ground, he reverently cups it in his hand, kisses, and pockets the piece of earth, while a harp and flute play the tune to “Come Back Paddy Reilly” on the sidetrack, echoing the words “The Garden of Eden has vanished, they say/But I know the lie of it still.” Ending on this bittersweet moment, the final scene shows O’Flaherty entering the jail with his “captor” (the policeman) encased beneath his massive arm draped over his shoulder in a comradely fashion.
The second segment is a farcical piece from a comedy by Michael J. McHugh, which seems to be an extended elaboration on the opening of moments of The Quiet Man, burlesquing the storied Irish obliviousness to time in A Minute’s Wait. Taking place during a topsy-turvy stop on a rail line in the country, this frantic example of the director’s broadest humor is filled with small character sketches, spontaneous courtships, a brief dance, a snatched kiss, an arranged betrothal, a few drinks at the station’s bar, the arrival of a triumphant hurling team, and even a goat and cases of lobsters being tossed into a First Class compartment occupied by a pair of Ford’s perennially caricatured British stiffs, who–of course–are left behind in the conclusion, as the train steams away happily on its own.
While this segment appears to be meant to be a joyous glorification of a streak of anarchy that runs through the Irish character, some of the effect is lost for non-Irish audiences in the flurry of speech that may be incomprehensible for non-Irish audiences and the tired mockery of the English (and modernity in general), seems a bit forced. The most vividly rendered of these thumbnail characters who enjoys the best moments in this story may belong to the bespectacled station barmaid (Maureen Potter, at right), who initiates a quick and lively dance with several individuals and who is delighted to be asked by a man who is courting her favor “How would you like to be buried with my people?”
The last story, called 1921, is an adaptation of a once controversial 1907 one act play by Lady Gregory called The Rising of the Moon, after the famous Fenian ballad. This story is updated to the time of the Black and Tans‘ presence in Ireland and centers around the escape of a condemned Irish prisoner (Donal Donnelly, in his film debut) from under the noses of British military. A gaol, festooned with British machine guns, is really run by Irish functionaries and protected by Irish police who are reluctantly herding along the marching demonstrators who surround the prison while saying their rosary aloud. The British, at least in the characterization of the exasperated commander Frank Lawton, are portrayed as more reluctant imperialists than is usual in Ford’s world. After allowing a pair of nuns, one of whom is presented as the condemned man’s sister, to visit Sean Curran (Donnelly), Lawton fumes to himself “Four years of war and I end up a hangman. How much longer are they going to keep us here?”
The escape of the prisoner, exchanging places with one of the nuns (who turns out to be a Brooklynite flourishing her American passport*), is achieved in large part by the dissembling of the bumbling Irish jailers, and the denseness of the military. Secreting him backstage at the Abbey Theatre, the actors, who are in the middle of enacting a tragedy on stage, hail his entrance, as he quickly adopts another disguise, darkening his appearance and slipping back out into the night to rendezvous with a boat that will bear him away from danger.
Guarding the quay after the escape is a police sergeant Dennis O’Dea, a splendid actor familiar to viewers who may remember him from his appearance in Ford’s The Informer (1935), as well as his contributions to Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), Treasure Island (1950), Niagara (1953) and Mogambo (1953). The policeman has been harried throughout his hectic day by his ashamed wife, (Eileen Crowe), who had showed up to chide him at the prison scene earlier in the day while he was helping with crowd control–only to have her join the demonstrators in their communal rosary, praying for the deliverance of Sean Curran.
She again shows up at the dockside, carrying his dinner in a basket, and delivering a more gentle rebuke for his participation in this event. Despite her sympathies, she also points out that they “could buy a small farm in the country” with the £500 being offered in reward for the capture of Curran. The sergeant hushes her, since he is wary of losing his pension, and irked by his own mixed feelings about the rebel’s escape that are being piqued by his wife. He dismisses his wife’s complaints about the Black and Tans stopping her at every corner and inspecting the basket for a bomb by commenting that their suspicions might have been understandable if “they must have tasted your plum pudding.”
Eventually, a suspicious character named Jimmy Walsh, leading a small donkey wanders into this serio-comic scene of domestic discord between the couple. Claiming to be a balladeer looking for a sailor to buy one of his songs, he offers them “The Peeler and the Goat” as well as the subversive “The Rising of the Moon”. The wife reminds her husband that he once sang the latter when he was courting her. Ordering her to “quit gallivanting around the world,” the policeman is distracted by the arrival of a patronizing Brit who mentions “the Judy” the cop is courting.
Aggravated by the implied insult and his wife’s annoyance, Walsh slips past the suspicious policeman to a waiting boat. The flummoxed sergeant orders him to halt, running down to the steps by the water’s edge and finding a discarded hat and wig. Shouting half-heartedly after the rowboat that he has a gun, his voice drops as he realizes what he has done–willingly allowing an escapee to flee and letting the reward money slip away as well. When a younger, more skittish policeman runs onto the scene asking if he had called him, the sergeant says it is “only a jackass braying… belonging to a friend of mine… Jimmy Walsh, a ballad singer,” who used to sing The Rising of the Moon “when there was a bit of treason in us all.” As often occurred in Ford’s movies of the ’50s, the younger man is portrayed as an incompetent. Played by actor Maurice Good, (at right) a young actor who idolized Ford, his look of fright was genuine, since he was the chosen scapegoat on this shoot, castigated by Ford in front of everyone. While the director later apologized, claiming that he “needed” a genuine look of terror on the actor’s face, this behavior alienated at least one actor on the set, the gifted Donal Donnelly, who said that he understood the director’s prerogative, but was appalled by Ford’s actions as a human being. Riding roughshod over a vulnerable cast member appears to have been a habit that the director could never quite break.
Overall, this part of the movie seems a bit off, returning two decades later to material that Ford had explored in The Informer, but in a rather rushed manner. More annoying, the cinematographer, Robert Krasker, echoed his own expressionistic camera work in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) by framing most shots in this story with a tilted camera angle, which seemed more fussily distracting than indicative of a moral order that was askew. This device distanced the material from the audience, and the stark, dramatically lit scenes seemed more out of kilter in the scenes of married squabbling between the wife and her authority figure husband. However, the angle returns to normal as the scene ends, and the wife retreats, promising “to keep the bed warm” for her dutiful spouse. Perhaps this moment is meant to convey the continuation of abiding affection and forgiveness for those who wander from their own sense of the truth, but the introduction of the character of the wife and these private moments into Lady Gregory’s story, which focused much more on the rebel’s manipulation of the policeman’s conscience, softened the story a bit too much for me, almost making it seem like a segment from a television show, albeit one that was made with an exceptionally rich, elegaic point of view that left me wanting a bit more depth.
Made in only about 35 days, between the Homeric The Searchers (1956) and the darkly raucous The Wings of Eagles (1957), two of Ford’s most emotionally demanding movies, The Rising of the Moon (1957) seems almost like a breather for the director; giving him a chance to parade his sometimes broad sense of humor and spin one more yarn, using his links to his ancestral homeland, and tapping into the well of talent still to be found among the Abbey Theatre players who were cast in this movie.
After the Second World War, as public tastes were changing, the studio system was eroding, and the director’s once powerful hold on studio executives shifted, Ford tried to make commercially viable films, but, seeking to satisfy a creative urge that was not dependent on box office as well, he occasionally turned his cinematic imagination to more personal movies such as The Fugitive (1947), The Sun Shines Bright (1953), and The Rising of the Moon (1957). He did so, even though he said he “knew they weren’t going to be smash hits–I made them for my own amusement…what I used to try to do was try to make a big picture, a smash, and then I could palm off a little one on them [the studio executives, boards of directors and bankers].” After all, as Ford said, reflecting on a career that spanned 57 years in Hollywood, “All portrait painters occasionally want to paint a miniature.”
After seeing the Orson Welles film of The Tragedy of Othello (1952), John Ford felt inspired to develop an Irish ghost story set in the period of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy into a film. He hoped to have his former star (and, some say, romantic ideal) Katharine Hepburn in the leading role. Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald’s names also came up in casting conversations, though due to budgetary and scheduling considerations, only Power, who was on the board of the production company that made the film, would appear in the movie as the interlocutor. His introductions to each story were filmed after Ford had completed his part of the movie.
Ford actually objected to the presence of an international star of Power’s status in the movie, believing that his presence undercut the Irish flavor of the movie, though the actor’s participation was probably necessary to needed to secure distribution from a skeptical Warner Brothers. This viewer thought that some real pleasure could be detected in Tyrone Power’s introductions, as he explained his own family ties to the county of Waterford and his belief “that he had to be one of that group” making this movie filmed “entirely in natural settings” throughout Ireland. Filmed only a short time before his early death, it is good to see him looking relaxed and happy on film here, with only a bit of archness slipping into his generally straightforward comments.
Ford’s longing to work with Hepburn, with whom he’d collaborated once before in the unsuccessful Mary of Scotland (1936), came at a time when the director was plagued by the degeneration of his eyesight and efforts to help retain what sight he had left. Perhaps aggravated by this reminder of his mortality and the possible attenuation of the visual gift that was such a part of his gift as a cinematic storyteller, Ford’s alcoholism also continued to flare up repeatedly in this period. These illnesses, in the case of Mister Roberts (1955), contributed to a particularly contentious shoot, with Ford leaving that production before completion. His desire to return to something personal when he was at a low ebb seems understandable in this context.
Ford approached Michael Morris, the Third Baron Killanin (1914-1999), a former journalist and a key figure behind the development of the modern Olympics as the head of the Olympic Council of Ireland (1950-1967) and President of the International Olympic Committee (1972-1980) with his idea. Killanin (seen at right) and Ford had formed Four Provinces Films in 1951 with director Brian Desmond Hurst (a distant relative of Ford’s), in the hope that they could spark the production of movies in the Ireland.
The tiny Irish film industry had begun to show signs of life during WWII when the Irish Film Institute was formed in 1943 and a few movies were filmed in the neutral state, including Laurence Olivier’s Henry V in 1944, when 1,000 Irish farmers from Wicklow appeared as English knights in that soaring production. The prominence of Irish actors on the world cinema scene in this period, with the likes of Barry Fitzgerald and Maureen O’Hara finding acclaim in Hollywood, and others, like Cyril Cusack, Dennis O’Dea and Kathleen Ryan gaining a foothold in the British cinema, especially after Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), may also have made the possibility of nurturing an Irish movie production company, using Irish cast members, crews, themes and locations even more appealing.
The unexpected international popularity of The Quiet Man (1952)–despite the ambivalence some modern native Irish felt about the movie’s Technicolor view of an idealized Ireland–may have stimulated further interest in developing the market for movies made in Eire with Ford’s name attached. The struggle to make a go of Four Provinces Films was sometimes aggravated by tensions between commercial and artistic choices, as well as differences between the Irish and the American participants in the organization. Ultimately, Ford was able to be involved in the creation of The Rising of the Moon (1957), Gideon’s Day (1958), and Young Cassidy (1965) through the association, but an international hit on the scale of The Quiet Man proved illusory.
The Rising of the Moon (1957), as predicted by Ford, did not earn back its estimated production costs of $256,000 for years. When it opened, it was greeted by indulgent reviews in some quarters as sentimental stereotyping, but was banned in Northern Ireland out of fear of the revolutionary sentiment it might stir up, and a Limerick councilman labeled it “a vile production and a travesty of the Irish people” as he made the empty gesture of introducing a resolution calling upon Warner Brothers to withdraw it from worldwide distribution. Some, notably those who saw through the sometimes glaring stereotypes and appreciated the point of Ford’s magnanimous gesture toward the Irish film industry and his underlying themes of freedom, were more inclined to like the movie, even while acknowledging that the protean director’s imprimatur on the Irish character, established in so many of his movies, and particularly The Quiet Man, may have made it more difficult for future filmmakers from Ireland to establish their own visions of their people on film. The director himself simply commented years later that “I made it just for fun and enjoyed it very much.”
The emergence of an Irish film industry hoped for would come decades after Ford’s death, and near the end of Killanin’s life with filmmakers in the indie and mainstream such as Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan discovering audiences for their own visions of life on film. While Ford’s storytelling gifts were not in highest gear in this little movie, it is a pleasure to have encountered these touching and amusing stories again after some time. While my own worn VHS tape of this movie is increasingly battered, perhaps if enough John Ford aficionados clamor for the movie, the legal miasma in which it lives on will yield a possible broadcast in the future or a DVD.
Though this movie was among those shown in the NYC area on tv around St. Patrick’s Day in the 1960s and 1970s, the last time I caught this movie publicly was in 2000, when I had a chance to see a decent print from the Irish Film Archive of The Rising of the Moon (1957) that was provided to Global Visions: The Second Annual Boston Irish Film Festival at the Harvard Film Archive, which continues to take place each year. The Eleventh Annual Irish Film Festival, which takes place from March 25-March 28 this year in the Boston area, has grown considerably since that time, and now features a range of old, new, commercial and independently made films by and about the Irish. Details about this event can be seen here: http://www.irishfilmfestival.com/.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to All!
Davis, Ronald L., John Ford: Hollywood’s Old Master, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
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