Posted by Moira Finnie on February 2, 2011
My fellow Morlock, R. Emmet Sweeney has written an excellent appreciation of the restoration of the long-lost John Ford film Upstream (1927) that was recently screened at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. Like Rob, I saw this delightful movie for the first time as well–though I was in a relatively small audience at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York with Philip P. Carli providing live musical accompaniment on the piano. The Dryden Theatre at Eastman House rang with laughter and applause last weekend in response to Upstream, though the audience was also held rapt by another movie on the program created by a member of the same family. Francis Ford (1881-1953), a man who acted in around 400 movies and wrote, directed and produced close to 200 films, preceded his baby brother, the four time Oscar winning director, John Ford, into the burgeoning movie industry by several years. Frank Ford is primarily remembered now as a fairly obscure and often silent member of the John Ford Stock Company in the background of numerous films, including Upstream, where he appears as a medicine show salesman who likes to guzzle his own wares. On rare occasions in his long years as an obscure character actor, Francis had a few moments of glory: his brave (if thirsty) Revolutionary soldier Joe Boleo in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), the frightened victim of a lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), the old codger who rises from his death bed to witness the battle royal in The Quiet Man (1952) or his silent but animated coonskin-wearing Civil War veteran in The Sun Shines Bright (1953). While Francis was often a sad, peripheral figure after he gave up directing for acting in the late ’20s, filmmaker Francis Ford’s When Lincoln Paid (1913), has only recently been restored after almost 98 years in obscurity, and highlighting a nearly unknown talent.
The film was a thirty minute, two-reeler, made for distribution by Kay-Bee pictures, (Kay-Bee was a subsidiary of Universal and was also known as Bison). The Civil War story may have been directed by and starred John Ford‘s elder brother and unsung pathfinder, Francis Ford a year before John Feeney’s arrival in California, but the seeds of the “Fordian” storytelling that recur so often in justly celebrated films such as The Searchers, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley can be discerned in When Lincoln Paid in less polished form, as characters cope with private pain and loss, the longing for revenge, the development of empathy and public action for a greater good. Long forgotten and assumed lost, this movie was unearthed by contractor Peter Massie, who came across a 35mm Monarch projector and seven reels of nitrate film tucked away and forgotten in the summer of 2006 as he prepared to demolish a barn in Nelson, N.H. It was eventually determined that this movie was the only surviving copy of one of the eight silent films starring Francis Ford as Lincoln; there are no known surviving copies of the others.
“I was up in the attic space, and shoved away over in a corner was the film and a silent movie projector, as well,” Massie said of his discovery in the western New Hampshire town of Nelson, a tiny village of 665 people. “I thought it was really cool.” The contractor kept the find in his basement for some time before contacting Keene State College Professor Emeritus of Film Studies Dr. Larry Benaquist, who helped to identify the uniqueness of this discovery. Benaquist believes the film was found in the Granite Lake area because the spot once teemed with summer camps where children might have seen the movie as an evening’s wholesome entertainment. Working with the George Eastman House, the college determined that this movie was not in any other archive. Even though the images themselves were in remarkably decent shape after almost a hundred summers and winters in the cool of the shaded barn where they were found, the flammable, delicate 35mm nitrate film had shrunk and the sprocket holes that allowed the film to be projected had disintegrated. A grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) and support from the Eastman House helped Keene State College to get the miraculously intact film fully restored, which took about a year and was given a new premiere last April at the college.
Dr. Benaquist explained that “the laboratory had to…remanufacture the sprocket holes to a new dimension, make it in strips, adhere it to the image, and then run it through a printing process where they would print it, frame by frame.” The restorers, working with a lab in Colorado recommended by the NFPF, blended a crude VHS video of an 8-mm copy of When Lincoln Paid that was owned by Mark Reinhart of Columbus, Ohio, the author of Abraham Lincoln on Screen (McFarland, 2009) with the restored footage. Remarkably, the Reinhart video included a few scenes that were missing from the film found in the barn, including some intertitles. The restorers then combined a DVD of the restored film with a DVD taken from Reinhart‘s film to create the final version. Interestingly, silent film expert Dennis Atkinson of Encore Home Video, pointed out to Classic Images magazine “that films of that vintage sometimes have surprising endurance properties…[due to] the care with which prints in the 1910s were made. As the film business grew, he speculates, labs tried to save money by cutting corners and the result was that later prints were more unstable and succumbed easier to deterioration.”
In this brief film, the director and star, Francis Ford, presents a story by William Clifford centered around the perennially popular elements of mother love, loyalty, war and sacrifice, revenge and forgiveness as we witness a grieving mother of a dead Union soldier undergo a change of heart. The mother seeks clemency from her erstwhile house guest, Abe Lincoln, for the life of a Confederate whom she had turned into the authorities out of a momentary urge for revenge. The film even incorporates a flashback or two, with memories seen as double exposures superimposed on the screen while Lincoln, the mother, and a broken-hearted sweetheart recall past events, bringing considerable nuance for the period to the story. The story unfurls from the point when Abraham Lincoln (Ford), still, apparently a bit of a country lawyer, complete with shawl and stove pipe hat, is sheltered at the home of a widow and her son during a storm. He leaves an IOU thanking her for “saving his life” with her hospitality after she refuses repayment for her kindness.
The surprisingly tall if rather beefy Lincoln enacted by Francis Ford is a quietly sad and stately character who conveys the impression that he is carrying the weight of the world, especially when he is being harassed by his cabinet, led by the sour-faced, scowling actor playing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The actress who was tasked with playing the mercurial creature who went from being a youngish mother to a grief-stricken, white haired wraith whose bitterness over her own son’s death as a spy at the hands of Confederate troops also leads her to turn in the son of a Southern general who stumbles into her home desperately tired.
Among the cast members are Ethel Grandin, who is familiar to those who caught the once-daring 1913 white slavery movie, Traffic in Souls recently on TCM, and Jack Conway, who reportedly left acting for a career behind the camera after the youthful actor thought it better to refuse his director’s request to wrestle a lion in a cage. Conway would go on to become a fixture at MGM as a director of such films as A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Libeled Lady (1936), and Boom Town (1940). In this film, Conway needn’t have worried too much about any lions, though Ford reportedly liked his action with some real punch, goading his players with his sarcastic remarks, such as “Now boys, remember you are not in a drawing room; don’t bow to each other or apologise if you should happen to take a piece of skin away from the man you are fighting. This is to be the real thing—go to it. Who will roll down that bank? Who will fall off a horse? I don’t believe one of you dare—huh! You will?—and you will? Good! I thought there might be one or two of you who did not want a cushion to fall on—no, I don’t want any more. Listen, boys, a dollar for a bloody nose and two for a black eye.” Given the brisk action, cannon fires and the number of horse and riders involved in the brief skirmishes depicted in this movie, with some of it apparently filmed on the edge of a gravel pit near Inceville, the Ford deftness at portraying dramatic movement on screen does not seem to have belonged exclusively to younger brother Jack. There is one glimpse of Confederate soldiers on horseback as they are silhouetted against the sky that reminded me vividly of similar moments in Rio Grande (1950) and The Horse Soldiers (1959), directed by John Ford. This clip from an early part of When Lincoln Paid may provide a taste of the dynamic editing and staging that Francis Ford used in this movie:
Francis Ford, was born in Portland, Maine as Frank Thomas Feeney in 1881, the fourth of eleven children. He was born twelve years before his better known brother saw daylight. “Frank” Ford appeared in some 400 films, and directed 175 films between 1912 and 1928, a profession that he introduced his younger brother to in the teens. The elder Ford son had left home to fight in the Spanish-American War, though when the army discovered his extreme youth at the time, he had returned home. Eventually, he disappeared from his family’s home town for fifteen years after a shot-gun marriage to a 16 year old girl, the birth of a son and a divorce. He worked in the circus, vaudeville and eventually tried the legitimate theater with little success, and, according to Ford, began in movies while working on the streets of New York. An individual from the Centaur film company, struck by his height and his lantern-jawed profile, singled him out while he was cleaning gas lamps at the curb; offering him the princely sum of $2 a day to do stunt work in films. Learning his new trade from the ground up, (and apparently changing his last name to Ford when a car drove by from Feeney around this time to save his family any embarrassment), he was employed as an “all-rounder” by Edison, the American branch of the Melies Company, chafed under the credit-hogging Thomas Ince in California, and attracted the attention of Universal’s driving force, Carl Laemmle. In many of his films of this period, Frank also appeared in leading roles as well as directing much of the action, earning praise for his work.
Later, Ford would say that he chose this way of life after his “father told me I didn’t have any sense, and that I had better try at being a policeman or get on the stage. The stage looked good to me, as there I wouldn’t have to do any work—as I thought at that time—but I’ve since had a slight awakening.” At the time of this statement, as Ford historian Tag Gallagher has pointed out, “Frank was [then] conceiving, scripting, casting, staging, filming, editing and starring in one thirty- or forty-five-minute drama per week, year after year, in a hotly competitive industry.”
Despite some friction in their working relationship, Thomas Ince generously commented once that Francis Ford was “without doubt one of the most finished of all pioneer film performers. It was nothing for him to play an Indian hero in the morning and make up as Abraham Lincoln for the afternoon’s work.” Earning a reputation as a filmmaker whose movies were full of action, Ford began appearing in longer, more ambitious movies, playing Sherlock Holmes in a 1914 version of A Study in Scarlet and Custer in Custer’s Last Fight (1912), which was credited to Thomas Ince as director, though scholars today believe it was once again Ford‘s handiwork behind the camera as well as in the leading role. Francis Ford‘s interest in playing heroic figures on screen extended to casting himself in the role of The Great Emancipator repeatedly in early films such as On Secret Service (1912), The Battle of Bull Run (1913), The Toll of War (1913), From Rail Splitter to President (1913), and The Heart of Lincoln (1915). Part of the popularity of movies dealing with the Civil War was caused by nationwide interest sparked by the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of that conflict, while the subject matter of the war provided ample opportunities for the appealing action sequences that were becoming Ford‘s specialties. By 1912, The Moving Picture Herald and other publications characterized Ford’s pictures as containing “vigorous action picturesque… convincing fighting… highly commendable.” The clip below, showing the mother and Lincoln meeting after many years, gives some sense of the simple intensity of feeling that Ford was able to capture on film. The mother, who was not identified in any source, appears to be emoting in an exaggerated pantomime, while Ford and the actor playing Stanton show a more restrained approach, a choice that makes them more appealing to modern viewers:
According to Frank Ford in an interview with Universal Weekly, the studio magazine, “There is nothing I like better than to play Lincoln. I have a big library devoted to this great man, and I have studied every phase of his remarkable character and when I am acting the part, I can feel the man as I judge him.”“There is nothing, I like better than to play Lincoln. I have a big library devoted to this great man, and I have studied every phase of his remarkable character and when I am acting the part, I can feel the man as I judge him. I have taken the part in six or seven photoplays now, and every one of them has given a different side of his personality. I have shown his youth, his joys and sorrows, his rail-splitting days, his tragic death, his awkward ways and his capacity for loving. I have not done yet, and I hope to take the part of Lincoln one of these days and show a résumé of his life in a twelve-part picture, or more, if necessary, and when I do, it will be drawn to as near truth as I can make it, and done with due reverence.” While film historian Mark Reinhart believed that Ford was “not a particularly good Lincoln, he’s kind of short and stocky” he seems quite tall to me on screen. Ford was reportedly five-foot-eleven, 160 lbs., and had fair skin, black hair, gray eyes, (making him several inches shorter than the actual Lincoln). At barely thirty years of age, Francis Ford also lacked the lines and gravitas that were so evident and appealing in the real Lincoln’s visage, though he does convey a bit of melancholy world weariness associated with the legendary president.
During this same period, John Ford, newly arrived from Portland and enthralled with the movies, was apprenticing in the movie trade under his brother’s mentorship, with the filmmaker exposing his much younger brother to the sometimes rough and tenuous life of film production when he often asked him to double for him on screen while he directed the action of films. Some of the circumstances that Francis Ford placed his sibling in during this period included positioning him next to dynamite as it exploded, firing a cannonball past young Jack, having him dash through a mined battlefield set while a small grenade went off near his head, and instructing his brother to jump seventy-five feet from a moving freight car. Never one to forget a slight, some John Ford biographers suspect that some of the harsh treatment that John Ford meted out to his brother in future years had its roots in such experiences. One overt act of revenge appears to have occurred on the set of Judge Priest (1934). Frank Ford, playing an amiable drunk–a perennial role for Ford, who sadly, became a real life alcoholic, a family disease shared by the brothers–eased into a wheelbarrow to rest in one scene.
His brother John Ford had tied a rope under the barrow; tethering it to a carriage that caused the elder Ford “to swallow his chaw” when it careened down the street with him in it. “That was for the grenade!” the director asserted, as though the earlier incident had occurred only yesterday instead of years earlier. After a series of professional missteps, financial reverses and filmmaking became increasingly complicated in the 1920s, Frank Ford eventually abandoned directing, though he was responsible for recommending his brother John Ford for a shot at a director’s job. Despite any brotherly enmity and the insecurity that sensitive people always experience, when asked about who influenced him as a filmmaker, John Ford replied that his brother Francis “was the only influence I ever had, working in pictures.” The man who is most often cited as the greatest of American directors added that “[Francis] was a great cameraman—there’s nothing they’re doing today—all these things that are supposed to be so new—that he hadn’t done; he was really a good artist, a wonderful musician, a hell of a good actor, a good director—Johnny of all trades—and master of all; he just couldn’t concentrate on one thing too long.” In an observation that could easily have been said about either brother, Francis Ford was described fondly by a writer in Motion Picture Magazine as a man who “under the quiet, almost sarcastic manner, there is deep seriousness, and below the veil of indifference there is one of the warmest hearts imaginable…he gives the wrong impression to those who do not know him well.”
90% of all silent films have been lost, making the rediscovery of When Lincoln Paid, a film that was made by the man who influenced the greatest American director was a serendipitous event for anyone who loves movies. Please check your attic.
When Lincoln Paid is currently scheduled to be screened at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 23rd, 2011at 7 p.m. CT at the Vilas Communication Hall. You can see more about this event here.
Birchard, Robert S., Early Universal City, Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Bogdanovich, Peter, John Ford, University of California Press, 1978.
Eyman, Scott, Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Gallagher, Tag, “Brother Feeney – Francis Ford,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 53, Dec., 2009.
“Lincoln Film Restored,” Classic Images, Aug., 2010.
McBride, Joseph, Searching for John Ford: A Life, Macmillan, 2003.
McCormack, Kathy, “1913 Lincoln Film Found in NH Barn Cleanup,” Salon Magazine, April 13, 2010.
Wills, Garry, John Wayne’s America, Touchstone, 1998.
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