Francis Ford: Cinema Pioneer in the Shadows

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.

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The Rising of the Moon (1957)

Tyrone Power introduces the first of three stories told in the film The Rising of the Moon (1957) with the wry comment that “This is a story about nothing, or perhaps about everything.”

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.

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