I watched The Searchers last night – with the commentary track from Peter Bogdonavich on – his commentaries are always so awesome. Searchers fans, I highly recommend checking it out (if you haven’t already). And the good thing is is that Bogdonavich knew John Ford and John Wayne – he interviewed them both extensively, he made a documentary about Ford – etc. So his comments are insightful, and he gives anecdotes you might otherwise never hear of.
Anyway, here are some funny stories:
John Ford was notoriously cranky. Even frightening. Bogdonavich said you could tell if he liked you – but it was always very subtle. Because the guy was such a crank, and could turn on you at any moment if you pushed things too far. (The love of his life was Katharine Hepburn – and apparently the dynamic between her and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby was based on her and Ford – She could joke him out of his crankiness. She didn’t take the crankiness personally. She knew he was a bully, and she didn’t let it bother her. She didn’t cower in fear like everybody else did. John Ford was so tough that he even brought John Wayne – John Wayne! – to tears once. Here’s another story along those lines. He liked to keep people off-balance. He liked to withhold himself – his approval – just to mess with people’s heads. He could be that mean. And he and Wayne were friends! So imagine how he treated his enemies!)
Bogdonavich said that Ford was very intimidating. You had to really get yourself together before speaking with him – and organize your comments – because otherwise he’d bark at you, “Get to the point!” or whatever. Bogdonavich describes the night his documentary on Ford was first played. This was in Los Angeles in the early 70s. And Wayne was there, and Howard Hawks – all the old GIANTS. John Ford was cranky throughout, he was embarrassed by the fuss. You know … you could never catch the guy being self-important, or self-congratulatory. But anyway – the documentary went over well – Ford’s reputation was on the ascendant in the 70s, mainly because of the younger generation of film-makers (like Bogdonavich and others) – who considered him a master. The Searchers didn’t have the reputation then that it has now – of a masterpiece, in general – and certainly one of Ford’s best films. Anyway, after the screening, Bogdonavich went over to Ford, kind of nervously. He didn’t know what to say. He said, “So, Jack … what did you think?” Ford barked, “You did okay even though you had the most boring subject imaginable.” And that might have been that. Bogdonavich laughed, and the moment was about to end – but Ford then reached out, took Bogdonavich’s hand in a firm grip, didn’t let go – and said, “Thank you.” Now from the little I know of Ford, a moment like that has to be earned. And you should thank your lucky stars that he is letting you in a bit. Because it happened once a decade, not everybody was given the key to the castle. But that one moment – the “Thank you” – after all the bluster and self-deprecation – was all the praise that Bogdonavich ever needed.
Another funny anecdote:
Bogdonavich was hanging out at John Ford’s place. This was in the 70s. Ford was a bit deaf – but he sometimes pretended he was deafer than he was, just to make people more uncomfortable, and to have the fun of watching them scream their innocent comments louder and louder. Ford was kind of a sonofabitch in that way. Intimidating. So Bogdonavich said to Ford, “It’s Duke’s birthday next week. I’m thinking of getting him a present – maybe a book or something.” Ford barked, “HUH?” In a way that made Bogdonavich know that … uh oh … trouble’s ahead. So Bogdonavich repeated his sentence to Ford, only louder. “It’s Duke’s birthday next week. I’m thinking of getting him a present – maybe a book or something!” Again, Ford barked, “HUH?” Uh-oh. Apparently, he made Bogdonavich repeat that sentence 3 or 4 times – until Bogdonavich was literally screaming, feeling like a total idiot. So the last time – Ford barks, even more annoyed, “HUH?” And Bogdonavich shouts at the top of his lungs: “IT’S DUKE’S BIRTHDAY NEXT WEEK. I’M THINKING OF GETTING HIM A PRESENT. MAYBE A BOOK OR SOMETHING.” Ford took this in, and then said, grumpily, “He’s already got a book.” hahahaha And Bogdonavich said he fell down laughing.
“He’s already got a book.”
There’s more to be said about the actual filming of The Searchers – I do want to write more about that – fascinating observations … but those Ford anecdotes are classic.
What a crusty old pirate.
The technique with him is hidden. Bogdonavich helped me to see that. People often say that Ford never moved his camera. But that’s not actually true. He moved it quite a bit – but so subtly that you, the audience member, barely notice it. It does not call attention to itself. It always has a point. Wayne walks into the room and the camera moves in with him. So the camera IS Wayne. It tells us, in no uncertain terms, who to look at … but it doesn’t tell us what to feel, or how to think about it. It is a kind of artistry that is so sure, so certain … that can be easily dismissed … because it seems too easy. Bogdonavich’s observations about Ford’s work as a director really made me see that movie in a new and alert way. So much fun.
Oh – and one last thing: see how John Wayne is standing there? That’s from the famous last shot of The Searchers. The pose – with the one arm holding the other – was quite distinctive, and so un-John-Wayne-like that Bogdonavich once asked him about it. “You know how you stand in the doorway in that last shot? And how you have your arms? Was that on purpose? Did you choose that pose, or …”
And John Wayne’s answer is enough to bring tears to my eyes. He said, “I knew a guy who stood like that all the time. And the pose always seemed so lonely to me. I thought it would work well in that last shot.”
The consciousness of his artistry, his genius … that he chose that particular pose on purpose – for that reason …