John Ford is synonymous with the Western and, to a lesser extent, the war movie in his later years, but if you skim through his vast filmography, which ran from the silent era up to 1970, you will see he did venture out into a range of genres. Popular and acclaimed favourites like The Quiet Man and The Grapes of Wrath are obvious examples but with over 100 features to his name, there are numerous lesser-known titles that slipped through the cracks over the years. Hoping to remind us of some of these anomalies in Ford’s career, Indicator are releasing a set of largely forgotten gems from the legendary director. The set, dubbed ‘John Ford at Columbia, 1935-1958’, includes the films The Whole Town’s Talking, The Long Gray Line, Gideon’s Day and The Last Hurrah. I’ve got a few too many gaps in what I’ve seen of Ford’s filmography myself, so I requested a copy to review. My thoughts on the film and features follow.

The Whole Town’s Talking

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Jo Swerling, Robert Riskin
Based on a Story by: W.R. Burnett
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur, Arthur Hohl, James Donlan, Arthur Byron
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1935

In The Whole Town’s Talking, timid and down-trodden office-worker Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) leads a regular life, always hard-working and punctual, but one day, everything changes. He’s mistaken for the dangerous criminal Mannion (also played by Robinson of course) and is arrested. The resemblance is so striking, it takes the police a while to be convinced he’s not the culprit and they give him a special passport to avoid a similar mistake. Due to all the publicity regarding the case, the real Mannion hears of this passport and pays Jones a visit, strong-arming him into letting him use the passport in the evening and his house in the daytime. Meanwhile, the situation leads Jones closer to his dream woman, his colleague Cymbeline (Jean Arthur).

This is easily the best film in the set, for me. It’s hugely entertaining and still laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a particularly amusing sequence when the teetotal, shy Jones gets drunk with his boss, who previously didn’t even know his name, then stumbles back into his office with a never before seen bravado.

One of my favourite sources of pleasure from the film comes from Edward G. Robinson. He seems to be having a lot of fun with the dual role, playing with his stereotypical gangster persona, going as far away from it as he can as one character and playing up to it in the other. He does a fantastic job of both.

The dual role effects are done very well too, for the time. One shot is clearly done with back projection, but quite often it’s near-impossible to spot the dividing line between shots and in one astonishing sequence, Mannion can be seen blowing smoke across the divide at Jones. I’ve no idea how they did it so seamlessly.

There are some great side characters too, such as a pair of dopey cops and Jones’ head-of-department, Mr. Seaver, who’s constantly reminding Jones to finish his work on the ‘McKenzie account’. Mannion’s goons are funny too, with a nice line towards the end when they prepare to take out Jones and one pulls out a machine gun, saying “it’s more humane this way”.

The story is also wonderfully constructed and keeps you guessing up to its brilliant climax. The second half has more excitement once the real Mannion appears and bring a little gangster action. There’s a particularly dark moment when Mannion kills someone (off-screen) for instance, but the humour remains for the most part.

I couldn’t recommend it enough. Hugely entertaining, cleverly written and wonderfully performed, it’s a true forgotten gem.

The Long Gray Line

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Edward Hope
Based on a Novel by: Marty Maher, Nardi Reeder Campion
Starring: Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Robert Francis, Donald Crisp, Ward Bond, Betsy Palmer
Running Time: 137 min
Year: 1955

The Long Gray Line tells the true story of the life of Martin Maher (Tyrone Power). He’s an Irish immigrant who shows up at the United States Military Academy at West Point when he’s in his twenties, looking for work. He starts in the kitchen, where he makes a fool of himself, but is eventually promoted to non-commissioned officer and athletic instructor. Over the 50 years he spends living and working at West Point, he meets his wife, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), and the pair, who are unable to have their own children after a tragic miscarriage, treat the waves of fresh recruits as their family. The cadets reciprocate this love and treat this regular fixture at the academy as a father.

It’s a well-crafted, handsomely mounted film, like most of Ford’s work. The director reportedly wasn’t a fan of using CinemaScope, favouring less wide formats, but he and his DOP Charles Lawton Jr. make good use of the extra space, showing off the genuine locations used. Technicolour is nicely utilised too. It’s not a gaudy picture but has a fairly rich, attractive palette.

Tyrone Power is very good too. He pulls off both the comic and dramatic sides of the film, plus his character effectively develops over time as he matures into old age. Maureen O’Hara has some strong scenes too.

However, I was not a fan of The Long Gray Line on the whole. It’s ostensibly a pleasant film about a nice guy who leads a good life and is surrounded by warm-hearted people. This makes for a dull, terribly sentimental film, in my opinion, made particularly painful when dragged out to close to two-and-a-half hours. The special features, which are more praiseworthy, make mention of the number of tragic elements that come into the story, particularly in the second half, but this simply piles on manipulative melodrama in my eyes, which is no improvement. I feel rather than tear-jerking tragedy to avoid sentiment, you need some darker character twists, but everyone’s so pleasant and amenable it’s simply boring.

So not one I’d recommend, but those with a taste for the cornier side of Ford’s work might think otherwise. It is nicely put together at least.

Gideon’s Day (a.k.a. Gideon of Scotland Yard)

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: T.E.B. Clarke
Based on a Novel by: John Creasey (as J.J. Marric)
Starring: Jack Hawkins, Anna Lee, Anna Massey, Andrew Ray, Howard Marion-Crawford, John Loder
Running Time: 91 min
Year: 1958

Gideon’s Day (a.k.a. Gideon of Scotland Yard) portrays a day-in-the-life of Scotland Yard Chief Inspector George Gideon (Jack Hawkins). It’s a particularly busy day too. On top of family commitments (buying some salmon on the way home for unwanted dinner guests and attending his daughter’s music concert), Gideon has to deal with a multitude of cases, both big and small. To name a few, he discovers one of his detectives is accepting bribes, said detective ends up dead, an escaped mental patient murders a young girl, a daring payroll robbery takes place and a bank safe-depository is broken into. To make Gideon’s day worse, he’s given a traffic-offence ticket by a young, over-efficient PC (Andrew Ray).

This is a really unusual entry to Ford’s filmography. With its London setting and crime-procedural content, it is not something you’d ever know came from the director if his names wasn’t on the credits. Speaking of which, watching the film you’ll notice quite a few big names crop up. The DOP is the great Freddie Young (best known for his astonishing work with David Lean), the script was written by T.E.B. Clarke (one of the Ealing Studio’s finest writers) and based on a book by the hugely popular crime novelist John Creasey, and the art director was Ken Adam (of James Bond and Dr. Strangelove fame). However, despite all the talent behind the camera, Gideon’s Day made little impact on release and soon disappeared into obscurity.

It’s not a bad film though. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I found it tonally a little inconsistent. There are attempts to make quite a gritty police procedural, with detail shown as to how the criminals are apprehended as well as a few really tough scenes thrown into the mix. Most notably, the murder of the young woman and the subsequent visit of Gideon to her mother are understated but powerful moments.

However, interspersed with these effective sequences are a lot of jokey, twee tangents. I didn’t mind some of the lighthearted japes with his fellow police officers or his amusingly pompous boss, but the family scenes are very-much of their time and overall the sentimentality and comedy don’t settle well with the darker aspects.

The story is very well constructed though. An awful lot happens over the film’s 91 minutes but everything is tied up neatly and intertwined quite cleverly. Supposedly it doesn’t stick to the source novel very closely, so we have the great T.E.B. Clarke to thank for this. The huge number of cases cracked in one day and considerable number of murders tackled by one man during this time is far from realistic though, so those looking for a thorough examination of the criminal justice system are in the wrong place.

Overall then, it hasn’t aged well with its largely artificial style and chirpy, whimsical approach. However, with a cracking pace, tightly plotted story and mix of thrills and humour, it’s easy to watch. It’s lower-tier Ford perhaps, but worth checking out.

The Last Hurrah

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent
Based on a Novel by: Edwin O’Connor
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Pat O’Brien, Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp, James Gleason
Running Time: 121 min
Year: 1958

* Please note, there is a major spoiler in this review. I’ve marked it out as such though.

The Last Hurrah sees a veteran mayor, Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy), preparing for his final election campaign in an unnamed New England city. He asks his journalist nephew, Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter), to follow the campaign with him, to see how it works. Frank’s own son (Arthur Walsh), who spends his days milking off his inheritance, chasing women and going to jazz clubs, is a bit of a disappointment, so Frank treats Adam as a surrogate.

The campaign for mayor proves to be a particularly difficult one for Frank this time around, as his rivals, the newspaper mogul Amos Force (John Carradine) and banker Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone), are backing a ‘blank-slate’ candidate, Kevin McCluskey (Charles B. Fitzsimons). McCluskey is inexperienced and a little empty-between-the-ears but young and clean-cut. Perhaps most importantly to Force, Cass and their elite friends though, McCluskey is ‘all-American’ and not Irish-Catholic like Frank.

I liked this a lot for a good portion of the running time. I enjoy a good political drama and I’m particularly fond of their often quite cynical edge. As such, I found it interesting how Frank did some questionable things but had good intentions behind them. This made for an interesting take on politics, spinning a positive angle on tactics that could be construed as dishonest or bullying. It’s also portraying an interesting period of political history, when campaigns saw a change in style, making use of TV which favours attractive, charismatic candidates over those less ‘camera-friendly’ politicians possibly better suited to the job at hand.

The performances are strong too, with Spencer Tracy delivering the goods as usual, as the kindly but driven Frank. Rathbone and Carradine make suitably venomous villains too and there are several classic character actors from Ford’s troupe of regulars making appearances here and there.

However, things take a turn for the worse as the film goes on, once again becoming sappy and sentimental. I forgave some of the earlier instances of this, presuming there’d be a twist where it turned out Frank was actually corrupt or self-serving, but it never happened. Instead, we’re presented with another warm-hearted, wholesome Irish hero (give or take some of his slightly cruel political tactics) who isn’t particularly interesting. This wasn’t my main bugbear though. The film’s major stumbling block, in my opinion, was its drawn-out final act. * SPOILERS * The story succumbs to that most sentimental and melodramatic of old Hollywood tropes, the deathbed scene. Here we get about 15 or 20 minutes of mawkish slop as half the cast come and pay tribute to Frank. It left a sickly taste in my mouth after an otherwise quite decent film. * END OF SPOILERS *

So, after a strong start, the film lacks bite and stumbles in its final act. With some decent performances and interesting angles on the political game, it’s still worthwhile, but don’t go in expecting a sharp, tough expose on the machinations of local government.

John Ford at Columbia 1935-1958 is out on 27th April, released by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The picture and sound quality on all films is superb, particularly considering the age of the titles.

There are plenty of special features included in the set:


THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING
– 4K restoration
– Original mono audio
– Cymbaline (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
– Leonard Maltin on ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
– Sheldon Hall on ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ (2020): new appreciation by the film historian
– Pamela Hutchinson on Jean Arthur (2020): a look at the life and career of the acclaimed actor
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Farran Smith Nehme, an extract from the W R Burnett’s Jail Breaker, Edward G Robinson on The Whole Town’s Talking, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
 

THE LONG GRAY LINE
– 4K restoration
– Original mono audio
– Audio commentary with film historians Diana Drumm, Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme
– Living and Dead (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
– Leonard Maltin on ‘The Long Gray Line’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
– The Red, White and Blue Line (1955): rare promotional film, featuring the principal cast of The Long Gray Line
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Nick Pinkerton, archival interviews with John Ford, Maureen O’Hara on The Long Gray Line, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Anthony Nield on The Red, White and Blue Line, and film credits
– World premiere on Blu-ray


GIDEON’S DAY
– 4K restoration
– Original mono audio
– Alternative feature presentation with the US Gideon of Scotland Yard titles
– Audio commentary with film historian Charles Barr (2020)
- Archival interview with cinematographer Freddie Young
– Milk and Sugar (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
– Leonard Maltin on ‘Gideon’s Day’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
– John Ford’s London (2020): new appreciation by Adrian Wootton, Chief Executive of Film London
– Interview with Elaine Schreyeck (2020): the continuity supervisor recollects her work on the set
– John Ford and Lindsay Anderson at the NFT (1957): rare silent footage of Ford visiting London’s National Film Theatre during the production of Gideon’s Day
– Original UK theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Robert Murphy, an interview with producer Michael Killanin, Jack Hawkins on Gideon’s Day, Lindsay Anderson on John Ford, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray



THE LAST HURRAH
– 2K restoration
– Original mono audio
– True Blue (2020): a new video essay by Tag Gallagher, author of John Ford: The Man and His Films
– Leonard Maltin on ‘The Last Hurrah’ (2014): archival appreciation by the film critic and historian
– Super 8 version: original cut-down home cinema presentation
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Imogen Sarah Smith, John Ford on Spencer Tracy and The Last Hurrah, screenwriter Frank S Nugent on John Ford, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray

The two commentaries are very strong, with the Gideon’s Day track standing out in particular (though this might be down to me preferring that film to The Long Gray Line). Conducted by Charles Barr, the commentary is full of fascinating facts and enjoyable anecdotes. It’s highly recommended for commentary fans.


I found the Tag Gallagher pieces to be reaching a little though, pulling out tiny details that I’m not sure have as much significance as he makes out. He does make some interesting points at times though, even if his videos are quite short. The Maltin pieces are equally brief, but affectionate introductions to the films. Sheldon Hall’s appreciation on The Whole Town’s Talking is stronger than these, aided by having more time to discuss the film. It’s a shame he didn’t contribute pieces for the other films.

Pamela Hutchinson’s Jean Arthur piece is illuminating, showing the actress as a fascinating figure who stood out against her contemporaries. The Elaine Schreyeck interview is fun too, offering a down-to-Earth recount of what it was like to work with Ford.

The NFT footage, Super 8 version of The Last Hurrah and ‘The Red, White and Blue Line’ are all a bit throwaway, but they might be of interest to some. I wasn’t particularly drawn to Adrian Wooton’s piece on the locations of Gideon’s Day either, but Londoners will likely be more keen to watch it.

The interview with Freddie Young on Gideon’s Day is impressively lengthy, running the span of the film like a commentary, and sees him give a warm, slightly rambling recollection of his career. He gives little to no mention of Gideon’s Day, but he worked on so many excellent films it can be forgiven.

As ever, the booklets included are fantastic, filling in any gaps left in the on-disc features. A strong set overall then, even if the films are a bit hit and miss, in my opinion.


Features:

* Please excuse the stills used in this review – they were all I could find online and are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-ray.

John Ford at Columbia 1935-1958 - Indicator
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