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Charles Winninger

John Ford Reprints the Legend

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

John Ford was probably more conscious of the meaning of history than any other American director; in a sense, the evolution of his historical vision is the measure of his growth as an artist. This evident fact is often commented on but, surprisingly, almost invariably in only the most general terms. A natural, useful way of defining this evolution more precisely is to compare closely related films Ford made at different stages of his career. An ideal subject for such a study, a pair of films sharing a common setting, literary source and group of recurring characters, is Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright. So closely, in fact, are the two related that it has become popular to describe the second film as a “remake” of the first. While such terminology is not exactly accurate, it does suggest that a comparative study of the two films should make it possible to analyze the evolution of Ford’s historical perspective in precise, concrete terms.

One way to measure the extent of this evolution is to compare the respective endings of the two films. Each conclusion revolves around a parade, but their tones are as different as their times, as day and night. Judge Priest ends with a sunlit parade; the final shot is of Confederate war veterans marching forward past both sides of the camera. In fact the parade literally surrounds the camera, as if to engulf the audience in the celebration taking place on screen (and the shot itself makes the ending uniquely processional in the work of a director whose final images are almost invariably recessive). In addition, the entire parade sequence is organic; everyone connected with it could be encompassed by a single longshot. Even the purely personal moments (such as a final feat of tobacco-juice-spitting marksmanship) are visually presented within their larger context, shown on a screen teeming with people.

‘The Sun Shines Bright’

The final image of The Sun Shines Bright is of Jeff Poindexter (Stepin’ Fetchit) sitting alone on a porch in the evening, lazily playing his harmonica. The music is audible, but otherwise there is scarcely a sign of life on the screen; the shot could almost be a still photograph. The final image of a solitary figure suggests an individual isolation consistent with the visual fragmentation of the entire final sequence. Each character or group, all the (surviving) members of cast and community who have been important in the film, are given recognition time here (as in Judge Priest and countless other Ford films), but in this case the reintroduction is accomplished without any unifying group shots; we see each pan of the community but never the entire social organism. For example, while the title character in Judge Priest last appears on the screen as one (not particularly important) part of the veterans’ parade, in The Sun Shines Bright he is last shown walking away from the camera into his house alone. As he passes through a doorway, a room, and another doorway beyond the realm of natural lighting, we are watching an individual receding into legend rather than a social group advancing into a dynamic future.

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DVD: ‘Show Boat’ (1936)

The 1936 production of Show Boat is the second version of the story based on Edna Ferber’s novel (the 1929 version was in fact shot as a silent adaptation of the original novel and hastily reworked to include some of the show’s songs as a part-talkie release) and still the best. Irene Dunne, who had been discovered by Hollywood talent agents while performing in a road show version of the stage musical, returns to the role of Magnolia, the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), the captain and proprietor of the floating paddlewheel playhouse. She plays out her romantic fantasies in real life when she falls for riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and, after a flirtation by duet, she takes the stage with him as her leading man, against the wishes of a mother who wants to keep her far away from the “wicked stage” of show business. Co-star Helen Morgan (in her final film role) reprises her role in the original Broadway production and Paul Robeson reprises the part he created in the London version, which gives the film documentary gravity as well as dramatic power. Dunne, with her trilling laugh and easy charm, is wonderful as the earnest Magnolia and Jones, most famous as the bland romantic lead of a couple of Marx Brothers comedies, shows more sand and strength in the role of the romantic gambler than in any other of his film performances, but Robeson and Morgan are transcendent.

Magnolia’s story is one of romantic dreams soured by the reality of a flawed man: Gaylord, who coaxes her off the stage and drags her along his itinerant life as a travelling gambler, starting out in high living splendor and then sinking into poverty and neglect. You could say that the song “Can Help Loving that Man” captures the theme of the whole show: love doesn’t necessarily conquer all but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with unreliable men (or, in the case of the welcoming and warm Cap’n Andy, a sour, unforgiving wife). It’s played out as triumphant drama, comic lament, and tragedy, the latter in the supporting story of the show’s original star player Julie (Morgan), who is forced off the stage and out of the company by the local authorities after they are informed that she is part negro. The legal measure is “more than a drop” of Negro blood and Julie’s husband philandering husband uses the letter of the law to save her from the mob in a moving act of devotion. It is the last we see of him. Unreliable at the best of times, he finally abandons Julie, who ultimately drifts back into Magnolia’s story for a moving sacrifice.

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