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Dudley Nichols

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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Of Babies, Bones and Butterflies

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977. This essay on Bringing Up Baby is a chapter of the author’s University of Washington doctoral dissertation Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition.]

Bringing Up Baby‘s narrative and thematic directions have much in common with those of Shakespearean comedy. Positing the green world of the forest against the restrictive refuges of civilization, Hawks moves from a rigid and sterile old order into an arboreal milieu of enchantment and mistaken identity, and thence to a new order which synthesizes the best of both worlds. David Huxley is caught up in a midsummer night’s dream (or nightmare) in which identity, time, direction, and traditional modes of communication are lost or changed utterly. Hawks, like some cinematic Prospero, invokes the power of music and nature to effect the existential regeneration of comic hero and heroine.

Stasis

David Huxley (Cary Grant) is introduced in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker,” perched on a scaffold overlooking a brontosaurus skeleton that requires just one crucial bone to be complete. As a paleontologist, his “business” is a variation on taxidermy, the construction of bones into the shape of an extinct animal. He works in a museum where legacies of the past—nature’s and civilization’s—are displayed. As Hemingway said, “Chasing yesterdays is a bum show”: David is physically and intellectually immobilized by the weight of time into a sterile imitation of life. Momentarily stirred to joy by the promised arrival of the last brontosaurus bone, an intercostal clavicle, he spontaneously attempts to embrace his primly-coiffed and -suited fiancée, Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker). Repressed and repressing, she rebuffs him with “There’s a time and a place for everything.” Not only does she see “time and place” as inviolably absolute categories; it is also clear that those categories will always preclude sexual spontaneity. David’s work will leave “no time for a honeymoon” and Alice proudly gestures toward the brontosaurus skeleton, announcing “This will be our child!” Sexuality and procreation, ordinarily signs of life in motion in the here and now, are frozen into images of “no time” and an unfleshed casualty of past time.

David Huxley's baby

Rather than resenting and attempting’ to defy temporal realities, as do most Hawks and Hemingway code heroes, David Huxley is forced to worship time’s power to deaden and terminate life. Miss Swallow, a walking stopwatch, reminds David that “it’s time to play golf with Mr. Peabody,” whom he is to persuade to donate a million dollars to the museum. Almost in unconscious rebellion against her maternal discipline, he boyishly exclaims “I’ll show him! I’ll wow him! I’ll knock him for a loop!” His fiancée predictably objects to the slang—language in playful motion—and cautions, “Remember who and what you are. And let Mr. Peabody win!” Who and what you are, for Miss Swallow, are further static classifications in contrast to the potential for professional and personal development, particularly in competitive play, that is always present in Hawks’ dramatic films, For David’s fiancée, nothing must be left to chance. As David departs, he absentmindedly confuses Alice with an elderly, male colleague, almost giving him a parting kiss; for as a result of her killing categorizing, Alice has managed to confound David’s ability to recognize or respond to her as a woman. He is as unmanned in his existential refrigerator as are Francis Macomber and Robert Cohn, Hemingway men trained and enervated by women.

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