Friday, October 17, 2008

Francis Ford

Francis Ford began a career in Hollywood early, making his way out to California via rough-and-tumble means before finally landing in Hollywood as an actor-for-hire. As a brash 28-year-old he talked his way into acting in early shorts, including working for George Melies, in one of his rare Westerns in the states. Soon Ford would find himself in demand in this new industry, and quickly became a star in the cliffhanger serials of the day. He became so successful that his kid brother John, thirteen years his junior, would eventually make his way out join him when he was twenty.

Cinema history is full of what happened next; Francis, full of himself and flush with success, bullied his kid brother and kept him on set as a whipping boy. Never as athletic as his older brother, John Ford struggled to get by and fashion himself after his brother, a tough rogue who'd do anything to get by. Jack took acting parts (including a role in "The Birth of a Nation" as a Klansman with glasses on) and soon began directing shorts by the end of the second decade of the 20th century. As to vogue for campy serials began to wane, Francis found himself out of fashion, as John's career flourished with the rise of the feature film. Eventually the name "Ford" became synonymous with John Ford, and Francis was but a bitter footnote. As John continued his rise to become arguably the greatest American director (he has my vote), Francis resorted to character acting, including work for his little brother. Jack reportedly even kept Francis on set and gave him small parts just to taunt him and make him pay for his few years of torment as a young man. Indeed, for the next thirty years, Francis would barely have speaking roles in Jack's films, and always small parts.

A fascinating backstory. Yet despite the sordid details and the dispiriting image of one man publicly humiliating his brother for over thirty years, Francis Ford was actually a great character actor, and far more than just a capable veteran. His history with silent films meant that he was skilled at pantomime and naturally fell into broad comic roles. Yet his face had a sadness to it as well, ironically best used by Ford.

Much of Francis' early screen output is lost now or unavailable to view. Like many directors in the 1910s and 20s, he directed and starred in dozens of films per year. Later he would be promoted to Head of Universal's Shorts and Serials department under Carl Lammele. But as the talking vogue moved in, Francis was unable to cope with the change in technology and directed his last film, the middling "The Call of the Heart" in 1928.

Yet he immediately moved to work as an actor. His leading man-looks now gone, he grew a beard and was working right away as a supporting or atmosphere player. His grizzled looks made him a natural for period pieces, like Cecil B. DeMille's "Abraham Lincoln" and a village in the original "Frankenstein." Stiil these were mainly walk-on roles or background bits, often with no dialogue. He was rarely billed in the credits.

By the mid 1930s, John Ford began to cast his brother in slightly bigger parts; perhaps it was a gesture to show Francis who was the bigger man, or maybe just because he knew Francis was a gifted actor. Either way, Ford cast him in three of his Will Rogers vehicles, "Doctor Bull," "Judge Priest," and "Steamboat Round the Bend" which began to solidify the image of Francis as the grizzled sly old dog character that he would perfect. Ford is especially good in "Steamboat," as the riverboat drunk, who stumbles around the steamship. 

Soon Francis would appear in almost all of John Ford's films, stealing little scenes as an often-drunken rapscallion. Curiously he would almost never have speaking lines, either due to his silent film experience or brother Jack's disdain. He would also appear in numerous other movies, almost always Westerns. He's hilarious in courtroom scenes in "Judge Priest" and "Young Mr. Lincoln." And he's especially good in "The Ox-Box Incident," as a mentally deranged old solider accused of theft and murder.

For my money, one of his best scenes is also his most outlandish. In "The Quiet Man" (1952), he plays an ailing Irishman on his deathbed, who finds the strength to leap out of bed to watch the donnybrook between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen (below at 6 min in):

His last film would be "The Sun Shines Bright" for his brother Jack. By this point his health was on the wane after years of acting, drinking, and brawling. Touchingly, the name of his character in "The Sun Shines Bright"  was "Feeney," which was the Ford brother's birth name. An attempt at reconciliation? Who knows. Either way, without Francis Ford there'd be no John Ford. That's good enough for me.

Suggest Viewing:
-Judge Priest
-Steamboat Round the Bend
-The Ox-Bow Incident
-The Quiet Man

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