In praise of an old Hollywood master

Thu, Jun 7, 2012, 01:00

IN PETER BOGDANOVICH’S first feature film, Targets, a seemingly mild-mannered insurance executive, lately returned from the Vietnam War, murders his wife, his mother and a dumbstruck delivery boy. His actions, loosely inspired by Charles Whitman’s 1966 rampage through the University of Texas, form a grisly prelude to a random, senseless killing spree.

In the final reels of the same film, an elderly character actor, famed for his old-fashioned monster movies, confronts the gunman. The ageing star, poignantly essayed by Boris Karloff in one of his last American movies, is past his prime, but he’s more than a match for a nihilistic nogoodnik.

It could easily be a mute play for the writer-director’s entire milieu. Even before we knew Peter Bogdanovich as a chronicler of movie greats, as the author of books and biographies on Lillian Gish and Fritz Lang, his 1968 debut had articulated a predilection for the golden age of Hollywood.

“I never thought of it that way,” says Bogdanovich. “I’m not that self-conscious a director. I just liked the idea of the old guy winning out. I never thought of it as me wanting the old Hollywood to win out but you could certainly make a good argument for that. My father was a good bit older than my mother, so I’ve always felt more comfortable with people who are older or younger than myself, and felt out of step with my contemporaries.”

Targets established Bogdanovich as a key figure in the post-classical American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The New Hollywood, a vanguard that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, and Michael Cimino, had plenty of swagger. Bogdanovich, however, was the first of the young guns to translate that chutzpah into box-office revenue and mass appeal.

“It wasn’t just me,” says Bogdanovich. “People like Spielberg and Lucas and Coppola were very influenced by the older directors. But now the older directors are people like Spielberg. It’s a bit watered down by now. One of the problems we have in film today is that younger directors haven’t seen enough good ones.”

The Last Picture Show (1971) and Paper Moon (1973) were critical and commercial wows, clocking up 11 Academy Award nominations between them and winning three.

“The Last Picture Show is made and structured in a classic way. But the subject matter would never have made it past the Hays Code [the set of industry moral-censorship guidelines that governed the production of most US films until 1968],” says Bogdanovich. “None of the old masters were flashy. They didn’t want to show off. They wanted suspension of disbelief. They didn’t want people to remember they were watching a movie. A lot of films now are just fancy footwork and fast cutting.

“I once asked Orson Welles the difference between cutting up a scene or keeping everything in one shot and he said: ‘It’s what separates the men from the boys.’ Anybody can just shoot lots of coverage then hand it all to the editor.”

The New Hollywood, after the fashion of the nouvelle vague, were buffs, boffins, critics and cineastes. The younger film-makers did not reject the works of the old masters: on the contrary, they embraced them, citing Ford and Hitchcock and Kurosawa at every given turn.

“I wanted to get the word out to the public about these masters,” recalls Bogdanovich. “I loved the films they made. I hoped to create an atmosphere where those films – the kind of films I ultimately wanted to see and to make – would flourish. We were very influenced by the French. The writers at Cahiers du Cinema [the influential French film magazine] had already gone over works by people like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford and had discovered that even though they were working at the highest levels of the studio system, they were making films that were personal.”

More than any of his fanboy contemporaries, Bogdanovich became a conduit between the new world-weary cinema of Bonnie and Clyde and Harold and Maude and classic Hollywood. When Orson Welles hit dire financial straits during the 1970s, Bogdanovich let the Citizen Kane director stay at his Bel Air estate for several years.

“I’m very proud to have known those people,” says Bogdanovich. “I’m proud to have one foot in the old world. I’d searched them out because I wanted to be a director of film – I had been a director of theatre – and this was my way of going to my own private film school. John Ford once said to me, in his usual gruff way, ‘Jesus Christ, Bogdanovich is that all you can do? Ask questions? Haven’t you ever even heard of the declarative sentence?’”

As soon as Bogdanovich had scored a box-office hit, he used his new-found industry muscle to shoot the feature-length documentary, Directed by John Ford.

“When he saw it, he rather liked it,” recalls Bogdanovich. “He said it was a good job on a dull subject. As we were leaving the screening we shook hands and I said, ‘Thank you, Jack,’ and he pulled me up close, looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘Thank you.’ About the best review I ever had.”

His subject was hardly the verbose type.

“I guess I handled him gingerly,” says Bogdanovich. “I read a few pieces Ford wrote in the 1920s about the movies. And he was much more outgoing in his description than he would have been later on. Later, he usually said things like, ‘Oh, it’s just a job of work.’ But as a younger man he writes from a much more artistic point of view. I think guys in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s had to develop a tough shell. I remember Howard Hawks told me, ‘Peter, make pictures that make money.’ Survival in Hollywood in those days was not bound up in artistic expression. Ford and a number of the others cultivated an anti-intellectual pose but it wasn’t real.”

How much of that silent masculinity came about from combat? During the second World War, Cdr John Ford served in the US navy as head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services. He won two Oscars for propaganda films made for the navy.

“There’s a degree of that,” says Bogdanovich. “Most of the people I talked to who had been in the second World War really didn’t talk about it. Ford, Jimmy Stewart, Hawks – they all said very little about it. It’s hard to imagine now. They put their careers on hold for four or five years in order to take part in the fight against fascism. They must have had some thoughts on it and I think it informed a lot of their work but that didn’t mean they talked about it. They didn’t brag or dine out on achievements.”

Bogdanovich first met Ford while writing a profile on the director for Esquire magazine. They had never spoken before when the veteran director, disturbed at dinner by a producer demanding re-shoots, turned to Bogdanovich saying: “They got a word for that – gozno.”

“It’s the Serbo-Croat word for shit,” explains Bogdanovich. “He didn’t know who I was but he had figured out that much.”

Ford, a first-generation Irish immigrant whose father hailed from Spiddal and whose mother was born in the Aran Islands, grew up in Maine as John Martin “Jack” Feeney. He followed his brother Francis Ford, a vaudeville performer who had worked with Georges Méliès and Thomas Edison, to California in 1914. Ford the younger made dozens of films during the silent era but hit his stride as a pioneer of sound cinema, shooting more than 20 pictures at the end of the 1930s, a work rate some attribute to an affair with Katharine Hepburn.

“I think that if Jack Ford had died before 1939 he would barely have registered as a footnote,” says Bogdanovich. “That’s when he found his feet.”

Stagecoach, Ford’s groundbreaking 1939 western, marked a return to the genre after an absence of 13 years. (His last had been 1926’s Three Bad Men.) Decades later the film is understood as the archetypal Ford picture.

“It was the first mature western he made and it was a departure for westerns,” says Bogdanovich. “It’s often thought of as the first adult western. Stagecoach is the first modern western with sound and John Wayne, so it has that iconic stature. I think Ford made better westerns like My Darling Clementine and The Searchers and other films that weren’t westerns like They Were Expendable and How Green Was My Valley that were better, more interesting pictures.

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a serious assault on everything. It tells us our legends are false, that our history is wrong and that everything we believe in is a lie. The revisionist westerns of Sam Peckinpah are not revisionist in that way, they’re just more violent.”

A lifelong contrarian, Ford inspired a peculiar marriage of intimidation and affection among such regular Ford players as Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, and Vera Miles. “John Wayne loved him and feared him,” says Bogdanovich. “Maureen O’Hara said it right when she said there’s nothing that could be done about him. He was difficult. James Cagney said there was only one word for Jack Ford – malice.”

Still, Ford was called “Pappy” by Wayne and the regulars and produced a series of sentimental diaspora films, most famously 1952’s The Quiet Man.

“People used to stare at me when I said The Quiet Man is one of my favourite movies,” says Bogdanovich. “They used to say: ‘Oh, well you know the Irish are nothing like that.’ Then I drove around the Ring of Kerry a few years ago and I found the Irish were exactly like that.”

At a time when the old masters are slipping out of polls and canonical lists, what can younger film-makers learn from watching the work of John Ford?

“They can learn how to tell a story for a start,” says Bogdanovich. “It’s ironic that now that the tools to make movies are cheaper and more accessible than ever that Hollywood decides to make $300 million pictures.

“Robert Graves the poet used to ask before he sat down to write, ‘Is this poem necessary?’ Is Men in Black III necessary? Because I didn’t think we needed Men in Black I.”


A Peter Bogdanovich public interview, as part of the John Ford Ireland Film Symposium, takes place tomorrow. Tickets €10 from johnfordireland.org

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