IRISH STUDIES: Hollywood Irish: John Ford, Abbey Actors and the Irish Revival in Hollywood, By Adrian Frazier, Lilliput Press, 296pp. €20
AS GABRIEL BYRNE continues his missionary role as advocate for Irish culture abroad, it is refreshing to be reminded that this country’s impact on the American film industry did not begin with Colin Farrell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Throughout Hollywood’s golden era Irish actors were a regular part of Tinseltown and, in some cases, were among its highest earners.
This well-written account of the Irish in Hollywood threads together the lives and careers of some of the most notable theatrical emigres who contributed both to the Abbey Theatre’s glory days and, subsequently, to the development of American film. Adrian Frazier makes a compelling case that the Irish theatrical revival of the early years of the 20th century was continued in Hollywood films through the determination of one of the greatest film directors of that era, John Ford.
Although Frazier’s main focus is on the film careers of some of the great Abbey actors, this book is also fascinating for the intimate glimpse into Abbey history it provides through the personal stories of such stars as Arthur Shields, his brother Will (also known as Barry Fitzgerald), Sara Allgood and her sister Molly O’Neill, among others. While researching this book Frazier had a remarkable stroke of good fortune when, through a professional colleague, he was introduced to Christine Shields, Arthur’s daughter, and she provided him with a trove of letters and other memorabilia, which he uses liberally throughout the book.
At the centre of this complex, interwoven narrative is a remarkable artist and, by all accounts, a perfectly horrible man. Although Ford made some of the most enduring movies of the century, his treatment of actors, writers, producers and crew bordered on the psychopathic. The reader will cringe at the cruelty and humiliation Ford heaped on those unfortunate enough to be chosen as his whipping boys. Even great friends, such as John Wayne, were not spared the Fordian fury. A heavy drinker, the director often struck people unexpectedly. Maureen O’Hara, an unlikely victim, recalls: “He turned on me and socked me square in the jaw. I felt my head snap back and heard the gasps of everyone there.”
Ford constantly excused his heinous behaviour by referring to his ethnic background. “Irish and genius don’t mix well,” he proclaimed to his long-suffering wife.
That Ford was a cinematic genius is not in doubt. In many ways, through his westerns and war films, he created the myths of a white American history and culture that strengthened a sense of exceptionalism that is central to the American character. But, in Frazier’s account, Ford also saw himself as an Irish artist, whose ambition was to create a heroic modern Irish identity through film, just as Yeats, Synge and Liam O’Flaherty had done in drama and literature.
In 1935 the Abbey Theatre was on one of its regular tours to the United States. Indeed, the only hope of survival for the National Theatre at that time was to present its work abroad. Box-office returns at home were dismal, and the great days of the Abbey seemed to be over. Many of the actors who had been with the company for a long time were part of that tour and were longing for new opportunities.
They were visiting Los Angeles when Ford was shooting The Informer, an adaptation of Liam O'Flaherty's great novel of betrayal and brutality. From that visit, Ford had the idea of creating a repertory company of Irish actors to bring some of the great Irish stories to the screen. They would start with O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, to be filmed with the original Abbey cast. Some of them did appear in his 1936 version, which was a perfectly dreadful film, unashamedly sentimental and offering an entirely different and embarrassing ending. It is memorable only for the opportunity to see Barry Fitzgerald's definitive performance as Fluther Good. His drunken scene in the pub is among the best comic performances ever.
Although the idea of a repertory company did not materialise, Ford did offer many opportunities to Abbey actors in the late 1930s and the 1940s. In particular, he was loyal to Arthur Shields and Barry Fitzgerald, casting them regularly and providing them and many others with careers in Hollywood at a time when the Abbey was in the doldrums. Even in films such as How Green Was My Valley, a distinctly Welsh story, Irish actors were central, and all spoke with their own accents, being deemed authentic enough for American audiences.
The apogee of Ford's Irish film-making was The Quiet Man(1952), which Frazier analyses with forensic attention. Although many Irish people regard this movie with some embarrassment, Frazier sees the corny acting, the questionable gags and the extravagance of the plot and characterisation as "not so much stereotypes of a socially regressive kind as 'old chestnuts' – oft-told tales and pieces of theatrical lumber. Ford's Irish movie is like a Christmas pudding made from an ancient recipe, stuffed with nuts and fruits and coins and candies of every description, then soaked in liquor."
Whatever about the tasty analogy, he does convincingly relate the themes and characters in the movie to the world of Synge, O'Casey and the exceptional plays of the Celtic Revival. John Ford believed that the greatness of the Abbey Theatre had been captured and, in some degree, immortalised in The Quiet Man.
Inevitably, with the Shields papers as source material, Frazier focuses most of the biographical attention on the Shields brothers. He tells the story of these two Irish Protestants who came to represent the personality of their country to the world while feeling somewhat alienated from the prevailing social culture that emerged following the establishment of the Free State. Frazier has done the State some service in this fine book by reminding us of the remarkable achievements of a generation of Irish artists who defied the narrow orthodoxies of their time and were global before that concept was either profitable or popular.
Joe Dowling is the director of the Guthrie Theatre, in Minneapolis, and founding director of the Gaiety School of Acting, in Dublin