John Ford Slept Here
The doorbell buzzes are unanswered at the faded, dusty New England three-decker at 23 Sheridan St. in Portland, Maine. However, past a shrine of St.Francis. a side entrance is discovered, and a back stairway.
"What do you want?" a vigilant female voice calls down from the top.
"Do you know that film director John Ford lived in your apartment when a boy?"
She does, though there's no historical marker on the building in which she rents the third floor. Lisa Bridge-Koenigsberg, a human-services worker, had learned of Ford's 1907-1914 residence from a booklet on the history of her blue-collar neignborhood, Munjoy Hill. "I'd seen The Grapes of Wrath, so it made the apartment quite wonderful."
She allows a tour of the high-ceilinged, pre-World War I apartment. Happily, some things are unchanged from Ford's boyhood days. The ancient kitchen, for instance, and the turn-of-the-century tub on four cats' paws. Ford certainly bathed in it! And then there's the old toilet...
John Ford's name then was John Feeney, after his father, John A. Feeney, an Irish émigré who hecame a Portland saloon- keeper. For a time, the Feeneys settled on a farm on nearby Cape Elizabeth. That's where young John was born, in either 1894 or 1895. (Sources disagree.) Then John A., his wife, Barbara, and six children came into Portland. Eventually, they shared the Munjoy Hill triplex with two other large Irish-American families, those of plumber partners Michael Myers and Patrick Mahoney.
There were 16 children in all at 21-23 Sheridan Street. Little wonder that Francis Ford, a restless older brother, raced off to Hollywood and gradually became a film director. John Ford followed, passing over a University of Maine-Orono football scholarship. "Moved to California," an entry in the 1915 Portland Directory reports succinctly, by his name.
Though Ford went on to direct approximately 120 Hollywood movies between 1917 and 1966, including such classics as Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers, he rarely returned in his work to recreating his New England roots. His elegaic salute to old-fashioned Irish Catholic politics in the 1958, Boston-set The Last Hurrah, was an exception. Yet the Portland days can be felt deeply in such nostalgic films as Young Mr.Lincoln and How Green Was My Valley, in the almost mystical idealization of the family unit, a yearning for those he left so far behind in Maine.
A brief postscript: Karan Sheldon, vice president of Maine's Northeast Historic Film, has uncovered a November 14, 1915, newspaper clipping heralding the Ford brothers' return home to produce at least two one-reel films, "Chicken-Hearted Jimn" and "The Lumber Yard Gang" and possibly a third, "The Yellow Streak." They seemingly starred Portland locals, including the police chief and sundry Portland relatives. Francis directed, John assisted. As far as is known, none of these works is extant.
"John definitely acted in them," says Sheldon. "We know nothing about 'The Yellow Streak' or 'Chicken-Hearted Jim' but 'The Lumber Yard Gang' seems to have been a comedy, probably a chase picture, because you had a bunch of Elks and a bunch of cops."
(American Film, September, 1990)