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John Ford

     There were moments when I was sure that I'd wandered into the gothic, entombed Thatcher Library of Citizen Kane, as the owl eyes of librarians kept watching to see if I turned pages without messing up the precious manuscripts, or, God forbid, placed clippings back in folders not in the proper order.

     Claustrophobic as I felt, I can't blame the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, for its vigilance. I'm editing a volume of interviews with the late great American filmmaker, John Ford, who made The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Searchers, and several dozen other major works. I was holding in my shaky clutches yellowed deteriorating newspaper articles, oral history interviews with his actors and technicians, and invaluable one-of-a-kind letters to and from Ford.

     "Someone told me the Ford family wanted to sell his papers, and we got a feeler: Would you be interested in knowing about them?" explained Sandra Taylor, Curator of Manuscripts for the Lilly Library, of their extraordinary John Ford Collection. "They had me get in contact directly with his grandson, Dan Ford. We decided to make the purchase: correspondence, movie stills, scripts, financial records, set shots, letters, lots of photographs.

     "Dan helped me to pack it up and ship the collection from California. Since, he's kept close contact, very pleased that an academic institution utilizes it. Although he has retained copywright to the collection, he hasn't denied anyone the use of it."

     I had flown to Indiana to locate material for my book, John Ford: Interviews, to be published in the year 2000 by the University Press of Mississippi. But I found my scholarly attention wandering, and me digging for gossipy insider stories on favorite Ford movies. For instance: my best-loved film in the world, the 1956 John Wayne-starring western, The Searchers.

     To begin, I learned why Wayne's character had a name-change from the Alan LeMay novel. Amos Edwards became Ethan Edwards, so nobody would confuse the white marauder with the all-black television program, Amos 'N'Andy. From oral histories with the cast conducted by Dan Ford, I found out hilarious things about Wagon Train TV star Ward Bond's appearance in The Searchers. Convinced that the ingenue of the movie, Vera Miles, had the hots for him, the foppish, sixtyish Bond stripped down and paraded nude whenever she walked by. Apparently, Miles was totally oblivious to his come-ons.

     A second Ward Bond story: a dramatic, heartbreaking Searchers scene had to be shot over again because the camera wasn't going. The dizzy actor, who was shaving off-screen, had pulled the camera's plug, and inserted into the outlet the plug for his electric razor!

     And to the Ford collection of letters:

     I uncovered a note to producer Darryl F. Zanuck in which the filmmaker suggested that he'd redo in Hollywood Jean Renoir's French classic Grand Illusion, with Victor McLaglen in the Jean Gabin blue-collar part, and David Niven as the Erich von Stroheim aristocrat. A dumb idea? Zanuck thought so, memoing Ford, "I think it would be a criminal injustice to attempt to remake the picture in English."

     I located an amazing fandom letter from Russia's Sergei Eisenstein, who, in 1946, was arranging a conference in Moscow, and also a book, both totally dedicated to Ford's works. The filmmaker of The Battleship Potemkin wrote to Ford, in perfect English, "Hell knows what you think of my pictures, but I'm ranging among your most fervent admirers here...For my own sake, please add anything available about your work on Young Mr. Lincoln... (T)his is one of the films I like most of all ever seen."

     And Ford's personal life? A Catholic who didin't believe in divorce, he was wed in 1920 to Mary McBride Smith, and they remained married, though not always happily, until his death in 1973. In the Indiana collection, there are many letters between them, mostly of the newsy sort. Few approach the ardor of Mary's epistle to her husband in 1921, a year into their marriage? "Really Jack, I have a wild, fiendish, terrible crush on you, and I miss you, so it hurts awfully...I surely do love you more each day."

     In the 1930s, "Jack" Ford had someone else who adored him: young Katharine Hepburn, his star of Mary of Scotland.

     It was positively thrilling, me privy to never-published love letters penned by the always-candid Hepburn. According to her account, she got along famously with Ford's wife, Mary, until Mary caught on. The most eye-opening letter is one to Ford on Dec.5,1938, which Hepburn wrote in the form of a mini-play dialogue with her skeptical alter ego called "Miss D."

     Hepburn to Miss D. about Mary Ford: "I think she is insensitive and crude but still hasn't had an easy time of it. He is probably better married to that type pf woman then to some fascinating creature with whom he would have been happy."

     (Hepburn herself, of course.)

     Hepburn: "I think if anyone could have made Jack happy, I am that person. Jack really loved me. Don't you think so?"

     Miss D: "I doubt it."

     Soon after, Hepburn moved on to a celebrated, long-lasting romance with another ever-married Catholic man, Spencer Tracy.

(November, 1999)


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