Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Flashback, November 1939: Ford’s 1st Technicolor Film, ‘Drums Along the Mohawk,’ Opens

Drums Along the Mohawk, which premiered 75 years ago this week in Gloversville, N.Y., has never received the close scrutiny given two other films by John Ford released during this banner year for him, Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln. But, for someone already regarded as a master of the moving image, it marked a distinct advance: his first movie in Technicolor.

“It's no use talking to me about art, I make pictures to pay the rent,” the Oscar-winning director disclaimed about his creative aspirations. But, like an artist, this creator of “pictures” knew how to work with the materials he had at hand—including, during production of Drums Along the Mohawk, a new film process and a leading lady working way out of her comfort zone.

Ford didn’t spend much time covering a scene—actors would enter, play it out and depart—but using composition he could insert all kinds of subtleties, through depth, light and shadow, and careful camera placement. He might not come up with a particular film process, but he was always on the lookout for techniques that worked and knew how to employ them in his own projects. So, for instance, after he saw how German filmmakers F.W. Murnau and G.W. Pabst used shadow effectively, he borrowed from their “Expressionist” style when making The Informer, his thriller about the final days of a Dubliner with an uneasy conscience.

The director was seeking something different for Drums Along the Mohawk. The film, based on a bestselling Walter Edmonds novel, would focus not on one psychologically isolated man but on a couple who would be at the vanguard of an entire group of people. Like so many of Ford’s other movies, it was a western, all right, but one occurring east of the Mississippi. It could have been a missing entry in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Saga, about how settlers in the New York interior coped with attacks by the British and their Native-American allies during the Revolutionary War.

While not as masterful as what Ford later put onscreen in such films as The Quiet Man and The Searchers, the color scheme worked out for Drums Along the Mohawk earned Academy Award nominations for cinematographers Bert Glennon and Ray Rennahan. But, on the set of the movie, before all this was apparent, there was one important doubter: leading lady Claudette Colbert.

Then the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, Colbert was a fish out of water on the movie’s remote Utah location. It did not possess the comforts she had grown familiar with, and when she managed to secure one of these for her own use—a bathtub—her crusty director ridiculed her in front of the entire set.

Moreover, that set was about as testosterone-charged as it could get in Hollywood. Over the years, members of the so-called "Ford Stock Company" would include stunt men Terry Wilson, Chuck Hayward, and Ben Johnson; directors of photography Winton Hoch and William Clothier; prop man Lefty Hough; film editor Robert Parrish; art director Fran Hotaling; assistant director Wingate Smith, who was also Ford's brother-in-law; writers James Warner Bellah, Nunnally Johnson, John Lee Mahin, and Philip Dunne; and actor (and Ford drinking buddy) Ward Bond. 

Scan that list again. Not a woman in the bunch—rather like the army and naval crews so many of his movies would chronicle and celebrate.

As with most clashes, tensions between Colbert and Ford arose because of their wildly varying personalities. The actress’ position in Hollywood hinged, she believed, on her sassy good looks, so she insisted on being photographed on what she saw as her left—better—side of her face.

This insistence could drive much more mild-mannered men than Ford to distraction. (Twenty years later, relations between Colbert and longtime friend Noel Coward had become so poisoned by this attitude that, legend says, the dramatist confided to a friend that he would love “to wring her little neck—if only I could find it!”) It didn’t help that Colbert was skittish about how she would come off in Technicolor.

Ford was not one to indulge suggestions from an actor. In the early 1950s, one unwary youngster, 22-year-old Robert Wagner, was startled when the director struck him in the face for being so bold on the set of What Price Glory?

By comparison, Colbert should have counted herself lucky. Ford had fumed over Colbert’s attention to her dailies; then, he had barely held his temper about her desire for a tub. But what put him over the brink was the day she showed up on the set quite late.

As soon as she arrived, Ford went alone for a walk with her. When she got back to the set, she was teary-eyed. Colbert told friends that Ford had read her the riot act over her lack of professionalism.

Colbert survived that encounter, though she also endured an additional tendency of the demanding director’s: subjecting actors to harsh treatment in order to induce a desired reaction (one, Ford believed, the actor was capable of delivering). 

Colbert’s character, the newlywed Lana, would find herself on the physical and emotional brink as she tried to adjust to a life on the frontier nothing like her sheltered, aristocratic upbringing in Albany. As good—great, even—as the actress was, it is very likely that her level of realism in this role owes much to her extreme distress during production.

Why would actors put up with this torment? For one thing, of course, the chance to shine in a prestige project that, in the hands of a consummate craftsman, might provide the greatest moments of their career.

But—particularly in the case of the men on the site—Ford created an after-hours environment where cast and crew could bond as they never would elsewhere. Three decades after release of Drums Along the Mohawk, male lead Henry Fonda told director-critic Peter Bogdanovich about his first location work with the director, in an interview collected in Who the Hell's in It: Portraits and Conversations:

“It was way up—nine, ten thousand feet altitude—in a valley that was high above the cedar breaks….It wasn’t near any kind of civilization. We were there three weeks. Which meant that you can get rock-happy, to use an army expression. Nothing to do at night. So Ford set things up to do….[T]he first day he had workmen and the crew get big logs and put these logs as seats, all the way around in a big circle in which there would be a campfire. And every night there was a campfire. Every night there was some different kind of entertainment. I was made camp director.”

Participants would play accordion or guitar, sing barbershop-quartet style, play cards, or other entertainment, usually ending with a bugler playing taps from the woods.  “I never had more fun in my life than on locations with Ford,” Fonda summed up. But that was always at night: “During the day it was making the picture, you weren’t horsing around.”

Drums Along the Mohawk was the second of three extraordinary collaborations in a single calendar involving the actor and director, bookended by Young Mr. Lincoln (in which Ford persuaded a reluctant Fonda to accept the title role by arguing successfully that he wouldn’t be playing an icon, but “a jack-leg lawyer in Springfield”) and The Grapes of Wrath (netting Fonda his first Best Actor Oscar nomination). From 1939 to 1948, they would work together five times, in pieces of Americana of increasing subtlety and mastery.

Their working relationship ended tragically in 1955, because Ford acted even more egregiously toward Fonda than he had toward Colbert. The director’s alcohol-fueled bullying had worsened over time. While making Mr. Roberts, Fonda’s return to the big screen after several years on Broadway, actor and director clashed over Ford’s tinkering with the script. In an argument between the two, Fonda had hardly finished his first sentence when Ford punched the actor in the jaw, knocking him to the floor.

Fonda did not strike back against Ford, who was 10 years older, but any hope that they could finish the film together was over. Shortly afterward, Ford left the picture, supposedly for reasons of health, replaced by Mervyn LeRoy—a capable director, but hardly in his league as a craftsman.

How might the outcome of that film have turned out if Fonda had known beforehand that the only reason he had gotten to play this same role he had performed on Broadway was that Ford had told Warner Brothers that he wouldn’t even consider anyone other than the actor? Perhaps he might have been more diplomatic.

But as it happened, he did not learn the truth until a dozen years later. Once he did, the two men began to speak again. But the great, if cantankerous, director was now too sick to make another movie. There would be no other collaborations between the two.

Drums Along the Mohawk should not be overlooked amid their other works. Even though, as historian Anthony F.C. Wallace complained in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, audiences learned little about the actual facts of the battle alluded to in the film, Oriskany, the movie remains one of the best works of cinema on the American Revolution. At the close of the film, after the surrender at Yorktown is announced, Fonda’s character, Gilbert Martin, turns to his wife and says that they have much work to do. The comment stands just as well for nation-building as farming in a remote—but now, because of peace, friendlier—wilderness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If I didn't know better I would have sworn you were on the set. I missed this Colbert film somehow, but after reading this review I know all I need to know about it.