Eighty years ago this week, RKO released the passion project of one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded directors, starring one of its best young actresses. But The Plough and the Stars, once highly anticipated, pleased none of the principals involved: the studio, director John Ford, star Barbara Stanwyck, and the Irish playwright whose work was adapted, Sean O’Casey. It raised legitimate questions over how faithfully the film industry would treat complex, provocative subject matter.
Probably Ford’s most famous utterance, at a legendary 1950 Screen Directors Guild showdown over the blacklist (“I am John Ford and I make Westerns”), could just as truly have been rephrased as “I am John Ford and I am Irish-American.” Ireland was second only to the West as a favorite subject.
In the mid-1930s, his most recent Irish project had given him a virtually unrivaled reputation as an artist. The Informer, adapted from the Liam O’Flaherty novel, not only brought him a Best Director Oscar but, for a few decades, a distinction that has since gone to the likes of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: critical acclamation as the greatest film of all time.
In other words, he was now close to the hottest director in Hollywood. Within the strict bounds of the studio system of the time, his RKO bosses wanted to make him happy.
From the first, everyone should have known that problems would need to be surmounted in translating the material from stage to screen. The Plough and the Stars, like the other parts of the “Dublin Trilogy” by Sean O’Casey, The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, is a tragicomedy about boastful, cowardly or delusional men and their long-suffering women, set in the tenements of Ireland’s largest city amid the nation’s war of independence and civil war.
The Irish themselves were divided over the meaning of the play, as indicated by a riot during its initial 1926 run at the Abbey Theatre (an event described in this prior post of mine). Certain scenes—including an off-screen orator using phrases from a leader of the Easter Rising, Padraig Pearse, the Irish tricolor brought into a bar, and a prostitute soliciting business—had aroused the ire of the patriotically correct. If the Irish, the people with the most direct knowledge of the events depicted, couldn’t agree about it, how could one ever expect the band of callous outsiders in Hollywood to make sense of it?
John Ford would have none of that.
What could go wrong? As it turned out, way too much:
*Pleasing the Puritans. One source of the Dublin rioters’ anger was O’Casey’s prostitute character Rosie Redmond. Such fallen women, they complained, were not emblematic of Irish womanhood. No matter how much O’Casey complained about these critics and the censorship they advocated, however, they did not succeed in significantly diluting Rosie’s depiction on stage; only Hollywood managed to do so. It might be argued that this did not affect the political stance of the movie. But it did soften the Marxist O’Casey’s picture of the desperate lengths to which Dublin’s tenement dwellers would go in order to live to tomorrow. Nor was the cantankerous playwright happy about satisfying British censors who requested the removal of any references to God.
*Miscasting of leads. Ford got his wish to hire four members of the Abbey Theatre (including Barry Fitzgerald, who would go on to an Oscar-winning career of his own as a character actor). In return, however, RKO insisted that he hire American stars for the leads in order to assure some box-office revenues. The result was two markedly different acting styles: the stage-based, naturalistic emoting of the Abbey players, vs. the broader manner, honed for the big screen, of Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster as, respectively, Nora and Jack Clitheroe. Stanwyck looked particularly out of place, despite the fact that, consummate pro that she was, she threw herself into the role, including trying to get her Irish accent just right. But, according to her biographer Victoria Wilson: “One night, in the projection room, one of the producers decided that somebody had to be understood. The Abbey players couldn’t change their dialect. Barbara was chosen, but the early sequences in which she used a heavy brogue were never reshot.”
*Disagreement over politics. Playwright, director and studio held sharply different views on the justice and effectiveness of the Easter Rising, leaving the point of view of the finished film a muddled mess. O’Casey, at one point a member of the Irish Citizens Army, eventually parted ways with the republican movement for putting nationalist goals above socialist ones. Surviving family members of Irish executed during the rising believed he was ridiculing the patriot cause. On the other hand, the opportunity to plead that cause was part of what drew Ford to the project. His nocturnal scene of Irish soldiers listening to their commander lent the troops an ineradicable dignity. “Events and actions which are only reported in the play (the meeting, the occupation of the GPO) all now appear on the screen,” observe Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill in their 1987 study, Cinema and Ireland. “Inevitably, these additions undermine the importance of the domestic sphere as the central site for action and with it the virtues that are to be found there.” But Ford’s views clashed with Sam Briskin, RKO’s recently hired production chief, who couldn’t understand what the Irish wanted in the fight. To Ford’s reply—“What did George Washington want? They wanted liberty”—Briskin responded in a way that could only have made Ford bristle: “They’ve got liberty.” In the end, Hollywood’s requirement for a happy ending made a hash of O’Casey’s point about the futility of Pearse’s “blood sacrifice” for nationalism when ordinary human needs for food, shelter and dignity went unmet.
*An ornery director. “Terse, pithy, to the point,” actress Mary Astor once characterized Ford’s directing style. “Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal.” Astor understood him well, and Katharine Hepburn, whom he had directed earlier in 1936 in Mary of Scotland, did more than that: she loved him. Stanwyck did neither. Her early remark about her role—that it was so insubstantial that she could “walk through” it—led Ford to continually taunt her later on with, “Come on, Barbara, and walk through.” After filming was completed, Ford departed for his boat and refused to come back to supervise any additions. That opened the door to Briskin, never comfortable with such a political picture, to changing Jack and Nora Clitheroe from a married couple to lovers, necessitating additional scenes shot without Ford’s approval.
According to Scott Eyman’s biography of Ford, Print the Legend, the movie cost nearly a half-million dollars but only grossed three-quarters of that. That failure made the studio reluctant to take on future potentially prestigious projects, even low-budget ones, if they couldn’t promise a predictable revenue stream. (One of those was another O’Casey masterpiece that had caught Ford’s eye, Juno and the Paycock.) RKO’s post-production alterations led Ford both to depart for Twentieth Century Fox, where he would have a somewhat freer hand, and to become a driving force at the Screen Directors Guild (later the Directors Guild of America) as a counterweight against studio interference.
Ford was in no way done with Irish subject matter, however. In 1940, he wove several Eugene O’Neill one-act plays into The Long Voyage Home. Throughout his Westerns of the 1940s, Irish characters frequently appear as soldiers who perform lonely and dangerous duty on the American frontier. And, in the same year he suffered through one of his most frustrating projects because of his passion for an explicitly Celtic subject, he optioned another short story that, when he finally filmed it 15 years later, netted him his fourth and final Best Director Oscar: The Quiet Man.
Amazingly, for all his negative experience with The Plough and the Stars, he wasn’t done with O’Casey, either. Shortly before the latter’s death in 1964, the playwright agreed to allow filming proceed on the portion of his autobiography dealing with his early life. Unfortunately, Ford could not bring his vision to pass in this case, either. When he fell ill, Young Cassidy fell into the hands of cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Ford, in declining health, made only one other movie thereafter.