The newly published book from Menlo Park, California, author David Meuel adds to the pantheon of literature surrounding the esteemed classic film director, John Ford. "Women in the Films of John Ford" includes essays concerning some of Ford's pivotal work in silent films and his collaboration with Claire Trevor, Sarah Allgood, Henrietta Crosman, Maureen O'Hara, and many other film stars of classic Hollywood cinema. The recently concluded John Ford Blogathon attests to the durability of the American director's popularity and the validity of extended research regarding Ford's body of work.
Revealing female characters with perseverance, strength, and fortitude who just happened to be anchors in the lives of many of Ford's male protagonists is an often overlooked perspective by Hollywood elitists who often dismiss Ford as a western director, or a serious film professional who delves much more deeply into the female psyche.
As Meuel reveals in his text, some of Ford's most productive years behind the lens, from 1926 to 1945, when Ford made "41 feature films," only include one western, "Stagecoach." But what a western it was, and the portent for his future cinematic endeavors.
The nine characters around whom most of the plot's conflicts revolve include two women who are unforgettable, Claire Trevor as "Dallas," and Louise Platt as "Lucy Mallory." Both women encompass the contrasts of what Western females could depict, the soiled dove and the delicate rose. But "Dallas" eschews the philosophy of a woman dedicated to survival at any cost when she reveals that "You gotta live no matter what happens." Trevor's lack of "affectation" makes her Fordian character of the frontier prostitute "sympathetic" and "very real" according to Meuel's analysis. He contrasts 'Dallas' in "Stagecoach" with another frontier prostitute in "Wagonmaster" as he reveals how Joanne Dru's character of 'Denver' doesn't carry the shame and stigma of "Dallas."
But Ford was more than a purveyor of tumbleweeds and totem poles. His geography encompassed the West, the Irish countryside, Africa, and the purest souls of womankind. Mothers who loved wisely and well, and lovers whose spirits soared with pride and dedication to what they believed to be morally right, morally strong, and morally compassionate illuminate the scope of Ford's symbolic palette.
One compelling chapter in Meuel's text discusses the character of 'Ma Joad,' portrayed by Jane Darwell in "The Grapes of Wrath." She is a formidable woman, and Darwell's contribution to such an iconic John Steinbeck character could have dissolved into a "maudlin" display of hysterics and saccharin sentiment. With Ford's focus and vision and Darwell's commitment to excellence, the film of the Steinbeck bestseller allowed Darwell to layer her performance by revealing 'Ma Joad' as " a synonym for women who bear great hardship with dignity" by "accepting reality, adapting to change, and loving selflessly."
In Meuel's chapter entitled "The Dark Side of Mother Love," Henrietta Crosman as 'Hannah Jessop' in "Pilgrimage," a 1933 Ford masterpiece, is compared to John Wayne's 'Ethan Edwards' in "The Searchers," because "she's as complex" and as"fully realized" as he is. Such elaborate and well-supported comments in Meuel's deftly finessed revelations make this latest addition to the Ford mythology another welcome, intense read for classic film buffs.
Panoramic skylines often fill the screen of Ford's films, but his sweeping vision of the interior landscapes in the heart of iconic, stalwart, passionate women are also integral to the fabric of emotion created by Ford's females.
Other chapters address actress Mildred Natwick, as the mother in "3 Godfathers," Maureen O'Hara as 'Angharad' in "How Green Was My Valley" and 'Mary Kate' in "The Quiet Man," Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly in "Mogambo," and Jean Arthur in "The Whole Town's Talking." Other multi-layered female characters inhabit the pages of Meuel's well-written and well-researched collection of essays concerning John Ford's women, and without such new revelations, the compelling breadth of John Ford research and previous biographies would be one-dimensional without addressing the thorough complexities of Ford's female protagonists.
Meuel's final chapter addresses the topic of whether Ford should be considered a "feminist" director and reveals the great variety of female characters found in many of his critically acclaimed and socially celebrated films. To label Ford a feminist may not be as critical, however, as labeling him an insightful purveyor of memorable female archetypes with fully realized emotional depths equal to the challenges presented by Ford's male protagonists. Ford fans won't be disappointed with any of Meuel's conclusions.