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A Biography

by Joseph McBride

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-312-24232-8
Publisher: St. Martin's

A fine but overlong biography of the brilliant, cantankerous director who fashioned such movie classics as The Grapes of Wrath, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers.

Born John Martin Feeney in 1896 to Irish immigrants, Ford often felt the sting of bigotry in insular Portland, Maine, where his father ran a saloon. As an usher at the local nickelodeon, the boy absorbed staging and camera techniques by watching the features over and over. Older brother Frank decamped for Hollywood and found success as an actor and director (changing his name to Ford in the process). Feeling he had no future in Portland, John followed his sibling West and became a Ford as well. He soon eclipsed Frank, although he credited his brother as one of the major influences in his career. Directing his first feature in 1917, he turned out a number of impressive pictures and achieved huge success in Hollywood’s banner year, 1939, which saw the release of three Ford films: Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk. Veteran film biographer McBride (Frank Capra, 1997, etc.) has done a fine job sorting out fact from fiction in the life of this difficult, hard-drinking, abusive man. Ford was loathe to talk about himself and, when he did, fabricated extravagantly. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he was fond of saying. Finding published interviews with his subject (who died in 1973) largely useless, McBride turned to Ford’s numerous colleagues and through interviews and research has written what is probably the last word on the director. Rich in incidents and anecdotes, fascinating when describing Ford’s singular technique, this has one serious flaw: Like many modern biographies, it gets so bogged down in details that it is sometimes more itinerary than chronicle.

Skip over the minutiae for a wonderful account of one of Hollywood’s greatest artists. (32 pages b&w photos, not seen)