Bringing John Ford home

Rent a Ford

For Dr. Michael Connolly, working on John Ford in Focus: Essays on the Filmmaker's Life and Work became a labor of love.

Does he like the films of the man whose life he researched? "His films are very sentimental and I like sentimental films," Connolly says. "He's famous for the good bad man and I like that. We're not all black and white."

If you've never rented a John Ford movie, go do it. Though his filmography is long, here are a few top picks:

The Informer (Academy Award, 1935)
The Grapes of Wrath
(Academy Award, 1940)
How Green Was My Valley
(Academy Award, 1941)
The Quiet Man (Academy Award, 1952)
The Searchers
My Darling Clementine
Donovan's Reef
They Were Expendable
Stagecoach
The Long Voyage Home

Documentaries:
The Battle of Midway
(Academy Award, 1942)
December 7 (Academy Award, 1943)

group photo

Dr. Kevin Stoehr of Boston University, Jane McPhillips,grandniece of John Ford, Clare Foley of the Maine Irish Heritage Center and Dr. Michael Connolly gathered on campus in July before Stoehr’s presentation on John Ford’s last feature film, “Seven Women.”

John Ford, one of America's most revered directors, won six Academy Awards for Best Director - more than any other director. In 1973, he was the first person chosen to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award and is often credited with forging the career of John Wayne, his favorite actor whom he directed in films such as "Stagecoach" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

JohnFord book cover

Cover of new book co-edited by history professor Michael Connolly

But long before his success in Hollywood, Ford was the scrappy 11th child of an Irish family from Portland, Maine. History professor Dr. Michael Connolly, another Irishman from Portland, has turned the spotlight on Ford's early years in a soon-to-be-published book of essays, called John Ford in Focus: Essays on the Filmmaker's Life and Work.

Connolly knew very little about Ford until the Maine Irish Heritage Center asked him to join a study group about the filmmaker. There he met Dr. Kevin Stoehr of Boston University, a film scholar and avid Ford fan. Stoehr eventually proposed the book idea and they agreed to collaborate as co-editors, with Stoehr focused on film essays and Connolly focused on essays about Ford's personal history.

Connolly was shocked to discover how much of Ford's background he shared. They attended the same Portland schools, and their ancestors came from County Galway in western Ireland and immigrated to Portland around the same time. From the porch of his house, he could even see the triple-decker apartment building where Ford spent many years as a child.

In the book, Connolly describes Ford's life in Portland, where he grew up as Jack Feeney in a working-class Irish Catholic family on Munjoy Hill, an urban neighborhood that was heavily Irish and Italian in the early 1900s. An aggressive player on the Portland High state championship football team, Jack was nicknamed "Bull" Feeney, now the name of a popular pub in Portland's Old Port. Just after graduating high school in 1913, Ford followed his brother, Francis, to Hollywood. He started out in the silent movies, changed his name after his brother's lead, transitioned to "the talkies" and quickly made a name for himself.

statue of John Ford in Portland

Statue of John Ford in Portland

To get a sense of Ford's early years and how it shaped him, Connolly found his living relatives in Maine, tracked the influence of key schoolteachers on Ford and traveled to Ireland, where he interviewed Ford's relatives (and confirmed the birthplace of Ford's mother along the way). "Armed with biographies, interviews and leads from the Feeneys in Maine and other sources, I was easily able to locate three Feeney relatives still living near the paternal birthplace," says Connolly.

Though respected by leading filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, Ford was overlooked as a native son in Portland until the 1960s. The new book amplifies John Ford's roots and their influence on his work. According to Connolly, several of his movies spring from his Irishness, especially "The Quiet Man," which is set in Ireland and is often considered to be his best movie.

As a child, Ford went to Ireland regularly with his father. He fell in love with the country where his parents were born, and he once told his grandson that his great feeling for scenery in his films stemmed from those early visits to Ireland. Critics often praised Ford for his pictorial style and ability to let the camera capture what other directors needed dialog for. Though he resisted dissecting his movies, he once said, "All I ever had was an eye for composition."

Mike Connolly

Dr. Michael Connolly stands before the entrance to Emerson School in Portland, where both he and John Ford attended.

Curmudgeonly and complex, Ford demanded a lot from his actors and drank too much between films. He seldom gave interviews and deliberately confused those who did get an interview. But his films were genius, and he never lost touch with Maine.

"The Quiet Man" and many of his other films focus on home, family and memories of the past. Connolly makes the point that Ford was strongly influenced by his family. He came back to Maine often to visit them and socialized with his football teammates well into his 70s. While a lot of "old-timers" in his hometown know the John Ford story, Connolly says many of them are dying off. For generations going forward, this new book will be a way to pass on his story.

by Charmaine Daniels

John Ford in Focus: Essays on the Filmmaker's Life and Work will be published in early winter by McFarland & Company Publishers. Visit www.mcfarlandpub.com or e-mail mconnoll@sjcme.edu.