"For a director there are commercial rules that it is necessary to obey.
In our profession, an artistic failure is nothing; a commercial failure
is a sentence. The secret is to make films that please the public and
also allow the director to reveal his personality."
The "baby" of his family, 19-year-old John Feeney, Jr. followed his successful actor/director elder brother Francis Ford to Hollywood in 1914. The son of Irish immigrants would be successful beyond imagining, growing up with an industry and helping it to grow. At the Francis Ford serial unit at Universal, Ford learned by doing everything - stunts, extra, assisting cameramen and directors, and writing. By the age of 22, the newly billed Jack Ford was a full-fledged director of westerns and collaborating with the great actor Harry Carey. At 25 he became a contract director at Fox Studios where, in addition to westerns, his talents were put to use in dramas, crime pictures, and comedies. It was noticeable to the public and the studio that Ford was an able and reliable movie director. Occasionally critics would take note as well at his unerring eye and way with a story.
"It's no use talking to me about art, I make pictures to pay the rent."
He protests too much. John Ford continually pushed himself as a creator and that often placed him in positions of conflict with budget and time conscious officials. While shooting backgrounds in Europe for the 1928 release Four Sons Ford met and became friends with F.W. Murnau, soon to work for Fox. Ford studied the German filmmakers' methods of pre-production and their sophisticated visual techniques, bringing those to his WWI drama.
"I'm a journeyman director, a traffic cop in front of the camera, but the best traffic cop in Hollywood."
The "traffic cop" may have been proud of his working-class attitude toward the job, but obviously yearned for more control over content as his contract at Fox/20th Century Fox allowed for freelance work. The freelance clause would prove most fortuitous for a singular project when Ford met the Irish author Liam O'Flaherty and in 1933 optioned his award-winning 1925 novel The Informer. The novel spoke to Ford's Irish soul and his artist's heart.
"It's going to be very hard to find a studio that will back this picture. It's very different from the usual fare."
Ford knew his industry and was not welcomed when he shopped his and Dudley Nichols (The Long Voyage Home, The Lost Patrol) treatment of The Informer at the various studios. Merian C. Cooper at RKO was fearless enough in spirit and looking for something artistic to compliment the great commercial success he had experienced with King Kong. It was the beginning of a friendship and a business partnership resulting in Argosy Pictures.
The budget for the film as $243,000 and the soundstage a building formerly used for storage.
"I'm going to build all the production values into the camera."
Ford and Nichols had pared the story down to its essential dialogue and Ford was excited about a stylistic approach to the shoot, giving a sense of the mystical in the fogbound night and the foggy mind of the leading character, Gypo Nolan. Meticulous planning and storyboarding was carried out with cinematographer Joseph August (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, They Were Expendable), art director Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane, Top Hat), set decorator Julia Heron (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bishop's Wife) and composer Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone With the Wind).
Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan
It is 1920, the height of the "the troubles" in Ireland when the brutish, but loyal Gypo Nolan foolishly seizes upon an opportunity to get a little money and save his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame) from prostitution and give them a new life. He informs on his best friend Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), wanted for murder by the British. Gypo's love for his friend hasn't died, but he sees a way out and takes it. Perhaps he didn't foresee Frankie's death at the hands of the police. Gypo is not one who thinks very far ahead. The enormity of his betrayal he both understands and denies.
While the local IRA commander Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) hunts for the informer, Gypo wanders through the city in increasing remorse, and in trying to run away from himself, he loses all his money at the prodding of fair-weather friend Terry (J.M. Kerrigan) and drinks. Brought to trial by his former comrades the frightened Gypo struggles to divert blame and escape. Katie pleads with the commander for the hapless soul, but what Gypo set in motion cannot be stopped.
Victor McLaglen was the only choice Ford had for Nolan and the director constantly kept his lead off balance to achieve the performance he desired. Often noted for over-the-top cruelty toward some actors, one wonders whether or not it was necessary, but the proof is in the performance. The Informer was McLaglen's seventh picture with Ford and he would vow never to work with him again. Yet McLaglen would appear in five more Ford movies.
1895 - 1973
The Informer opened at Radio City Music Hall to glowing critical response, but little box office. Surprisingly, to Hollywood brains, it was in the smaller cities throughout the country that The Informer gathered steam. If audiences were at first taken aback by the unexpected Ford/ McLaglen collaboration, they were impressed.
Ford was awarded the first of four Oscars for Best Director for The Informer; the other titles being The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man. The should-have-been nomination for Stagecoach was caught up in the Gone With the Wind juggernaut. However, with The Informer John Ford's reputation as a director of artistic merit was now assured.
The Informer is, to this date, the only film to win the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture by a unanimous vote on the first ballot. John Ford was acclaimed Best Director. The National Board of Review named The Informer Best Picture.
Best Actor in a leading role, Victor McLaglen
Best Director, John Ford
Best Writing, screenplay, Dudley Nichols
Best Music, score, Max Steiner
Best Picture (winner, Mutiny on the Bounty
Best Editing, George Hivey (winner, Ralph Dawson, A Midsummer Night's Dream
At the time of the release of The Informer John Ford was active in the Screen Directors Guild as treasurer and fervent supporter of labor. The Guild boycotted the Academy Awards that year and Dudley Nichols and John Ford refused their awards. A few months after the event John Ford chose to accept his well-deserved award and his ties with the Guild were irreparably broken.
Pappy: The Life of John Ford
In the cyclical nature of motion picture criticism and assessment, The Informer
has gone through periods where it has taken hits as "not living up to its reputation", even from its creator. I don't know where it stands currently in the minds of the great thinkers. Personally, the characters, the conflict, and the masterfully controlled and visually exciting storytelling leave my gut wrenched and my heart singing.
I'm very grateful that Krell Laboratories
and Bemused and Nonplussed
are hosting The John Ford Blogathon
from July 7 - 13 and so will you be when you check out the insightful articles from passionate writers.
by Dan Ford