Wagon Master blogging
essay 6 of 6
John Ford IS
|Joanne Dru as Denver in Wagon Master (1950).|
|John Ford, circa 1946, posing in front|
of his portrait and Oscar.
Photo from Los Angeles Daily News,
posted on Wikimedia Commons.
No wonder the old fox often cited Wagon Master as his personal favorite film!
I’m basing the following analysis on three personality characteristics shared by Ford and
Denver, as well as the
way that Denver’s
personality is expressed in two scenes. The
second and third of the personality characteristics are very minor and aren’t
needed to buttress my argument; the
first personality characteristic is the important one. The two scenes that I’ll discuss are among
the most rigorously planned, composed, and executed in the Ford canon.
But some preliminary notes first: There is absolutely no need to claim that a director identifies with any single character in his movie. I doubt it happens often. I don’t go around looking for clandestine portraits of the author hidden in films. Finding this one was a complete surprise.
And I also want to place
Denver’s sexuality on the back burner for much
of this analysis, as well. Yes, she is
one of the most delightfully expressive—and unapologetic—sexual characters in a
Ford movie, but her character goes much deeper than this. I think Ford was even more interested in other
aspects of her personality.
|Denver (Joanne Dru) as the Mormons debate whether to|
allow the medicine show to accompany their wagon train.
|F.W. Murnau, circa 1920,|
from Wikimedia Commons.
For the first time, Ford felt free to openly express his artistic side. In movies like Four Sons (1928) and Hangman’s House (1928), he adopted Murnau’s elaborate tracking shots, chiaroscuro lighting effects, prolonged closeups, and impressionistic dissolves. He realized that Murnau employed this broad slate of artistic tools in a bold endeavor to visually depict mental states on film.
Ford’s most Murnau-influenced movies in the late 1920s and early 30s were both praised and criticized for their extreme artiness (in time—and partially due to Ford’s own vigorous promotion of a non-nonsense persona—the nature of these early works were largely forgotten). As Ford moved into his mature period, with movies like Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and How Green Was My Valley (1941), he learned to integrate the Murnau effects that he still loved more seamlessly into his storytelling. They were still there, but carefully reserved for particular emphasis. He used them with restraint to accentuate the most special moments within his movies.
The sentimental core: John Ford did everything possible to conceal his artistic and sentimental core personality. And, to a great extent, he succeeded. He did this for reasons of personal insecurity, coupled with his obsessive need to maintain unflinching loyalty from his crews and broad respect within the industry.
In his book Women in the Films of John Ford, David Meuel writes about how this surface image of Ford was, in reality, an artful act of camouflage:
“… there’s Ford himself, who consciously cultivated a tough-guy, man’s man image in order—according to many counts—to mask his extraordinarily sensitive nature. Always insecure about not appearing strong and in total control among his peers, he may have been tentative about touting his ongoing interest in women’s characters and issues that were important to them. For a man of his time, it may have seemed unmanly.”
Ford biographer Scott Eyman recounts a particularly revealing anecdote in Print the Legend about the conflict between the director’s outward personality and his inward sensitivity:
“Frank Baker remembered Ford being accosted outside his office by an old actor from the Universal days whose wife needed an operation. He asked Ford for $200. Ford stared, then backed away, then launched himself at the actor, knocking him down. ‘How dare you come here like this?’ he screamed. ‘Who do you think you are to talk to me this way?’
“Baker witnessed this exchange, and also witnessed Ford’s business manager Fred Totman coming out of the office door with a check for $1,000. Totman ordered Ford’s chauffeur to drive the man home, where an ambulance transported the woman and her husband to
Francisco for the operation.
“Baker told the story to Frank (Francis) Ford, who was amazed. ‘I’ve been trying to figure Jack since the day he was born,’ Frank told Baker. ‘This is the key. Any moment, if that old actor had kept talking, people would have realized what a softy Jack is. He couldn’t have stood that sad story without breaking down. He’s built this whole legend of toughness around himself to protect his softness.’”
In Wagon Master,
Denver is the character
who has intentionally constructed a tough outward persona to conceal her inward
sensitivity. She does not share her
thoughts with the world. Ford expresses
Denver’s internal world purely through visual means because her dialogue must remain
|Denver in Wagon Master.|
When her fellow medicine-show traveler Fleuretty Phyffe (Ruth Clifford) notes that Travis seems to like her,
Denver responds, “That rube…”
And when Travis finally tells her that he’d like to continue to see her, she says, “Thanks. Don’t bank on it. We move around. In a medicine show, you have to (in order) to keep healthy.” Then Travis proposes marriage, and she simply responds, “Goodbye, fella.”
That’s the way
the external Denver. She never says anything warm or pleasant. It’s all taunts, teases, and bluster. And this leaves Ford having to fall back on
his old Murnau strategies to reveal the internal Denver, the woman who’s
striving to build a legend of toughness to protect her softness (to borrow that
phrase from Frank Ford). John Ford first attempts to communicate Denver’s inner state in the shot that directly follows the bathwater scene where Travis informs her that she’s not to waste water and she charmingly flirts in response.
|Denver needs time to think, barely|
acknowledging the teasing of her friend.
|The scene continues: A privileged moment for Denver.|
Ford cuts from a medium shot to a more distant shot that initially includes the horse Steel, Travis, and
who is in the center of the frame. Denver lifts her skirt
and runs from him, the camera reverse tracking and panning to keep her at
center. She runs and runs and the camera
stays on her. When she stumbles, the
camera (still tracking) tilts downward to keep our attention fixed on her. And she gets up, glances tentatively back,
then resolves herself and runs again, her head held high as she tries to revert
back to character.
|Denver runs, falls, and runs again.|
Cut back to Travis, and then a far shot from his perspective as
up with her wagon. Travis mounts his
horse and rides away. Then comes the
last major shot of the sequence:
The image of Travis riding away dissolves to
Denver sitting in the open rear of the
medicine show wagon, smoking a cigarette.
As David Meuel observes in Women
in the Films of John Ford, it’s an “almost post-coital pose” (coming, I
might add, after the almost-orgasmic moment of her fall). The last time the viewer saw her with a
cigarette was in her introductory scene, where Travis had lit a cigarette for
her and she had choked on it. Now she’s
perfectly calm, contentedly smiling to herself.
The camera almost imperceptibly moves closer, allowing us to enjoy the
privilege of watching a woman alone, thinking.
|Dissolve to Denver in the back of the wagon, smoking and thinking.|
No other character in Wagon Master enjoys private moments like this, with the camera silently observing and moving ever closer, forcing the viewer to consider a woman’s perspective. It’s the only way for Ford to reveal
personality. And Ford deeply understands
her personality because it is so close to his own.
|Denver (Joanne Dru) with the other members|
of the traveling medicine show, played by
Ruth Clifford and Alan Mowbray.
This reminds me of John Ford’s ongoing belittling of his chosen profession. He and his old filmmaking mentor Harry Carey (Sr.) would get together at Carey’s ranch and discuss anything but the movies. Harry Carey, Jr. recalls in his memoir Company of Heroes that his father “didn’t give a damn about the movies,” and Ford seems to have picked up on this as an appropriate attitude to express to the world.
is similarly torn about her profession.
She acts like she doesn’t give a damn about it in public, but her actions continually
show that she is 100% committed to the troupe she works with.
|Denver, drunk, in her first scene.|
Anyone who’s read about John Ford will recognize the pattern of his binge drinking, usually restricted to the down periods between movies. When he was on the job, he kept alcohol at a distance. It’s a very minor point in common between Ford and
but yet another interesting similarity between the two.
Finally, a Difference Between the Two: This is the movies after all, so for
everything ends happily.
|A happy ending for Travis and Denver.|
Stan Jones and the Sons of the Pioneers never released a record of their songs for Wagon Master. I’m not sure if anyone’s even published the lyrics before. For this blog series, I’ve listened closely to the movie’s songs and attempted to capture the lyrics as accurately as possible. It’s really increased my appreciation of Stan Jones as a composer and lyricist.
“Wagons West,” the first song in Wagon Master, sets the scene, while also framing the movie as an exercise in nostalgia. It isn’t written as a faux-contemporary folk song of the 1850s but as a 1950 song looking back a century into the past.
A hundred years have come and gone since 1849
But the ghostly wagons rolling west
Are ever brought to mind
Their old rocking creakin’ wheels
Were heard from shore to shore
And always in the hearts of men
It lives forevermore:
Rollin’! Rollin’! Rollin’! Rollin’! (repeat)
Wagons west are rolling
Out where winds are blowing
’cross rivers and plains
Through sand and through rain
Goes the mighty wagon train.
Special thanks to Paula Vitaris who manages the Ben Johnson Fan Page for generously sharing screen captures and providing valuable background information and insight!
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman
About John Ford by Lindsay Anderson
John Ford: The Man and His Films by Ted Gallagher
The Nicest Fella: The Life of Ben Johnson by Richard D. Jensen
Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company by Harry Carey Jr.
Lest We Forget: The John Ford Stock Company by Bill Levy
Women in the Films of John Ford by David Meuel
Women in the Films of John Ford by David Meuel
Music in the Western: Notes from the Frontier, edited by Kathryn Kalinak (essay “John Ford, Walt Disney, and Sons of the Pioneers” by Ross Care)
Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Movie Making in by James D’Arc Utah
Wagon Master Warner Home Video DVD commentary by Harry Carey Jr. and Peter Bogdanovich
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© 2014 Lee Price