Sunday 21 November 2010

Tobacco Road

I saw a documentary once about amateur Iranian filmmakers, and at one point somebody said that what he wanted was to make films like John Ford. At a film festival in São Paulo I once met a young filmmaker from Argentina whose great idol was John Ford. Once in Canterbury I met an undergraduate who was studying film history and she complained about the fact that today there was no longer any art in filmmaking, just business, complaining that there was no one like Ford any more. "I'm sorry, who?" I said, finding it hard to believe that a young girl in Britain would have John Ford as a role model as well. But she actually meant that Ford.

There is no denying the tremendous global influence and importance of Ford, and he is one of those filmmakers of which I feel I need to see every single thing they have made, because even the lesser films have moments of greatness in them, and by not seeing them all, I will miss out on something. As far as Ford's sound films, I have covered most of them, but I still have many of the silent ones left to watch.

Last week I saw Tobacco Road (1941) for the first time, which is one of his lesser known sound films, and also one of his most idiosyncratic. It does not have a proper story, it is a mood piece, about a few days in the life of a desperately poor family in the countryside. It is not all that good, mostly because some of the characters are so obnoxious, and acted in a rather hysterical style. A comic style that does not work for me. But Ford is such a forceful personality, with such an immediately recognisable style and tone of voice, and was such an exceptional filmmaker, that even a small, cheap, eccentric film such as Tobacco Road has scenes that are extraordinary.

In one such scene the husband (played by Charles Grapewin) is being told by the man from the bank that he will be evicted from his house if he does not pay rent, and since he has no money he cannot pay. The old man just stands there beside the car in which the bank man sits, and is pleading with him, while his wife (Elizabeth Patterson) is seen in the background, her hand clasped.

But it is a later scene, the last day before they are being evicted, that is the true highlight of the film. Since they have to leave the woman is picking up some things in their ramshackle cabin, quietly, done with the camera at floor level, looking up at her, taking in the whole of the cabin, and the only sound is the song "Shall we gather by the river" playing softly in the background. Then her husband enters, looking at her. "I guess there isn't much to take with us." she says, while the husband is unable to speak. Then he just says "I'm sorry Ada." It is such a delicate, understated scene, it can bring tears to anybody's eyes. The combination of the music, the composition and the humbleness of it is both what makes it so beautiful and what makes it so essentially Fordian.

That scene with her in the cabin has the camera at floor level, looking up, with the inner ceiling clearly visible, which makes it the kind of shot Citizen Kane is celebrated for. Tobacco Road was released before Citizen Kane, so it is perhaps yet another example of the profound influence Ford had on Orson Welles. And it was not the first time Ford had used such a shot in his films. It should also be remembered that the cinematographer of Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland, had worked with Ford on two films the previous year, The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath. In 1941 though, Ford worked with Arthur Miller, on this one and How Green Was My Valley.

2015-07-31 Some corrections were made and some sentences amended. A photo was added.