Sunday, June 20, 2010
Repost: Father's Day with John Ford
A fellow blogger recently requested that the Siren send a link to her favorite post. After three years, there was still no question--this is it. She reposts it now, and wishes her readers a happy Father's Day.
My father was a constant reader, a wicked prankster and something of a film buff. His film tastes were pretty eclectic--we went together to see The Pope of Greenwich Village, for example--but his real reverence was for the classics. I remember his description of a scene in The Gold Rush, to give his small daughter a flavor of it in those pre-VCR days when anything silent was hard to come by: "...and then he looks up at the clock, and he realizes, she's not coming. And just like that, you go from slapstick to sad..."
For Dad one filmmaker towered above all others, however, and that was John Ford.
One spring Saturday when I was in my early teens, Dad spoke to his adult nephews on the phone. A film recommendation from him was something to be taken seriously, and that Sunday morning the Superstation's Academy Award Theater was showing How Green Was My Valley. Our main phone line was in the kitchen and I could hear Dad's end of the conversation. "You should see this one...John Ford, Wales...Maureen O'Hara too...gorgeous...You'll get a kick out of it." The conversation ended and I caught Dad's eye over whatever he was reading at the kitchen table.
"Get a kick out of it?" I repeated, incredulous.
"Sure," said Dad, affably. "Good movie, isn't it?" As he went back to his book, I swear I heard him chuckle.
Sometime after noon on Sunday our phone rang. It was Cousin R., and he sounded like he was coming down with a cold. "Put that father of yours on the phone," he snapped. I handed the phone to Dad, he put down the New York Times crossword puzzle, and as I leaned across the kitchen table my cousin's voice rose to a volume that carried it well beyond the receiver, especially when my father pulled the phone away from his ear to avoid hearing damage.
"...coal miners...strike...and they go to America...falls in the water...gets sick...accident...the other two leave...won't marry her...ANOTHER accident...goddamnit, I'm gonna get you for this one."
"But it was a good movie, right?" said my father, looking pleased with himself.
"...GREAT movie...I'm going to GET DRUNK."
The conversation ended. Dad returned to his crossword puzzle. "Where's he gonna get a drink?" asked my sister, who had heard the whole thing too. A shrug from Dad.
"He's in a dry county," I reminded Dad.
"It's SUNDAY," added my sister.
The phone rang again. It was another, older cousin, the football coach, who seemed to have caught his brother's cold. "Tell your father we're sending him the liquor tab," he barked.
I hung up and looked at Dad. "You totally tricked them into seeing that movie," I said.
His eyes didn't move from the crossword. "They'll thank me for it later."
Funny that this memory of my father should concern How Green Was My Valley, which has Donald Crisp, 180 degrees from his terrifying drunk in Broken Blossoms, playing one of the most lovable fathers in screen history. Not until Gregory Peck tucked Mary Badham into bed in To Kill a Mockingbird would there be an equally noble, and touching, portrait of fatherhood.
How Green Was My Valley ends with Crisp's death at the bottom of a mine shaft. Ford's camera focuses on the lift bringing other miners to safety. One platform of exhausted men passes us by, and then we see the one we are waiting for, Donald Crisp's head barely at the edge of the frame, cradled by his youngest son. That son, Roddy McDowall, stares past the camera, his beautiful face a bleak mask that reflects every child who ever faced a future without a parent. I've been facing that myself since 1991. Perhaps that's why I haven't watched the movie since.
But Ford wasn't by nature a pessimist, and How Green Was My Valley doesn't end on that shot. Its final montage includes McDowall and Crisp, going for another walk together. Memory isn't enough, but memory has its comforts, even if they are as simple as remembering how your father once lured an audience for one of his favorite films.