Each of the fourteen main chapters takes a similar approach in covering one or more performances by one or more actresses, effectively linking films and performers when relevant. Meuel manages to weave a brief biography of each actress into concise and passionate reviews of their performances within each specific film and additionally comment upon the influence of these performers in what are very often thought of as male titles.
While inclusion of actresses such as Claire Trevor, Joanne Dru and most especially Maureen O’Hara come as no surprise, Meuel spends just as much time covering lesser known but important performers, such as Jane Darwell and Sara Allgood, in addition to well-known actresses who appeared in films less often discussed, such as Jean Arthur in The Whole Town’s Talking or Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk, an entry that the author additionally uses to cover character actress co-star Edna May Oliver in as every bit the detail he does top-flight star Colbert.
"With luck, this book also will help to correct the commonly held, and grossly incorrect, assumption that Ford wasn't especially interested in the issues, concerns, and perspectives of half the human race."
Favorite entries were those which made me want to revisit the films being examined: Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly in Mogambo; Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, and Anne Bancroft in 7 Women, a film that I have to confess I have not seen yet. I also thoroughly enjoyed a couple of entries about earlier Ford women, Anne Shirley in Steamboat Round the Bend and, in the opening chapter of the book, Henrietta Crosman in Pilgrimage.
Crosman has Chapter 1 all to herself. Despite the fact that this is seemingly one of Ford's least typical films, especially in that the woman being discussed is the star, examining these ten pages provides a template for what to expect from the rest of Women in the Films of John Ford.
First, the physical. The chapter contains one photo of Crosman, just so you know who we’re talking about. I viewed Pilgrimage while working on this review, so I’ve included a couple of extra screen captures in aid of the same goal. This is not a picture book: There is one photo included for each actress that Meuel discusses. This is a plus in a book that has so much to say yet runs slightly under 200 pages. The Crosman chapter is divided by four section headings in addition to the chapter title at the front. Again, each of Meuel’s chapters is similarly divided in keeping with a consistent approach in handling each topic and keeping information well organized.In the case of Pilgrimage, far from John Ford’s best-known work, Meuel opens by quoting other highly regarded Ford aficionados about how underrated and unfairly forgotten the title is. He discusses the unique circumstances that kept Pilgrimage out circulation from just after its 1933 release until its mid-1960s rediscovery and notes that it was never available on home video until the release of the Ford At Fox collection in 2007. He provides an overview of the film noting that “while in some ways uncharacteristic of Ford, is also a superb Ford film,” and offers as evidence, “the visual poetry, vivid characters, sharp dialogue … a sharp critique of society, striking ironies, and great emotional power.”
Upon my first reading I concluded that I needed to watch this movie again. I'm very glad that I did.
After the opening come two paragraphs about Pilgrimage’s forgotten star, Henrietta Crosman, that trace the outline of her biography up until the time of her appearance for Ford. Meuel then includes the first of those chapter headings, “From Three Cedars to the Argonne and Back,” to spend about four pages explaining Pilgrimage's story and some of the more noteworthy aspects of the film.
Upon my first reading I found myself skeptical of one conclusion drawn by Meuel, but after watching Pilgrimage I returned agreeing with his assessment. There is a flashback scene that Meuel writes “at first seems to be a lapse in continuity,” before wondering if it “could actually be another fine piece of elliptical storytelling.” This flashback shows Hannah recalling when her son discovered that the neighbor girl was pregnant, a scene that Hannah was not included in and that her character seemingly could not know about. After watching the movie again, I agree with Meuel’s idea that Hannah could have been lurking as witness to this scene (her son did invite her) and that Ford did not reveal her because Hannah did not want to be revealed. “That would be in character too,” the author writes of Hannah, and I’m sold.
The next section, “Not Your Typical Ford Mother,” sets out to reject the criticism that Ford idealizes mothers in films, using Crosman’s Hannah Jessop as primary evidence while naming some of Ford’s other mothers in support of the idea that they are more flawed and varied characters than is generally believed.
The following section then compares Hannah from Pilgrimage to the character from the Ford canon that Meuel feels she most resembles, Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, drawing upon several similarities between those Crosman and John Wayne characters to do so.
Meuel opens the final section of the chapter in noting “Just as Pilgrimage may very well be John Ford’s first great film, Hannah Jessop may very well be the director’s first great character: someone worthy of standing beside Ethan Edwards.” He then offers some of the period criticism and reaction to Pilgrimage before returning to Crosman’s biography to carry it to her death and fading legacy.
As if this weren’t enough, Meuel also provides briefer entries about additional Pilgrimage characters played by Lucille La Verne and Marian Nixon in a later chapter that is packed with short snapshots of several Ford actresses and characters who aren’t afforded a main entry such as Crosman is.
Following the chapter about Henrietta Crosman in Pilgrimage, Meuel then gives similar dedicated treatment to each of the following actresses and their characters: Jean Arthur in The Whole Town’s Talking; Anne Shirley in Steamboat Round the Bend; Shirley Temple in both Wee Willie Winkie and Fort Apache; Claire Trevor in Stagecoach is paired with Joanne Dru in Wagon Master; Claudette Colbert and Edna May Oliver in Drums Along the Mohawk; Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath paired with Sara Allgood in How Green Was My Valley; Mildred Natwick’s “Four Small Gems” for Ford; Donna Reed in They Were Expendable; Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande and The Quiet Man; Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly in Mogambo; The women of The Searchers; Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and Anne Bancroft in 7 Women.
The previously mentioned “Snapshots” section follows those main entries and provides an additional twenty pages covering ten more actresses and their characters from Ford’s films: Karen Morley in Flesh; as mentioned above, a small section for each Lucille La Verne and Marian Nixon of Pilgrimage; Hattie McDaniel in Judge Priest; Maureen O’Hara in How Green Was My Valley; Anna Lee in the same; Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine; Arleen Whelan in The Sun Shines Bright; Constance Towers in Sergeant Rutledge; and Linda Cristal in Two Rode Together.
After examining those key Ford actresses and their roles, Meuel wraps up with a brief chapter asking, “Dare We Call Ford a Feminist?” A key thought Meuel passes on is that “even though he could be crotchety and cruel, Ford loved people.” I’d go a step beyond the humanity aspect and tie in those breathtaking visuals to add that Ford seemingly loved life, even if he was outwardly a crank. Meuel offers that “even when the female characters in a Ford film weren’t very interesting, they were never objectified or treated with condescension. And, when a Ford film shined, his female characters usually did too.”
My only point of criticism could also be viewed positively, and that is this: There can be an over reliance upon the opinion of better known Ford scholars, most especially Joseph McBride and Tag Gallagher, who are quoted throughout by Meuel not only in aid of his own points but to counter them as well. The strategy often works, but as I read and my appreciation of Meuel’s own voice grew, I found myself more distracted than helped by his invoking this chorus of Ford experts.
But I did like the inclusion of those top two choices among Meuel's ten recommended resources for further reading, which appears just before the author's notes.
This is a fine book that looks at an often explored subject, the films of John Ford, in a unique and valuable way.
Women in the Films of John Ford by David Meuel was published by McFarland & Company, 2014.
You can pick up a copy on Amazon HERE with thanks for using my affiliate link.
My thanks to Moira Finnie of The Skeins for putting David Meuel in touch with me and to David himself for providing me with a review copy of Women in the Films of John Ford. The author’s gift of the book had no bearing upon my review other than making me aware of this excellent new addition to my film library.