Arts and Leisure

John Ford, a Softie Behind the Tough, Two-Fisted, Hard-Drinking, Irish Son-of-a-Bitch

John Ford earned acclaim for movies filmed in landscapes that were vast, severe and rugged, adjectives that describe his personality.  He also directed films that were sensitive and compassionate, and so was he. Winner of four Academy Awards for Best Director, John Ford was one of the most influential filmmakers ever.

John Ford

John Ford

John Ford was born John ‘Jack’ Martin Feeney on Feb. 1, 1894 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. His father, John Augustine Feeney, arrived in Boston days before the June 1872 arrival of his mother, Barbara Curran, in Portland. Both were from Ireland. They married in 1875 and had 11 children. The family lived in the Irish-American Munjoy Hill neighborhood of Portland, where John Augustine ran a saloon, served as an alderman, farmed, fished and worked for the gas company.

Ford’s oldest brother Francis had drifted into film acting after serving in the Spanish American War. He took the stage name Ford from the automobile and moved to San Antonio, Texas, There he directed and appeared in Westerns for Newport movie mogul Thomas Ince,

John Feeney followed his older brother to Hollywood, taking the name John Ford and working as his assistant. He would eventually eclipse his older brother’s considerable fame by directing such films as The Searchers,  The Grapes of Wrath, The Quiet Man, Stagecoach, The Quiet Man and How Green Was My Valley. Ford was best known for Westerns starring John Wayne, though Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara and Ward Bond also appeared frequently in his films.

He was famously irascible on the set. Described as a ‘tough, two-fisted, hard-drinking Irish son-of-a-bitch,’ he taunted and berated performers. He didn’t drink while filming, but afterwards would lock himself in his study, wrapped only in a sheet and go on a drinking binge for days — then vow never to drink again. Those who knew him well said his rough exterior hid a soft heart.

During the Depression, when Ford was already a wealthy man, an unemployed Universal actor came to the studio and asked him for $200 to pay for an operation for his wife. Ford grew enraged, knocked the old man to the ground and shouted, “How dare you come here like this? Who do think you are to talk to me this way?” He stormed out, but not before telling his business manager to give the man a check for $1,000 and sending him home in his own chauffeured car. An ambulance was waiting at the man’s home and a specialist flown in at Ford’s expense to perform the operation. The operations was a success, and Ford bought a house for the couple and pensioned them for life.

Ford died on August 31, 1973.

In 1998, a 10-foot bronze statue of Ford seated in a director’s chair was installed at Gorham’s Corner in Portland. Inscribed in the base are the words, ‘DIRECTOR “I MAKE WESTERNS.”’ The statue is part of Maine’s Irish Heritage Trail.


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