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John Ford's Hometown Puts Him in the Spotlight

Movies: A film festival and statue will pay tribute to the Irish lad who became one of the great directors.

June 26, 1998|RAYMOND BLAIR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PORTLAND, Maine — Eighty-four years after he left the Irish neighborhoods of this port city to seek his fortune in Hollywood, the late movie director John Ford is about to be honored with a film festival, a bigger-than-life statue and a gathering of celebrities from Hollywood, Ireland, the Navajo Nation and the U.S. Navy.

Young Jack Feeney--that was his name then--haunted the movie houses of the city and dreamed of going to sea. After graduating from Portland High School in 1914 and being rejected by the U.S. Naval Academy, he boarded a train to California. There, he would change his name to Ford, direct more than 130 movies, win four best director Oscars and become recognized as one of America's most distinguished film directors.

His films are classics, especially the four that earned him Oscars--"The Informer," "How Green Was My Valley," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Quiet Man." Twenty-five years after his death, Portland will celebrate Ford's life with a festival of his films at Portland High School July 6-9 and a big Ford "movie gala" at the city's elegant new Merrill Auditorium July 11.

And then, on July 12, a heroic-scale statue of Ford will be unveiled at an area known as Gorham's Corner. This intersection of four streets was the center of Irish life for 100 years after the first immigrants began arriving in the 1840s. Now an improving area that hosts shops, two restaurants and a brew pub, Gorham's Corner in the 19th century was a teeming cluster of brick and wooden tenements and shanties housing Irish families. The Irish often worked 14-hour days at low-paid menial jobs and after work sought release in the pubs--and often in brawls that brought out the police. It was here that Ford's Irish-born father, John Feeney, ran a restaurant and saloon.

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The Ford statue will face the site where the pub stood, now a parking lot next to an ice cream shop, in a plaza designed by a Portland landscape architecture firm. The statue portrays Ford in his mid 50s seated in his director's chair, his favorite floppy hat on his head, pointing with his pipe and giving directions to his actors. The bronze work was created by a 45-year-old New York sculptor, George M. Kelly, cast in a foundry in Astoria, Queens, and donated by Linda Noe Laine, a New York City resident and friend of Ford and his wife, Mary, until his death in 1973 and Mary's death two years later.

It will rest on stones from Monument Valley, where Ford filmed his westerns, and will be surrounded by Maine shrubs and plantings from Mary Ford's North Carolina. Sile deValera, Irish Minister of Arts and Heritage, actors Harry Carey and Claude Jarman, and Patrick Wayne, son of John Wayne, and Dan Ford, John Ford's grandson, are expected to attend the event. Representing the Navajo Nation will be the nation's chief, Jefferson Begay; its president, Thomas Atcitty; and Billy Yellow, a revered medicine man who acted in Ford's westerns, Dawson says.

John Martin Feeney was born, one of 13 children, on Feb. 1, 1894, in a beautiful, bucolic setting, far different from Portland's shabby Irish enclaves. It was in a rambling farmhouse with an attached barn that still stands, on 200 acres in Cape Elizabeth, south of Portland. Ford's father, John A. Feeney, had emigrated to Boston from Spiddal, a small fishing village on the Galway coast, in 1872. Finding no work, he moved to Portland, where a cousin's family lived. He went to work for a gas company and met and married Barbara Curran, who had grown up in a village near his own.

The elder Feeney operated a grocery store for a time but in 1889 moved his brood to the Cape Elizabeth farm. Although young Jack Feeney enjoyed life in the country, the Protestant farmers of Cape Elizabeth weren't hospitable to Irish Catholics. So, Jack's father sold the farm in 1897 and moved the Feeneys back to town. They lived for four years at Gorham's Corner after John Feeney opened his restaurant-saloon.

Then, the family moved to another Irish stronghold, Munjoy Hill, overlooking the harbor, and settled into a shingled three-story tenement they shared with two other families.

Jack Feeney grew up here, watching ships in the harbor from his third-floor window and from the deck of the wooden Portland Observatory. He loved the movies at theaters like the Dreamland on Congress Street and ushered at the Gem Theater on Peaks Island and at the Jefferson Theater in Portland, and he served the 6 a.m. Mass at St. Dominic's Church. Jack attended an elementary school on Munjoy Hill and later, Portland High, where, although he studied little, he read a great deal and acquired a love of American history.

At 6 feet 2 and 175 pounds, he was a track star and earned the nickname of "Bull" Feeney and three football letters. Nearsighted, he scored by putting his head down and charging through the line. After graduation, young Feeney wanted to enroll at the Naval Academy but failed the entrance examination. So, after working briefly in a shoe factory he enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono, but, disgusted with what he felt was anti-Irish snobbery there, he left the school.

Barbara Feeney wanted her son to become a priest, but he dreamed of becoming a writer in Hollywood. His older brother, Francis, was an actor who appeared in several films that Jack saw in Portland. Changing his name to Ford, as Francis had, he boarded a train for Boston and another for California. "I was hooked on the notion of the movies," he said. "I never realized that later in life I would become a director."

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