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He Was Their Stage Coach

The great director John Ford gathered some of his closest friends for an all-star production of 'What Price Glory?' Then things got a little inglorious.

May 28, 1999|MICHAEL F. BLAKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

His films are considered cinematic masterpieces; as a director he won six Oscars. Yet overlooked among John Ford's accomplishments is that he produced a stage play with a cast of top-name Hollywood performers--among them, John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Maureen O'Hara.

The play was Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings' "What Price Glory?" and the production took place 50 years ago at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, among other locations around the state.

And like most everything Ford did, it was wildly popular.

"The audience would just applaud when Ward [Bond] and [Pat] O'Brien came on stage," recalled cast member Harry Carey Jr. "When [John] Wayne made an entrance, they'd just gasp. . . . With Greg Peck, it was like Frank Sinatra. He was such a heartthrob, the girls would just start squealing when he came on stage."

The staged "What Price Glory?" generated some controversy--and even a theft before it was done.

Ford came up with the idea of reviving the play (originally staged in 1924 on Broadway) in 1948 when he was producing some variety shows for returning World War II veterans. When it hit the boards in 1949 as a fund-raiser for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Ford's version of "What Price Glory?" featured one of the first true all-star casts to grace the stage, from top box office stars to well-known character actors. (Ford later directed a film version of the play in 1952 starring James Cagney and Dan Dailey.)

Given his stature in Hollywood, Ford had no trouble in obtaining famous-name stars for this production, as Carey, a member of the director's stock company, recalled, "Ford said to me one day, 'Don't you know Greg Peck?' I said, 'Yeah, he lives just up the street from me.' The Old Man [Ford] said, 'Could you have him call me? I'd like to talk to him.' I went to Peck's house and said, 'Jack Ford wants you to call him.' He got like a little kid. He thought Ford wanted him for a picture!"

"What Price Glory?" is set during World War I and is about two American Marine officers battling over a girl while fighting the Germans. To play the quarreling Marines, Capt. Flagg and Sgt. Quirt, Ford chose Bond and O'Brien; O'Hara was Charmaine, the French girl over whom the two officers fight. The rest of the cast included Wayne (making his theatrical debut playing the small part of Lt. Cunningham), Forrest Tucker, Ed Begley, Wallace Ford, Robert Armstrong, Carey, Larry Blake, Charles Kemper, Jimmy Lydon, Jim Davis, Luis Alberni and, in a rare solo performance without his comedy partner, Oliver Hardy.

Because of Ford's clout, studios in Hollywood cooperated with the stage production by adjusting the work schedules of their stars so that they could attend the nightly rehearsals held at the Masquers Club in Hollywood. (The Masquers Club, another bastion of Hollywood history, was a popular club with actors until it closed in 1985.)

Although he supervised the production, Ford did not direct the play. That task fell to Ralph Murphy, an experienced stage director who had moved on to films in the early 1930s.

"Ford never once interfered with Murphy," recalled Carey. Ford sat "out in the audience and never said a word, but he was at every rehearsal. He loved the stage, [he was] fascinated with it."

However, when Murphy was absent one night, Ford stepped in. During that rehearsal, he unmercifully picked on every aspect of Bond's performance, a common occurrence during their long relationship that delighted Ford no end.

Actors, Crew Donated Their Services for Ford

Mounting such a production was nothing short of a logistical nightmare, yet everything ran smoothly. O'Brien claimed that only Ford could have gotten the project off the ground, getting all the parties to donate their time and effort. None of the actors took a salary, the sets were designed and built for free, and the costumes were donated by the giant costume house Western Costume.

"Everyone wanted to please Ford," Blake recalled.

The final dress rehearsal was held Feb. 21, 1949, at the Masquers Club, before an audience of 450 invited guests, including veterans and Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan. Before the performance, James Stewart--a decorated veteran himself--explained how the play's proceeds would be used to help veterans. The following night, "What Price Glory?" opened in Long Beach, beginning a six-city tour of one-night stands in California.

Audiences were enthralled by seeing so many stars on one stage at one time. Cagney biographer John McCabe recalled Cagney's memory of Hardy's performance. "It was the funniest thing I think I have ever seen. Roland Winters [a character actor] and I had to hang onto each other, we were laughing so much," the actor said.

"The audience went wild when the whole cast came down in one line to take a bow," recalled Blake.

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