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The Convoluted Politics of John Ford

'Fellow Traveler' or Redbaiter?

The Director of Classic Westerns Such as 'Stagecoach' and 'The Searchers' Fought Hollywood's Blacklist. He Also Crusaded Against 'Reds.' In This Excerpt From His New Biography, Joseph McBride Examines Ford's Conflicted Life.

June 03, 2001|JOSEPH McBRIDE | Joseph McBride is the author of 14 books, including "Frank Capra: TheCatastrophe of Success" (1992) and "Steven Spielberg: A Biography" (1997)

Ford's active involvement with the MPA during much of the blacklist era has been largely ignored by previous Ford biographers. He lent his considerable prestige to the organization while it was helping broaden the purge of Hollywood leftists from a relatively small number of people into the hundreds. Indeed, he was one of the founders of the MPA in 1944 and remained a member as late as 1960. His papers at Indiana University's Lilly Library include membership cards and other documentation of his involvement. Ford joined the group's executive committee when John Wayne became president in March 1949, and Ford remained a committee member through at least 1955.

Wayne later told Dan Ford that he considered the director a moderating influence within the MPA, but Ford was playing a tricky and dangerous game. Perhaps even he did not know in the end where the dividing line of his loyalties was drawn. A striking example of Ford's attempts to hedge his bets on the issue was his behavior during the 1950 controversy over the imposition of a mandatory anti-Communist oath for members of the SDG. A group of right-wing directors led by Cecil B. DeMille attempted to remove guild president Joseph L. Mankiewicz from office for opposing the oath. As a board member, Ford voted against the oath and vehemently opposed a plan to provide producers with the names of directors who refused to swear their loyalty to the U.S. government. In a dramatic act of leadership that became his most celebrated moment in politics, Ford played a pivotal role in stopping the Mankiewicz recall movement, but he was unable to prevent the loyalty oath from becoming part of the guild bylaws.

At the Oct. 22, 1950, SDG membership meeting to discuss the attempted recall and the blacklist, Ford introduced himself by saying, "My name is John Ford. I am a director of Westerns." He declared, "I have been on Mr. Mankiewicz's side of the fight all through it . . . I have been sick and tired and ashamed of the whole goddamned thing." Reminding the members that the guild was organized to "protect ourselves against producers," Ford denounced the plan to "give out to producers what looks to me like a blacklist. I don't think we should . . . put ourselves in a position of putting out derogatory information about a director, whether he is a Communist, beats his mother-in-law, or beats dogs."

Ford took on DeMille directly, telling the members, "I don't agree with C.B. DeMille." But he quickly began to equivocate. "I admire him. I don't like him, but I admire him," he said, adding praise for "C.B.'s guts and courage." Urging that the "vilified" Mankiewicz receive an apology, Ford also suggested that a new board of directors be chosen. The Mankiewicz faction was given a vote of confidence and Mankiewicz was reelected president by the new board; Ford was named vice president. And immediately he began backtracking.

In a letter on Oct. 23, Ford commended DeMille for displaying gentlemanly behavior at the meeting. The next day, with blatant hypocrisy, Ford implied that his own speech at the meeting, and the actions of his fellow Mankiewicz supporters, had been unjust. "That meeting Sunday night," he told DeMille, "was a disgusting thing to see--not [a] wolf pack, but a mice pack attacking you. That was your greatest performance. I just wish you could have seen yourself--a magnificent figure so far above that goddam pack of rats. I have recommended men for courage in battle, but I have never seen courage such as you displayed Sunday night. God bless you, you're a great man. I have talked to many men in Hollywood in the last two days, including Joseph Mankiewicz, and all agree you will emerge from this greater than ever."

Even Ford's occasional efforts to help colleagues threatened with blacklisting were not without elements of moral ambiguity. For instance, Anna Lee, an actress who appeared in many Ford films, found herself blacklisted, despite the fact that she was a staunch conservative, after she was confused with someone of a similar name. "If it hadn't been for Ford, I probably wouldn't have been working now," she recalled. "Of course, he was absolutely furious. He said, 'They can't do this to you.' And he immediately called somebody in Washington, got ahold of the head guys."

Lee emerged from the blacklist in Ford's 1957 British film "Gideon's Day" and returned to Hollywood for his 1958 film "The Last Hurrah." While this story demonstrates Ford's loyalty to a friend in trouble, it also raises disturbing questions: Why did Ford have the power to get someone off the list simply by picking up the phone? How often did he use it? Was it appropriate for anyone to be able to say if someone should or should not work? And by clearing Anna Lee, did Ford facilitate and tacitly approve the blacklisting of the woman with whom she had been confused?

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