A Ford Farewell: Shirley Temple’s Collaborations with John Ford

A Ford Farewell: Shirley Temple’s Collaborations with John Ford

The Late Shirley Temple’s Work with John Ford


‘America’s little darling’ Shirley Temple has died at the age of 85 in Woodside, California. The former Hollywood child actress, with her charismatic personality and little blonde curls, was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.

The youngest ever Oscar winner was a singing, dancing, acting superstar who wowed audiences and filmmakers alike. Among the directors who could not resist her charm was John Ford. Ford worked on two American classics with the late Shirley Temple, Wee Willie Winkie in 1937 and Fort Apache in 1948.


The combination of probably the most popular and famous child star of all time and one of the greatest directors of all time could only be seen as a match in heaven, and the production of two timeless, popular films would seem to be evidence of this.


 A Ford Farewell: Shirley Temple’s Collaborations with John Ford


Upon meeting for the first time, before she was to act in his film, John Ford said to Shirley Temple, “How do you do, Miss Temple?  I am the man you are going to direct in Wee Willie Winkie.”   In spite of Ford’s reputation on set, the two became close.   Shirley acknowledged this in her autobiography Child Star, writing, “Outwardly he is a rugged person, but inside he’s kindly and even sentimental.”[1]


According to Shirley, Wee Willie Winkie was one of her favourite films.  In the film she plays Priscilla Williams, a young girl who travels with her mother to join her grandfather, a British army colonel, at the post he commands in northern India. Priscilla finds herself enraptured by the exciting events of the troop activities. She starred opposite Victor McLaglen, another regular in John Ford’s films, for the picture.

Blogger ‘The Siren’ offers an analysis of the film and talks about how Shirley Temple got along well with Ford, who seems to have brought out the very best in her acting.’ Not only that, but the writer discusses how the film is not just another vehicle for Temple’s star status: “The first thing to know about Wee Willie Winkie is that it isn’t a Shirley Temple movie that happened to be directed by John Ford; it’s a John Ford movie that happened to star Shirley Temple.”

‘The Siren’ observes how, rather than giving into studio pressures, Ford remained loyal to his authorial style and content. The article can be read in full at: http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.ie/2010/08/wee-willie-winkie-1937.html

A clip of Wee Willie Winkie, in which John’s distinctive camera style and touching direction perfectly merges with Shirley’s sweet, innocent presence, can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3HChjjsrKE

Fort Apache was made close to Shirley’s retirement from films in 1950. It shows not only a continuing ambition in Ford to revisit and re-evaluate the western genre, but also the attempt on Shirley’s part to escape from the ‘child-star’ persona, which Ford helped with through his more mature direction of the then 20 year old.


The feature stars John Wayne and Henry Fonda, both Ford regulars, who play Captain Kirby York and Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday respectively. York is at odds with Thursday who proves himself an ambitious, arrogant young man upon being posted to Fort Apache. When Thursday’s prejudice towards the local Apache tribe reaches new heights, York feels it is time to step in.

Shirley Temple plays Philadelphia, Thursday’s eligible daughter. She has her own romantic side-plot in the film, evidence of Ford’s desire to include both romance and adventure in his films. McLaglen features in the film as a sergeant.

Fort Apache was the first of John Ford’s ‘cavalry trilogy’, which also included She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. Some of the exteriors were shot in one of Ford’s favourite locations, Monument Valley, Utah, and it was one of the first films to portray Native Americans in an authentic, sympathetic way.


Below is a clip from the film, eerily reminiscent of the dancing sequence of My Darling Clementine, in which Fonda and Temple lead the dancing on the floor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBC1qA-CpT0


Although Ford has often been portrayed as being rather tough with his actors, Shirley Temple’s performance shows Ford’s tender, sensitive direction. Perhaps it was the combination of Ford’s direction and Temple’s performance meant they made an inspiring pair.

Shirley is survived by her children Susan, Charlie Jr and Lori, granddaughter Teresa and great-granddaughters Lily and Emma.


Deirdre Molumby

[1] The history of the collaboration between the pair can also be read about in ‘John Ford: Interviews’, edited by John Ford, Gerald Peary and Jenny Lefcourt (University Press of Mississippi, 2001).


Geoffrey O’ Brien regards The Searchers as ‘The Movie of the Century’

Geoffrey O’ Brien regards The Searchers as ‘The Movie of the Century’

John Ford’s The Searchers has often been named Greatest American Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008, but in 1998, Geoffrey O’ Brien published an article on why he regards the 1956 film starring John Wayne as the greatest movie of the century.

The poet, historian, author and critic O’Brien wrote about how The Searchers is unlike any other western: “It wasn’t about the deed to the mine, or the coming of the railroad, or the first great cattle drive, or a hotheaded young gunslinger out to make a name for himself… No recourse was had to the comforting rituals of the genre, those depredations and confrontations that recur with a lulling predictability.”

O’Brien sums up the timelessness of the film, stating, “it looks both ways in time, embodying all the traditional virtues of storytelling and technical command, yet expanding established limits to suggest a world of possibilities beyond what Hollywood had permitted itself.” He calls it “an extraordinarily generous and exploratory piece of work.”

Published by the American Heritage Magazine, the article may be read in full here: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/movie-century

Article © American Heritage Magazine, November 1998.  All rights reserved.

New Biography on Ford – John Ford: Poet in the Desert by Joseph Malham

New Biography on Ford – John Ford: Poet in the Desert by Joseph Malham

Although a number of novels have been written about the life of John Ford in the past – Pappy: The Life of John Ford by John’s grandson, Dan Ford (Da Capo Press, 1998), Searching for John Ford: A Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) by Joseph McBride, and Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman (Simon and Schuster, 2012) to name a few works – it seems there is still more to explore.
Published in November of last year, Joseph Malham’s John Ford: Poet in the Desert (Lake Street Press, November 2013) has been described by as ‘an uncommon biography’ that ‘offers rarely explored facets of this dark yet towering poetic genius in a fascinating analysis of the artist's personal life.’ The biography explores Ford’s influences as well as meanings nehind the director’s representations of rituals and customs, be they familial, military or religious.
Malham has said of Poet in the Desert that “What I hoped to do was to examine Ford’s life and work through the lens of the people and things that influenced him. Namely, this would be history, art, politics, mythology and people both historical and contemporary who affected him and, in the latter, who he affected.”
Malham also noted Ford’s Irish roots: “Ford strongly identified with and was greatly proud of his Irish heritage… he saw in the Irish people the themes of oppression, resilience, politics and justice, faith and, most important, the bonds of family and community as the barriers between them and a hostile world. Ford was a sentimental Irishman but his sentiment was always integrated into larges themes of communities moving through time but dealing with serious issues.”
John Ford: Poet in the Desert is available in print or on Kindle at Amazon.com

The Grapes of Wrath – Gala Event for 75th Anniversary of Steinbeck’s Novel

The Grapes of Wrath – Gala Event for 75th Anniversary of Steinbeck’s Novel

It is hard to believe that it was seventy five years ago that John Steinbeck’s award-winning The Grapes of Wrath was published. It was only a year after the book’s publication that John Ford released his film adaptation of the novel following a bidding war over the novel rights between film production companies that 20th Century Fox won.

One event of great interest in relation to this film will be a gala event held by the School of Arts and Humanities and the Public History Institute at California State University Bakersfield. The celebration is in honour of the 75th Anniversary of Steinbeck’s novel and will be hold on February 7th at the Fox Theatre. The program will consist of a concert by country music artist Dave Alvin as well as a screening of John Ford’s 1939 film, The Grapes of Wrath.

According to Dr. Richard Collins, Dean of the CSUB School of Arts and Humanities, “The Grapes of Wrath depicts a lot of hardships that are still seen in today’s society, especially in the central valley.” He continued, “I invite everyone to come out not to celebrate the hardships, but to celebrate the art, the history, and the memories, and to commemorate and say, let’s not forget. It’s a sense that we have been somewhere and that we still have somewhere to go, things to achieve.”

For more information, see http://www.onebakersfield.com/2014/01/csub-hosts-celebration-event-honoring-75th-anniversary-of-the-grapes-of-wrath/

John Ford influences Breaking Bad Creator Vince Gilligan

John Ford influences Breaking Bad Creator Vince Gilligan

Major film directors from a variety of genres, including Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorcese and Steven Spielberg, have named John Ford as an influence on their work. Now it seems John Ford has become an influence in television also.

Vince Gilligan is the creator of Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning show which recently won two Golden Globes for Best Actor in a TV Series and Best TV series.

In an interview with Rolling Stone last week, Gilligan said that “With giant, wide TVs, you get to frame and emulate John Ford or Sergio Leone and, in the case of Breaking Bad, you can place characters in an endless expanse of Mexico prairie which gets to look very painterly and cinematic. That's a wonderful development.”

Gilligan stated this in reference to his enthusiasm of how bigger television screens have changed the way stories are told on TV shows, allowing for more vision. He seems to indicate that the bigger the screen, the better one can emulate, and indeed experience, Ford’s scope and vision.

To read the full interview, see: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/vince-gilligan-talks-favorite-tv-technologies-at-ces-20140107