Shouting “Quiet” Praise…

Running a close second to having a great movie degenerate into a handful of dust (i.e. 90% of all silent pics) is having a classic motion picture only accessible in a wretched, virtually unwatchable form.

For more than three decades this was the case with John Ford’s 1952 boisterous comedy-romance THE QUIET MAN, filmed on-location in the director’s beloved Ireland – a cinematic confection revered for its gorgeous use of Technicolor. Gotta stop myself with these platitudes…you get the message, right?  So, how did this happen?  How could this happen?  Simply put, the mooks who curated Republic Pictures’ library had let their most acclaimed work literally turn to mud. No foolin’, folks – that’s what it looked like: ugly, dark images with no detail or clarity…the spectacular hues relegated to Silly Puttied Biograph quality B&W with a Winky Dink TV flap tint. It became “the” sinful example of celluloid neglect (made all the more insulting, as one of the picture’s two Oscars was for the much-deserved Color Cinematography, dually shared by its brilliant practitioners of the art, Winton Hoch and Archie Stout).

That all changed, mostly for the good, when Olive Films, in conjunction with Paramount Pictures (who inherited most of the Republic output), joined forces in 2012 to at least partially rectify this Hollywood-Holocaust…It allowed me then to at last be able to recommend a home-video version of Ford’s Irish valentine, that they proudly unfurled as a 60th Anniversary Blu-Ray (and DVD). Hurrah, hurrah…and, oh yeah, hurrah!

But there were still hurdles to climb, often as jagged as the Emerald Isle’s hauntingly beautiful coasts.  The clarity was there, and much of the color was now presentable, yet still a far cry from the picture that took the aforementioned cinematography statuette in 1953.  Well, it’s time to wave your shillelagh with rapturous joy.  The folks at Olive and Paramount have gone one step closer to Bijou nirvana via their recent redux as part of the terrific new Olive Signature series.  Yep, the new QUIET MAN, mastered in 4K from the original camera negative, is the best version of the title one is apt to see.  It’s no longer merely viewable, it’s gorgeous.  True, some of the interior and dark exterior color remain a bit contrasty, but, WOW, what a difference to the top Blu-Ray/DVD of just four years ago.

The story of this movie’s journey is as rocky as the raucous relationship betwixt leads John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara – albeit nowhere near as fun.

From its inception as a Saturday Evening Post story by writer Maurice Walsh in 1935, THE QUIET MAN‘s evolution to motion picture extraordinaire has been one of frustration, exasperation and perspiration.

Ford, then reaching his peak as a Hollywood mover and shaker (director of perhaps that year’s most lauded title, The Informer) immediately bonded with the tale of an Irish-born, American-raised prize fighter who quits the ring after killing an opponent during a bout. His return to the roots and soil of his parents’ youth…the picturesque hamlet of Innisfree…attempting to assimilate into the charming, eccentric community…and, in doing so, finding the love of his life, is movie manna from heaven.

From frame one, Ford, much to his chagrin, could find no backers among the major studios, not a suit who seemed to “get it,” to understand the beauteous tapestry of visual possibilities. In spite of Ford’s increasing track record of box-office smashes (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley), there were just no takers.

All this was put on-hold once that little skirmish called World War II reared its demonic, democratic-threatening head.

Ford spent most of the war in combat – shooting amazing color footage of battles – but never letting the thought of bringing his Irish story to the screen escape him for more than an instance.

Returning home, Ford found that many things had changed – save the reluctance to greenlight THE QUIET MAN. Most notable was the emergence of John Wayne. Wayne had been discovered by the director in the late 1920s – gainfully employing the hulking USC football star (as well as his pal Ward Bond) as a grip and occasional extra. Their tumultuous working situation was not unlike that of THE QUIET MAN‘s protagonists’ love/hate saga. For nearly ten years, Wayne, by no fault of his own, fell out of favor with Ford, who, by decade’s end, finally figured he had suffered enough penance, having been relegated to an endless array of Poverty Row two-day western quickies. In 1939, Stagecoach made Wayne a viable property. Proving himself in a series of post-war blockbusters like Ford’s Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – and, more importantly, in Hawks’ Red River (“Who ever knew that son of a bitch could act!” exclaimed the faux-shocked director) zoomed him to the Top Ten International Stars list (upon which he remarkably remained for over twenty years). A Best Actor Oscar-nomination for Allan Dwan’s 1949 war epic Sands of Iwo Jima once and for all cemented his superstar status.

When Ford approached Herbert J. Yates, founder and head of minor-major Republic studios, offering him his formidable services…it now came at a price the director was loath to bear. Whereas in the past, John Wayne would be lucky to even be considered for a Ford project – the tides had now turned. Yates wouldn’t even consider such a dubious box-office effort as THE QUIET MAN unless Wayne was attached (Ford had genuinely expressed an interest in Robert Ryan, who actually had been a Golden Gloves champ). Furthermore, both Wayne and Ford would have to shoot a western for the studio first – a surefire guarantee that Republic could recoup some of the losses should THE QUIET MAN tank. Wayne’s crucial participation merely infuriated Ford to the max – an abomination, since although the director begrudgingly admitted that Wayne was a valuable asset, he nevertheless additionally marked him as somebody who should be beholden to him for any success he had achieved…forever!

The western in question turned out to be 1950’s Rio Grande – an unprecedented bonanza and the final part of Ford’s cavalry trilogy (which was prefaced by Fort Apache and Yellow Ribbon). More relevant was the casting – the first time so – of Wayne with O’Hara. Their chemical combustion was the kind that would have had Robert Oppenheimer leaping for jocundity (if indeed Oppenheimer was so athletically inclined). With this one picture, the pair became a “legendary” screen romantic team. It’s astounding to think that THE QUIET MAN was only their second picture – as their intuitive ability to play off each other, their obvious affection for one another was so strong that many moviegoers thought them to be a couple in real life…or mistakenly (for decades) figured them to have made upwards of a dozen to twenty pictures together (in actuality, they only appeared on-screen together five times, from 1950’s Rio Grande to 1971’s Big Jake).

While the mammoth success of Rio Grande gave Ford a lot more leverage, THE QUIET MAN‘s troubles were far from over. Yates’ ever-present penny-pinching comprised beseeching the director to film the movie in Hollywood. Ford’s curt response: “No!”  Yates begged that the movie be shot in black-and-white, a request Ford never even bothered to reply to. The mogul then countered with a compromise to shoot the film in their inferior house color process, True Color by Consolidated. Ford’s volley was one word: Technicolor.  And so it went – as did Ford, Wayne, O’Hara and the rest of the cast and crew to Ireland, in early June of 1951.

A difficult shoot, but a satisfying one, THE QUIET MAN was more or less a family affair. Ford’s brother Francis played a key supporting role as an aged villager; the director’s son, Patrick, worked on the production assistant. Wayne’s children appeared as extras in the horse-race sequence. O’Hara’s brother Charles FitzSimmons appeared in a small role and helped arrange accommodations for the company. Costar Barry Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields was cast as the Reverend Playfair…and subsequent Best Supporting Actor nominee Victor McLaglen’s son Andrew (soon to be a director himself) cut his teeth on the pic as an A.D.

It was because of the latter that Harry Carey, Jr., once related a story to me about the location shooting (he and Andy McLaglen were best friends). “It was the scene right before the famous fight between Wayne and Victor McLaglen. Duke and Maureen were crossing this beautiful meadow en route to Red Danaher’s farm – followed by all these villagers…Ford told Duke, ‘Don’t hold back – drag her through the grass…by the hair if necessary.’ Maureen was always such a trouper – she didn’t flinch. So Wayne surveys the area, and quietly approaches Ford. ‘I think there might be a slight problem, Pappy.’ ‘What’s that?!’ barks Ford. Wayne uncomfortably tells Ford… ‘Well, this grass – it looks all right, but it’s covered with horse, sheep and dog shit…’ Ford shrugs, ‘What’s wrong – afraid of getting your boots messed?’  Before Wayne can answer, Ford yells, ‘ACTION!’ Wayne, tells O’Hara, ‘I’m really sorry about this.” Maureen’s already laying in it, snaps back, “Oh, just get on with it!’ So he’s dragging her through all this muck…and at the end of the take, Ford shouts, ‘Cut!’ and then… ‘Again!’ He had Wayne dragging Maureen through that manure for most of the day. The funny thing is that I think it bothered Duke more than Maureen!”

For Ford, THE QUIET MAN was pseudo-autobiographical…by that I mean in presenting the Wayne character the way Ford likely WISHED he was. This isn’t mere speculation. In the mass-published edition of Walsh’s work, the central leads are named Paddy Bawn Enright and Ellen Roe Danaher. In the movie, Enright (Wayne) becomes Sean Thornton (Sean being Ford’s christened birth name) while Danaher loses the Ellen Roe in favor of Mary-Kate (a claim Peter Bogdanovich first surmised to be a combination of Mary McBride, Ford’s wife and airoutis roomsuckis actress Katharine Hepburn, the two loves of his life).

I always wondered about the time period of THE QUIET MAN. I naturally always assumed that it took place in modern-day (1950s) Ireland, but now think that it might be circa the 1930s, when the original story was written. Not that I guess it matters; in any event, the actual conditions were primitive – more akin to 1912 than 1952. Most of the community had no electricity, so huge generators had to be flown in to power the cameras and the lighting and sound equipment. These distractions weren’t eased by Yates’ frantic barrage of telegrams from Hollywood, inquiring as to the prospect of finishing up ahead of schedule. One telegram did make Ford laugh out loud. Whilst screening dailies (which Yates had printed in Technicolor, very unusual for the time), the Republic magnate questioned the abilities of the cameramen…bemoaning the fact that everything looked so green!

The performances gleaned from Ford’s expert direction and Frank Nugent’s lyrical script are board-trodding ambrosia! Wayne and O’Hara were never better. Ditto McLaglen (whose scenes showcasing his dining table etiquette only served to confirm my suspicions regarding his eating habits); Dublin’s Abbey Players alumnus Jack MacGowran, Sean McClory, and the rest.

The most surprising (for me) acting plus for me was the portrayal of Michealeen Oge Flynn, as impersonated by Barry Fitzgerald. Personally, I always found Fitzgerald’s post-Going My Way work a little bit too Catch-Me-Lucky-Charms cloying. Indeed he pushes that button here – but hot damn if for once it doesn’t work. What can I say? Instead of being friggin’ grating, he’s friggin’ great. His misinterpretation of the leads’ destructed honeymoon bed (“It’s Homeric!”) provides one of the movie’s biggest laughs (a vignette that was cut from the original release in several States and in the UK; don’t fret – every frame is here to enjoy).  Can’t neglect the beautiful music composed by Ford’s good friend Victor Young either; Young’s original themes as well as his arrangements of Irish standards are sure to bring a tear to your both your heart and suil.

Upon its release, THE QUIET MAN broke all records – quickly becoming the critically acclaimed picture of the year. It shot Republic’s stock up to the point where they would now be able to provide a super-production every year (Johnny Guitar, The Last Command) – although never again reaching the heights of the Ford picture. Furthermore, THE QUIET MAN did for Irish tourism what The Red Shoes did for ballet enrollment. It was the gift that kept on giving.

Ultimately, the movie would cop five Academy nominations, including a win for Best Director for Ford (his fifth and final victory); other nods included Best Screenplay and Best Picture – the latter outrageously losing to Cecil B. DeMille’s moronic The Greatest Show on Earth.

Warner Bros., always the first to cash in on shameless promotion, immediately cast Wayne in the Michael Curtiz comedy-romance Trouble Along the Way – hyping the picture with “That all-man Quiet Man has a new dame to tame…”  This comparison extended to the one-sheets, rendering Wayne’s female co-star Donna Reed into a striking likeness of O’Hara!

The discontinuation of Technicolor printing in the 1970s sealed the fate of THE QUIET MAN. Even on those embryonic color TV sets of the 1960s, one KNEW that those prints were Technicolor…it looked that good.  Once this process was finished, whoever owned the Republic library went for the shoddiest upgrade CRI’s (Color Reversal Intermediate). The colors, formerly so vibrant, washed out to various shades of the stuff Wayne dragged O’Hara through. Night scenes and dark interiors lost all clarity and detail…often just dialogue with no discernible picture on-view.

While I admit that a movie so monumental is truly befitting of a full-scale restoration a la Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz (Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, Spartacus, Vertigo, Rear Window), I guess that’s an undertaking we fanatics will just have to wait and hope for. That said, as indicated, this newly remastered, high definition transfer from a 4K scan of the original negative is a major home-video event. To reiterate to above, the Olive Signature HD quality is a revelation – the best THE QUIET MAN has looked in over forty years! I love the fact that I can now watch this movie again without any reservations (both myself and my late cineaste partner-in-crime Ric Menello put a moratorium on this title as soon we saw those awful prints that started circulating during the early 1980s). The crystal clarity of the location shots, the flesh tones, blue Irish eyes that sure ‘n begorrah be now smiling once again…it’s all so grand.

So REJOICE (or James Joyce or Joyce Kilmer…what the HELL, when it comes to THE QUIET MAN – we’re ALL Irish). This classic’s belated home-video refurbish transcends being simply a collector’s event…There’s also a plethora of delectable extras, including a documentary on Republic Pictures and Yates, audio commentary by Joseph McBride (author of the superb Ford biography, Searching for John Ford), tributes to Maureen O’Hara, and MORE.   What can I say?  Why it’s Homeric!

 

As discussed above, the making of THE QUIET MAN is almost as engrossing as the picture itself.  In fact, it WOULD make a great picture; and, in fact, it HAS.  In 2012, Irish director Se Merry Doyle co-produced a loving, rollicking (and, eventually, a multi-award-winning) feature-length documentary, entitled JOHN FORD: DREAMING THE QUIET MAN.  As a must-have appendage to the their Signature Edition, Olive Films with Loopline Film Productions, Ltd. have made this wonderful, entertaining saga available in a stunning widescreen Blu-Ray (and DVD).

Narrated by Gabriel Byrne, the movie chronicles many of the adventures talked of in this article; but it doesn’t stop there.  Things I never knew are revealed, specifically how the movie almost was shelved before completion.  Yup, the print-the-legend tale is that Ford, under terrific stress, had a breakdown during the shoot (more likely, he went on a monumental bender; “He was a painfully deadly alcoholic,” Dobe Carey told me.  “A half a glass of beer is all it took.”).  With Ford confined to bed, unable to continue, THE QUIET MAN appeared doomed.  The schedule was tight, and the grand cast had projects ahead that couldn’t be postponed.  So, what happened?  John Wayne became well, John Wayne.  He stepped in and directed one of the movie’s most memorable sequences, the big horse race.  By the time that segment wrapped, Ford was able to, once again, grab the reins.  And nothing more about the incident was mentioned.

There’s also a funny account of Yates’ bitching about the movie’s length.  For Herbert J. Yates, a motion picture should never run more than an hour-and-a-half (ideally, around 80 minutes).  THE QUIET MAN clocked in a 129 minutes.  “Cut something!,” bemoaned Yates to Ford.  This was a request ignored until a special press/exhibitor screening in Hollywood.  The reaction was fantastic throughout, full of laughs and applause.  As the picture was unspooling to its end (the mighty confrontation between Wayne and McLaglen), the audience was hooked, and, at that key first-strike moment, Ford instructed the projectionist to stop the film.  “Sorry, but this movie runs too long,” he announced.  The small but influential group started shouting for the show to resume. And they got progressively louder and angrier.  “Ask Mr. Yates,” shrugged Ford.  Yates, embarrassed (and probably a bit frightened) responded that it was just a joke and ordered the remainder of the film to roll.  Not a frame was removed.

DREAMING THE QUIET MAN likewise bursts the Ford Gaelic bubble.  He liked to impress his American cast and crew with his mastery of the auld language of his heritage.  Truth be told, according to the locals (many of whom are interviewed in the doc), Ford was hopelessly inept at speaking in the tongue, frequently blathering gibberish.  Translators were brought in as coaches for Ward Bond and Maureen O’Hara to phonetically speak the dialect for one brief scene by a fishing stream (good thing, too, as it comprises a discussion about the latter’s honeymoon sexual relations).

The interviewees are hilarious, wizened duffs and twinkling-eyed matrons, who were children during the original shoot.  Their first-hand accounts are marvelous.  In true fairy-tale fashion, the non-existent “Innisfree” (in actuality the town of Cong) almost became the fictional locale.  The frontispiece herald of the Cohan Bar remained, and tour groups from all over the world have turned an anticipated “Innisfree” stopover into the village’s number-one cottage industry.  Dotted with QUIET MAN souvenir shops, Cong’s gullible visitors annually become enthralled by the wily populace who regale them with enough blarney to possibly even bring a grin to Ford’s sour puss (or as a wise town lady brilliantly phrases, “They come here to be lied to by Irish people.”).

Much of the documentary is highlighted by clips from a print of THE QUIET MAN.  This is worth mentioning, as, although the print, obviously a 16MM copy, has been poorly transferred (extremely soft), there is no doubt that it’s an authentic Technicolor copy.  As good as the Signature Edition is, this is the way I generally recall the sumptuous colors, back in the 1960s, and from private collectors’ prints that I was lucky enough to see in the early 1970s.  Like the QM SIGNATURE EDITION, the Blu-Ray is laden with pot o’gold extras.

Maureen O’Hara herself is interviewed, and, she pulls no punches.  The actress correctly identifies Ford as one mean SOB, but she adds how she wouldn’t have changed anything in their relationship for the world.  As with all her Ford anecdotes, O’Hara pushes the brogue a bit harder than when discussing other aspects of her career (a point she even mentions that Ford picked up on, and ridiculed her about).  There’s also a short bit on the director’s obsession with the star, including his sending voluminous love letters to counterbalance the barrage of hurled public insults.

O’Hara saves the most enticing part for last, when asked what was it she whispered into John Wayne’s ear at the pic’s conclusion (the one that has them zooming back toward their cottage).  “I know what you’re going to ask, and what you want to hear,” she teases before denying us eager, horny fans an answer.  We do know that Ford coached her on alluringly sidling up to Wayne and softly speaking to him with a naughty look on her face.  Of course, it was the promise of some sexual desire, a fantasy, a fetish…the mind boggles.  One only has to look at the expression on Wayne’s face when she finishes with lip-biting fervor.  You can almost see the actor go out of character, expecting him to shockingly respond with “MAUREEN!?”  Indeed, only O’Hara, Ford and Wayne knew what was mentioned.  O’Hara tells us she will take those words to her grave.  And so she did.

THE QUIET MAN:  THE OLIVE SIGNATURE SPECIAL EDITION. Color.  Full Frame [1.33: 1; 1080p High Definition 4K scan]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]; Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OS006. SRP:  $34.95.

JOHN FORD: DREAMING THE QUIET MAN:  Color.  Widescreen [1.77:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 mono DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Loop Film Productions, Ltd. CAT# OF966.  SRP:  $29.95.

 

 

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