Close-Up: Dan Ford on John Wayne and John Ford
by Scott Holleran
John Ford
June 21, 2007

Actor John Wayne, who would have been 100 years old this year, made many historic motion pictures with legendary director John Ford (The Informer, How Green Was My Valley). Among them were Stagecoach, The Quiet Man and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

John Ford's grandson, Dan Ford, who wrote Pappy: The Life of John Ford, sat down with Box Office Mojo to talk about John Wayne, John Ford and their extraordinary careers.

Box Office Mojo: Have you seen every John Ford movie?

Dan Ford: I haven't seen some of the really old ones.

Box Office Mojo: What did John Ford value most about John Wayne?

Dan Ford: What he liked about John Wayne was John Wayne. He was such an appealing, likable, fun guy to be around—a man's man. He was a sensational card player, like Ford, a big drinker, like Ford was, and they had a lot in common. They were outdoor guys, they both loved boats—they spent every nickel they had on their boats—and it was a personal friendship.

Box Office Mojo: To attain that level of consistency throughout their work is a tremendous accomplishment—?

Dan Ford: —They were a lot alike. Ford had similar relationships with Henry Fonda, George O'Brien, back in the Silent [movie] days—O'Brien just couldn't make the transition to a talking actor.

Box Office Mojo: So part of the John Ford process was to use certain actors in whom he identified a particular quality he liked?

Dan Ford: Everybody said it: Ford liked the same people and that was the stock company. He even used the same crew.

Box Office Mojo: Was John Wayne frustrated that he wasn't the male lead in Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

John Wayne and John Ford
Dan Ford: Look at him—he was playing the guy who doesn't get the girl who becomes a drunk—in his mind he felt that he didn't have the main part and he was John Wayne. The leading man was Jimmy Stewart, whom he respected as an actor immensely, who was really the money actor in it, though [Wayne's] by far the most important character and he had a much more interesting part. I don't think Wayne appreciated that. It might have been financial, too.

Box Office Mojo: John Wayne said that a director such as George Cukor would try to make the movie fit the script and that your grandfather would try to make the script fit the movie. True?

Dan Ford: John Ford would change the script and cut the dialog. He was notorious for cutting dialog—for reaching in and getting the essence. He'd take all this great Frank Nugent dialog and cut it and find the meat. He hated long-winded speeches. Ford grew up with Silent pictures. If you couldn't tell a story visually, forget it.

Box Office Mojo: Was John Ford tough on John Wayne in order to yield better performances or was there real animosity?

Dan Ford: On Stagecoach, John Wayne and other people told me that everybody [working] on the movie knew that Wayne and Ford were friends, that they were fishing and drinking buddies. The cast were also more sophisticated actors—like George Bancroft—and the commonly told story goes that Ford rode Wayne because everybody knew Wayne was Ford's friend and Ford wanted to get the other actors on Duke's side—in order to help [Wayne].

Box Office Mojo: This needling of John Wayne continued over many years—?

Dan Ford: That was Ford. He needled everybody. The guy he really needled was Ward Bond, because he kind of went around asking for it.

Box Office Mojo: What's the greatest John Ford picture?

Donna Reed and John Wayne in They Were Expendable
Dan Ford: They Were Expendable, though one of his best that most people probably aren't familiar with is Three Bad Men because it's silent and it didn't make money. It's shot in 70 millimeter and it came out when sound was coming out and people were more interested in sound. It's a great film [about the] Dakota and Oklahoma land rush. The Iron Horse gets a little play because it was quite successful.

Box Office Mojo: Who generally owns the rights to Ford's movies?

Dan Ford: Most of the movies are owned by the studios. He generally did works for hire. Most of these guys were studio contract directors until World War 2, when they wanted to get out of the studio system. They couldn't make any money given the high[er] tax rates. So, what Ford and a lot of other people did is go independent. Everybody thinks they wanted to be independent because they were tired of Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner telling them what to do. No, that's not true. They wanted to be independent because it was the only way they could make money. They could own their own pictures and have the studio release them.

Box Office Mojo: What was John Ford's estate valued at when he died?

Dan Ford: It wasn't really significant. The after market hadn't kicked in yet. There were a few residuals from television and a couple of movies that he had a piece of, but after Ford stopped working in 1965, he just couldn't afford his lifestyle anymore. He'd gone through a lot of savings and he was burned by taxes—he hadn't sheltered his money—and he didn't own a lot of his films so he wasn't in a position where he could turn around and sell them back to the studios. John Wayne owned so many of his films, though he, too, had a couple of setbacks. These are creative people and it's difficult to work the hours they work and also keep an eye on their money.

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