When Not to Edit, Pt 7: John Ford Refuses to Waste Film

The first edit that made me cry was about 50 minutes into John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). (I’ve written at length about how much of a film wuss I am.) I had just returned from my first semester of my sophomore year in film school. The editing class had been a real eye-opener, and I had become incredibly sensitive to the Value of the Cut. In fact, my viewing of the film was like that cliché of the kid who returns from the war and can’t see anything the same way he used to. This was like that.

The whole film was an epiphany (it was the first time I saw it and I hadn’t read the book), but this scene—when Pa Joad buys penny candy at a truck stop for his children–was when the scales tipped for me. It’s a typical Ford scene: wide or medium shots and very few edits. But somewhere in there, there’s an edit that’s perfectly timed. It isn’t much—nothing in the scene is terribly dramatic– but that edit is just enough to make sure we knew what every character was feeling. That one edit was all it took.

Considering I have such strong feelings for Ford’s command of our attention, it’s only fitting that I wrap up ths series with a post about him. Previously, I’ve been explicit about why (I think) some filmmakers made the tasteful, retrained choices they did, reasons that include building tension, creating humor, and so on, but those are just specifics. The truth is that in every instance I described, the unspoken reason the director did what he did is because he knew exactly what he was doing. And Ford’s body of work is a feast of such examples, so many that it’s easier for me to just write about him in general terms.

Of all the legends surrounding Ford (of which there are many), the most common is his claim to never shoot more than he deemed necessary, which in turn would limit the amount of tampering the studio could do after the film left his hands. Like many filmmakers of the studio system, he was given limited input in the editing 1 , yet Ford’s visualiztion of the finished film was so clear, he’d film the actors’ dialog only from the angles he wanted used.

For example, if he didn’t want John Wayne’s line, “That’ll be the day,” to be seen in a close up, he wouldn’t shoot that line in a close up. The average director—certainly ones that play it safe—shoots all the dialog from multiple angles, giving the editor options while cutting the film. Ford knew if he didn’t give the editor options, then he’d exert control over the finished product—even if he was already knee-deep in shooting his next film. 2

Fortunately, I have a handful of clips that explain this. (Although his opinions on filmmaking have been chronicled in a handful of cranky on-camera interviews he did in the autumn of his years, we’re lucky enough to have some other sources for his pearls of wisdom.)

Editor and director Robert Parrish’s long career began when was an apprentice editor on Ford’s The Informer (1935). In a 1992 documentary about Ford, Parrish shared several first-hand accounts about the director. This anecdote is about how he was given the opportunity to cut a scene for The Grapes of Wrath

What did Ford mean by “I don’t shoot anything I don’t want in the picture”? It sounds like a wrestler’s brag, a macho display of confidence. But here’s another anecdote from Parrish, this time explaining how Ford directed Victor McLaglen in The Informer (1935) and at the same time control what went into the camera…

That’s crazy. It takes a confident filmmaker to pull a stunt like that (although he had 22 years and 84 films under his belt when he directed that scene). And it’s certainly distracting to the actor (not that it hurt McLaglen any: he won the Best Actor Oscar for that performance).

But wait. There’s more. Here’s a scene from How Green Was My Valley (1941). 3   The set up: Because of the forbidden romance a young woman (Maureen O’Hara) has with a preacher (Walter Pidgeon), she marries another man. This is her wedding day, and as she stoically leaves the church, the heartbroken preacher watches from a distance. (This brief scene is followed by the audio commentary by Ford-biographer Joseph McBride. 4 )

And if that doesn’t sum up Ford’s attitude, then this last clip will. (In fact, it will sum up everything I’ve pushed in the all the essays in this series.) Robert Parrish once asked Ford how he directs actors, and this is what he said…

In other words, according to Ford, never make an edit unless you have a reason.


And that’s that. If I write anymore on this topic, I’ll only repeat myself. However, if you’d like a different take on the some of these ideas, check out this post by Steve Boone, over at Big Media Vandalism. His prose seems unchecked—I don’t mean sloppy, but he’s passionate and his ideas seem to fly out of his fingers.

I think we feel the same way about editing, but we discuss and dissect from opposites of the same coin. For example, in his post, he fearlessly criticizes contemporary filmmaking (with passing references to older films), whereas the seven essays I’ve written promote the films of yesteryear. (The youngest film I profiled is 22 years old!)


BACK TO POST 1 If the filmmaker’s films were successful, he’d be put on his next film ASAP. This is probably why Ford was able to do seven films between 1939 and 1941, an incredible run that included Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.

BACK TO POST 2 This subversive technique didn’t always work for him, at least by the studio’s definition of “working,” and the most famous example of it will be the topic for a later post.

BACK TO POST 3 I think How Green Was My Valley rocks. For decades I’ve heard this film referred to derisively as “The Film That Beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture.” That massive simplification of this film kept me at an arm’s length from it, and I finally saw it a few years ago. What a boob I was for buying into the Kane Propaganda Machine.

BACK TO POST 4 For those who care, yes, it’s the same Joseph McBride who co-wrote the Corman-produced Rock ‘N’ Roll High School.


Filed under Film

7 responses to “When Not to Edit, Pt 7: John Ford Refuses to Waste Film

  1. Matthew B

    “Kane” isn’t overrated; it was the underdog for so many years that to dismiss it out of hand as being backed by a “Propaganda Machine” is a tragedy of the highest proportion. 😦

    • I never said Kane is “overrated.” Nor did I dismiss it “out of hand.” The post wasn’t about that film (hence it only being referred to in passing, in a footnote). It’s a fine film, a great film. But in the circles I’ve traveled, that film is lauded and How Green Was My Valley is dismissed–generally by people who’ve never seen it.

      As for “tragedy of the highest proportion,” I’m sure Kane and it’s reputation have not been tarnished by footnote. I criticized the leagues of folks who simplify the films made at the same time as Kane and me for following their lead. I wish I had seen both films at the same time.

      • Matthew B

        I’d like to add that I’d wish Rouben Mamoulian would get more recognition outside of film circles; there’s a great shot in his “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that just leaves a leg, swinging, tantalyzingly, over a shot of Jekyll leaving the apartment of the female owner of said leg — it’s a beautiful way to imply temptation, AND it was done at the start of the sound era, to boot!

  2. I’ve got a film degree on the wall, and I’m Ford illiterate. Alas.

    • Besides that Grapes of Wrath experience I described (which I saw on my own), I saw only two Ford films via film school (Stagecoach and The Searchers). But there have been so many I’ve seen since where my ongoing reaction was, “Why didn’t I see this in film school?! Why didn’t I watch this when I really needed it?!” And while I have no qualms with my education (I loved it), I feel that many of the fundamentals of great cinematic storytelling run rampant through his films and I wish I had been exposed to more decades ago.

  3. I love both Kane and How Green. I think that these films should be talked about as if they are equally worthy, and I think Welles would have agreed. I’m sure you know, although some may not, that Welles watched Stagecoach obsessively before making Kane. I’m sure Kane wouldn’t have been the film it was without Ford’s influence. It is true, though, that Welles had one criticism of Ford, in spite of his respect for the older director– Welles believed that Ford’s sentimental streak was an Achilles heel. I think that many critics, valuing “content” over style, mistake Ford for a trite or superficial artist, and thus miss Ford’s mastery of film language. I’m no critic, but I’m a pretty unsentimental person– yet Ford’s slushy tendencies, as well as his cornball humor, reach me again and again emotionally. This is due to his absolute mastery of the form. I assume this is why Welles worked so hard to absorb Ford’s lessons, in spite of the fact that he was making a film that tonewise was about as different from Ford as it’s possible to be. Interestingly, in spite of the mountain of opinion in favor of this overwhelmingly artistic film, Kane has sometimes been undervalued by those who find it cold. It’s fascinating to me how closely those two directors were linked, and anyone who appreciates one of these films but not the other is dismissing a film or a director for bad reasons. This is because there are no good reasons to dismiss either film.

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