The potential for the DVD format as a vehicle of discovery has rarely been as fully realized as it is with the Ford at Fox boxed set, a 24-film collection that contains the output of a legendary director during one of his most fertile periods. Director John Ford made more than 50 movies at Fox from 1920 to 1952, and the best of them — including 18 DVD premieres — are included here. For every classic such as The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley, the set also includes a rarity such as the atmospheric silent film Hangman’s House or the early noir Born Reckless. The set enables the audience to become familiar not only with Ford’s more obscure work but also with that of cinematographer George Schneiderman, ASC, one of Ford’s most gifted collaborators. Schneiderman, who began his career in the lab, shot Ford’s Fox debut, Just Pals, in 1920 and quickly became the director’s favored cinematographer. Eleven of their collaborations are included in this collection.
Schneiderman’s work with Ford is characterized by backlit exteriors that depict dynamic action in silhouette, as well as an expressionistic quality borrowed from one of Ford’s favorite films, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Perhaps the best of the Ford-Schneiderman collaborations is the overlooked masterpiece Pilgrimage (1933), a visually sumptuous melodrama that is unusually harsh in its vision of American motherhood. Tradition and family are always key themes for Ford, but in Pilgrimage, he presents the dark side of both: an overbearing mother, Hannah, is so possessive of her only son that she sends him to die in a war rather than let him marry the woman who is having his baby.
Schneiderman perfectly conveys the story’s ambivalent attitudes with lighting that signifies the bleakness in the characters’ lives by constantly surrounding them with either darkness or overly artificial studio backdrops. Though the images are beautifully composed and lit, the characters are left isolated from each other and their surroundings. The people in the film are adrift, with no precise context — an approach that is poetic and disorienting. As the movie progresses, Ford shifts tones, sending Hannah on a European pilgrimage that turns the film into a Mark Twain-esque comedy about Americans abroad. When Hannah is forced to socialize with a group of mothers who have lost sons in the war, the lighting loses contrast and the depth of field increases, enlarging Hannah’s world and releasing the viewer from the oppressive visual quality of the movie’s first half.
The visual, thematic and historical issues that are relevant to Pilgrimage are expertly dissected on a commentary track by Searching for John Ford author Joseph McBride. (Several other titles in the Ford at Fox collection include audio narrations as well, including a fine commentary by AC contributing writer Robert Birchard on The Iron Horse.) The transfer of Pilgrimage is a bit uneven, with the whites occasionally seeming overly bright and washed out, and there are intermittent scratches on the print, particularly in the early scenes. But more often than not, the images are stunning, with a clarity that vividly conveys the precision of Schneiderman and Ford’s deep-focus compositions. Overall, the transfers in Ford at Fox are superb, particularly on the later films.
In addition to the commentary tracks, the extras include various making-of documentaries, restoration demonstrations, shorts and publicity materials. Best of all is a supplemental disc that includes several of Ford’s World War II documentaries and the feature-length documentary Becoming John Ford, which includes interviews with film scholars as well as correspondence between Ford and Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck (colorfully played by directors Walter Hill and Ron Shelton, respectively).
Finally, the set contains an elegant coffee-table book and reproductions of two vintage programs from The Iron Horse and Four Sons. Some titles from this collection are also available as single discs for $19.98, and three “mini-collections” are available at $49.98 each.