Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross
Following The Iron Horse’s smash success, John Ford became a premiere director at Fox Film, one who could pull greater budgets, respect, and even pursue projects of his personal liking now and then. It’s easy to see that railroad saga as a moment of destiny, when Ford’s artistic domineering and hubris began their never-ending ascent, and that’s true to a point. But as the early 1920s turned to the late 1920s, he was still being assigned a glut of films by the studio, some of which he would receive a script for on the same day that shooting began. Still, it’s worth remembering that for all the reverence of Ford as an auteur who gained the prestige and control that his talents deserved, his filmography is peppered with “ones for them,” and many of those are now counted among his classics. Between The Iron Horse and his next “major” project, 3 Bad Men, Ford directed six features in two years: Hearts of Oak, Lightnin’, Kentucky Pride, Thank You, The Fightin’ Heart, and The Shamrock Handicap. Half of these films are now lost, and of those that remain only The Shamrock Handicap was available to me in acceptable quality. This was a stroke of great luck, for as the film’s title suggests, The Shamrock Handicap is the most Irish Ford film yet, and the first two reels, which are set in Ireland itself, represent his best cinematography to date, crammed with dynamic compositions lovingly sketching a romantic view of the country that was no doubt borne of the director’s nostalgia and personal enthusiasm. Cultural rituals, colourful supporting roles, horse racing, and a combative romance (“Rosaleen is too much horse for you to handle!” “You’re just jealous because you can’t!”) — shades of The Quiet Man abound.

There’s no mistaking a certain personal investment in this sequence from the very vocally Irish John Ford, but past that his interest in the material extends no further. The plot spirits us away to America, and its contrivances quickly swallow the movie whole: Neil Ross (Leslie Fenton), a talented Irish horse rider, is invited to race as a jockey in America, and leaves behind his life and a fledgling romance with Lady Sheila O’Hara (Janet Gaynor) in the hopes of finding wealth and returning to bail his beau’s aristocratic family out of debt. But after a crippling fall leaves him barely able to walk, let alone ride, his dreams seem over, and the O’Hara’s leave behind former prosperity in Ireland to make it as modest modest labourers. Then, on the day of the year’s biggest race, the Handicap of the title, and Neil’s the only rider around, and through sheer tyranny of will he not only rides in the race, but wins it. Alright, so even with more context than that, that’s a pretty dumb climax, and there’s not much poeticism or sense of the fantastical to sell the thing as a fairy tale. For the most part, The Shamrock Handicap feels pretty tossed off, as most Ford movies of the time had to be. Its performances, at least, are competent across-the-board; Janet Gaynor will always be Janet Gaynor, magnetic and effortlessly sympathetic (the woman could plead with her eyes better than most any other actor I know),though Fenton’s leading performance is fairly bland and uncommanding. Male leads seem to have been a major stumbling block throughout Ford’s post-Harry Carey silents; they are all irritating simperers, and Neil’s unflagging indomitability is the sunshiney core of a movie that, really, could have done with just a smidgen of pathos — let’s remember that even in The Quiet Man, a relentlessly upbeat love letter to Ireland, John Wayne’s character is haunted by a recent, scarring trauma. Nonetheless, the film represents a major step up in Ford’s ability to handle his most trivial and small-scale hackwork (never mind its Irishness), as the whole thing is attractively directed and photographed, showing the sunny highlights to which Ford was growing more and more attached. It’s in no danger of being declared an essential or underacknowledged part of his catalogue, but it’s a clear mark of his growing confidence and personal style; early crowd shots of the Irish community traipsing to the fair aesthetically echo forward to 1941, and the gorgeous morning march to the mines in How Green Was My Valley. That’s no meanly earned comparison.


Post a Comment