dvd review: John Ford: Hiding In Plain Sight

Many people believed that John Ford was the finest American director of the 20th Century. In a perfect world, all of his films would be readily available for viewing but that is simply not the case.

A number of his silent features no longer exist, but even some of his lesser-known talkies have yet to see commercial release, including one of my favorites, Airmail (1932), and a few of his later, more personal works like Gideon of Scotland Yard (1958) and The Rising of the Moon (1957), not to mention the Republic Pictures release he often cited as his personal favorite, The Sun Shines Bright (1953), which did come out on VHS years ago. There is one other Ford film that has never risen above the level of obscurity, even though it has aired on Turner Classic Movies and is now available for the first time on DVD through The title is Flesh (1932), and while no one would call it a major work, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be ignored.

Several major Ford biographies and reference works don’t discuss it at all, and Peter Bogdanovich didn’t—

—bother to ask the director about it for his seminal interview/profile volume. Can it really be that worthless?

The answer is no. Flesh marked Ford’s first encounter with MGM, a studio for which he had no particular affinity. When he returned there to make 3 Godfathers in 1948 it was on his own terms. In 1932 Ford wasn’t yet the Oscar winning director he was to become in just a few short years, and his silent classics were now just a memory. To the end of his days, he described directing as nothing more than “a job of work”, but it’s clear that some films had more personal meaning to him than others.

Flesh was clearly an assignment, albeit an unusual one, because the milieu is German, not Irish. Wallace Beery gives a fine performance as a beer garden waiter who doubles as a wrestler in demonstration matches for his benevolent boss, Jean Hersholt. A big-hearted lug whom everybody likes, Beery takes pity on impoverished customer Karen Morley and even offers her a place to sleep when he learns that she is homeless.

Ford, in dark glasses, poses on the set of Flesh with Wallace Beery and supporting actors including Herman Bing (one of the only actual Germans in the cast, standing between Beery and Ford) and Vince Barnett (over Ford’s shoulder)

Naturally, he falls in love with her and is blind to the fact that she is all too easily controlled by her former lover, a manipulative louse played by Ricardo Cortez. The action then shifts to America, where Beery hopes to become a champion in the ring.

There is nothing particularly original or surprising about Flesh, but it’s still entertaining and well made. Beery was not yet out of control, nor had his films become cut-and-dried personality vehicles. (This was the same year he played a very different Teutonic character in Grand Hotel, again with Hersholt.) Karen Morley told Ford biographer Scott Eyman that she received very little direction from Ford, and that’s too bad. Her role lacks the kind of nuance this talented actress could have brought to it. Her hard-shelled, wiseguy patter—credited to Moss Hart, of all people—seldom rings true, even if the emotions behind it sometimes do. (The story for Flesh was devised by Edmund Goulding, with screenplay credit going to MGM stalwarts Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf. Some sources cite William Faulkner as having contributed to the script, as well.)

What Flesh does have is a tangible sense of atmosphere, especially at the beer garden and its adjoining living quarters, and a rich supporting cast full of familiar faces—including an unbilled Ward Bond, that long-time Ford stalwart.

Is it essential viewing for a John Ford Scholar? Maybe not, but it doesn’t deserve to be so far off the radar, either. I’m so glad Warner Home Video has finally made it available on DVD.

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May 2024