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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: January 28, 2019

A statewide festival celebrates the films of John Ford

Written by: Ray Routhier

The most honored movie director in Hollywood history was born in Maine, graduated from Portland High School and went on to win four Oscars. No other director has won that many statuettes. Contemporary directing stars Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone and Ang Lee have two apiece.

Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find locals who know as much about John Ford, whose last Oscar came in 1952, as they do about Spielberg.

“I think people need some reminding about his Maine roots and all that he accomplished,” said Mike Perreault, director of the Maine Film Center in Waterville. “It’s been 125 years since his birth, and all this time later, the impact he’s had on the history and canon of film is huge.”

John Ford illustration by Edward Kinsella

Mainers will be able to get a Ford primer beginning Friday, with a statewide film festival called John Ford 125 Years that runs through Feb. 10. The event opens Friday at the Maine Historical Society in Portland with a talk on Ford’s Maine roots. It includes screenings of eight of his films at venues across the state in Brunswick, Rockland, Lewiston, Waterville, Damariscotta, Bucksport, Belfast and Bar Harbor.

All four of the films Ford won best director Oscars for will be shown, including: “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) at Bates College in Lewiston on Tuesday; “The Quiet Man” (1952) at Lincoln Theater, Damariscotta on Wednesday; “How Green Was My Valley” (1941) at the Colonial Theatre in Belfast Feb. 8; and “The Informer” (1935) at the Waterville Opera House Feb. 9.

Those films show the range of stories Ford told in film over the years. “The Informer” and “The Quiet Man” are both set in Ireland. The former is the tale of an Irish rebel who informs on friends and falls apart, while “The Quiet Man” focuses on an American boxer (John Wayne) trying to escape a troubled past in what he thinks in the idyllic Irish countryside.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is the film version of John Steinbeck’s bleak novel of the Dust Bowl migration, while “How Green Was My Valley” is the sentimental story of a Welsh coal mining family.

There will be speakers at each film screening, including Maine historians, museum professionals and professors.

Ford was probably best known for Westerns, and three of his best will be screened: “The Searchers” (1956), “Stagecoach” (1939) and “My Darling Clementine” (1946), as well as the World War II Naval film “They Were Expendable” (1945). Jules Dassin’s “Uptight” (1968) will also be shown, since it’s based on the same story as Ford’s “The Informer.”

The John Ford 125 Year celebration was organized by the Maine Film Center in Waterville, the parent organization of the annual Maine International Film Festival, held around Waterville each summer. When people involved with the center heard the 125th anniversary of Ford’s birth was coming up – he was born in 1894 in Cape Elizabeth – they decided a celebration of his career and Maine roots was in order.

Ford left Portland shortly after graduating high school in 1914, and for decades, there were very few public reminders, if any, that he was from Maine. When the Cannes International Film Festival honored the 100th anniversary of Ford’s birth in 1995, the only acknowledgment of Ford’s Maine roots was a lengthy story in the Portland Press Herald detailing his life and career.

A couple years later, a philanthropist who had known Ford, Linda Noe Laine, came to Portland and said she was “appalled” to find no statue or plaque honoring him anywhere in the city. So she paid to have a statue of Ford created. The statue of Ford sitting in a director’s chair stands at the corner of Danforth and Pleasant streets, near Yosaku restaurant. When the statue was unveiled in 1998, a weeklong Ford film festival was held. Actors who had worked with Ford, including Harry Carey Jr. and John Wayne’s son, Patrick Wayne, attended the statue’s dedication.

Ford’s parents, John A. and Barbara Curran Feeney, came to Maine from small villages in western Ireland and were living on a farm near Higgins Beach when Ford was born. His birth name was John Feeney, and he acquired the nickname “Bull” while playing fullback for the Portland High School football team. The name has found its way onto an Old Port restaurant, Bull Feeney’s.

Ford’s family moved to Portland when he was young and lived in Gorham’s Corner, where his statue is and where many Irish families settled. His father ran a saloon there. The family later moved to Munjoy Hill, where Ford lived from the age of 10 or 11 on. He spent most of his years there in a three-decker apartment building at 21-23 Sheridan St.

Ford’s older brother, Francis, had run away from home and got work acting in silent films in Hollywood. Ford decided to follow his older brother into the film business. By the mid-1920s, he was a major player in Hollywood, and his 1924 film about the connecting of America by railroad, “The Iron Horse,” is considered a classic of the silent era.

Though he lived in California for most of his life, Ford came back to Maine to visit family, especially at a family cottage on Peaks Island. He also used names of Portland friends or people he admired in his films. In interviews, he often praised his high school English lit teacher, Lucien Libby, for opening his mind to new ideas. In “They Were Expendable” (1945), a film about PT boats in World War II, one of the ships is named the “Lucien Libby.”

His best-known films were made from the 1930s to the 1950s. He was an early advocate of location filming, doing several films in the Monument Valley area of Arizona and Utah. In 1973, the year he died, he was honored with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

JOHN FORD 125 YEARS

Friday: “Meet John Ford” multimedia presentation at Maine Historical Society in Portland, 4 p.m., free
Saturday: “The Searchers” (1956), Strand Theatre, Rockland, 5:30 p.m., $10
Sunday: “Stagecoach” (1939), Criterion Theatre, Bar Harbor, 3 p.m., $10 to $12
Monday, Feb. 4: “My Darling Clementine” (1946), Eveningstar Cinema, Brunswick, 7 p.m., free
Tuesday, Feb. 5: “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), Muskie Room 201, Bates College, Lewiston, 7 p.m., free
Wednesday, Feb. 6: “The Quiet Man” (1952), Lincoln Theater, Damariscotta, 6 p.m. discussion, 7 p.m. screening, $8
Thursday, Feb. 7: “They Were Expendable” (1945), Alamo Theatre, Bucksport, 7 p.m., $8
Friday, Feb. 8: “How Green Was My Valley” (1941), Colonial Theatre, Belfast, 7 p.m., $9.50
Saturday, Feb. Feb. 9: “The Informer” (1935), Waterville Opera House, 7 p.m., free
Sunday, Feb. 10: Jules Dassin’s “Uptight” (1968), Waterville Opera House, 7 p.m., free

Note: Some venues offer lower admissions for students and senior citizens.
For more info on the John Ford 125 Years celebration, descriptions of films and a list of the speakers at each screening, go to Ford125.com.

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