Friday, May 24, 2019

The Quiet Man (1952)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, Maurice Walsh, John Ford
Photography: Winton C. Hoch
Music: Victor Young
Editor: Jack Murray
Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields, Eileen Crowe, Sean McClory, Jack MacGowran

The Quiet Man finds director and cowriter John Ford in an unusual marrying mood. His more typical masculinist agenda is pushed well to the side—in the end, perhaps even reading as a kind of self-deprecating comic relief—which may be why it's the one of all his movies I always respond to whole-heartedly. It doesn't hurt that Ford found someone so suitable to his worldview in Maureen O'Hara, playing the "spinster" Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara was 32 when this movie was made, costar John Wayne 45). O'Hara's persona as a proud hot woman of passionate moral virtue fits Ford's purposes well. It was her second turn with Ford (and with costar Wayne), after Rio Grande two years earlier, and one more was still ahead (The Wings of Eagles). I've seen the first two, not the third, and I think being in color rather than black and white has something to do with why The Quiet Man may be a little better than Rio Grande.

Though it's a departure, The Quiet Man is a Ford production in many familiar ways, notably the casting, which features a bunch of familiar loyal troupers we've seen before: Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen. Mildred Natwick and Arthur Shields had been in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon a few years earlier. But The Quiet Man is also different because of its setting, in 1920s rural Ireland, which is as green in the glowing color as Monument Valley is orange and blue in Ford's color Westerns. With the addition of certified Lucky Charms leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald as the village's whiskey-quaffing marriage broker, the blarney that is generally lurking in the background of most Ford movies is shoved up front in a kind of charm offensive. And it works. This movie is almost perfectly charming as it goes through its localized courting paces.

I also like The Quiet Man more than most by Ford because for once it switches up things about the John Wayne persona. Wayne plays Sean Thornton, the brooding "quiet man" of the title—plays him well, in fact. Like usual, he has a past that includes killing a man. He was a championship boxer and it happened during a match. Unlike usual, he regrets it and doesn't want it to happen again. In fact, a son of Irish immigrants, Thornton's response to the death is to return to the village of his birth, buy his former homestead, and settle down. He falls for Mary Kate Danaher on first sight, seen herding sheep barefoot through silken green meadows, bashful, proud, and beautiful. We fall too.

Of course there are complications. In many ways The Quiet Man follows the boy-meets-girl-etc. structure of the romantic comedy. In many ways it is a comedy (IMDb characterizes it that way before "drama" and "romance"), with the usual hee-haw antics of hard-drinking men who don't know how to explain themselves to women. But there's something so deeply soul-stirring for me in the connection between Thornton and Mary Kate it's hard to credit the movie as even funny (other than where my notes show "really trying hard for the laughs here"). The main obstacle is that Mary Kate has a brother, Squire "Red" Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who has various selfish objections to the union, and forbids it.

Oh yeah, I better mention. The Quiet Man is severely old-school about men and women. Women get the supper and do what they're told and more or less like it that way. Obviously the men like it that way too, often busy with their faces figuratively planted in saucers of alcohol and howling at the moon. It's another old movie that might be hard to take—it even goes beyond cringe-inducing and more toward enraging in places. Yet O'Hara's performance, and Mary Kate's character, actually do quite a bit to mitigate these problems (though inevitably failing, because we know better now that these attitudes don't work). Mary Kate is deferential to men, or at least troubles herself to go through the motions, but she has a strong sense of herself and who she is and she won't give it up. Ultimately I think she is a model of a strong woman, dealing with what she has to even when no one around her seems capable of understanding.

Within this cramped frame of social manners, and dodging through the saccharine and the corn, the narrative actually finds its way to a lot of interesting complexities and satisfying resolutions. What Mary Kate's brother denies her, what she can't live without, is a matter Thornton has a very hard time getting through his head. In a way we all do (or maybe that is we all men)—it does look petty and grasping at points. When Thornton confesses to a confidante (the vicar with the wonderful name, Mr. Playfair) that to him it's "just money" it's an argument that makes eminent sense. But Mary Kate perseveres, and in the end her point is clear. "Until I've got my dowry safe about me, I'm no married woman. I'm the servant I have always been, without anything of my own!"

Then there's a big whooping fight, which comes off in many ways as John Ford being embarrassed about having been so gushingly emotional. He's just got to bust a few people in the jaw now. And so it goes, the reason this movie is about 20 minutes too long. The buildup—Thornton hoofing it over to Danaher's place with half the village following him—is a sign of how ridiculous it's going to get. The battle is epic but good-natured and slapstick. A main feature is villagers feverishly giving odds and taking bets. A dying man revives and gets out of his deathbed to watch. It's so big it becomes a circus unto itself, nearly banishing all memory of the poignant resolution between Thornton and Mary Kate. Well, all right. If that's what it takes. I say you can skip the last 20 minutes but the rest is essential.

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