Sunday, June 18, 2006

Oh, Dem Golden Slippers

I think my all-time favourite scene in a John Ford film -- sometimes, depending on my mood, my favourite scene in any film -- is the non-commissioned officers' dance sequence in Fort Apache. Consisting of two separate dances -- the Grand March followed by couples dancing to "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" -- it occurs just before the film moves into its climactic section. After this scene, the whole movie is about the Henry Fonda character, an arrogant creep so determined to test out his pet theories about war that he ignores the advice of characters who actually know the Apaches and the territory, and gets his men slaughtered. But the dance isn't a lighthearted diversion before the serious stuff: it's an essential part of the movie, highlighting the values of community and ritual that hold the Cavalry outpost together, and highlighting the way Colonel Thursday (Fonda) can't quite adjust to the idea of being part of a community.

Thursday goes along with the ritual nature of the dance, of course; he's a by-the-book commander and he would never fail to do what's expected of him. But he doesn't crack a smile through the whole thing, unlike Sergeant O'Rourke (Ward Bond), who, though his family has been wronged by Colonel Thursday, smiles while dancing with the Colonel's daughter (Shirley Temple). When he has to dance a lively dance, he does proficient but stiff-jointed steps, never looking like he's having any fun, giving a militaristic air even to a one-on-one dance.

The way it's shot is quintessential Ford too: long shots where you can see lots of people at once; few medium shots and no close-ups; a lot of low-angle shots with the floors and ceilings visible; little character moments in the background and foreground like the guy pointing to Thursday as he dances, or Victor McLaglen's attempt to dance gracefully. Watch it (and then buy the DVD and watch the whole thing):

One thing I once saw pointed out about Fort Apache (can't remember where) is that it not only has two big stars at their peak, Fonda and John Wayne, it also has an unusual number of former stars in it, or stars who weren't known as stars to the film's audience. McLaglen had played leads in the '30s, including several in Ford movies; Shirley Temple had of course been a huge star in the '30s; George O'Brien (Sam Collingwood) was a star in silent films, including Ford's breakthrough Western The Iron Horse; Dick Foran was a star of B-movies; Pedro Armendáriz was a star in Mexican films, as was Miguel Inclán, who played Cochise. It's interesting that in making a movie about the disaster that results when one man tries to lord it over everyone else, Ford assembled a cast of people with legitimate claims to be stars in their own right.


Michael Jones said...

I don't know much about John Ford, but I do know that "Oh dem Golden Slippers" was borrowed by "Golden Grahams" to promote their cereal. "Oh...those Golden Grahams. Oh...those Golden Grahams. Golden honey, just a touch, with grahams golden wheat.
...It's gonna be a Golden Grahams daaay!"
By the by, I'm a recent recruit to your blog and now read it daily. It'll take awhile to get through the archives. Maybe if I ate some cereal for energy.

Mark Mayerson said...

If you're going to mention former stars, you've got to include Mae Marsh, a star for D.W. Griffith, and Ford's brother Francis, who was a star in the 1910's.

John Ford claimed to have been a Klansman in The Birth of a Nation, which connects him to Marsh, and he got his start working for his brother Francis at Universal.

Brent McKee said...

If Shirley Temple had had more roles like this and fewer roles like That Hagen Girl she might have had a longer adult career. I really liked her in this.

McLaglen looks like a man who only knows how to do one dance and does it no matter what music is playing.

Jenny Lerew said...

Great film--excellent post.

Anonymous said...

I always liked the way Temple can't resist looking down the line at the men in her life, and can't help but wonder if that was her choice, or Ford's direction.

Anonymous said...

My personal favorite Ford scene is another dance - the one in "My Darling Clementine." Perfection.


D said...

I would bet a lot that it was Ford's choice to have Temple glance at the various men throughout the dance.

Ford regular Jack Pennick who you see in the dance line was the second unit director on this and had one of his bigger roles.

Anonymous said...

Hey Bro,

Among the former stars you left out was Irene Rich (Mrs. O'Rourke)who starred in her own films in the teens and twenties. The look she gives Henry Fonda (Col. Thursday), as she wordlessly invites him to dance, is a measure of the rich-ness of silent acting as practiced by the great ones.

And by the way, Victor M. was not only a big star, he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1935 for another Ford film, of which title I am sure you have no need to be informer, I mean, informed.

Dennis Doherty