I hope you observe with the same sympathy as I do the introduction of Irish characters into American history.” (John Ford, in a 1947 letter to film censor Joe Breen, himself an Irishman, accompanying the script of Fort Apache) (1)

One of Ford’s Irish-American predecessors in early Hollywood was his own brother Francis (or Frank), older than him by 12 years: an energetic director and star who inspired John to follow him, and gave him his first work. (2) John followed his example in changing his Irish birth name, Feeney, to the anglicised professional name of Ford.

In the 1920s, Frank’s career declined; he directed no sound films, and became a character actor. In many of his roles, he was directed by his younger brother: around 30 in all, including some late silent ones. It is hard to be exact: some of the films do not survive, in others he shows up on cast lists but is not there in existing prints. But nearly 20 of the sound films are unproblematic, spanning the two decades up to his death in September 1953. All of those listed can currently be found on DVD or SVHSVVHS.

In the table, character names in bold type are those that are used within the film and not just on cast lists. Not until their final film together does he take the name of Feeney, but it can be argued that he is, in effect, playing Brother Feeney in most of the others. Some of the dates in column three are approximate.

Film date Date set Frank Ford role
Air Mail 1932 1930s Air passenger
Pilgrimage 1933 1910s Mayor Elmer Briggs
Doctor Bull 1933 1900 Chairman of meeting
The World Moves On 1934 1825-1930 WW1 soldier
Judge Priest 1934 1890 juror
The Whole Town’s Talking 1935 1930s reporter
The Informer 1935 1920 Judge Flynn (of the IRA)
Steamboat round the Bend 1935 1890s Efe – engineer
Prisoner of Shark Island 1936 1865 Corporal (O’Toole)
Stagecoach 1938 1870s Sergeant Billy Pickett
Young Mr Lincoln 1939 1830s Sam Boone – juror
Drums along the Mohawk 1939 1776+ Joe (Boleo)
My Darling Clementine 1946 1880s Dad
Fort Apache 1948 1870s Frank – stage guard
3 Godfathers 1948 1880s Drinker at bar
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon 1949 1870s Connelly, barman
Wagonmaster 1950 1849 Mr Peachtree
The Quiet Man 1952 1920s ?? Dan Tobin
The Sun Shines Bright 1953 1890s Brother Feeney

Critics and biographers take a fairly consistent line on these appearances by Frank, when they comment on them at all: the roles, or at least many of them, are ‘demeaning’ or ‘humiliating’ ones, in which the younger brother works out some devious form of family revenge on the older. Frank needs the work, and John gives it to him, often keeping him on the payroll for an unnecessary length of time, (3) but he has to pay for this by playing a succession of scruffy drunkards. Even those, like Tag Gallagher, who see beyond this stereotype are selective in their attention to his appearances, and fail to do justice to their range. (4)

It is easy to overlook them, especially when the consensus encourages us to do so. It took me years to look closely at them and to link them together. But I now see this succession of fraternal roles as one of the great glories of Ford’s work: a minor thread, but very subtle – and very Irish.

Note: in what follows I refer to John Ford as ‘Ford’, and to Francis Ford as ‘Frank’ (John’s preferred name for him), except when the name of the character within a given film is appropriate.

Stagecoach and Judge Priest

Consider for a start one of the most familiar of Frank’s roles, the uncredited one in Stagecoach (1938). He works at Dry Fork, the place where the passengers stop for lunch on the first day out from Tonto. One of them, Doc Boone, at once greets him warmly as ‘Sergeant Billy Pickett’, a former comrade from the Union army, and they head for the bar [fig 1], where Billy dispenses drinks both before and during the lunch which everyone else takes non-alcoholically at the table. Then the stagecoach moves on, and Frank is seen no more. It is a tiny part but very distinctive: 1) for whatever reason – shellshock in the war? – Billy is dumb, but communicates by vigorous body language, 2) he pours drinks liberally, 3) he is strongly marked as Irish, 4) despite the rowdy ambience at the bar, Billy is very alert to what goes on in front of him: the highly significant rearrangement of the seating around the lunch table. The Easterner Lucy, wife of an army officer, is induced to move away from her proximity to the prostitute Dallas and go to the other end of the table. As soon as this conversation starts, Billy listens to it with interest; as she and her companions move, his gaze follows them intently, ‘panning round’ with them. They are in the foreground of the shot, moving right to left, and Billy is on the far side of them, facing the camera, in effect prompting us, by the intensity of his gaze and by his head movement, to look equally closely at, and to ponder, the significant movement happening in front of us [fig 2].

All of these four elements are typical.
1. Many of Frank’s roles are non-speaking ones like this, or almost so, yet he always communicates effectively. It’s as if he stands for the principle of silent-film communication, silent-film ‘language’, from the period in which his brother was formed, and in which he himself did all his work as a director.

2. Many of his roles involve a lot of alcohol. Ford himself was famously a heavy drinker, but had a rule, seldom broken, of abstinence while shooting a film; at one very simple level, his brother can be seen as drinking on his behalf, without ever getting out of control – he is never a ‘helpless’ drunk. In Stagecoach, as it happens, he is not seen drinking at all, and his wife calls out to him at one point to check that he isn’t. But Doc Boone, who does drink with him, is a strongly positive figure within the film’s system of values, set against the mean uptightness of the abstainers, nor does his drunkenness stop him from sobering up in a crisis and delivering Lucy’s baby. The warm friendship shown at Dry Fork between the two old comrades, celebrated in drink, is a validation of both of them.

3. Billy’s wife has been read as Scottish, notably by Ed Buscombe in his authoritative monograph on the film. (5) If her accent is meant to be Scottish, it seems to me a weird attempt (in contrast to the convincing Scottish accent by the woman who presides over the stagecoach stop early on in Fort Apache (1948). But this would not, anyway, detract from Billy’s own evident Irishness, suggested both through his enthusiastic allegiance to the Union General, the Irish Phil Sheridan – vigorously signalled despite his dumbness – and through his friendship with Doc Boone, whom we surely read as Irish-American, in line with the performance, persona, and known background of the actor Thomas Mitchell. (6) At least from 1934 and Judge Priest onward – the turning-point film, as we will see – Frank is, I would say categorically, always to be read as Irish. Sometimes this is explicit (the two Irish films: The Informer and The Quiet Man), or implicit in the naming, whether on-screen (Connolly, Feeney) or in the cast list (which names the Corporal in Prisoner of Shark Island as O’Toole), but it doesn’t need to be either. Kevin Rockett has, very suggestively, argued that all John Wayne’s roles in Ford’s Westerns can be read as, or as if, Irish, even when there is no emphasis on this – as normally, with Wayne, there is not – in name or dialogue; how much more so is this true of Frank, brother of the director, like him a loyal Irishman throughout his life, inserted as a very personal representative of the Fordian ethnic heritage and its values. (7)

4. The Stagecoach lunch scene is analysed, shot by shot, in a well-known article by Nick Browne, first published in 1975 and often anthologised since, entitled ‘The Spectator-in-the-Text: the Rhetoric of Stagecoach’. (8) It does not refer to Billy, but his presence in the scene is surely relevant, soliciting as he does, and mimicking or guiding, the look of the spectator from the opposite space within the frame – and this is independent of whether or not we know the actor to be the director’s brother. He gives us, I would argue, the director in the text, in a process analogous to the cameo appearances of Alfred Hitchcock, a comparison that I will develop later on. Frank’s can be called vicarious cameos, inserted just as artfully as Hitchcock’s but with much more freedom and at greater length, since Frank is a professional actor, and at one remove from the director himself, who is in any case much less recognised than Hitchcock was and still is: there is no danger of disrupting the narrative flow.

Silent-film eloquence, Irishness, alcohol-fueled conviviality, an alertness to the action being staged and to its moral nuances – this role offers a rich cluster of what can be termed Fordian values.

The roles of Frank’s that survive from the early 1930s offer nothing so vivid: he mainly plays respectable, suited 20th-century figures. The breakthrough in 1934 comes with Judge Priest, set in 1890, the second of the three films Ford made with Will Rogers before he died in a plane crash in August 1935.

Rogers, a folksy star exceptionally popular across several media, was a figure of great importance to Ford, one for whom he always expressed unqualified admiration, almost on a par with that for his idol from history, Abraham Lincoln. This film – unusual for its time in having a brief pre-credits sequence, in which Rogers as Judge Priest calls the audience to attend – centres on his series of battles with a rival politician and lawyer, Maydew, played by Berton Churchill, who will be the corrupt banker Gatewood in Stagecoach and who is just as unsympathetic here. In the main court case, the murder trial of an innocent man, Maydew prosecutes, while Priest resigns his position to join the defence. Frank is one of the jurors, already characterised as a cheerfully shabby figure who is always looking for something to spit into – and the courtroom has a spittoon. Repeatedly, at the climax of an oratorical flourish by Maydew, Frank spits into it, causing a resounding clang followed by laughter in court at Maydew’s expense [figs 4+5]. Priest has shown silent exasperation at his droning on [fig 3]; Frank deflates Maydew, in effect, on his behalf, and, at one remove, on his brother’s behalf. The happy end to the case is followed by a Memorial Day parade of Confederate veterans, in which Frank is prominent. Maydew is in the crowd, showing himself off in a vote-gathering spirit. Bowing ingratiatingly, and removing his top hat, he finds it unerringly targeted as a spittoon substitute, and with a final celebratory shot of the parade the film ends.

In a crude but exhilarating way, then, Ford has used Frank to underwrite the values of Will Rogers. His other main allegiances include Lincoln, motherhood, Ireland, and the American West and its history, and from here on he will firmly associate Frank likewise with all of these. Rather than follow the chronology of the films’ production, I will take a cue from the critic-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich, who wrote, in the first English-language book on Ford in 1967, that ‘It would be instructive (in fact schools might do well making it a regular course) to run Ford’s films about the United States in historical chronology – because he has told the American saga in human terms and made it come alive’. (9) Whether or not any school has actually tried it, it is instructive to set the chronology out, and I will do this in terms of Frank’s roles. From the War of Independence to the Civil War and the westward expansion that followed it, Ford threads his brother systematically into more than a century of American history, making a miniature narrative out of the roles played by the Irish in that history.

America 1776 to 1900

The early history is mapped out in the two films that immediately follow Stagecoach in 1939. Drums Along the Mohawk, the second of them in order of production, opens in 1776, and tells the upbeat story of a frontier community which joins in the successful campaign against the British and their allies; it ends by raising the new American flag over their fort. In the cast, Frank is listed as Joe Boleo, the name of a character from the novel on which the film is based, (10) but in the film he is just Joe, and becomes a rooted member of the community rather than an itinerant trapper; he has more lines and more scenes than usual, and the Irish accent is at times emphatic. Many Irish were involved in the War of Independence, as the novel acknowledges by stressing the Irishness of Mrs McKlennar (memorably played in the film by Edna May Oliver) and her late husband Barney. Like them, the film’s Joe would most likely have been Scots-Irish and Protestant, along with most 18th-century immigrants from Ireland in that region, but why not? At least he was fighting the British, and Ford was not narrow in his Irishness or his Catholicism, as witnessed by the delightful solidarity of Catholics and Protestants in The Quiet Man, and by the naming of his 1950s Dublin-based production company as Four Provinces, Ulster included. The waves of 18th-century Irish settlers were predominantly farmers, unlike their post-Famine successors, and Joe is an integral part of this new Mohawk Valley settlement.

Joe dies heroically before the end of this film but is reborn, as it were, in the Sam Boone of Young Mr Lincoln, a veteran of the war (again against the British) of 1812 who marches with his comrades in the parade through Springfield, Illinois on Independence Day 1837. He wears a similar coonskin hat and carries with him, throughout, a similar jar of liquor, though in Drums along the Mohawk that only came out on special occasions. Sam’s name neatly evokes both the Doc Boone of Stagecoach and the Western pioneer Daniel, and his subsequent bonding with the young lawyer Abraham Lincoln is as significant as Billy Pickett’s bond with Doc. The years up to the Civil War are bridged by his role in Wagonmaster (1950), set in 1849 and centred on the trek of the Mormons to their promised land; his Mr Peachtree, as the name may imply, is one of his least vivid and least Irish-seeming parts, but in Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), he is Irish again all right, as the Corporal – named as O’Toole in the cast list – who helps to guard Doctor Mudd, accused of complicity in President Lincoln’s assassination. Here he is linked to the Union side, as in Stagecoach and, less forcefully, elsewhere; but in Judge Priest, as we have seen, he is – as in his final film The Sun Shines Bright, a partial remake – an enthusiastic veteran of the Confederate army, and again, why not? Many Irish-Americans fought on either side, and Ford, an expert on Civil War history, could empathise deeply with both sides, as several films demonstrate. Frank Nugent, who scripted many of his films including some of the most Irish – Fort Apache, The Quiet Man, The Rising of the Moon – went so far as to say that Ford ‘loves the Confederacy with all an Irishman’s affection for lost causes. (11)

In preparing Fort Apache in 1947, Ford sent the script to the censor, Joe Breen, with a covering letter – quoted at the head of this essay – invoking Breen’s own Irishness: ‘I hope you observe with the same sympathy as I do the introduction of Irish characters into American history. As you no doubt already know, a lot of the Irish went West after the Civil War.’ (12) Ford takes Frank west with him, not now as a soldier, unlike in Prisoner of Shark Island, but in small army-related roles such as the barman at Fort Stark in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), the shotgun rider on the stagecoach that carries the Colonel to Fort Apache, and of course the station manager in Stagecoach itself. But a much fuller role comes in My Darling Clementine (1946).

This is Ford’s fullest and most positive depiction of the building of a Western community, a century later than the New-York-State one of Drums Along the Mohawk. As in that film and in Young Mr Lincoln, Ford gives his brother a role that is mostly unobtrusive but still integral, spread across several scenes and actions. McBride calls him ‘the town drunk in a Union army cap’ (13), and he is right about the cap, but he is never seen taking a drink, or under the influence; instead he acts as escort and protector of the alcoholic visitor to Tombstone, the flamboyant actor-manager Granville Thorndyke. This is in line with his role as ‘Dad’, general factotum and porter based at the town hotel. On two occasions he is not available at the hotel to help with luggage: first when Clementine (Cathy Downs) arrives on the stage from the East, and then when she prepares to leave on Sunday morning after being rejected by the fiancé she has come in search of, Doctor John Holliday. Is Dad sleeping off drunkenness somewhere? No: we learn that, the first time, he has been tied up looking after Thorndyke, and that on Sunday he is already down at the church. Rather neatly, these two absences leave space for the marshal, Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), to step in and look after Clementine himself, thus promoting their tentative romance, so Ford is in effect using his brother (not for the only time) as a narrative device. (14) And when Wyatt and his ‘lady fair’ walk through the town to the church, which is still a bare framework, and join in the dance, Dad is there in the small orchestra, playing the fiddle, alongside, at the piano, the barman Mac, played by J.Farrell MacDonald [figs 6+7]. It is a beautiful juxtaposition of two quintessentially Irish figures, united in celebrating both the building of the Western community and the couple who come to symbolise its future. MacDonald was playing Irishmen for Ford while Frank was still an active director, in films as early as The Iron Horse (1924), which foregrounds the role of Irish labourers in the 1860s in building the transcontinental railway and thus realising the vision of Abraham Lincoln; in Ford’s last Western before Stagecoach, he plays one of the 3 Bad Men (1926), the very Irish Mike Costigan. In effect, in the sound period, Frank takes over from him as resident quirky Irishman, and here they are together, playing one of Ford’s favourite recurring dance tunes, Golden Slippers. (15) It is one of the most intense, most loved, and historically most meaningful scenes in all of Ford’s work, and Frank and a fellow Irishman are at the heart of it.

After Clementine in terms of historical chronology – though of course earlier in their date of production – come the two Will Rogers films set in the South in the 1890s, Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend. In the latter film as in the former, Frank plays a cheerfully disreputable character with his heart in the right place: Efe, hard-drinking engineer on the Rogers boat which, at the climax, wins an important race and saves another innocent man from the gallows. But in 20th-century America he has no real place, and fades in his few roles into relative inconsequence or respectability (though he can never be exactly dull), just as his brother finds only intermittent inspiration in modern times. Frank is listed in standard cast lists for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and could have been a pointed Irish-American presence in a film where Ford showed himself very aware of the affinities between the westward trek of the dispossessed Okies in the 1930s and that of the dispossessed Irish in the 19th century; (16) but I have not detected him on screen, either in that or in the story of another depressed 20th-century rural community that Ford made soon afterwards, Tobacco Road (1942), for which Frank is sometimes credited as a ‘vagabond’.

20th-century Ireland is another story, and I will come later to his roles in The Informer and The Quiet Man, after first looking more closely at his key role in Young Mr Lincoln, and at the way his brother positions him, here and elsewhere, both within the narrative and within the space of the screen.

The cameo appearance: Hitchcock and the Fords

The artfulness of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances has been rightly celebrated, notably by Michael Walker and by Raymond Bellour. (17) Increasingly over the years, as audiences become more aware of his appearances and start to look out for them, he tends to emerge at a significant early moment of the film, at the point where a leading character is introduced or a decisive move or meeting takes place, as if to launch the film proper and to ‘sign himself in’ as – in the word used by Bellour in the title of his essay – the enunciator of the narrative. Good examples are The Birds (1963) – where he crosses the path of Melanie just after she looks up at a noisy flock of birds over San Francisco, and just before she encounters Mitch – and Psycho (1960), where he stands outside the office just before Marion enters it and is given the unexpected chance to steal the money and thus embark on the path to the Bates motel. In Psycho, moreover, the office contains another young woman, played by Hitchcock’s own daughter, Pat, a family connection that sets up all kinds of complex resonances. (18)

Then there is Marnie (1964). A few minutes into the film, the heroine walks away from the camera along a hotel corridor. Hitchcock emerges from the door of a room on the left, looks at the camera, and then turns to look at Marnie’s retreating figure. He thus aligns himself very pointedly with the spectator and also with the film’s hero, Mark, both of whom have already been teased and intrigued by the same rear view of Marnie, clutching her yellow handbag. His look at the camera and then toward Marnie is like a complicit sign to us, inviting us in to the story to investigate Marnie’s mystery alongside him and Mark. (19)

I see this director-in-the-text effect as operating with comparable subtlety and greater freedom in scenes such as that in Stagecoach, through Frank’s actions and on-scene positioning. The Hitchcock cameos get their point and force from the fact that audiences recognise him. It would be pointless and disruptive to have an anonymous guest come out of the room in Marnie and perform that swivelling glance. But Frank, as always, is a secure part of the film’s diegetic world. His look is there in Stagecoach, if we care to pick it up, to meet and to guide our own look. We don’t need to know that he is Ford’s brother, because he is in any case simply reinforcing the values, and the narrative logic, of the film. As indeed is Hitchcock, who never ‘needs’ to appear. But the personal articulation by both directors of their involvement in the films is comparable, and fascinating.

In the freer and lengthier ‘vicarious cameos’ that he sets up for Frank, Ford makes him part of the on-screen world alongside others. But he has two recurring positions on screen for him, at certain key moments. One is in the directly opposite space, visible on the other side of the scene’s main characters, as in that moment in Stagecoach, where his gaze in effect meets and helps to prompt ours: there are other good examples in Fort Apache and in Drums Along the Mohawk. Another is in what can be called the pivotal position, at the lower right or lower left corner, where he looks out into the space of the frame, thus guiding our look in another way, comparable to, but less fleeting than, the pivotal look of Hitchcock in Marnie. In Drums Along the Mohawk he is there at left foreground welcoming the couple, Gil and Lana, on their first visit to the fort; in The Quiet Man he is in the same position to greet the newly-married Sean and Mary Kate; in the lynch-mob scene of Young Mr Lincoln he is in the right foreground, looking back and forth between the audience and the focus of the drama, as if to mediate between it and both the on-screen and off-screen watchers.

To do justice to this elaborate pattern would need more extensive visual illustration than is possible here, but reference to his role in Young Mr Lincoln will, I hope, make the point effectively.

Lincoln and the Mother

Before the court case, in which Lincoln, recalling Rogers in the two earlier films, defends a pair of brothers falsely accused of murder, we have already seen Frank, as Sam Boone, in three scenes: parading through town as a veteran of the war of 1812, caught up in the move to lynch the two accused, and then simply hanging about the prison as the accused are brought out for trial. In the lynching scene he is first on the mob’s side, then persuaded by Lincoln as he argues against them – this is where he takes the ‘pivotal’ position, looking back and forth between audience and Lincoln [fig 8]. By the time he is called up in court as a potential juror, to be quizzed by Lincoln, he has been set up as a genial everyman figure, rooted in this community and its history. As he approaches the bench, Boone still carries his habitual liquor jar, but is deftly relieved of it by a court official. And he greets the judge with the reflex plea of ‘Guilty’ before being reminded of what he is there for.

This tiny preliminary ritual works already, like his physical appearance, to reinforce the sense of a serene and convivial everyman, one who is ‘guilty’ of original sin, l’homme moyen sensuel; and Lincoln’s interrogation of him [fig 9] now makes this explicit. As a dialogue between Ford’s hero and Ford’s Irish-American brother, this exchange has great weight; and it acquires even more if we recall that Frank himself had played Lincoln several times, under his own direction, in silent films. (20) Lincoln has rejected some jurors and accepted others, and needs one more. Here is their exchange, taken at a slow, affectionate pace:

You drink liquor, Sam? Yup.

Cuss? Nods.

Go to church regular? Shakes head

Enjoy hangings? Nods

Got a job? Shakes head

Just like to loaf, huh? Nods

Ever tell a lie? Nods

Well you’re just the kind of honest man we want on this jury.Take your place

‘Guilty’ and ‘Yup’ are the only words he speaks in the film. As in, for instance, My Darling Clementine, he is able to speak but prefers not to, relying on a silent film vocabulary of non-verbal communication. (21) As always, despite the liquor habit, his character is hyper-alert: Sam listens intently to every twist and turn in the evidence, but is not especially prominent until the scene of the interrogation of the boys’ mother.

Mrs Clay is one of a line of noble mothers, Irish or quasi-Irish, in Ford’s films: Lincoln has already told her that she reminds him of his mother, and it is hardly fanciful to invoke, at this moment of maximum dramatic intensity, Ford’s well-attested reverence for his own mother from the West of Ireland. Lincoln leans forward to the judge, hands on the desk, and appeals to him: She’s – she’s just a simple, ordinary country woman. She can’t even write her own name. Yet has she no feelings, no heart?

A frontal shot of Lincoln is followed by the reverse shot, looking past Lincoln to show the judge and the mother. What is remarkable in both shots is that the sole member of jury visible in either is, suddenly, and for quite a long time, Sam. In the shot of Lincoln, running for 18 seconds, he is there at the edge of frame, background left, leaning forward intently [fig 10]. In the reverse shot, running fully 40 seconds, he is there in the pivotal position at frame right, close to camera, so that we look over his shoulder at the trio of mother, Lincoln, and judge, as Lincoln pleads to the judge and jury on her behalf [fig 11]. Sam too is simple, ordinary and, we assume, illiterate, and his good-hearted honesty, already recognized by Lincoln, exactly complements the more exalted kind of honest humanity represented by Mrs Clay. Other than by announcing it in a voice-over, Ford could hardly have got closer to signalling the centrality of this moment to the film, to his concept of Lincoln, and to himself, than by putting the older son of his own mother into this privileged place on the screen.

Two Irish Films

Frank died before his brother started to plan The Rising of the Moon (1957), shot entirely on Irish locations, and does not appear in the Hollywood-shot The Plough and the Stars (1936), at least not in available prints. But he has key roles in both The Informer (1935, Hollywood) and The Quiet Man (1952, shot in Connaught, with studio work in Hollywood). Just as he represents, in all those other films, the Irish-American loyal both to his new country and to his ethnic roots, here he represents the proud Irishman who has, like so many of the Ford/Feeney relatives, stayed at home.

In The Informer, with black cloak and hat and smartly-trimmed beard, he is virtually unrecognizable from the Will Rogers films of the same period. His role as one of the hard men of the IRA who sit in judgment on Victor McLaglen’s squalid informer of the title is a reminder of what a fine straight actor he must have been when given the chance, and of how much wider his range was than his brother otherwise gave him the chance to show. Without speaking, except in one aside to a colleague that we don’t hear, he embodies the hard and disciplined side of Irish nationalism, immediately seeing through McLaglen’s bluster, passing on a judgment to his neighbour, and fixing the man himself with a hard stare.

Soon after, McLaglen breaks down and confesses. The whole episode is traumatic for the one woman present, Heather Angel, girlfriend of another IRA officer in Preston Foster; she cries out to him ‘Why must we be killing one another? What good will it do?’ [fig 12]. Cut this time to a single of Francis, who looks at her, then looks down, as if pondering this issue [figs 13+14].

It’s a portentous cutaway to him at this moment, as if to say, yes, those are the big questions for this film, and indeed for Ireland and history. Her line, ‘Why must we be killing one another?’ can be seen as taking in a wide range of issues: Gypo’s informing on Frankie, which led to his violent death; the upcoming execution of Gypo; the whole Anglo-Irish war; and the Civil War that was destined to follow, that had of course already happened by 1935, and that was indeed the background to the Liam O’Flaherty novel on which the film was based. Ford, often a sentimentalist about Irish history, may have blurred these issues together; meanwhile, he gives us the face of his own brother as a focus for pondering them, in a moment more solemn and serious than anything else in this overwrought film. Simply in technical terms it is a remarkable work of expressive economy in editing and in acting, based on a tiny movement of the head and eyes.

The long beard, now whiter and fuller, reappears in The Quiet Man, where Frank is billed seventh, and has a more sustained role, and more lines, than anywhere else in his brother’s work.

But there is an immediate mystery about his role: what is his name? He is habitually named, in cast lists and in critical commentaries, as Dan Tobin, and it may be that he is named as such in the script and in press releases. This would fit in very neatly. When John Wayne, as Sean Thornton, returns from America to his ancestral home of Innisfree, and gazes on the old family cottage, his mother’s voice is heard on the soundtrack: Don’t you remember, Seaneen, and how it was? … and there was the field where Dan Tobin’s bull chased you…

Sean is at this moment resolving to buy that same land for himself, and will soon achieve this; meanwhile, immediately after the voice-over, there is a mutual recognition scene between Sean and his driver Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), whom he likewise knew as a boy. How neat, indeed, if the director’s brother were to play another figure remembered by the Irish mother from way back, and now remembered by the son. It would help to clinch the already strong identification between Sean Thornton and John Ford, or, as he liked to sign himself to privileged intimates, Sean O’Feeney. (22)

The fact remains that Frank’s character, despite many opportunities, is never named within the film itself. And if any director in the whole history of cinema could be expected to name a character when dramatically significant, that director is John Ford; I say this with confidence, having explored, elsewhere, the obsessive patterns of naming and self-naming within his films. (23) When Thornton meets Michaeleen, they exchange names, when Thornton meets Frank, the naming is all one-sided: Frank elicits the details of the Thornton family tree, but neither volunteers nor is asked his own name.

‘Do you remember being chased by my bull?’ ‘My mother always remembered when your bull chased me.’ ‘You must be Dan Tobin’. Such lines, which would complement so easily the exchanges with Michaeleen, remain pointedly unsaid.

My feeling is that this is not, or not exactly, Dan Tobin, because Ford wants to maintain him as a freer-floating kind of spirit of the place: he is representative of the Ford-Feeney family identity that lives on this corner of the western world, but also, at another level, of the new US-born generation that has come back in triumph from Hollywood to revisit the place, as Frank himself, like John, was doing now. Who could embody this dual family role better than the director’s brother?

His first appearance has something uncanny about it. Sean has gone to early Mass at the prompting of the parish priest, played by Ward Bond. It is here that he meets, for the first time, his destined partner Mary Kate, whom he has seen in a distant vision across the fields the day before. Frank seems to preside over this meeting. He ‘shadows’ Sean in the church, sitting behind him, following him out, fixing him with a stare, bringing Mary Kate in his wake, dipping his fingers in the holy water before they do. And when, after her tense initial exchange with Sean, Mary Kate scuttles off to retrieve her bike, Frank is again here to lead the way for her, preceding her through the churchyard gate. It really is as if Ford himself is, by fraternal proxy, watching over and engineering their union [figs 15+16].

Frank’s next appearance is in Cohan’s bar. By now, Sean has bought the cottage, and it is Frank who endorses his advent into the community. Addressing him, on entry, simply as sir, Sean offers him a drink

“I do not believe I heard your name, Tall Man”

“Thornton, Sean Thornton”

“And your father’s name?… then your grandfather would be old Sean Thornton [‘right’] bless his memory. So it’s Himself you’re named after. Well now, that being the case it is a pleasant evening and we will have a drink.”

Frank goes to the bar, bangs his stick for service, and seals the community’s welcome to the exile: “Sean Thornton, the men of Innisfree bid you welcome home”. Sean’s reply is “Thank you”, but again, pointedly and unusually, there is no reciprocal vocative.

By now Mary Kate’s brother Will, already Sean’s enemy after losing the cottage to him, has entered the pub, and scorns the notion of welcoming him. As in The Informer, Frank is set in opposition to the anti-community values of the Victor McLaglen character. He speaks out against him, and remains, after Will’s exit, to preside over a scene of solidarity in the pub, looking out from the pivotal position at the near left of the frame, a position that he retains on his entry to the wedding reception [figs 17+18]. From then on at the reception, he occupies a strange position ‘on stage’ rather than among the main body of the guests. As in the lynch-mob scene of Young Mr Lincoln, he seems to be acting as a kind of intermediary between on-stage events and audience (of the wedding, and of the film), miming possible responses to the drama being instigated by Will Danaher, and miming shock at the crudity of Will’s public proposal to the widow Tillane [fig 19].

After this, having presided symbolically over the initial scenes respectively of courtship, assimilation, and marriage, he fades from the action, only to reappear dramatically at the end, rising from what seems to be his deathbed to witness the climactic fight between Will and Sean. We don’t actually see him join or watch the fight, but we do see him, in his revivified prancing style, in the finale. In this celebrated ‘curtain call’ of the cast, he is privileged in two ways. Where others appear in twos and threes, he gets a frame to himself; and it is the penultimate frame, directly ushering in the final image of the two principals, with the obstacles to their happy marriage now eliminated [fig 20]. Giving the penultimate moment to Frank evokes his seminal role in Judge Priest in 1934, and feels very much like the director himself, through his on-screen brother surrogate, giving a personal send-off to the couple at the end of a project to which he had been professionally and emotionally so committed over two decades.

Coda: The Sun Shines Bright

The brothers had this one last collaboration before Frank’s death in September 1953, at the age of 71. Typically, Ford had not done the standard Hollywood thing of building on the high status of The Quiet Man in terms of stars, production values, and industry prestige, but instead, for his next film, revived his beloved figure of Judge Priest in a low-budget, black-and-white film of 1890s Kentucky, devoid of stars, that got mainly poor reviews and little distribution. Critical opinion differs sharply as to whether it is a serene and highly personal masterpiece, or the kind of cherished personal project, made with freedom from commercial pressure, that turns out to feel lifeless and over-cerebral; I incline to the latter view. But there is no disagreement about Frank’s role being a worthy finale. Even commentators who have not often noticed him do so now. For Lindsay Anderson, ‘Francis Ford, a genial, inarticulate old comrade in so many of these adventures, is there in his coon-skin cap – it is the last time we shall see that childlike, impertinent grin of his’; Joseph McBride calls him ‘sublime’. (24) Tag Gallagher, always more interested in Frank, gives him an affectionate obituary notice that looks back all the way to his silent career, and he calls this role ‘the final development of his latter-day screen persona, a tattered coonskin remnant of his former glory’. (25)

Only now is he formally given his and John’s birth-name, being addressed as ‘Brother Feeney’. (26) He is a maker of moonshine whiskey (read poteen?), and carries a jar around exactly as in his earlier coonskinned appearances, notably Young Mr Lincoln. Frank is threaded through the film, and is billed seventh in the introductory credits, the same position as in The Quiet Man. Brother Feeney is there with his sidekick, played by Slim Pickens, at the Confederate Army celebration, and defies the teetotalism of the town’s Lemonade and Strawberry Festival. Apart from one word – ‘refreshment’, in answer to Priest’s query as to what is in the jar – he communicates by pantomime. And he steps forward to resolve a main plot-line.

A black youth has been falsely accused of rape, and almost lynched. The leader of the lynch mob is later identified as the guilty man, and rides off to escape arrest. Feeney, with a rifle, is among those present, and without hesitating he shoots him dead, in the back. The Judge thinks for a bit, and then expresses relief: ‘Good shooting, comrade; saves the trial’. Gallagher sums up nicely:

Apparently only “Brother Feeney” can kill and retain his innocence, and Priest’s decision to accept it for the best adds to the suggestion that [he] acts for God and Brother John. (27)

In this as in other ways, The Sun Shines Bright comes full circle to Judge Priest, the film of 1934 in which Ford first discovered the full potential for using his brother on-screen. There, Frank’s juror not only aligns himself eloquently with Priest’s values, through his judicious spitting, but enables Ford to take a useful short cut at the end. The trial of the falsely accused Confederate veteran, Gillis, is never resolved. The Revd Ashby Brand gives a long and stirring speech in his defence, which moves everyone; Frank at once gets to his feet and loudly delivers his only lines of the film: ‘Hooray for Jeff Davis, the Southern Confederacy, and Bob Gillis!’ This prompts the court to break up in celebration, and Ford can move straight in to the finale without having to tie up loose ends. Frank has indeed acted for God and Brother John, just as he does two decades later.

Both films lead up to a procession, headed by the Judge himself. In 1934 it is a celebration of the Confederacy; in 1953, the funeral of a prostitute. Her deathbed wish was to have such a procession, and Priest honours her wish, even though it may cost him votes in an imminent election. Frank lends his moral weight to this parade, as he did to the other. Indeed, he and his sidekick slip in ahead of Priest, between him and the hearse, and that is the last we will see of him. He is, in Anderson’s words, ‘a genial, inarticulate old comrade’, but, as so often, he is much more than that.


We miss Frank in Ford’s later films, or at least I do. So many of his close associates play roles for him as long as they are alive and capable: Mae Marsh, Ruth Clifford, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick, Anna Lee. There would surely have been a place for Frank in films like The Searchers and The Man who shot Liberty Valance, not to mention The Rising of the Moon. The former has Hank Worden as another kind of ‘holy fool’, and Liberty Valance has Edmond O’Brien as a heroic Irish figure, the newspaper editor, a role more influential in the community than Frank ever was; but neither is a Ford surrogate in the same way.

My aim here has been to do justice to both brothers together, and to the importance of Ireland in their partnership. To honour Frank, for his extraordinarily eloquent and self-effacing performances, going along with what John asked of him, however trivial or ‘demeaning’ the role might seem to others; he must surely, with his deep understanding of the medium gained from experience as one of its pioneers, have recognised the value of the series of roles he was playing. And to honour John, as a director who, despite his carefully nurtured image as a robust ‘primitive’ unconcerned with the fine-tuning of his work either in planning or post-production, was in his way just as precise an artist as Hitchcock.

Ford may have held grudges against his older brother, and behaved brutally at times to him, but he seems to have done the same to others, including most of those to whom he felt closest: to his wife and children, to John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, to Harry Carey senior and junior, to Ward Bond and George O’Brien and just about everyone else he worked with – the details are there in every memoir and biography. We should not let this knowledge get in the way of what is there on the screen, and Frank’s set of roles, as I hope to have shown, are no more demeaning or humiliating than those of any of the others. Weaving Frank into his narratives as a recurringly expressive Irish presence, and giving him at the last his rightful name as Brother Feeney, may have been his own oblique way of paying tribute to a seminal influence from way back. As his long-time associate Frank Baker put it, ‘Everything that John Ford did, I could see the reflection of Frank. Camera angles and different touches… He had an amazing admiration for his brother.’ (28) If only we could see a few of those early productions, Westerns and Lincoln films and Irish-American films, to set alongside the work he did for John.

The link to Ireland was strong to the end. A week after Frank’s death in September 1953, Ford wrote to his friend and colleague Lord Killanin, living close to the ancestral Feeney home in County Galway, that ‘Frank had an easy passing, and all his thoughts were about Ireland. His last hours all he could speak was Irish. The services were in the Irish tradition…’ (29) And he thanked Killanin warmly for having acceded to the brothers’ urgent wishes by setting up a Requiem Mass for Frank in Spiddal.

His secretary, Meta Sterne, followed up with her own letter to Killanin: ‘Pappy was wonderful through it all, but I know he feels the loss deeply’. (30)

This article first appeared in the collection Screening Irish-America (ed: Ruth Barton; Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2009), and is published here with the permission of editor and publisher – and with some minor adaptations. Its title obviously echoes that of Tag Gallagher’s brilliant piece of research on Francis Ford’s early career for Film Comment in 1976, and of his welcome recent adaptation of it for Senses of Cinema, Issue 53.


  1. John Ford, letter to Joe Breen, 17th July 1947. This and all other letters quoted are held in the Ford collection, or the Killanin collection, in the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. The Irish Film Institute in Dublin holds another collection of Killanin material, including duplicates of some of the letters, and additional material related to, especially, The Quiet Man and The Rising of the Moon. Michael (Lord) Killanin was a long-time friend and associate of Ford’s, and his partner in the Four Provinces company which produced The Rising of the Moon as part of an ambitious early attempt to develop an indigenous Irish industry
  2. A full and sympathetic account of Francis Ford’s silent film career is given by Tag Gallagher in ‘Brother Feeney’, Film Comment, November 1976.
  3. For She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, ‘Ford carried his brother Francis at $160 a week for eight weeks even through Francis could have completed his scenes in less than a week’. Scott Eyman, Print the Legend: the Life and Times of John Ford (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), p.353. Frank, as Connolly the barman, is in fact in only one scene, a protracted one of drinking and brawling.
  4. Ford has inspired a particularly fine set of critical biographies, notably those by Scott Eyman (see previous note); by Tag Gallagher, John Ford, the Man and his Films (University of California Press, 1986); and by Joseph McBride, Searching for John Ford (London: Faber & Faber, 2003). Any serious student of John Ford must owe a debt to all of them, as well as to Lindsay Anderson’s idiosyncratic but indispensable About John Ford (London: Plexus, 1981). But their line on Frank is erratic. McBride, very unusually, falls into factual error, for instance confusing two key roles in Judge Priest and Young Mr Lincoln (p.86). Both he (p.94) and Eyman (p.426) use the word ‘demeaning’ to apply to the full range of Frank’s roles, not just isolated ones; so does Garry Wills in John Wayne’s America: the Politics of Celebrity,(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997),pp.74-6. Even the much more sympathetic Tag Gallagher (p.31) remarks that ‘it was partly to humiliate Frank that Ford cast him always as a loony or drunk’, which is hardly accurate. None of them makes anything of Frank’s Irishness.
  5. Ed Buscombe, Stagecoach, the first in the BFI Classics series (London: British Film Institute, date), p.49. 6. Mitchell was born of Irish immigrant parents, and often played explicitly Irish roles, for instance as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind the following year.
  6. Kevin Rockett, ‘The Irish Migrant on Film’, in Patrick O’Sullivan (ed), The Creative Migrant (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1994), p.191 (note 46).
  7. Nick Browne, ‘The Spectator-in-the-Text: the Rhetoric of Stagecoach’, in Film Quarterly vol 29 no 2 (1975-6), reprinted in, for instance, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy (eds), Film Theory and Criticism 6th edition (New York: OUP, 2004).
  8. Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (London: Movie Paperbacks, 1967), p.22.
  9. Walter D.Edmonds, Drums along the Mohawk (Boston: Little Brown & co, 1936)
  10. Quoted by McBride, p.524, without further attribution
  11. See note 1 above. Breen did not respond with quite the warmth Ford had hoped for, his main concern being that the drinking by Victor McLaglen’s Sgt Mulcahy and the other Irish NCOs must be kept to ‘an absolute minimum’ (underlining in original). Of course Ford ignored this, with complete success – unless there could have even more drinking in the original cut?
  12. McBride, p.433
  13. See below, on The Sun Shines Bright (and Judge Priest)
  14. ‘Golden Slippers’ has been played in Young Mr Lincoln, and will recur in Fort Apache and The Sun Shines Bright
  15. This Irish-history subtext to The Grapes of Wrath is discussed in, for instance, Thomas Flanagan, ‘The Irish in John Ford’s Films’, essay included in Michael Coffey (ed), The Irish in America (New York: Hyperion, 1997), p.195
  16. Michael Walker, Hitchcock’s Motifs (Amsterdam University Press, 2005), entry on Cameo Appearances. Raymond Bellour, ‘Hitchcock the Enunciator’, in Camera Obscura, vol 1 no 2, Fall 1977; reprinted as Chapter 6 of The Analysis of Film (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2000)
  17. This pointed juxtaposition of himself and his daughter, in a film that is so centred on the parent-child relationship, is the nearest Hitchcock comes to Ford’s use of his brother; Michael Powell does something similar alongside his own son in Peeping Tom, a kind of ‘twin film’ to Psycho also shot in late1959. I refer to these two directorial appearances in an article on ‘Hitchcock and Powell’ in Screen, vol 46 no 1, Spring 2005.
  18. To be more precise: Mark (Sean Connery) has not physically seen this view of Marnie and her yellow handbag, but in the previous shot he is shown thinking intently about her, and looking offscreen: so the corridor shot, starting on the handbag, is like a visualisation of his thought – which makes the link between his look, the spectator’s, and the director’s all the more potent.
  19. Gallagher, in the Film Comment article, cites several titles and provides an illustration of one of them; this is also used on p.12 of his book.
  20. In My Darling Clementine, Frank’s character, Dad, is not heard speaking, but he is seen speaking to Wyatt Earp in a long shot, passing on important information
  21. ‘Pappy always loved calling himself by the Gaelic version of his birth name, Sean Aloysius Kilmartin O’Feeney’. Maureen O’Hara, with John Nicoletti, ‘Tis Herself (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2004), p.64.
  22. Charles Barr, ‘Sean Feeney to John Ford: a New Angle on his Authorship’, in Martin McLoone and Kevin Rockett (eds), Irish Films, Global Cinema (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007)
  23. Anderson, p.135 ; McBride, p.523
  24. Gallagher p.293
  25. Gallagher says he is called ‘Brother Finney’, and it is true that Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) does tend to shorten the vowel when he names him. But others agree on Feeney, and we can surely regard this as a small verbal idiosyncrasy by the Judge. It has to be Feeney!
  26. Gallagher p.294
  27. Quoted by Gallagher, p.11
  28. Ford letter to Killanin, 10th September 1953
  29. Meta Sterne letter to Killanin, 15th September 1953

About The Author

Charles Barr is Visiting Professor of Film and Television at the University College Dublin and the author of English Hitchcock and countless other publications on cinema.

Related Posts