Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The Shamrock Handicap (John Ford, 1926)
John Ford's The Shamrock Handicap (1926) is a masterful silent film from the great director, one of many thought to have been lost for good before re-emerging sometime ago to the great delight and interest of film lovers everywhere. While the prospect of any John Ford film being permanently lost is a disheartening one, The Shamrock Handicap in particular would have been a travesty to lose, seeing as how it is the first film to deal with one of Ford's most personal themes, his Irish heritage. Similar to what was to become one of his most successful pictures, The Quiet Man, The Shamrock Handicap is a romantic comedy set in Ireland. The story concerns Sir Miles O'Hara (Louis Payne) and his daughter Sheila (Janet Gaynor), who rent out living quarters to a poor family, the O'Sheas, who cannot pay rent on time. Sir Miles, out of kindness, accepts sweets from the family as payment, however the tax collectors catch up with him, and so Sir Miles and the O'Sheas are forced to sell their stable of horses to a buyer named Finch (Willard Louis). Finch woos the family's jockey Neil Ross (Leslie Fenton), who is in love with Sheila, to return to America with him and try his hand at becoming a successful full-time jockey. Neil moves quickly up through the jockey ranks, before suffering a serious injury in a big race, unbeknownst to the O'Shea/O'Hara clan, who have made the trek to America with their sole remaining horse Dark Rosaleena, in hopes of entering the prestigious Shamrock Handicap, and claiming the $25,000 prize.
While Ford's visual style in the 30's was to be largely dominated by the expressionist influence of F.W. Murnau, the visuals in The Shamrock Handicap look forward to the more picturesque, spacious, classical compositional style that would come to define Ford's 1950's films. While much of the second half set in America is comprised of uncomplicated interiors, the first part of the movie set in Ireland is stunningly gorgeous, utilizing space and angles, as well as heavy foliage and the poetry of light and shadows to give many of the outdoor shots a heavy impressionist feel. Ford also flirts with the use of foreground objects as well as utilizing diagonal lines to bring out the dynamics of a shot and give it depth, techniques he would master and return to over and over in later films, and the result here is simply some of the most ravishing images I've seen from Ford's silent period work. The story itself is nothing that special of course, the mood is light and the pace brisk, with the heroes winning the race at the end and returning triumphant back to Ireland with money troubles alleviated and the Neil and Sheila characters ending up together. But the titular race is a genuinely exciting visual spectacle to watch, and gentle humor and slapstick (occasionally dicey territory for Ford) is used in measured doses to charming effect.
The most interesting character in The Shamrock Handicap is one named Virus Cakes (!), a black valet at the ritzy American horseracing club, played by an actor named Ely Reynolds, who according to IMDB has only two acting credits to his name*, this and another recently unearthed Ford silent, Upstream (1927). The character of Virus Cakes likely qualifies as one of Ford's "fool characters", or characters who reveal social values through comedy (see: Andy Devine in Stagecoach, Hank Worden in The Searchers, Francis Ford in almost everything). But, similar to another atypical Ford fool, the oft-misunderstood Stepin Fetchit, the Virus Cakes character is played for more than (or maybe not at all) simple laughs, and is consistently and compassionately given, throughout his surprisingly bulky amount of screentime, a subtle complexity and unique point of view. Take for instance the scene where the O'Hara clan first arrive in America: Neil and Sheila embrace on the dock after much time apart, yet Ford frames Virus in the left third of the screen, watching this loving act between two people as basically a complete alien, even guiltily looking away in moments as though he has no business observing such a thing. It is obvious from his framing that Ford is going for something beyond a simple, joyful reunion, and it's an incredibly sad little sequence. Also take as example the scene where Virus is instructed by the owner of a horse to exercise the animal in an area next to a cemetery. It's a sequence that gives the impression of being played merely for laughs - Virus fails in spectacular fashion - however Ford, through close-ups, seems to be unusually sympathetic to the effort made by Virus, while also highlighting the brusque treatment given to him by the horse's owner.
Easily the craziest sequence involving this character, and indeed one of the most surreal sequences I've stumbled across in the entire Ford corpus, involves Virus Cakes becoming lost in a hospital during a trip all of the jocks make to visit an ailing Neil after his injury. He roams aimlessly around the hallways with his sad bouquet of flowers, bleakly watching as nurses roll covered bodies by him repeatedly. Virus stops at a random door, decides to enter it, and views (as the camera takes his POV) three surgeons raising their heads slowly and simultaneously, much like monsters in a monster movie. Ford cuts to a reverse shot of Cakes appearing hypnotized as his bowler hat slowly begins sliding over the top of his head all by itself. Another shot of the surgeons sees their forms slowly become unfocused and warbled and twisted into three ominous, amorphous white figures (they might as well be wearing hoods). Ford then slowly (and I mean in extreme slow motion) shows Cakes turn and run out of the door, giving one last caustic glance back behind him. It is such an utterly bizarre and disconcerting scene, one that manages to conjure up racial anxiety in a wholly unique and impactful manner, while also giving off the vague impression that this story is as much about Virus Cakes as it is the O'Hara family, Neil the jockey, or any other character.
The Shamrock Handicap was based off of a story from American author Peter B. Kyne (who Ford also adapted for his 1948 picture 3 Godfathers) and shot by cinematographer George Schneiderman, (one of Ford's most essential collaborators in his early years, who also shot the classic Ford silents 3 Bad Men and The Iron Horse, as well as the Will Rodgers starring Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend), and it is often as visually impressive as any Ford that I've seen. Also of note in this picture is the deft manner in which Ford juggles the fairly sizable cast, who is introduced in rapid fire with (typically) little exposition. A charming and occasionally mysterious work of great visual beauty and subtle complexity, The Shamrock Handicap is the product of a master near the peak of his profession, and sees Ford both working out personal themes and fine tuning his visual craft to a typically fascinating end, one that makes me mournful to think of all the great Ford films (and films in general) that have been lost forever, and thankful for those that have been found and saved.
* Since writing this I have also identified Reynolds in a bit part as a shoeshiner in Ford's 1928 silent Riley the Cop. Hopefully more will be discovered and written about this interesting early Ford regular at some point.