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Ford at Fox

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Henry Fonda, Ford at Fox, ...
Everett Collection

We gave it an A-

Like a lot of legendary filmmakers, John Ford was a drunk, a tyrant, and a short-fused crank. In fact, whenever anyone called him an artist, he swatted away the word and barked, ”Horses–t!” Ford considered himself a ”picture man.” And what pictures they were. Whether framing John Wayne against the backdrop of Monument Valley in 1956’s The Searchers or Henry Fonda amid the dust-bowl poverty of 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, his eye was unmatched. In many ways, what Americans think of when they think of their country are images that Ford first saw through his viewfinder.

When the 25-year-old director stepped onto the Fox lot in 1920, Ford had plenty of experience (he had helmed some two dozen silent films), but no name. Fox, meanwhile, was the stepchild of the studios. But over 32 years, the two made each other into Hollywood forces. The relationship wasn’t always pretty (Ford and Fox honcho Darryl Zanuck fought like wildcats), but their marriage produced classics like 1946’s My Darling Clementine and 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, which won 20th Century Fox its first Best Picture Oscar.

Ford at Fox, the new anvil-size boxed set, which comes with a coffee-table book, an insightful Ford documentary, and a steep $299.98 retail price, showcases 24 of Ford’s films for the studio — 18 of which are making their DVD debuts. Some are good and some are bad, but not one is ugly. The early silents like 1920’s Just Pals and 1926’s 3 Bad Men are gorgeously restored even if they’re not great films; 1928’s Hangman’s House is notable for a John Wayne appearance, while 1930’s Up the River features boyish-looking unknowns Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy (though neither movie is memorable); and your take on a trio of Depression-era Will Rogers flicks will depend on your tolerance for cornpone hooey.

Actually, Ford the ”artist” doesn’t arrive until 1936’s Prisoner of Shark Island, a ripsnorting post-Civil War thriller starring Warner Baxter. And from there, the hit/miss ratio picks up, especially when Ford meets his muse Henry Fonda, kicking off a partnership that included 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln (excellent movie, awful fake nose), Clementine (still the best version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral), and, of course, the Everyman masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, with Fonda as the populist folk hero Tom Joad.

At the risk of being a wet blanket, I must say one thing: The 21-disc set, as you might expect, doesn’t include Ford’s signature, non-Fox films. There’s no Stagecoach or The Quiet Man, no Fort Apache or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and, most detrimentally, no The Searchers, his greatest achievement. Fortunately, these can all be purchased separately on DVD…assuming you’ve got any cash left after buying this monster. A-