FRESH TAKES on Classic Films

 Equal to Any Man

Six Superb, Under-Appreciated Women’s Roles in the Films of John Ford 
by David Meuel
Posted July 7, 2014
More often than not, classic film fans see John Ford as mainly a man’s director. 
Yes, they will duly note Ford’s work with Maureen O’Hara, especially her fiery Mary Kate in The Quiet Man. And they may even acknowledge Jane Darwell’s long-suffering Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath or Vera Miles’ poignant Hallie in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. 
Yet, the persistent feeling seems to be that, overall, he had relatively little interest in the experiences or perspectives of his films’ female characters. This is certainly an understandable assumption to make. So many fine Ford films have predominantly male casts, focus on very male themes such as duty and honor, and star larger-than-life male actors such as John Wayne and Henry Fonda. In fact, one early Ford talkie, a 1930 submarine adventure story, was even titled Men Without Women.
When we look more closely at the great range of Ford films, however, a very different picture emerges. Complex, nuanced women’s characters of all kinds abound; their stories reflect a wide variety of women’s experiences and perspectives; and they are rarely, if ever, stereotyped or objectified. Far from being indifferent toward women, Ford was—when it came to conveying female experience—one of classic-era Hollywood’s more progressive directors.
Who are some of these fascinating, and unjustly forgotten, female characters? Out of dozens we can choose from, here are a half dozen. If you haven’t seen these actresses in these roles, these films are absolutely worth checking out.

Karen Morley’s Laura becomes skilled at manipulating Wallace Beery’s good-hearted but naive wrestler in Flesh.
Karen Morley’s Laura Nash in Flesh (1932)
Film writer Danny Peary once called Karen Morley one of the “great unsung actresses” of the Pre-Code era, and in Ford’s rarely seen Flesh she really gets a chance to shine. While the film is nothing special, Morley’s performance as pregnant, desperate ex-con Laura Nash—who manipulates one good-hearted man while hoping that her ne’er-do-well boyfriend (and father of her child) will marry her—truly is. Ford scholar Tag Gallagher has even gone so far as to call Morley’s Laura the first “profound” character to appear in the director’s work. 

Henrietta Crosman was 71 when she played the fiery, intensely difficult Hannah Jessop in Pilgrimage, perhaps her best film role.
Henrietta Crosman’s Hannah Jessop in Pilgrimage (1933) 
Henrietta who? Virtually forgotten today, Henrietta Crosman was a major name in the American theater from the 1880s to the 1920s. As she neared 70, she went to Hollywood and worked in films for nearly a decade longer. Most of her work was in supporting roles, usually portraying either kindly or persnickety aunts or grandmothers. But in Ford’s riveting but rarely seen Pilgrimage, Crosman soars as Hannah Jessop, a cruel, controlling Arkansas farm matriarch who must come to grips with a heart-wrenching loss in order to reclaim her own long-suppressed humanity. Ford biographer Joseph McBride has said that Crosman’s performance was certainly deserving of a Best Actress Oscar.

Jean Arthur and Edward G. Robinson’s characters share a water cooler moment at the company they both work for in The Whole Town’s Talking.
Jean Arthur’s Wilhelmina Clark in The Whole Town’s Talking (1935)
In another unjustly obscure Ford film, Jean Arthur and Edward G. Robinson form an unlikely pair for a romantic comedy with some underlying social commentary about fearful conformity and fearless self-assertion. Arthur’s Wilhelmina Clark is the fearless one, launching the actress on a succession of wise-cracking urban working women’s roles that made her one of Hollywood’s most captivating romantic comedy stars in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Anne Shirley’s Fleety Belle and Will Rogers’ Captain John make an unlikely, but highly effective team in Steamboat Round the Bend.
Anne Shirley’s Fleety Belle in Steamboat Round the Bend (1935)
Best known for being Will Rogers’ last film, Steamboat is—on its own merits—a highly spirited, thoroughly enjoyable ride. And one highlight is 17-year-old Anne Shirley’s spot-on portrayal of Fleety Belle, a girl born into “swamp trash” who marries into a family of proud river folk. Much of the film is about Fleety Belle’s transformation from a bright but insecure youth into an unusually wise and mature young woman. Shirley—who retired from films nine years later at age 26 and is only dimly remembered today—does a wonderful job of showing her character acquire great confidence through a series of harrowing adventures.

As Denver in Wagon Master, Joanne Dru more than holds her own with Ben Johnson’s Travis Blue. Enjoying the face-off here is Harry Carey, Jr.’s Sandy.
Joanne Dru’s Denver in Wagon Master (1950)
A far cry from her spoiled, manipulative ingénue, Olivia, in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Joanne Dru’s Denver in Wagon Master is a frontier prostitute who’s just fine with who she is as well as quite smitten with Ben Johnson’s cool and supremely understated wagon master, Travis Blue. Denver is a wonderfully comic character, who also has depth, insight, and lots of spunk—for a western, a very modern woman. And Dru’s portrayal is electric, perhaps the best work of her 30-year film and television career.

Anne Bancroft shines as Dr. Cartwright in 7 Women, a little-known gem that takes place at a religious mission in China in the 1930s.
Anne Bancroft’s Dr. Cartwright in 7 Women (1966)
Everyone remembers her Mrs. Robinson, but just before the great Anne Bancroft made The Graduate, she starred in Ford’s last film, 7 Women. Misunderstood by many critics and poorly marketed by its studio, MGM, 7 Women failed miserably at the box office and effectively marked the end of Ford’s half-century filmmaking career. This is tragic because so few people ever saw the story of the embittered, and extraordinarily courageous, Dr. Cartwright, who saves a community of bumbling Christian missionaries in China from a band of brutal Mongolian invaders. Throughout the film, Bancroft does a masterly job of showing us the many sides of her complex character as well as guiding us through Cartwright’s own personal transformation. Film writer Danny Peary has noted that Bancroft’s work here, while overlooked at the time, was worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
While truckloads of books have been written about John Ford, the women in his films have not been explored as fully as they deserve to be. It’s about time we hear more about them.

David Meuel is the author of Since  Since its release in early 2014, Women in the Films of John Ford (McFarland Publishing) has received praise from numerous readers, Ford specialists, and classic film websites. For more information, check out the book on Amazon or at the publisher’s website. 

In addition to Women in the Films of John Ford, David Meuel is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, Islands in the Sky (Purisima Creek Press, 1997) and Realms of Gold (Purisima Creek Press, 2002). He is currently working on a second film studies book for McFarland. It is scheduled for release in 2015.

You can contact David at