The Image Makers 2
for his father, Harold von Schmidt
There is no evidence that they ever met, and
that may have been on purpose. My Old Man met Russell when Charlie
would come by San Francisco on his way down to Pasadena. He was a
pal of Von's mentors, Maynard Dixon, and Ed Borein, and Von adored
him from the start. Russell had been a cowboy; he'd lived with
Indians, but it was his humanity, his warmth and humor, qualities
that didn't come across in Remington's work, that made Charlie truly
It was these same qualities -- these
idiosyncrasies that came across in Ford's films and were part of
Von's approach to illustration, that became a factor in their
"Mutual Admiration Society". Their Mutual love of uses of
movement, the fluidity of motion was the corner stone.
All these guys were PICTURE MAKERS,
right? Why then, in a biography of a notoriously reticent director,
which is sprinkled with clues to his search for the visual
equivalent to dialogue, and which quotes John Wayne, "When he
pointed that camera, he was painting with it. He didn't just point
it, he painted a picture each time." Why, is there no mention of
Harold von Schmidt, his favorite living, western illustrator?!
There are seven and a half pages of interviews
and bibliographic essays relating to his theme, concluding with
Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth),
and M. Owen Lee's Wagner's Ring: Turning the Sky Round.
Wow. But are they picture makers?
I was ready for some post modern gully-washers,
some metaphysical monsoons, but I was not ready for no "Von Schmidt,
Harold", in the index!
Something else seems to have escaped Mr. Davis'
biography...something that was as big a force as the movies
themselves...the great mass market magazines; most of them in full
color, 10" by 13" or so; Life and Look, lots of
photographs, but the rest mostly short stories or serials. Those
stories were illustrated by many very talented people. In the
Saturday Evening Post, alone, eighteen western stories by James
Warner Bellah appeared and every single one of them was
illustrated by my Old Man!
It is surprising that Mr. Davis, given his
chosen field, (his last three books deal with aspects of Hollywood)
that it never occurred to him to look at the posters used in
connection with Ford's westerns. If he had, he would have discovered
that all the posters for "The Trilogy" were done by Harold von
Schmidt and that Jack himself had asked Von to do the poster for
“The Searchers”. This went beyond the Saturday Evening Post
connection. This was about HOLLYWOOD! And the selling of
MOTION PICTURES. Ford commissioned those posters!
What we do find in Davis' biography are
numerous references to "Rem-Russ & Co." I would like to point out
that personally I consider both these men to be splendid examples of
western painters and when they were at the top of their form, it
didn't get much better. Charlie leaned to the more anecdotal, the
swirling narrative. He loved to tell a "windie." Remington was more
a classical romantic who strove for epic and sometimes even got it.
Any delineator, in whatever medium, who is searching for the Mythic
West and isn't well-acquainted with their images, had better take it
again, from the top. Ford, of course, was thoroughly familiar with
their work. His 1939 "Stagecoach" is clearly indebted to
All that's a given. However, neither of
them ever even visited Monument Valley! Russell was as
uninterested in the U.S. Cavalry as he was in polo playing, and
Remington's vision of the U.S. Cavalry was as jejune as Ford's
fantasies of actually "being" John Wayne. Besides "R&R" were long
dead to the public who read The Saturday Evening Post. They
were reading stories by some guy called "James Warner Bellah"
illustrated with pictures by somebody called "Harold von
Schmidt" (where do these guys get those names?) In the
forties that was what the American public was resonating to. And
so was John Ford!
Henry Fonda Looks Down The Barrel Of A Gun
Ron Davis describes at some length (pg 222) the
second Bellah/von Schmidt/Ford set in Monument Valley for "She Wore
a Yellow Ribbon": He (Ford) intended for his camera to capture the
cavalry, as Frederic Remington would have painted it, in movement
and color choice. He tried to establish a format for each of his
films and before shooting "Yellow Ribbon " he studied Remington's
works carefully, noting the artist's grouping and composition, and
recreating the painter's imagery with striking accuracy."
This is all well and good as far as it goes.
Ford did accurately recreate Remington's "Cavalryman's Breakfast on
the Plains" for a single scene in his movie, but perhaps
Davis misses a more important point. And it's right there in his own
words, "in movement and color choice." This is precisely what a John
Ford movie is really about -- Movement! And the painting
depicted in the film is about as sedentary as a Remington
However, if the author had (as John Wayne did)
looked at the pictures in the Saturday Evening Post of
February 22, 1947, he just might have recognized the double page
spread (pgs 18-19), a scene of extreme motion, a virtual
"Gotterdammerung" that was miraculously recreated (by Archie Stout &
William Clothier, Ford's main cameramen on "Fort Apache") in
stunning detail in the epochal final shots of the battle sequence to
fade. The main difference from canvas to celluloid, being that the
officer squinting down the barrel of his service revolver is not
Von's "made-up" officer, but is now Henry Fonda! The whole
sequence is miraculously recreated!
My Old Man and John Ford connected viscerally.
They both tended to visualize at eye-level and that was the
essence of that battle scene! Within a few years I was seeing that
same painting copied by illustrators, comic strip artists: the pop
culture guys. ..it's all over the globe. America, Europe, even
Ah, motion! How does a biographer deal
with a feisty director, famously dismissive of film theory, scornful
of dialogue, and unimpressed with the best of scripts? In the
present case I’d have to conclude on reading and rereading
JOHN FORD / Hollywood's Old Master.... not terribly well.
Perhaps those who deal primarily in "words"
have some resentment for people like Ford who profess a capricious
dislike of them, and a visceral pleasure of the visual? I think that
in the case of Ron L. Davis, he was fortunate that this elusive
film- maker checked out permanently at the Eisenhower Hospital, Palm
Springs, California, on Friday, August 31, 1967.
I believe he would have eaten Davis alive!
I suspect Davis believes the same. His biography is resplendent with
Ford's fights. He fought with nearly everybody, nearly all the time.
His method seemed to be to keep everybody off balance, to belittle,
ridicule, and humiliate anyone who happened to be handy, especially
those nearest and dearest. In particular, he despised talking
about his movie making.
John Martin Feeney
But give him that "finder"; get him on the set,
with as many of the cast on hand as possible, so he could improvise,
and he was in his glory. He once told Elia Kazan "Get out on the
location early in the morning before anyone else is there...walk
around and see what you've got." He almost always worked without a
script...if he had been a pilot you would say he "flew by the seat
of his pants." He was wonderfully instinctive; something that can't
really be taught and therefore difficult for academics like Davis to
deal with. You have it or you don't. Davis, (I'm afraid) doesn't.
The personality of James Warner Bellah, the
author, was completely unknown tome before I read Davis's biography,
but he seems to fit right into one of his own stories -- the
character of a racist martinet, the officer who scorned the hellish
heathens just slightly more than his own enlisted men. Bellah's
son's description of his father says a lot about Ford's own
ambiguous feelings about his Irish background and his position in
Hollywood. Bellah Jr. says his father was a "fascist, a racist, and
a world class bigot. I think my father had a great contempt for
Ford, not as an artist but from a social standpoint. He referred to
Ford as a shanty Irishman and considered him a tyrant. But my father
liked money. He disliked Hollywood.
It was part of the personality of both my
father and John Ford to attempt in their own ways to keep their
pasts clouded in order to sustain their own mythology. As
Storytellers it suited their shifting needs...a moving target is
harder to hit.
Ford was born John Martin Feeney, the youngest
of thirteen children, and “As an adult he insisted that his kin
were low Irish", but his father was a farmer as well as a saloon
owner and lived in modest comfort as opposed to the “pinching"
poverty Ford described. My father tended to cling to a similar
“rags-to-riches" story until in the early fifties he was forced to
come a bit closer to the bone.
Whatever the facts, both men were creative
geniuses and it is not surprising that soon after they swapped
coastlines, their personal histories were blurred in the process.
When Von, who had already become a successful
illustrator, art director (scion of Maynard Dixon and friend of
Charlie Russell), came East in the twenties he was shredding pieces
of his past like used up railroad tickets and baggage claims...
Feeney/Ford had already made the same trip, but
westward. He'd followed his black-sheep oldest brother
Francis, who was working at Universal Studios, as both an actor,
writer and director. It is likely that the year was 1914, as "Jack"
arrived in time to ride as an extra in D. W .Griffith's "Birth of a
Nation". It was the same year as Von's first cover for Sunset
Magazine appeared. It showed a Mexican soldier, one of Pancho
Villa's troops, and was entitled "The Patriot". After a flare-up on
the border, Sunset changed the title to "The Enemy."
Jack Feeney had even appeared as a
Clansman in the Griffith epic. If the Twentieth Century was to be
that of “the Common Man," in 1914 the common man seemed surely to
have been a white one. I'm sure that “Jack" was delighted to get a
job as an extra. Nearsighted and not wearing glasses, he was knocked
out of the saddle! D. W. himself gave him “a flask of spirits and
sent him off to rest awhile." How's that for the beginning of a
Vons wasn't so bad either. It seems he had sent
the painting of the “Villalista" to Colliers, the big east
coast magazine, first. They had replied with a printed rejection
slip “not rejected for lack of merit." After the border flair-up,
the art director had sent a telegraph asking for the picture, to
which Von had triumphantly responded, “picture already sold."
Not bad for a couple of young maverick's first
time out of the chute!
Smitty and Monty
Far to the east, the film lots amidst the
orange groves, and the offices of Collier's magazine, World
War I was looming.
Davis doesn't mention what happened to the Ford
brother during the war other than they went on making movies and
probably figured that anyone at war with the British couldn't be all
bad. For the brothers von Schmidt it was a different story.
Xenophobia was sweeping the country and anti-German sentiment was
strong. Sauerkraut had become “Victoria Cabbage" and no doubt my
father was beginning to feel uncomfortable with his lingering
childhood nickname of “Dutch."
He and his three brothers, Lex, Ed, and Rollie,
briefly considered the name "Smith." Unsurprisingly, that didn't cut
the mustard, and there were too many attractive historical
connections for the feisty young men to let go of for the sake of
stupid prejudice: Lt. Col. Christian Peter von Schmidt, who had
kicked ass for the Czar, and was a friend of Dostoevsky, had hounded
Napoleon all the way back to Paris! Even more, Peter's son Alexis
Waldemar, their grandfather, who had been a 49er, who would let them
listen to an inscribed gold watch given him by the Wells Fargo co.
for "...gallantry in successfully resting, at the peril of his
life...” a stagecoach robbery in 1875, the watch chimed to the
nearest quarter hour! He had also surveyed the first line between
California and Nevada, and blown up "Blossom Rock," an impediment to
navigation in San Francisco Harbor.
Most of all I believe I would like to think
they held onto the name because the old man had, so late in his life
helped raise his grandchildren after the sudden death of their
parents. Instead of "Smith", they decided to put-it-to the Kaiser in
more personal terms and three of the four enlisted. Von who was by
this time married with a daughter and did publicity work and
posters. The patriotism of the others came at a high price. Two of
them were gassed in the trenches and barely survived.
It was during this period that Von experienced
one of the trips that was key to future depictions of the west, and
what I've come to think of as John Ford's West as well. By this time
my Old Man had become very much under the influence of the great
western artist and illustrator Maynard Dixon, who made periodic
sketching trips throughout the west. By now Von's work had brought
him job offers from New York, Chicago and elsewhere but instead he
decided on a solo trip to the Navajo Indian Country.
His destination was Canyon de Chelly, and he
rode the Santa Fe Railroad as far as Winslow Arizona, south of the
Zuni Reservation. Three weeks of rains made northeast progress
difficult. He hitched a ride on a mail train, and eventually slept
outside what turned out to be a Methodist Mission. He awoke to hear
"Indians singing clear across the dessert." During the day the
preacher's daughter who spoke Navajo, arranged for horses and a
guide..."who knew where the water was, where the trading posts were,
and where to camp out." Von said, "Call me 'Smitty', I'll call you
'Monty'". And so they rode together with nothing but crude gestures,
the most primitive sign language. The Navajo and Von under that
immense desert sky. Von always remembered that magical ride;
“Everything about that trip was great -- the color of the country,
the sky, being with “Monty" -- to see the way he sat his horse and
how he did things. In the morning he'd face the sun, hold up his
hand and say his prayers.”
John Wayne is quoted in Davis's book as saying,
“Monument Valley in 1938 was Heaven.” It hadn't changed much when I
got to shake Duke's hand in the summer of ‘46. But the experience of
riding for a week through that magnificent country twenty years
before Ford and his crew arrived, and to do so with a lone Navajo
as your guide is truly overwhelming.
While Von had already taken sketching trips in
the High Sierras and elsewhere, and would continue throughout his
life, those images of the mythic equation of sky/desert/Indian/horse
surely would last a lifetime and make him the great interpreter of
the West to the readers of the mass circulation magazines of the
late thirties to the mid-fifties.
The Image Makers Page 3
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