The West vs. The Bible

The Old Man sat smoking his pipe, wearing sneakers and a baseball cap. He took out his handkerchief and cleaned his glasses, for he was partly blind in one eye, and needed all the precision he could get from his remaining healthy one. The Screen Directors Guild of America was meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel on 22 October 1950. The full membership was in attendance.

At issue was a ballot put forth by Cecil B. DeMille (director of The Ten Commandments, 1923 and 1956), “the most successful box-office director in the world,” and a group of co-religionists who wanted to recall the Guild’s President, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director of All About Eve, 1950). The times were out of joint, and DeMille’s group suspected Mankiewicz of Un-American activities.

John Ford, 1946.

John Ford, 1946.

The meeting had gone on for hours. Hollywood film directors argued heatedly for or against DeMille or Mankiewicz. During an exhausted lull at the meeting, the Old Man stood up and spoke to the stenographer for the record.

“My name’s John Ford. I make westerns.”

The Old Man was called Tall Soldier by Navajo extras in his films and was an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve. In a career that had spanned many films, only a certain number of them were westerns. But on this occasion he chose to identify with the mythical Hollywood genre he had helped to create, and of which he would become the chief exponent.

“I don’t think there is anyone in this room,” he continued, “who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille—and he certainly knows how to give it to them.” The subtle scorn in the Old Man’s voice was unmistakable. “In that respect I admire him.” Then he turned, in the shadows of the night, to face DeMille across the room the way the Ringo Kid faced Luke Plummer in Stagecoach.

Stagecoach_movieposter“But I don’t like you, C.B. I don’t like what you stand for and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight. Joe has been vilified, and I think he needs an apology.”

This scene was occurring in the eye of the hurricane of the Communist witch-hunt that was sweeping Hollywood and the United States in 1950. Face to face in the Beverly Hills Hotel was Western America vs. Biblical America; Irish Catholic America vs. Protestant America; the man who had filmed the Gunfight at the OK Corral according to the story his friend Wyatt Earp had told him vs. the man who had filmed the story of Moses according to the Book of Exodus. A silence ensued, and the Old Man spoke again.

Cecil B. DeMille. Behind him: the poster of The Squaw Man (1914) (according to John Douglas Eames in Paramount Story, Littlehampton Book Services Ltd, 1985)

Cecil B. DeMille. Behind him: the poster of The Squaw Man (1914) (according to John Douglas Eames in Paramount Story, Littlehampton Book Services Ltd, 1985)

“[I move] that Mr. DeMille and the entire board of directors resign and that we give Joe a vote of confidence—and then let’s all go home and get some sleep.”

Robert Parrish, attending his first meeting of the Guild as a Hollywood director, witnessed the above scene and relates the ending of the story: “DeMille and the board resigned and we gave Mankiewicz a unanimous vote of confidence.”  (Growing Up in Hollywood, New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, 1976.)

Perhaps because we are addicted to the mysticism of cards, or perhaps because at such times one hears the chants of the Penitente brotherhood and wafts of ancient voices and Indian yells, the end was pre-ordained.

When myth faces myth in such American showdowns, bet on the West, every time.



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