Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine

Q. Why does Portland have a statue of John Ford? Who was he?

A. John Ford was one of the most influential Hollywood directors of all time and certainly the most decorated. No other director in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards can match his four Oscars for best director, plus his two others for best documentary. He died in 1973 at the age of 79.

When I moved to Portland in 1993, I was surprised to find nothing with his name on it. No John Ford Theater, no plaque on his childhood home, no John Ford film festivals.

Despite Ford’s accolades and five-decade career, for years his hometown of Portland did nothing significant to let people know he was a local son.

When there finally was a proposal to honor Ford with a Portland statue – in the mid-1990s – it came from Louisiana philanthropist Linda Noe Laine.

The daughter of James Noe, a former Louisiana governor and oil executive, Laine had met Ford while he was filming “The Horse Soldiers” in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in 1958. She became friends with Ford and his wife, Mary, and visited them in Hollywood over the years.

In 1996 she had made a trip to Portland to see where Ford was from, and get a sense of how he grew up and what shaped him. Laine was “appalled” to find there was no monument or plaque anywhere in the city honoring him, she told me when I was writing about the Ford statue in 1998.

Laine contacted the city’s mayor at the time, Philip J. Dawson, and offered to donate money to the city for a Ford statue. Sites and designs were studied and New York City sculptor George Kelly was hired. The site chosen was a small piece of city-owned land on the edge of the city’s Old Port, at the corner of Pleasant, York and Center streets. Neither Laine, who died in  2019, nor Kelly would say exactly how much the statue cost, but it was estimated in 1998 to be about $250,000.

The 10-foot-high bronze statue depicts Ford with his customary wide-brimmed hat and pipe, sitting on a director’s chair. The statue site is in Gorham’s Corner, an area where Irish immigrants settled and where Ford’s father ran a bar. The Ford statue is positioned so that the director is gazing across the street at where his father’s pub once stood.

Oscar-winning film director John Ford was not widely remembered in his hometown until this Portland statue was erected in 1998. Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In front of the statue are six 4-foot-high granite blocks, each inscribed with descriptions of the films that earned Ford his Oscars – “The Informer” (1935), “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), “How Green Was My Valley” (1941) and “The Quiet Man” (1952) – plus the documentaries “The Battle of Midway” (1942) and “December 7th” (1943). Facts of Ford’s life are inscribed in granite at the base of the statue.

The statue was dedicated on a Sunday afternoon in July 1998, with hundreds of fans, scholars and dignitaries from around the world. Laine got two standing ovations.

“To think that the son of Irish immigrants could rise to be one of the most celebrated American directors in one generation,” Laine said. “Mary and Jack would be very proud and pleased to be represented here in Gorham’s Corner.”

Illustration of John Ford used to promote the John Ford 125 Years statewide film festival in 2019. Illustration by Edward Kinsella

CELEBRATED AROUND THE WORLD, UNKOWN AT HOME

I’ve always been a big fan of Ford’s films. And I wrote about Ford’s career and life for the Press Herald in 1995, the year the Cannes International Film Festival was honoring the 100th anniversary of his birth by showing 25 of his films.

Ford had been born John Martin Feeney in 1894 in a farmhouse in Cape Elizabeth, to parents who immigrated from western Ireland. The family moved to Gorham’s Corner at some point, and by the time Ford was 11 or 12, they lived in a three-decker tenement on Sheridan Street on Munjoy Hill. I remember calling some people who lived in that building, to see if they had heard of Ford or knew he was from Portland. The answer was no to both questions.

Ford went to Portland High School and played fullback on the football team, where he was known as “Bull” Feeney for his toughness. I was directed by school officials to two photos of Ford on display in the trophy case there, with other members of the team. Later in life Ford would tell interviewers that Lucien Libby, an English literature teacher and administrator at Portland High School from 1901 to 1947, helped open his mind to new ideas and new places. In his World War II drama “They Were Expendable,” starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne, Ford named one of the ships the “Lucien Libby.”

“The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the films that won John Ford an Oscar. Photo courtesy of the Maine Film Center

After graduating in 1914, Ford left for Hollywood. His brother Francis, who changed his name to Ford, had run away years earlier and ended up being a star of early silent films. Ford worked on his brother’s films, and graduated to directing his own films by about 1917. He made several classics of the silent era, including “The Iron Horse” in 1924, before getting his first Oscar for “The Informer.”

Ford was known for getting the best out of legendary leading man John Wayne, and besides “The Quiet Man,” the two worked on such classic westerns as “Stagecoach” (1939), “Fort Apache” (1948), “The Searchers” (1956) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).

MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME

When I began writing about the Ford statue, several people told me they thought it was an honor way overdue. Some speculated it didn’t come sooner because Ford left town for Hollywood a long time ago in 1914, and later generations of Portland folks might not have known about him.

“When I came here three or four years ago to begin my book (on Ford), I was amazed to find one of the immortals of cinema had nothing to mark his hometown,” Scott Eyman, author of “Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford,” said at the statue dedication ceremony. “But I figured sooner or later this sad state of affairs would be corrected.”

When the statue was finally dedicated, organizers of the event left no doubt they felt Ford was worth honoring. Even though the act was a long time coming.

The government of Ireland sent Sile de Valera, minister of arts and heritage, to talk about the impact that Ford’s Irish-themed films have had, including “The Quiet Man” and “The Informer.”  Chief Jefferson Begay of the Navajo Nation spoke of Ford’s impact on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and Utah, where Ford hired many Navajos to work in his westerns. Secretary of the Navy John Dalton talked of Ford’s service to his country as head of all naval photography during World War II and the fact that he was wounded while filming “The Battle of Midway.” Several actors from Ford’s films were there too, including Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s son.

The dedication capped a weeklong celebration of Ford in Portland, including a film festival in the Portland High School auditorium, which had just been renamed the John Ford Auditorium for the occasion. Events celebrating Ford in Maine have become more common in the last two decades. In 2019 the Maine Film Center in Waterville organized a statewide film festival called John Ford 125 Years.

Ford also got a pub named for him in the years after the statue was dedicated, Bull Feeney’s in the Old Port. Owner Doug Fuss had been a film studies major in college, so he knew Ford was from Portland. When he opened his restaurant and pub in 2002, he decided on the name Bull Feeney’s as a way of connecting to Portland’s Irish heritage. Fuss has information about Ford’s life, his barkeeper father and the statue on the Bull Feeney’s website.

“His story is worth telling,” said Fuss.

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