Sunday, February 25, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: The Wings of Eagles

The Story: Director cameos are no longer a rare occurrence. Now, you practically have to pay directors not to show up in their own movies. Hitchcock, of course, made an "in-joke" of it after he inserted himself in a scene in an early movie that needed a couple more extras, and, subsequently, did it for every film after, no matter how elaborately he had to do it (but to his credit, he usually put them towards the beginning of the picture to get it "out of the way").  

Of course, some directors you couldn't keep away from appearing before the camera—Orson Welles, for one—and most actor-directors, once they acquire the power to take "the chair" behind the camera, usually have to commit to appearing in the film as well, in order to get the chance to direct. John Huston, gets the award for hubris, though, for his work in The Bible: In the Beginning (which he directed), where he played The Narrator, Noah...and God. Type-casting.

John Ford, never had aspirations to be an actor, although he appeared in some silent films (his brother Francis was the actor in the family). But, when he made The Wings of Eagles, the life-story of the man who wrote They Were Expendable for Ford (Wead received screen-credit for one other Ford film, Airmail), the story came for Wead's introduction to Hollywood, and the director chose to model the director Wead first works with on himself (the first scripts Wead worked on were for directors George W. Hill and Frank Capra), calling him "John Dodge" (Ford? Dodge? Get it?). And it's all there—the cantankerousness, the drinking, the ubiquitous handkerchief and pipe, the dark glasses that hide the bad eye, the Western decor (messy), the four Oscars, the contrariness.

The arc of the scene is fun, and subtle in the way most people don't recognize Ford as being subtle. The set-up and through-line of the joke is that Wayne is paralyzed, and when these "Hollywood types" first see him, they are surprised, solicitous, stopping in mid-"Hollyspeak kiss-off boilerplate" to consider the man and his predicament: Miss Johnson swings open the gate for him (which Wayne gruffly thanks her for, not making a big deal of it); Dodge is stopped in mid-rant by the sight of Wead in the door-way, thinks twice about using his cane-flask for an afternoon libation ("the joke" isn't particularly funny in present company); he tries to offer a hand when Wead starts to struggle off the couch (which is rather crankily refused). Then, when the formalities are over, the agreement made, they abandon him, leaving him to his own resources, wondering what just happened, and to make his own way. Nice. And it's a statement, and it's funny, and it's character-based, and it's all done with pictures. Pure Ford.

And Frank Wead. This is not a "typical" Wayne performance. It has all the trappings of "Oscar-bait"—a debilitation, in this case, paralysis, which Wayne carries off nicely, as Wead got around with braces and canes propping up his dead legs. Think of this: in one scene, Wayne has to pull off an emotional break-up with his wife, with him lying prone on his stomach, his face hidden. Thing is, he's got such screen-presence, he still manages to pull it off, with no other gifts but his voice (and the considerable help of Maureen O'Hara, one of the few actors Wayne couldn't overshadow). Here, they dress him up in too-big, loose clothes to make him look frailer, and towards the end, he even appears—for the only time on-screen—without his toupee. It was a different Wayne role, but one that had the ring of truth to it, printed  legendary (of course) to become the Ford style.

The Set-Up: Former Navy pilot Frank "Spig" Wead (John Wayne) has had his flying career ended by a fall down a flight of stairs in his home, that has left him paralyzed below the waist. Encouraged by his buddies, he has still managed to make himself walk with the use of two canes and braces on his legs. It is in this way that he manages to walk into the offices of movie director John Dodge (Ward Bond), who has made Wead an offer to help the Navy get funding, by writing scripts about the Navy for the movies.


COMMANDER FRANK 'SPIG' WEAD: I’m  Cmdr. Wead.  I think I’m…
MISS JACKSON: I’m sorry, but Mr. Dodge…
MISS JACKSON: I believe, he’s expecting you, Cmdr. Wead.
 WEAD: Thank you.
MISS JACKSON: Cmdr. Wead is here.
DODGE: -blast it, “Stonewall,” I told you I was in conference!  
DODGE: I’m not supposed to be disturbed under any circum…
DODGE: (recovering) Come on in.
DODGE: Come in, come in.  It’s good to see ya.
Dodge goes to shake his hand, but claps him on the shoulder, instead.
WEAD: Fine.
DODGE: Come here.  Sit down.  Make yourself comfortable.
DODGE: Gotta watch that couch.  It’s got a hidden spring in it someplace that surprises you sometimes.
Dodge grabs his cane.  Looks at Wead.  
He thinks twice about it, but brings it over, anyway, hoping to not offend.  Wead grunts his way onto the couch.
Wead looks at the odd pictures on the wall,* and notices Dodge’s cane, as the director sits down next to him.
DODGE: Watch that door.
Dodge fumbles under the cushion and produces two shot-glasses to Wead’s amazement.
DODGE: Here…
WEAD: Familiar?
DODGE: Ah, Commander.  I find that about this time of the afternoon, a little drink’s very good for ya.
DODGE: Good for the old pump, ya know?
WEAD: Yeah? I used to make excuses when I drank in the afternoon, too.
WEAD: Funny thing is…a man always makes the loudest excuses to himself.
DODGE: Yeah.  It’s a fact.

Dodge dismisses the philosophy and hides the cane under the couch.
DODGE: It sure is a fact.   Alright, Commander...
They clink glasses.

DODGE: There ya are.
They drink.
WEAD: ..."Commander" of a portable typewriter.
DODGE: They can be a lot harder to handle than a battleship.
WEAD: I found that out.
DODGE: Hm.  Well, I know you haven’t had much experience, writing.  And none at all in pictures.
DODGE: But, I’ve heard aboutcha.  It all sounded like you were just the man I wanted to write a story about the Navy.
DODGE: I don’t want a story…just about ships and planes, I want a story about the officers and..
WEAD: Yeah. And the men that run them.
DODGE: That’s exactly it.
DODGE: For example, do you know any Chief Petty Officers?
WEAD: Do I!  Hand me that cane!
DODGE: Sure.
WEAD: No, I’m  kidding…
DODGE: Well, I..I want this story from a pen dipped in salt-water, not dry martinis, you know what I mean?
WEAD: Yeah. “Damn the martinis.  Full speed ahead.”
DODGE: Wouldcha like to take a crack at it?
WEAD: That’s why I’m here.
DODGE: Well, That’s good.  C’mon, let’s go.  Can I give you a hand…
WEAD: No! I’m alright.
DODGE: Oh! I’m sorry. Sorry.
DODGE: I didn’t know this man was injured.  Whyn’t you tell me?  Clean out that office across the way.  See that he gets everything he wants.
DODGE: Commander.  What do they call ya?  “Spig,” isn’t it?
WEAD: That’s right.
DODGE: Mind if I call ya “Spig?”
WEAD: Not at all.
DODGE: This is Miss Jackson. 
DODGE: “Stonewall” Jackson, meet Cmdr. Wead.
MISS JACKSON: Hello, Commander.
WEAD: Hello, Miss Jackson. 
WEAD: Mind if I call you “Stonewall?”
MISS JACKSON: Not at all.
DODGE: “Stonewall” has been with me for 22 years.  She’s my barometer.  
DODGE: If she likes a script, I throw it away. Wouldn’t know what to do without her.  Now, go to work.

Dodge starts to go back to his office, but stops for one last thing. 
DODGE: Oh! You didn’t ask about your salary.
WEAD: Well, I figure you’ll pay me what I’m worth.
WEAD: What you have to worry about is if I’m worth what you pay me.
DODGE: It’s a deal.
WEAD: Well, wait a minute…is that all?
DODGE: Well, whattaya need, pencil and paper?
WEAD: Well, what do I write about?
DODGE: People.  Navy people.
Dodge shuts the office door behind him. "Stonewall" goes to prepare his office and Wead is left to contemplate what just happened.
Not sure, he starts off in the direction of the office.

Pictures by Paul Vogel and John Ford

The Wings of Eagles is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

The real Frank Wead, and the fake (and real) John Ford

* IMDB's trivia for The Wings of Eagles says that the drawing that keeps showing up around every corner (and hangs on the last shot) is an early head-shot of John Wayne. It's not; Wayne never used that much make-up on his eyebrows. But that's, for sure, Harry Carey, in the photograph on the left. No, but they do make a joke of Wayne sitting on the couch and glancing up at a Norman Rockwell sketch of himself from The Long Voyage Home hanging on the wall of Dodge's office.

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