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When world-renowned German filmmaker F.W. Murnau arrived on the Fox lot in the latter part of the 1920s, many in Hollywood knew that the movies could not help but be influenced by the great director of such films as Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924). Murnau's aesthetic sensibilities represented a sea change for the directorial style of even Hollywood's most firmly established auteurs. Veteran filmmaker John Ford was no exception. For Ford, Murnau represented a whole new realm of possibility for filmic expression. As Ford biographer Scott Eyman said, "If Universal and Harry Carey (Ford's first great principal star) had been Ford's primary school, then Murnau constituted Ford's college."
Ford wasn't just taken with Murnau's nimble camera, expressionistic techniques and understated direction of actors; he admired the man greatly, as a colleague on the Fox lot and friend. Once Murnau began production on Sunrise (1927) for Fox, Ford took many opportunities to adapt and to learn from the German director. His first chance to put his Murnau schooling to great use was Four Sons (1928), shot and produced at the Fox Film Corporation. According to the New York Times, Murnau "gave some advice" during the production. Given Ford's infamous bristling at even the most benign input from others on the set, this is proof positive that Murnau's opinion carried a lot of weight for Ford.
Ford considered Four Sons the "first really good story" he ever filmed. The working title was Grandmother Bernle Learns Her Letters, the title of the original short story, a 1926 Saturday Evening Post story by I.A.R. Wylie about a Bavarian mother who comes to America after three of her four sons are killed in combat during the Great War. The fourth survives the war, since he fought on the Allied side. With a shooting script by Philip Klein, Ford also had Herman Bing, a Murnau assistant, write a "screen rhythm version exclusive for Mr. John Ford." What this translated to for the layman was an impressionistic style of blank verse, the form of which closely resembled the final film.
Four Sons is a stellar depiction of the grim nature of the First World War, and its true meaning: the genteel Old World giving way to the violent birth of the 20th Century. This gentle 19th Century sensibility is represented by Margaret Mann, playing the saintly Mother Bernle. Mann's acting is admirably understated, perhaps due to Ford's direction. Regardless, Mann doesn't overplay the role as melodrama, even though the sentimental story practically begs for it. Other notable characters in the film include Albert Gran as the postman (made to look like Emil Jannings from The Last Laugh, 1924) and Jack Pennick, as the Ice Man. Pennick was perhaps the oldest member of Ford's stock company, appearing as a supporting player, often uncredited, in over thirty John Ford pictures.
Four Sons marked the very first time that Ford took notice of a USC football player-law student named Marion Morrison, who was earning money as an assistant propman on the Fox lot. Ford took a liking to Morrison, who was beginning to develop a real interest in the picture business. During one day's shooting, a scene required that leaves blow into camera range. It was Morrison's job to throw the leaves into the scene, then once the cameras stopped rolling, sweep them up for another take. Suddenly, in the middle of a take, while cameras were rolling, Morrison walked into camera range and began sweeping. Once he realized his mistake, Morrison quickly exited the stage, mortified. Fortunately, Ford was more amused by the incident than annoyed. He took Morrison under his wing, beginning what would be a life-long friendship and partnership between John Ford and John Wayne.
The photography by George Schneiderman and Charles G. Clarke deserves special mention, as do the Bavarian village, marshy battlefield and New York streets-these were all sets created by Rochus Gliese for Sunrise, repurposed here by Ford. Also noteworthy: Four Sons emerged in February 1928 with a soundtrack, thanks to William Fox's new sound-on-film process called Movietone, made in response to Warner Bros. Vitaphone process. Instead of synched dialogue, the Movietone process lent Four Sons background music and a few sound effects, much like Murnau's Sunrise did in 1927. One of the most eerie uses of sound was a battlefield scene as one of the sons can be heard crying out for his mother.
Variety called Four Sons "profoundly moving" and said that its imagery is "a revel in beauty and significant detail..." Photoplay named it the best picture of 1928 and Fox proclaimed it the studio's "Biggest Success in (the) Last Ten Years."
Producer: John Ford
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Philip Klein (adaptation); Miss I.A.R. Wylie (story "Grandma Bernle Learns Her Letters"); Herman Bing (uncredited); H.H. Caldwell, Katherine Hilliker (titles, uncredited)
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke, George Schneiderman
Music: Carli Elinor (uncredited)
Film Editing: Margaret V. Clancey
Cast: Margaret Mann (Mother Bernle), James Hall (Joseph 'Dutch' Bernle), Charles Morton (Johann Bernle), Francis X. Bushman, Jr. (Franz Bernle), George Meeker (Andreas Bernle), June Collyer (Annabelle), Earle Foxe (Maj. von Stomm), Albert Gran (The postman), Frank Reicher (The schoolmaster), Archduke Leopold of Austria (A captain), Ferdinand Schumann-Heink (A staff sergeant), Jack Pennick (The Iceman, Joseph's American friend).
by Scott McGee