Bill O’Levy here. Not O’Reilly. To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve included my “Forgotten Gem” on John Ford’s overshadowed film about an Irishman in America, The Long Gray Line:
In the 1950s, director John Ford made a great movie about an Irishman and his marriage to a tempestuous Irish lass played by Maureen O’Hara. No, it wasn’t The Quiet Man. It was The Long Gray Line (1955) starring Tyrone Power as the Irish protagonist, Marty Maher.
Marty Maher was an actual Irish immigrant who came to America in the early 1900s, found a job assisting the physical education instructor at West Point, and stayed there for over fifty years. The film depicts both Marty’s military life at West Point influencing generations of cadets and his passionate courtship and marriage to Mary O’Donnell (O’Hara).
Both Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara excel in this movie. Power’s Irish accent is as good as Barry Fitzgerald’s, and his portrayal of Marty Maher captures the strengths and weaknesses, the dreams and demons of a decent man who attempts to live the West Point code of “Duty – Honor – Country” by mastering the four fundamentals of swimming: confidence, timing, relaxation, and breathing. Radiant O’Hara enters the movie as a reticent colleen right off the boat from Ireland but once she becomes “the woman of the house,” she refuses to take any of Marty’s guff and soon they’re embroiled in stormy, yet loving, donnybrooks. Early in their relationship, Marty exclaims, “There’s no girl in the world like an Irish colleen.” And there’s no Irish colleen in the world like Maureen O’Hara.
As the movie progresses and Marty and Mary face the triumphs and tragedies of life, their core traits of stubbornness, integrity, and loyalty remain consistent. Observing the couple evolve from greenhorns into mentors for hundreds of future officers, one recalls Robert Donat and Greer Garson’s relationships with their students in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Three members of John Ford’s stock company of character actors shine in The Long Gray Line: Donald Crisp as Marty’s domineering but tender father, Ward Bond as Marty’s supervisor and supporter, and Harry Carey, Jr. as a young balding cadet named Ike.
Edward Hope’s screenplay for The Long Gray Line was based on Maher’s autobiography, Bringing Up the Brass. Ford and cinematographer Charles Lawton took full advantage of the wide-screen Cinemascope process, especially in the scenes of the corps of cadets on the march and the magnificent panorama of the Hudson River viewed from the heights of West Point. Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara had previously co-starred in the 1942 swashbuckling pirate saga, The Black Swan. Beside this motion picture and The Quiet Man, O’Hara also acted in three other Ford productions, How Green Was My Valley, Rio Grande, and The Wings of Eagles.
The New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, declared that although there were sentimental moments in The Long Gray Line, “The talent for giving a mawkish incident a genuine throb is a gift of Mr. Ford.” There are numerous such memorable incidents in this film including a surprise family reunion, a poignant death scene, and an emotional finale.
In addition to the acting, the photography, and the Irish melodies in the background, there is another element that The Long Gray Line shares with The Quiet Man. This is the film’s beautifully concise and lyrical Hibernian dialogue that always captures the emotion of the moment and often leaves the audience with a smile or a tear. For example, “What can I say with the tears in my throat?” “Will you have the decency to stop eating while I’m offering you the welcome!” “What a man’s got in his mind, he can’t keep out of his mouth,” “Sure, I’m on my way to becoming an ancestor!” and Marty’s initial compliment to Mary, “You with your red hair and your fine big feet!” © Bill Levy 2011