Stepin Fetchit Goes To War

In 1934, Director John Ford Reluctantly Confronted Jim Crow

I finally got around to that loneliest outpost in the John Ford cinematic universe, The World Moves On (1934). Ford fans tend to loathe it, writing it off as his worst movie. Ford biographer Joseph McBride dismisses it as “one of the dullest and most pointless films he ever made.” Another, Scott Eyman, called it “a mushy multigenerational saga.” “I did the best I could, but I hated the damn thing,” Ford told Peter Bogdanovich, recalling it as a picture where he lost every creative battle with Fox. “You were getting paid big money and there was very little income tax, so you swallowed your pride and went out there and did it.”

And none of that distancing does Ford any favors, as The World Moves On is the most progressive treatment of race he ever put on screen until his postwar conversion and then later work with Woody Strode in Sergeant Rutledge (1960). Contemporary critics liked it enough when it came out/ Though slow, it won Ford a prize at the 1934 Venice Film Festival. But audiences stayed away, Ford fandom never revived it, and “Pappy” hated it, so film history took its cue from there.

The World Moves On traces about 100 years in the lives of the Girard family and its international cotton empire. Opening in 1825 New Orleans as the will of the empire-founding Girard is read, it binds the whole family to the business, ordering that three sons start up factories in England, France, and Germany, and one stay in the U.S., or they lose it all. Once that’s agreed to, the story quickly jumps to the world war in Europe (it’s 70% a World War I movie), then ends in the Great Depression in Manhattan. Fox put this out a few months after its The House of Rothschild, an Oscar-nominated hit and another look at a dynastic financial empire. With old money fortunes crashing everywhere in 1933, impoverished Romanovs popping up in New York, and an old-money Roosevelt back in the White House, maybe dynasties sold tickets in 1934.

Why did Ford hate it so much? First, he had little or no say in the script. Its writer, Reginald Berkeley, was a former Liberal Party MP from England who turned to theater and movies when his political career fell apart. Berkeley’s credits include co-writing Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby (1932) and adapting Noel Coward’s Cavalcade (1933), yet another long view of a well-to-do family, a Best Picture Oscar winner the previous year. He must have looked like a prestige talent compared to a contract director like Ford, before Ford won the first of his six Oscars the following year for The Informer. The World Moves On also borrows a lot of very good combat footage for its World War I sequences from a French film, Wooden Crosses (1932). So, yes, we can dispense with the auteurist take on this one, and get a sense of Ford’s distance from it.

One way you know The World Moves On isn’t Ford country is its deromanticized South. The black actors playing slaves have no lines, but more importantly, they aren’t portrayed as smiling, singing, or happy as so often seen in old Hollywood. It’s important to note, because the brief imagery seen here of shirtless field slaves comes back later, as Berkeley never wants us to forget the sources of the Girard fortune, including slave labor. Unlike Ford, who liked to joke about playing a bespectacled Klansman in Birth of a Nation (1915), Reginald Berkeley had no Lost Cause love of the South.

It’s the second act arrival of minstrel comedian Stepin Fetchit (aka Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry), playing Dixie, that really lets you know this isn’t Ford country. Perry’s Fetchit character is a half-witted clown who speaks in a drowsy Valium drawl. Ford directed Perry five times, and when Ford did it his way, he cast Perry purely as buffoon, as he did in his very next film, the Jim Crow valentine, Judge Priest (1934).

 

Why yes, that mural behind my desk does depict the horrors of slavery. I paid a mint for it, too! 

 

Again, what Berkeley brings is context. In Paris, Perry encounters Algerians in uniform who aren’t clowns. Here, we see a rare glimpse in Ford of black lives outside of minstrelsy. Through them, Perry joins the French army during World War I. Ford shoots some bravura battle scenes. It’s not like he isn’t trying, and the poetic touches he loved to add to stories are everywhere. Perry’s scenes in the trenches of France are both comic and real, showing him fighting side-by-side with white soldiers, long before the U.S. army allowed it– a striking image in a Jim Crow-era American movie. He’s comic relief until he’s wounded, shot by a German sniper. Perry’s bleeding hand, and the shift from minstrel to actual human being, is a remarkable moment. It’s to Ford’s credit the scene is as moving as it is, no matter how much he hated this movie.

Finally, in the 1920s, we see the Girard family in their Manhattan corporate headquarters. A painting hangs in the CEO’s office, portraying the cotton field origins of the Girard fortune, bringing back its unhappy depiction of slavery, not Song of the South fun. Specifically, the painting is a pastiche of Thomas Hart Benton’s Slavery, which Benton worked on from 1924-27. The way it’s shot, always looming over the Girard heirs in their corporate suite, reminding us what built their empire isn’t all family loyalty and business genius.  Ford himself would not start thinking like this for over a decade.

The Girards lose everything except family. The World Moves On ends with a prescient montage of Hitler, Mussolini, international militarism and the coming war (and with it, most likely, a comeback for the Girard fortune), and finally a very Ford paean to Christ and family. The World Moves On will most likely remain an unclaimed ticket with the Fordians. The value in this crack in his legend isn’t in discovering a lost masterpiece, but a flawed view of one of our great directors in his journeyman years, whether he liked it or not.

Ben Schwartz

Ben Schwartz has written for Billy Crystal, David Letterman, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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