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Democracy in America ("The Sun Shines Bright", Not in Theaters)

David Phelps

Why windows? (Maybe there aren’t that many.) The Sun Shines Bright (1953), like so many John Ford movies, takes place in a small town; but while most of Ford’s towns are makeshift civilizations on the edge of a wilderness barren, beautiful, and always alluring (it’s the mood of his films too—not just in all the army camps, but the half-built settlements of The Iron Horse, Drums Along the Mohawk, My Darling Clementine, Liberty Valance, Seven Women…), the town of The Sun Shines Bright, like those of Young Mr. Lincoln, How Green Was Our Valley, and the Will Rogers pictures, is fully functional. And The Sun Shines Bright—Ford’s hammiest, purest picture?—is really just a survey of the town's functions, sometime around the original gay 90s. A court trial, a concert, jailings, church services, a lynching, a rape, a kidnapping, a murder, local meetings, a dance, a funeral, an election, a brawl, and a parade: there’s as much happening as in Joyce’s Dublin, or Vertov’s conglomerate Russian capital.

So the practical reason for these windows is that there are always street ceremonies to watch from home. Everyone hears an impromptu jam in the courthouse and comes running to join; all the blacks in shantytown hear a band of racist lynchers coming and lock their doors. Classic small-town Americana à la Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, or Griffith: everyone knows what everyone else is doing. There’s no privacy because there’s no need for it. Everyone is transparent, love affairs are innocent and open, and the bad guys are clearly bad (even if, as in Griffith, the townspeople mistake each other’s natures). Melodrama can’t be closeted. But placed, perhaps, behind a window-pane.

And yet what’s out in the open isn’t the Griffith romances and crimes as much as those town rites: not people showing what they’re “really” like, but rather, as in almost all Ford pictures, taking part in a ritual in which their actions are subordinated to those of tradition and a group, and gaining, on occasion, the dignity of statues. In The Sun Shines Bright, ritual is the source of comedy of war vets marching in a room (the hell of it for the hell of it), or a stuffy old lady telling every girl she’s the prettiest in the room (poking at formal niceties), of the brutality of the mob (nobody thinks for themselves), and of the beauty of the dance (something greater than yourself). The Sun Shines Bright is a resolutely moral film, built on the constant understanding that Ford had, like Tocqueville and William Wellman, that while America is a country built on independence and individuality, actual Americans are the most pious, self-righteous, unthinking sons-of-bitches on the planet: puritans, witch-hunters, and sheep, scared of sullying their lace and frills with the dirt their forefathers dug in. (Ford, like Renoir—another populist—can see the worst in people and love them.)

They follow each other, and even the ultimate ceremony, as the whole town gradually joins a prostitutes’ funeral march, owes all its power to self-righteousness of a few people proudly showing their support at first, and even to the complacency of the haughty old women who follow, probably, because the rest of the town does. But it’s the self-righteousness that everyone is equal—at least here, before death. It’s as proud as it is humbling, the moment, and Ford plays no music, but just listens to their feet shuffling in the dust.

Ceremonies: Ford’s harbingers of civilization: on the one hand people acting out a rulebook as if bereft of choice or freedom, as in Oshima (Ford himself was a notorious tyrant), and on the other, showing off a united order working in harmony to achieve something with their time (how many Ford pictures are nearly musicals? Judge Priest, Rio Grande, What Price Glory?...); on the one hand, representing a sealed tradition locked in time and place (hence the call of the wild), and on the other hand, more often, a timeless renewal in which the old live on in the young (Wagonmaster).

What’s so moving in so many of The Sun Shines Bright’s ceremonies is that what they really mark is the passing of time: the old soldiers who still play Dixie and salute the confederate flag (for Ford, a union man, what’s meaningful is not the act itself but what it means to them, no different than the aging soldiers still drawing lines and punching each other in the face in What Price Glory?), the long-gone ladies parasols’ and carriages, the funeral as one generation replaces the next. Lucy Lee (Arleen Whelen) looks exactly like her mother, but still innocent (mom was a prostitute), also looks to have the chances her mother didn’t. The theme goes back at least to Ford’s century-sweeping The World Moves On, even hokier than The Sun Shines Bright, in which the same lovers get a chance every 50 years or so. By the 50s, Ford knew how to whittle the theme down to the simple entrance of a railroad, but Ford films The Sun, like The World, beautifully, with a mostly static camera that cuts in over shot reverse-shots, as parades pass by on-screen—the world moving on. As if through a window.

The dance, for instance. Even in form (interactive with procession merging into spectators on all sides), it resembles Renoir’s French Cancan a few years later, and both artists obviously love these imaginary times they’ve conjured out of old paintings and books, while acknowledging these are events society staged for itself to insolate and divert itself from outside misery (meanwhile, the entrance of an outcast girl into a small society ball will come to bitterer results in Ford’s Two Rode Together, as his hatred for civilization’s hypocrisies builds). Inside, couples switch and people move; outside the world moves on. Or rather, outside the dance, in both movies, old men imitate the dance by themselves, let youth take center stage, and have a better time imagining what it’s like and seeing it, in The Sun Shines Bright, through windows.

Again, not the act itself but what it means to them—this is what’s so Fordian. In The Sun Shines Bright, not just the public rites but a long-lost mother coming home to her daughter and dying, a couple falling in love, and a rapist ready to murder his way to freedom are all just more public stories hero Judge Priest (Charles Winninger) would watch, not just through windows, but as presiding judge over the town. He interferes with the melodramas—it’s a Ford trait that goes back at least as far as Hangman’s House or 3 Bad Men—only to make sure they go properly. Otherwise, he sits on his porch and drinks with Stepin Fetchit (actually about as smart as he is). Tag Gallagher has linked Ford’s ricorsos—those moments when the director doesn’t show stories, but lets characters on-screen tell them—to Straub-Huillet’s, and so the great moment of drama in The Sun Shines Bright is when the bunch of old officials sit back on election eve and laugh that they, the defeated ex-confederates, will be selling underwear in the department store.

Characters at the sidelines, letting civilization take its course, looking out very distantly to the horizon (hopes for the future? regrets for the past?), like statues, finding dignity, not much else, concealing flasks, and wondering if they’ll end up selling underwear, the camera tilted up just below: this is John Ford, like Carl Dreyer, a portraitist of people who, in all these ways, never seem to quite belong to the scene they’re in. This is “mythic,” maybe, because every gesture is annunciated (The Sun Shines Bright’s strapping hero treads as a cliff-chinned giant, feet spread far apart), but mythic only with an understanding that there’s a disappointed reality that made people dream in the first place; mythic largely in treating prostitutes, racists, bastards, immigrants, ex-cons and ex-slaves—that whole stew of American outcasts Raoul Walsh would gleefully send pummeling each other—as worthy of the myth. Always of outsiders. Porches, doorways, windows: looking out from a safe domestic haven is, famously, a favorite Ford motif, simply of people imagining themselves elsewhere. We can go back to this shot:

Or these, well worthy of Dreyer (these for friends who don’t like Ford):

And this near closing-shot (again, the world passing in parade just beyond), itself a farewell gesture that carries power, like so many Ford closings, because it’s the simplest gesture (the lighting of a cigarette or the slapping of a woman’s ass), a bit inadequate, and representing one man’s emotion formalized into a ritual that means only a little itself, but everything to the people enacting it:

At the end of Manoel De Oliveira’s Francisca (the most ceremonious of movies), two friends who lost a girl they love and lost their friendship thanks to her sit down and take a cognac. They talk a bit; “let’s drink another cognac,” says one, pours the drinks, and that’s it. Fordian: “John Ford,” said Orson Welles, meaning one thing, maybe, but signifying another too, “knows what the earth is made of.”


The Sun Shines Bright is not available on DVD.


John FordLong Reads
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