Portland to celebrate life, work of filmmaker John Ford

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PORTLAND — John Ford, the legendary Hollywood film director and Portland High School alumnus, will return to the spotlight this weekend.

The city has proclaimed Saturday, Aug. 31, as John Ford Day, the 40th anniversary of his death. And the Maine Irish Heritage Center is hosting a celebration of the director’s work on Friday night.

The Friday festivities include a talk by Kevin Stoehr, professor of humanities at Boston University and co-editor of “John Ford in Focus,” an anthology of essays on Ford. The evening also includes a panel discussion of his life with Jane McPhillips, a Ford relative, and excerpts from the Peter Bogdanovich documentary film, “Directed by John Ford.”

Tickets for the event are $5. It is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at the Heritage Center, 34 Gray St. – the former St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic church, where Ford was baptized.

Ford was the director of more than 140 films and is widely regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in history. His credits include such movie epics as “Stagecoach,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “How Green Was My Valley,” and he won six Academy Awards for his work, including four for best director.

That’s an Oscar-collection record that stands today.

He was born in Cape Elizabeth on Feb. 1, 1894, as John Martin Feeney, the son of Irish immigrants. Ford and his family soon moved to Munjoy Hill in Portland, and he graduated in 1914 from Portland High School, where he was nicknamed “Bull” for the aggressive way he played football.

Following graduation, Ford moved to California, in the footsteps of his older brother, Frank, who had become a successful film producer, director and actor under the name of Francis Ford.

The younger brother worked as a handyman on Hollywood sets for $12 a week, but went on to act in and eventually direct silent pictures. In 1923, he changed his name to John Ford.

He made movies until the late 1960s, and was perhaps best known for his Western films, which featured such stars as John Wayne. In 1956, Ford made “The Searchers,” a classic Western with Wayne that was named No. 12 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 all-time greatest movies.

Today, Ford’s legacy is marked by two Portland landmarks – an Irish-themed pub, Bull Feeney’s, on Fore Street, and a statue at the corner of York, Center, Pleasant, and Fore streets, a historically Irish neighborhood known as Gorham’s Corner. The site is not far from where Ford’s father, John Augustine Feeney, operated saloons on Center and Fore streets during the late 1800s.

On Monday, a Portland native passing the statue had no idea who was represented by the 10-foot-tall, bronze likeness, erected in 1998.

“I guess he must be famous,” said Maureen Jackson, of the Libbytown neighborhood. Although she had visited Bull Feeney’s over the weekend, the statue’s subject was a mystery to her until a reporter explained it.

“But really, you wouldn’t look at this and realize he was a Hollywood star,” Jackson said. “In Portland  … who would have thought?”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

Sidebar Elements

A passer-by seems barely aware of Portland’s monument to John Ford, the legendary Hollywood film director, at Gorham’s Corner, the intersection of York, Center, Pleasant, and Fore streets. This weekend the city is commemorating Ford, who grew up on Munjoy Hill.

Film director John Ford, also known as John Martin “Bull” Feeney, grew up in Portland and played football at Portland High School.