The audience was almost entirely seated when the big old white-haired man came down the side aisle. There was applause, and John Ford's loud "thank you" cracked like a whip through the auditorium.
Ford still possesses his bullhorn voice and sharp wit. Born Sean O'Fienne in 1895 in Ireland, he directed his first film in 1917 and has made nearly 200 others. Saturday night he watched one of them again, 'The Long Voyage Home" (1940), and then answered questions of the Documentary Film Group at the University of Chicago.
Some of his comments were directed to the audience, but most were aimed at the print of "The Long Voyage Home." It was a 16mm version, "edited" for television, and Ford found it a disgrace.
"A disgrace, a rotten blasted shame," he said. "I'm humiliated by this print. They've cut it up for television, and in the process someone has lifted three connecting sequences bodily out of the film. What a crime! The people who watch this on television must think I'm out of my mind."
There was laughter. "There's nothing funny about it," he said. "It's like having the best pages blotted out of your M.A. thesis. If it weren't for the good nuns present from my own religion, I'd say God damn television!" A smile flickered on his lips. "But the good nuns are present, so I won't."
But then he talked seriously about the film. "The sea had always meant a great deal to me," he said. "I wanted to make a sea picture, but I could never find a story where they didn't sneak a girl onboard.
"Finally Eugene O'Neill suggested to me that three of his plays could be strung together to make a film, and he was right. What's more, Gene liked the film. Once a month, on a Thursday, United Artists would screen the 'Voyage' for him. It was a tremendous compliment to me that the author of the plays liked the work of the author of the film."
Ford was asked whether his attitude toward the Western had changed during a career which included "The Iron Horse" (1924), "Stagecoach", (1939), "My Darling Clementine" (1946) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962).
"No, still the same as ever," he said, tongue slightly in cheek. "I never go to see a Western and I'd never think of reading a Western novel or story. I only make them to get away from the smog of Hollywood. It's a lot of fun out there on location, in the good company of cowboys and stuntmen. I'm just a hard-nosed working director."
What about the changes in his work between "Iron Horse" and "Liberty Valance"?
"Ah, 'Liberty Valance.' Yes. The man didn't kiss his horse and ride off into the sunset."