Sean Martin Feeney arrived in Los Angeles from Portland, Maine, in 1914 at the age of 19.
Like his older brother Francis, an actor and director, he took the last name Ford.
Everyone called him Jack; the name John Ford was first seen on the credits of his hugely popular 1924 Western feature, The Iron Horse, starring Harry Carey.
When Ford reported for work at Carl Laemmle’s newly minted Universal Studios, there was little more than a few stages and a row of dressing rooms. By 1916 the company had expanded into “Universal City,” and by 1920 nearly 10,000 people were employed there, working on films for numerous distributors. Ford quickly found work as a prop man, then as a bit actor, a stuntman and assistant director. As an actor he appeared in several of his brother’s films, and, like his friend and fellow Irish-American, Raoul Walsh, had a small part in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
A popular story of how Ford came to work behind the camera is that his brother suggested him to replace a director who had dropped out of a Harry Carey Western. (The film’s title has escaped history.) Carey’s wife, Olive, an actress at Universal, recalled how Carey and Ford “just clicked.” It was the start of a lifelong personal and working relationship. For a time Ford even shared a two-room house with Harry and Olive in the Newhall area of Santa Clarita, then a growing suburb about 30 miles from Universal that provided cheap housing for young movie studio employees. (Today, the William S. Hart Ranch and Museum is located there.)
Ford would pay tribute to Carey, who died in 1947, with his fade-out in The Searchers, where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards stands in a doorway, left hand clasping his right arm just above the elbow, a familiar Carey pose.
Over more than half a century in Hollywood, Ford made more than 150 films and won the Academy Award for best director an unmatched four times. Though his movies covered a wide range of subjects, he would
be most associated with Westerns, and he is more responsible
for the world’s popular image of the American frontier West than
any other filmmaker.
(Standing from left) John Ford’s brother Francis, John Wayne, Victor McLaglen and director John Ford, with Barry Fitzgerald sitting, on the set of The Quiet Man.