How a painful chapter from his own youth revived James Gray’s passion for filmmaking
“If you were born in 1936, you think it’s a bad year to be an art film maker. All you have are the war movies you found in the book store.” James Gray recalls his earliest days in Hollywood as he talks by phone to fellow film critic Michael Medved
James Gray may have written what might be called a history of America’s art film, but he began his career in the same decade as John Ford. That may mean nothing to you, but to the director, it was a golden age. Ford and his fellow directors such as William Desmond Taylor, Henry King and D.W. Griffith, as well as his friends Ernst Lubitsch, Harry Carey and Alfred Hitchcock, were working in the late thirties and early forties. They all produced art films and Gray was just one of their handful of young enthusiasts.
Hitchcock, for all his success with horror, comedies and Westerns, was still developing his great, unclassifiable style. He made his debut in the horror film noir Double Indemnity with Joan Bennett, and the rest, as they say, was history. It is not surprising that Gray should come to Ford’s mind when he talked his new movie, The Fugitive, in a recent interview. He had been working on the script with Ford, but once again the legendary director had a new idea. Ford suggested they film in a documentary style using two hidden cameras. Both would operate on the film, one with the audio and one with the stills. In the event the sound could not be used, because it would have destroyed the footage, they would still get enough footage that way. There was no time for a script, so all Gray’s ideas would just come out of the air.
The result was a two-hour film in which Ford, using his new technique, gives an almost monological account of his life. The two pieces of film are the opening and closing scenes of a documentary called The Great American Movie, or, The Birth of the Art Film.
Gray was intrigued. “He said to me, ‘You and I have to work on this thing together,’ ‘Oh,’ I said ‘that’s right.’ So, we worked on this for a year and a half, with the two of us working on it until he was satisfied he had the