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Four Men and a Prayer

Four Men and a Prayer(1938)

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teaser Four Men and a Prayer (1938)

Prior to hitting a mid-career, pre-war peak with such films as Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln (all 1939), director John Ford found himself helming forced assignments as a contract director at 20th Century Fox. Here, for producer Darryl Zanuck, he was given action pictures to direct prestigious and big-budget assignments, but not the sort of material Ford would find rewarding. In 1938, Ford was asked to direct some new action sequences (uncredited) to punch up The Adventures of Marco Polo for producer Samuel Goldwyn, and to direct Submarine Patrol and Four Men and a Prayer for Fox. Of the latter film, Ford said (in a 1967 interview with Axel Madsen), "I didn't want to do that picture, and I raised hell, but I had it under contract. I made it but I didn't see it."

Ford missed out by not seeing Four Men and a Prayer; by no means a major work, it nevertheless features a few standout sequences, the film debut of actor Richard Greene, and a Ford trademark: a scene-stealing cast of strong supporting players. The plot is an atypical mystery yarn, set in the Four Feathers world of British Colonialism. Colonel Loring Leigh (C. Aubrey Smith) of the British Indian Army seems to have issued an order that cost the lives of a platoon of soldiers. Discharged, he returns home and sends for his sons, Oxford student Rodney Leigh (William Henry), barrister Wyatt Leigh (George Sanders), military pilot Christopher Leigh (David Niven), and diplomat Geoffrey Leigh (Richard Greene). The family reunites and the Colonel suspects that he was framed by an arms syndicate that is supplying weapons to the revolt. Almost immediately the elder Leigh is found dead, an apparent suicide. To clear their father, the four sons split up to search for evidence; Wyatt and Rodney investigate in India, while Geoff embarks for Buenos Aires, followed by his ambitious sweetheart Lynn Cherrington (Loretta Young).

In their review of Four Men and a Prayer, Time Magazine took the film's producer to task for making light of global arms trade, saying "Zanuck can excuse the world munitions ring for any atrocity except an affront to British family honor." The reviewer singles out the film's startling action scene highlight, saying "by thrusting Hollywood's dreamiest-eyed glamour girl [Young] smack up against a methodical machine-gunning of a screaming mass of helpless men and women, Director Ford shows modern war technique in outlines no cinemagoer can fail to comprehend. When, after that, the film attempts to whitewash the munitions industry, it succeeds only in getting itself all messed up."

In Searching for John Ford: A Life, Joseph MacBride calls Four Men and a Prayer, " unabashed potboiler [in which] Ford's directorial touch is visible only fitfully..." He goes on to observe that "the only sequences that do seem to engage Ford's feelings ...are those of the sons' reunion with their elderly father and their discovery of his sudden, mysterious death. The homecoming of Colonel Loring Leigh's four sons from around the world after the old man's unjust dismissal from military service has the feeling of a premature Irish wake, mourning and celebrating the importance of their long-distant father as a motivating force in their lives."

Ford later talked of his contract assignments, saying "you make pictures that you don't want to make, but you try to steel yourself, to get enthused over them. You get on the set, and you forget everything else. You say these actors are doing the best they can. They also have to make a living. As a director I must help them as much as I can." The director certainly helped employ some notable actors in Four Men and a Prayer; aside from the top-billed players, film fans can spot several familiar faces, including John Carradine, Alan Hale, Reginald Denny, and Barry Fitzgerald.

When faced with "a job of work," Ford was apt to amuse himself on the set by pulling pranks on his players. He found a convenient victim in the person of British actor David Niven. As Niven recounted in his autobiography The Moon's a Balloon, the director pulled him aside at the end of shooting one day and told him that, as he wouldn't be needed the following day, he should go out that night and get drunk. Feeling this would please the hard-drinking director, Niven promptly went out and reported the next day "very drunk indeed and thinking how pleased John Ford would be. We were rehearsing the first scene. All I had to do was bind up the arm of George Sanders, who had been shot." Ford stopped and said "What's the matter with you Niven? Why don't you stand still?" Ford called producer Zanuck to the stage, and with cameras rolling, had Niven do a take of the scene, in which he was to pull a stethoscope out of the pocket of his white medical coat and open a box to take out a dressing for the wound. Ford had replaced the props, however, and when Niven's cue came, "...I put my hand in the pocket for the stethoscope and pulled out a large snake. Trying manfully to continue the scene, I dropped it on the floor and opened the first-aid box. When I saw it was full of little green turtles, I let out a yell and flung it in the air." Ford called, "Print it!" and the gag blooper was a long-time favorite in the studio's projection room.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Richard Sherman, Sonya Levien, Walter Ferris, William Faulkner, based on a novel by David Garth
Cinematography: Ernest Palmer
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Rudolph Sternad
Costume Design: Royer
Music: Louis Silvers
Cast: Loretta Young (Miss Lynn Cherrington), Richard Greene (Geoffrey Leigh), George Sanders (Wyatt Leigh), David Niven (Christopher Leigh), C. Aubrey Smith (Col. Loring Leigh), John Carradine (Gen. Adolfo Arturo Sebastian), J. Edward Bromberg (Gen. Torres), Alan Hale (Mr. Furnoy), Reginald Denny (Capt. Douglas Loveland), Barry Fitzgerald (Trooper Mulcahay).

By John M. Miller

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