Combustible Celluloid
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With: Henrietta Crosman, Marian Nixon, Norman Foster, Heather Angel, Lucille La Verne, Maurice Murphy, Jay Ward, Robert Warwick, Louise Carter, Betty Blythe, Francis Ford, Charley Grapewin, Hedda Hopper, Frances Rich
Written by: Barry Conners, Philip Klein, Dudley Nichols, based on a story by I.A.R. Wylie
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 08/18/1933

Pilgrimage (1933)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Mother Love

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Certain John Ford scholars consider Pilgrimage to be one of his best films, if not his best. But outside of John Ford's biggest fans, the film is not well known, perhaps because, at a glance, it's rather untypical of that great American filmmaker. First off, it's not a tough guy movie; it's actually a "women's picture," and it even focuses on a "lady of a certain age" rather than a young, beautiful starlet. That lady is Mrs. Hannah Jessop, played by the extraordinary Henrietta Crosman, who was best known for her stage work. Ford scholars agree that the director was fond of his "mother" characters in movies, but Mrs. Jessop is something different, showing the dark side of parenting.

Widowed and running a small farm with her grown son Jimmy (Norman Foster), Mrs. Jessop refuses to let her son off her apron strings. She won't pay him any wages, and protests when he decides he wants to marry the girl next door, Mary (Marian Nixon). Instead, she signs her son up to be shipped off to France, to fight in the war. But Mary is pregnant and unwed, and years later, after her grandson has grown into a strapping ten year-old (Jay Ward), she won't have anything to do with them. She is approached about joining a group of mothers to travel to France and visit the graves of their war hero sons; there, she meets another American young man, also in love against his mother's wishes.

Ford seems inspired here, showing a painterly farm bathed in glowing light, covering up deception and smothering. The city lights of Paris mirror it, revealing the suicidal intentions of a young man on a bridge, as well as the hypocrisy of war, viewed through a tour guide. The final image of a field of crosses is unforgettable. And, of course, at the center is Ms. Crosman's performance, a thing of glory. She deftly balances love and a controlling grip, tightening and loosening as necessary. Look at the moment in which she learns of her son's overseas death; she sews for just a moment longer, rises, and makes sure her guests, the bearers of bad news, get coffee and cake before excusing herself. This is a complex, beautifully achieved work of art, and all the more important for shedding new light on Ford's great, and frequently misunderstood career.

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