Four Sons (John Ford / U.S., 1928):

Homage to UFA. The setting is a gingerbread burg peopled by Bavarian-clock figurines, a bit like Gogol; the spherical postman (Albert Gran) sports Jannings whiskers and spins with joy until he's got tragic news to deliver, then he becomes a slumped messenger of death with a shadow slanted like Nosferatu's. The elderly matriarch (Margaret Mann) lives idyllically with her brood -- an officer (Ralph Bushman), a blacksmith (Charles Morton), a carriage driver (James Hall), and a herdsman (George Meeker) -- and dinner every night occasions a symmetrical, family-portrait composition. The Great War darkens the operetta scenario: two of the sons go off to the front, another leaves for America and the last is recruited by the monocled rotter (Earle Foxe), the bereft Mutter is reduced to recalling the snapshot at an empty table filled with apparitions. The theme ("Guess those fellows have mothers, too") is voiced by Hall's Yankee buddy in the battleground. John Ford saw Murnau's Sunrise and something cleared in his head, he here pays ample tribute (Hall's introduction to a busy American street, ersatz clouds part and give way to studio sunshine). Despite its constant tracking through misty chiaroscuro, the emotionalism is undiluted Ford, and at once you see Pilgrimage and How Green Was My Valley, among others (a reverse track of a train pulling into the station receives its full expression thirty years later in The Rising of the Moon). The mother is barred at Ellis Island until she can recite her ABCs in English, but it ends with prayers answered -- Ford's eye is still that of an optimistic immigrant, yet one who can't help but notice that, once war is declared, Hall has to change the name of his restaurant from "German-American Delicatessen" to "Liberty Delicatessen." With June Collyer, Frank Reicher, and Jack Pennick. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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