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A fresh spin on an old favorite

Times Staff Writer

Peter Bogdanovich’s rarely screened 1971 documentary “Directed by John Ford” has taken on almost mythic proportions over the decades.

Narrated by Bogdanovich’s good friend, director Orson Welles, the film featured interviews with the crusty, cantankerous Oscar-winning Ford as well as John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, who had appeared in many of Ford’s films.

Although the film earned acclaim for its insight into Ford’s mastery, Bogdanovich was never quite pleased with his work on it: “I thought the interviews were good and Orson’s narration was good, but I didn’t think it was good enough. It was OK.”

The American Film Institute, which produced the film, “ran out of money, so they were never able to clear the clips,” says Bogdanovich. “Consequently, as a result, the 1971 version was hardly ever seen -- just at a couple of film festivals.”

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That worked in the film’s favor, adds Bogdanovich, the director of such classics as “The Last Picture Show” and “What’s Up, Doc?”

“Legend comes from inaccessibility,” he says. “Everybody always wanted to see it.” And when they did, it was a hit, such as its screening in the late 1990s at the Telluride Film Festival.

“It played like gangbusters,” he recalls. “People loved it. But I didn’t. What carried it were those interviews with Wayne, Stewart, Fonda and Ford.”

So Bogdanovich decided to rework “Directed by John Ford,” keeping everything that he liked from the original, ditching the rest and adding new interviews with the likes of directors Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill and Martin Scorsese, who were all inspired by Ford’s work.

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The refurbished “Directed by John Ford” premieres this evening on Turner Classic Movies and kicks off a Ford film festival on the cable network. The film will screen this evening at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood as part of the AFI film festival.

Bogdanovich will also appear Thursday for the AFI Fest at the Linwood Dunn in his one-man show, “Sacred Monsters,” in which he talks about his relationships with Ford, Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and other directors from Hollywood’s Golden Age of filmmaking.

Ford, who died in 1973 of stomach cancer at the age of 79, was the consummate director.

Beginning his career during the silent era, Ford quickly developed into one of Hollywood’s master storytellers. He was a director with a keen visual sense and a lyrical approach to his stories. He had an uncanny ability with actors and developed his own stock company of players, including Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen.

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He is the only director to have won four Academy Awards for best director: 1935’s “The Informer,” 1940’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” 1941’s “How Green Was My Valley” and 1952’s “The Quiet Man.” In a career that spanned over half a century, Ford directed such seminal westerns as 1939’s “Stagecoach,” which made Wayne a star; 1946’s “My Darling Clementine,” 1948’s “Fort Apache,” 1949’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” 1956’s “The Searchers” and his last masterwork, 1962’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

The most moving moments in the new documentary are excerpts from an audio tape that Ford’s grandson, Dan, made while Katharine Hepburn was visiting Ford as he lay dying.

The two had become lovers when he directed her in 1936 in “Mary of Scotland.” Ford, who comes across as a feisty curmudgeon in his interviews with Bogdanovich, is sweetly tender when he talks with Hepburn for what will be the last time.

However, what’s really heartbreaking is the conversation between the two after Dan left the room.

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“Dan inadvertently left the tape running,” says Bogdanovich.

In those moments, Ford professes his love for the actress. Hepburn quietly tells him that she also loves him.

“Isn’t it amazing?” says Bogdanovich. “It was quite a job to get clearance because we had to clear it with the Hepburn estate.”

The reworking of the film -- and adding the new interviews with the directors -- gives it an entirely different perspective, says Bogdanovich. “It’s another generation looking back, and they are very vocal about how they were influenced by Ford.”

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Sadly, Bogdanovich adds, the influence of Ford and his peers has been “forgotten largely.... The general public has a short memory. In America, there is no tradition of tradition.”

Bogdanovich says he’s determined to keep the flame of legendary films and filmmakers such as Ford alive, even though he faces a battle to get today’s youth interested in the giants of cinema past.

“There’s no respect for culture in this county,” he laments. “We are going against the tide like salmon.”

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‘Directed by John Ford’

Where: Turner Classic Movies

When: 5 and 8:30 tonight

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language)

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