John Ford—Independent Profile
Argosy Pictures: The Independent Film Company of Director John Ford and
Producer Merian C. Cooper
Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen
Before going independent, John Ford was one of the most acclaimed directors
of classic studio era. He shared the rebelliousness of the independent
producers, and had a reputation for mistreating the producers he worked with in
Hollywood. He began making inroads to independent production in the 1930s. King
Kong (1933) producer Merian C. Cooper left RKO in 1934 to form Pioneer
Pictures to specialize in the experimental Technicolor film process, and
convinced Ford to join the new independent company. Ford used his own money to
purchase stories and acquire properties that later become important films for
him, including two magazine stories “The Quiet Man” and “Stage to
Merian C. Cooper.
Pioneer Pictures was merged into the newly-formed Selznick International
Pictures in 1936, and Ford faced opposition from David O.
Selznick, who was not
interested in producing Ford's A-movie Western film “Stage to Lordsberg.”
Ford shopped his project to other producers, and even tried to form his own
independent company in June 1937 called Renowned Artists in collaboration with
producer-director Tay Garnett and actor Ronald Coleman. Before Ford's
independent plans could materialize, Walter Wanger agreed to produce Ford's
film, offering the director 20 percent of the profits. The project, renamed Stagecoach
became one of the most acclaimed films and successful blockbusters of 1939.
Following the success of Stagecoach, John Ford and Merian C. Cooper
formed the first incarnation of Argosy Pictures. But Ford hedged his bet by also
signing with Twentieth Century-Fox as a director under Darryl
Zanuck. Meanwhile Wanger
agreed to sponsor the first Argosy film The Long Voyage Home (1940),
which turned out to be the only critical and commercial failure from Ford during
this extraordinarily prolific period.
the earliest existing stock certificates from the John Ford
independent film company Argosy. Original certificate (above) and
detail (below) for ten shares of Argosy Corporation, dated August 14,
1939, made out to John Ford. (Aberdeen
At the end of World War II, Ford and Cooper decided to turn Argosy into a
full-fledged independent production company, and the director turned down a
lucrative contract renewal with Zanuck. Argosy Productions was reorganized in
March 1946 with $500,000 in capital and a multi-picture distribution deal with
RKO. Merian Cooper was president. John Ford became chairman of the board.
Finally free of the brow-beating bosses, Ford decided to make an expensive
adaptation of a Graham Greene novel about a priest in an atheistic Latin American
country. Ford's unconventional feature, known as known as The Fugitive
(1947), became a costly fiasco for the producer-director unaccustomed to the
lack of mooring that brought down many other independents like him. Some
historians have speculated that Ford's previous fights with the studio system
had actually served as one of the dynamics of his filmmaking, and that many of
the director's independent films were lacking in comparison with his own studio
pictures that were born out of a creative struggle with the system.
In an effort to strengthen Argosy's finances, Ford returned to his signature
genre with Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
But he also had to make outside pictures for studios like Twentieth Century-Fox
to keep his independent company solvent. Regardless, Argosy was dropped by RKO,
so Ford and Cooper released their next films through Republic Pictures. The
independent distributor was eager to establish an A-picture reputation, and
offered Argosy a deal with a favorable 15 percent distribution fee and 50
percent of the profits.
Ford made his long time pet project The Quiet Man (1952), but despite
the enormous popularity of the film, it became the final Argosy production as
Ford entered into a legal dispute over the notorious bookkeeping of the Poverty
Row studio. Subsequently Ford had a falling-out with Merian C. Cooper when
Cooper left Argosy in May 1952 to become the head of the Cinerama Corporation.
Cooper left a financial void that was difficult for Ford to fill. Argosy was
eventually dissolved in January 1956.
Argosy (John Ford and Merian C. Copper): Sinclair, John
Ford, pp. 135-146 ; Ford, Pappy, pp. 209-218, 227-232,
250-251; Bernstein, Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent, pp. 146-150,
163-169; Renowned Artists mentioned in Gallagher, John Ford, p. 119-220.
John Ford Productions: see Davis, John Ford, pp. 194-199, 278.
Ford in 1944.