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The Quiet Man (1952)

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Article 2

'Quiet Man' endures in the Irish hamlet where it was filmed

by Dennis B. Roddy

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 13 March 1994  page 12

A few minutes after he pulled two glasses of good whiskey from behind the bar at his pub-restaurant-gas station-general store-wool brokerage, Joe Mellotte fished up a stack of letters. They spilled onto the bar, spread like a quilt. They come ceaselessly -- typed with scientific precision or scratched onto paper with sweaty palms. They come from Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, America, Canada. Sometimes a cluster of letters with the same postmark will tip Mellotte off about what city's TV station has just broadcast the 42-year-old movie that changed Mellotte's life: "The Quiet Man." The weeks after St. Patrick's Day are especially busy for Mellotte's postmaster.

Writers have questions like this one from Joe Davey in Dublin:

"Hall door has brass knocker. Next time, when the horse stops suddenly outside pub, there is no knocker ... "

Where, Joe Davey wants to know, did that knocker get to?  Mellotte rolled his eyes. "Now, I'm supposed to know where that knocker got to!"

Here's another, from America: Remember the scene when Michaeleen Oge Flynn takes Sean Thornton and Mary Kate Danaher in his jaunting car past the ruins of a castle and announces it's the homestead of the ancient Flynn ancestors? "It was taken from us by the Druids," the wee, puckish old fella tells them.

"What," Mellotte's correspondent asks, in all seriousness, "is the name of this ruin and where is it located?"

"Do you see what I'm up against?" Mellotte sighs. He puts away the letters and produces the whiskey bottle again. Joe Mellotte's biggest moment came four decades ago, when John Ford, born Sean Aloysius O'Feeney, pushed his way through the bog and back road of Connemara and into Cong, a remote village on a desolate spit of land at the very bottom of County Mayo. In 1932, Ford had read a story in The Saturday Evening Post by Maurice Walsh. "The Quiet Man" told the story of Sean Kelvin, a retired boxer pushed into a fistfight with a bullying brother-in-law. A few years later, when his collection of stories, "The Green Rushes" came out, Sean Kelvin had become Paddy Bawn Enright ("bawn," in Irish, means white, or fair). Ford bought the rights to the story for $ 10. Most of Hollywood thought he'd paid too much.

The movie took years simply to get on the screen. Nobody in post-war Hollywood foresaw much of an audience for a movie about an Irish-born American boxer reared in Pittsburgh, haunted by memories of a man he killed in the ring, and who tries to start life over again in Ireland. Ford finally persuaded Republic Pictures to bankroll the effort and, in return, agreed to shoot a guaranteed moneymaker, a western, first. In the summer of 1951, with "Rio Grande" in America's theaters, Ford arrived in Ireland's west. He brought with him Maureen O'Hara (born in Dublin as Maureen FitzSimons), Barry Fitzgerald (Hah! Hollywood ways -- that's really William H. Shields), Victor McLaglen (for some reason he used his real name), Mildred Natwick, Ward Bond and Marion Morrison, the American-born descendent of Scots-Irish settlers. By then, keeping with Hollywood custom, he'd changed his name to John Wayne.

There were so many stars it seemed unimaginable to the people of Connemara. God help us, but hadn't they just gotten the first electrical lines into town that year, and the town telephone -- anyone could use it down at the post office. Now a movie company, with giant stars, all to make a movie out of the story from a Maurice Walsh book.

By the time Ford's Republic Pictures crew and cast had finished filming around Cong and the nearby Maam Valley, the fetching isolation of a small village filled with native speakers of Irish Gaelic had been broken and Joe Mellotte's life, for one, had been altered irrevocably. At 27, Mellotte was plucked from a row of quizzical young men hungry for the astonishingly high wages Hollywood would pay for doubles, whatever a double was.

"You'll do," the 6-foot, 5-inch Wayne told the 6-foot-something Mellotte. For the next 10 weeks, Mellotte would dress exactly like Wayne, stand interminably during breaks to hold the scene in place, keep 200 Camel straights handy at the start of day for the chain-smoking star and, by film's end, ride horse for Wayne in a beach race scene (they didn't really do that around there). He also crashed through the door of Cohan's pub at the climax of moviedom's best fistfight scene. Joe Mellotte -- stand-in at 3 per day, snappy dresser or slouch, depending on Wayne's wardrobe, and stunt double -- took his earnings to set up his pub and other businesses in a nearby settlement called The Neale. The movie that afflicts him with letters also rewards with tourists. Ronald Reagan stayed at Ashford and visited Mellotte.

"Even John Travolta, when he came in, he was delighted to come in and have a meal," Mellotte says.

On this day, John Gleeson of Long Island, N.Y., is beaming next to Mellotte and having a photo taken in front of a display of more photos and clips.

"Of all the John Wayne tapes that are out, it's the only one I own," Gleeson beams. "It's just a very nice film."

Niceness, of course, just cascades from "The Quiet Man," in part because Hollywood has license. The train station at Ballyglunin, 30 miles away, became the station at the more orderly sounding "Castletown." Filmmakers used the interior of Cong's Catholic chapel but, inexplicably, thought the exterior of the nearby Protestant Church of Ireland looked more Irish. So they moved the holy water font from inside the chapel and put it outside the Protestant church for exterior shots. Ford's crew forgot about it until the next Sunday, when horrified Protestants arrived for services to discover what looked, for all the world, like a Popish plot or teen-age prank.

In one scene, John Wayne and Barry Fitzgerald pause atop a stunning stone bridge and gaze longingly at a wee humble cottage. Bridge and cottage are no less than 12 miles apart. And for movie audiences, the improbably named Cong was transformed to the splendiferously named "Innisfree." The real Innisfree, a lake island, is north, in Sligo, and most easily located in a W. B. Yeats poem.

All of this still somewhat flummoxes locals. Nobody had a clear idea just what making a "fillum" as they call it, entailed. The thing wasn't done chronologically, so the filming looked like so much carry-on and nonsense.

But at 30 shillings a day -- three times the average for Ireland's recessionary '50s -- nonsense paid very well.

"And," winked John Murphy, proprietor of the little store that for cinematic purposes was Cohan's Pub, "you got a lunch as well." To say nothing of the free stout.

"The Quiet Man" was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture of 1952 and won Oscars for photography and Ford's direction. After years of neglect, it has blossomed into a cult film, with a blend of quaint, if occassionally [sic] hackneyed, stage Irish, set against wild scenery still there today. Cohan's Pub, a recurring stop for the movie's characters -- the horse owned by Michaeleen Oge Flynn (Fitzgerald) stops there out of habit in the midst of a chase -- was and is really Murphy's grocery store at the foot of the main street. The side street from which an old man leaps from his deathbed to watch the marathon fistfight between Sean Thornton (Wayne) and his misanthropic greed-head of a brother-in-law, looks unchanged. The landscape for the fight is just around the corner, as is the Rev. Playfair's cottage -- and that, by the way, was Barry Fitzgerald's brother, Arthur Shields, playing the role, not Barry, as some first-time viewers come to believe. The wonderful stone bridge is really in Galway, about 20 miles south, along the road between Oughterrard and Maam Cross. And the extras, townspeople still slightly amused by the fuss around the film's revival, are all over the place.

It's a warm, autumn day, but all the same, Robert Foy isn't eager to be coaxed out of his small house on Cong's main street. All right, all right, he concedes, a few minutes he'll spend, but he has a life to get on with. He steps outside into a Saturday afternoon's sunlight and starts pointing. "That was the thatched pub."

Oh, yes, the little pub Will Danaher (McLaglen) and his cronies stood in front of, sucking down pints of stout.

"Do you remember the cart that brought the furniture into Mary Kate Danaher's (O'Hara) cottage?" Foy asks. "I was driving it."

At the other end of the street are the ruins of the old monastery and graveyard, where much of the fight takes place. Near to that is the little stream that connects Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, where Wayne once horrified the locals by taking a suit that would cost a week's wages and wallowing in the muck to make it look as if he'd been in a fight.

Connemara had seen a movie made before 1951, when the trucks and crews and cast for "The Quiet Man" started rolling in and all but took over nearby Ashford Castle. In the 1930s, an English crew filmed "Captain Boycott." Nobody comes to ask about "Captain Boycott."

"There was something unique about ("The Quiet Man"), Foy says. "The others, they've all faded away, but that one seems to have stayed."

Well, not quite. For a time, few people turned up asking about "The Quiet Man." In spite of the seven Academy Award nominations and two Oscars, "Quiet Man" couldn't change a changing cinemascope. Raw, realistic, gritty films were coming into vogue. Lighter entertainment was the big movie musical. "The Quiet Man," with its sentimentality and touch-me-not romantic style, was declared quaint and consigned to the netherworld of late-night television around St. Patrick's Day. Then, slowly, the movie enjoyed a renaissance. With the arrival of the VCR, the movie posted surprising sales -- the biggest single title in Britain and huge sales in America. A cult movie had been born. Republic last year printed new Technicolor negatives -- an expensive and difficult process -- and let fly not one but two different "Quiet Man" videos, one a numbered collector's edition.

Maybe the best testimony to the movie's growing worldwide appeal came in 1987, when a Spanish film crew turned up in Cong to do a documentary on the making of "The Quiet Man."

Fame had returned to a placid village, but most of the locals with the best memories are, themselves, only memories.

Now the tourists and journalists come to Cong wanting to retrace every step of the movie. The onslaught has, on occasion, forced Foy behind doors at his home on the village's main street. "In summertime, I just couldn't walk down the street or your day would be gone." Foy was a youngster when he drove that cart to "White 'O Morn," Sean Thornton and Mary Kate Danaher's little cottage. The cottage sat somewhere in the Maam Valley, on land owned by the Joyce family -- there are so many of them the region is called "The Joyces Country." It is a ruin today.

If some of the buildings have fallen, so has the roster of living cast members. O'Hara survives Wayne, McLaglen, Fitzgerald, Shields and others. Gone, too, are so many of the locals who lent their simple, country grace to the movie.

"My own father was in there," Foy says. "Nearly half the extras, or three-fourths of them are gone. You're talking about a lifetime away."

Lifetimes are something the Irish know well. They ended abruptly during famine and rebellion, and often were lived out by the island's young in the new places to which they had fled to escape starvation and grinding poverty. Generations of Connemara's young were piped down to the Galway coast and onto ships bound for Newfoundland, Australia and America. That's why, in the song "Danny Boy," the pipes, the pipes are calling. Even today in the grip of unemployment that hovers around 20 percent, many a Connacht accent is heard abroad. In Pittsburgh alone, the list of names from the 50-mile radius surrounding the Galway-Mayo border can stun: There is Coyne, as in Congressman Bill -- Maam Cross. There is Coyne as in Prothonotary Michael, whose family is from Cong. Pete Flaherty's mother grew up on a hillside settlement called Glentrasna -- Gaelic for "Across the Valley" -- and Tom Lamb, the former state senate majority leader, had parents from Tuam, along the Roscommon border. All can give you at least a few lines from "The Quiet Man."

Little wonder that the sweet chords of the dead Mrs. Thornton's voice, as Wayne peers from the bridge and sees the old cottage, grab the heartstrings of families long enough away from Ireland to forget what a brutal place it really can be.

"Do you remember Seanny?" the voice in the movie asks. Many don't remember, quite, but "The Quiet Man" provided a prefab memory. It's one that in a world of cynical, brutal movies, they would prefer to have.

"They saw that film and it made Ireland a little nearer to them," Foy says.

No, they agree, it wasn't terribly accurate; just, as American visitor Gleeson put it, "as close as Hollywood can get."

Not everyone was completely thrilled with the results. The church, ever the force in Irish life, was scandalized by the sight of Wayne kicking and swatting Maureen O'Hara halfway across the country when he "returns" her to her brother, who has refused to pay the dowry. "Here's a fine stick to beat the lovely lady," one elderly woman advises him.

"Matchmaking they'd do all right," says Murphy, back at Cohan's bogus pub, "but not the dragging end of it."

What scandalized the church 40 years ago now unnerves the politically sensitive. The movie, with its plot line pivoting on a woman who feels she can be no wife without a dowry, is no testament to feminist independence. Then, again, neither is Ireland.

"It was a true story in the sense that one didn't marry without a dowry," Mellotte remembers. Paddy O'Toole, an Irish Gaelic speaker from nearby Glentrasna who made many of the introductions for an American visitor, remembers those rules well. In a country where the rural folk have little, something must be brought to every enterprise. It works both ways. In Clonbur, not too far away, he overheard two women discussing the eligibility of a passing bachelor:

"He's a good catch," she told her friend. "I saw him one day with two cans of sheep dip." Decoded, that meant: The man must have quite a few sheep, or, he's got a farm. Latch on while you can.

In as much as women had to depend utterly on men, then, Mary Kate Danaher's dowry, crude a measure of worth as it seemed, meant a level of dignity.

So, in the revisionist 1990s, "The Quiet Man" safely deals with a subject otherwise too dangerous. And, everyone agrees, it's a wonderful fight scene, right?

"Och," mutters Murphy, "there really wouldn't be a blow. It's really all deception."

Joe Mellotte still remembers it, that first showing when the prints of "The Quiet Man" found their way to Connemara. Some of the locals hadn't seen a proper movie before. For that, you had to go all the way to Galway.

Some were stunned to see how the hodgepodge of fights here, kisses there, chases here, deceptively simple jaunts down the street, were reassembled into a story.

In one scene, the rain pours down incessantly, soaking the characters. Next to Melotte, a young man, puzzled by the merger of real and unreal, gasped.

"It must be an awful bad night outside," he said.

On an autumn day in 1992, I stood on the stone bridge, the one from which Sean Thornton sees all the way into his childhood at the movie's opening. A car pulled up and a couple got out.

"You know what this looks like?" the driver asked me.

He didn't give me a chance to answer.

"You ever see that movie with John Wayne -- 'The Quiet Man'?"

Yes, I told him. This is the very bridge.

He walked across it. Walked to the edge of the stream that trickles beneath it. In fact, he walked every measure of that bridge, luxuriating in its presence.

"Where you from?" I asked the man who'd intruded on my own quiet reverie.

"New Zealand," he replied. Then he got into his car and sped dustily up the lane to the Galway-Clifden road. I never caught a glimpse of him after that. But I think I can tell you his destination.

1994 P.G. Publishing Co.

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