24 April 2011 | bkoganbing
Her Guilt Overcomes Her Grief
The only other time that I recall John Ford doing a film where women are the protagonists is his last film of Seven Women. Pilgrimage which is set in pastoral rural America is far more a film that could be typical of John Ford even if the men aren't at the center.
Before Darryl Zanuck took over Fox films and merged it with 20th Century Pictures to form what it is today, Fox Films was known as the red state studio. In the early sound era, it's major stars were Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor and a rustic film like Pilgrimage was very typical product for Fox even if Rogers and Gaynor don't appear.
Veteran stage actress Henrietta Crosman stars in Pilgrimage, a rather hard bitten farm woman who lives only for her son Norman Foster. She thinks Foster is slumming when he courts Marian Nixon although God only knows why, Nixon and father Charley Grapewin aren't living any better than Crosman and Foster are. Still she does what she can to break them which includes going to the local draft board and saying she doesn't need an exemption for her son. Foster is off to France where he's killed in the Argonne, but he leaves behind an unmarried and pregnant Nixon who has Crosman's grandchild.
If such a story were to happen today Crosman would be in some kind of group grief counseling. Her guilt overcomes her grief however and she becomes harder and meaner than ever. It's only when she goes to France on a Pilgrimage with other Gold Star mothers that she's finally able to come to terms with her loss. And something else happens over there that speeds up the healing process.
Three other women should also be recognized, Heather Angel as a young woman whom Crosman befriends in France along with Maurice Murphy, future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper who is Murphy's society mother and Crosman's fellow rural rustic Lucille LaVerne who scandalizes all of the ship by smoking her corncob pipe.
I'm surprised that Janet Gaynor wasn't in this film, it was definitely her kind of material. She could have either played Nixon or Angel's part though the role would have had to have been built up.
The cinematography shows an idealized rural America almost like a moving landscape painting that John Ford always so painstakingly worked on to get that rural paradise effect.
Although dated somewhat in technique, Pilgrimage is a universal story and actually could be done for more modern wars like Vietnam or the two actions in Iraq. And Ford does a lot better with this women's picture than he did with Seven Women.