A cast photo for the lost, 1916 silent film "Chicken Hearted Joe" shows brothers John Ford (top left) and his older brother Francis Ford (to his right) in a tuxedo. The movie was shot in their hometown of Portland, Maine. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Irish Heritage Center

PORTLAND, Maine — It’s no secret city native John Ford won more Academy Awards for directing than any other Hollywood filmmaker in history. Ford’s overall is seven, when you throw in two best documentary awards and a best picture nod as well.

That’s why his hometown is still so proud of him, 50 years after Ford’s 1973 death.

Though he never lived here as an adult, a statue at Gorham’s corner bears his likeness, sitting in a director’s chair, smoking a pipe. The auditorium at Portland High School, where he played football, has his name emblazoned over the door. And for more than 20 years, an Old Port bar called Bull Feeney’s used his picture and nickname to sell Irish whiskey and soda bread.

But hardly anyone around Portland remembers the director’s older sibling, Francis Ford, and that’s just plain wrong.

It was Francis Ford who brought his little brother out West, gave him his start in pictures — as well as his last name — and taught him many of the filmmaking techniques that would later make John Ford the most lauded director in the annals of tinseltown.

To help remedy this historic injustice, the Maine Irish Heritage Center is putting on the John and Francis Ford Film Festival and Symposium this month. Featuring expert discussion panels and screenings of early, silent films acted and directed by Francis Ford, the festival will draw clear lines of influence between the brothers and their films.

The festival runs at various locations in Portland and Damariscotta, Aug. 18 to 20.

Two ads, which ran in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 24 and 25, 1913, list the lead actor in an Abraham Lincoln film as “Francis Feeney” and then “Francis Ford.” Known professionally as Francis Ford only, someone at the BDN must have realized the famous Hollywood actor and director from Maine was really named Francis Feeney. Credit: Courtesy of the Bangor Daily News archives

“Francis Ford was 12 years older than John and went out to Hollywood first,” said festival organizer and Heritage Center treasurer Jean Haney. “He was like the king of Hollywood, making silent films — and very successfully.”

Born to parents from County Galway, Ireland, Francis Feeney changed his name to Ford when he got to Hollywood. It’s unclear why, but Haney believes it was likely to avoid anti-Irish discrimination.

Between 1914 and 1925, the elder Ford earned credits on more than 60 films, working as an actor, director or both. As a silver-screen actor, Francis Ford portrayed the likes of Gen. George Custer and Sherlock Holmes. He also played Abraham Lincoln at least three times.

In the early film business, Francis Ford’s real specialty was directing action serials that gave early binge-watchers a reason to return to the nickel cinema every week to see the outcome of the previous cliffhanger. Beginning in 1914, he both starred in and directed many installments of the popular thriller series “Lucille Love, Girl of Mystery.” Francis Ford also directed countless episodes of the “Adventures of Shorty” western series.

According to Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, a University of Texas Austin professor and Francis Ford expert, the already famous Francis Ford visited Portland in the summer of 1914, making a big impression on his younger sibling.

“They had him as a guest at all the theaters and they were playing ‘Lucille Love,'” Fuller-Seeley said. “This is how young Jack Feeney makes his connection again with a brother who was 12 years older than he was. He probably didn’t know Francis at all.”

That was the same year John Ford graduated from high school. Not long later, he began assisting his brother on California film sets, working as a gopher, stunt man, bit actor and, eventually, an assistant director.

On those sets, John Ford soaked up everything his older brother had learned in the business, including a lot of the visual storytelling tricks he’d later be famous for perpetrating.

“So many of the techniques that John Ford is legendary for are all right there in Francis Ford’s silent films — as clear as day,”  Haney said, “Such as silhouettes in doorways, frames within the frame, and big, western vistas.”

preserving maine’s history

Francis Ford was also careful to avoid placing the horizon line in the middle of his film frames. John Ford is portrayed as giving this bit of Hollywood wisdom to a young Steven Spielberg in the latter director’s autobiographical film “The Fablemans” which came out last year.

Always a pioneer and independent filmmaker, Francis Ford was squeezed out of the movie business as large studios took over the scene. By the late 1920s, his directing days were over. For the next 30 years, Francis Ford specialized in playing bit, often uncredited, character parts.

As Francis Ford’s showbiz star set, John Ford’s rose.

In 1939, John Ford won his first Best Director Oscar for “Stagecoach.” Francis Ford had a small role in that film, as well as bit parts in the two other films his little brother made that year.

Francis Ford’s final film appearance was in 1953, the same year he died.

The Ford Film Festival opens Friday, Aug. 18, with a gala at the State Theater. Opening night also includes two film screenings.

First up will be 1911’s “When The Tables Turned,” starring Francis Ford, which was recently restored by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts’ Moving Image Archive.

Second that night will be 1950’s “Wagon Master,” directed by John Ford and starring Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., and Ward Bond.

The festival will later include a screening of the just-rediscovered silent film “The Craving,” from 1918, which the Ford brothers wrote and directed together.

That wasn’t the only film they worked on together though.

Two years before that, in the summer of 1916, the Ford brothers shot a film on Casco Bay. Called “Chicken Hearted Jim,” it starred many members of their extended Portland family. The Irish Heritage Center has a group photograph from the shoot. It shows both brothers, together on a wooden boat.

That film, however, like many others from the silent era, recorded on fragile nitrate film, is considered lost, however. No known copies exist.

Still, Haney would love to find a copy for a future Ford Film Festival.

“It would be wonderful to find it,” Haney said. “It would be really cool.”

See the entire film festival lineup here. To find out more about the Maine Irish Heritage Center and its programs, visit its website.

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.