Posted by moirafinnie on August 5, 2009
“I’ve never played anyone but myself on screen.”
He never won an Academy Award, nor was he recognized by the American Film Institute with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet, in over 200 movies, the seamless, artless quality in actor Glenn Ford‘s work enabled him to fly under the radar of the ballyhoo that surrounds much of Hollywood. His very squareness illuminated something of value for audiences: the effort to survive, the desire to preserve some integrity, some shared insight into the nature of good and evil, and the things of value that we might try to pass on. Whether behind a badge, roaming on horseback, wearing a business suit, a uniform or a pair of well-worn jeans, his characters could be good and bad. He didn’t really care if he played “the villain or the hero,” the actor once pointed out. “Sometimes the villain is the most colorful. But I prefer a part where you don’t know what he is until the end.” Commentators have pointed out that much of the career of Glenn Ford was based on “niceness”, with decency and morality running consistently through his characters. I find the struggle and inability of Ford‘s characters to remain “nice” in an increasingly complex, unfair world to be one of the factors that makes him an interesting actor. His occasional slow burns on screen in roles such as The Violent Men, Trial, Ransom, The Big Heat and Human Desire, and his overwhelmed comic characters, such as the widower in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, brought out something unexpectedly mercurial in his screen persona. You cannot always predict where he is going to go with a characterization.
When TCM trots out a plethora of Glenn Ford movies this Friday, August 7th, as part of the Summer Under the Stars celebration, I’ll probably be watching–warily. Until the last few years, you see, I didn’t think I liked Glenn Ford. But that was my mistake. Now I know better and can appreciate some of his work. Besides, I need to hang out till the ends of his movies to find out if his character was good or bad.
Well, as even Mr. Ford admitted late in life, he and Ms. Hayworth were really deeply attracted to one another from the time that they appeared opposite one another in The Lady in Question (1940-Charles Vidor), until they gave each other one more wistful embrace on camera in The Money Trap (1965-Burt Kennedy).
I now see as the real reason for Gilda‘s enduring life. It’s not the absurd, convoluted plot, the twisted relationship between the judgmental Johnny and Gilda, nor even the gaggle of good character actors who give the movie texture. It’s not even just Ms. Hayworth‘s resplendent beauty, photographed so exquisitely by Rudolph Maté.
“I think Gilda remains so popular”, Ford explained late in an interview in the 1990s, “because people realize that it’s a true story – that Rita and I were very much in love. And we remained terribly fond of one another. I guess that electricity came across on screen. I don’t know. I really was in love with Rita.”
In good film noir style, the pair, who eventually made five movies together, seemed to spend most of Gilda sending one another conflicting messages, (and the twosome never married off screen either, though both actors were to have nine marriages between them–just not to each other).
Of course, as I now see with more mature eyes, this reluctantly expressed attraction in the course of the movie helped to fuel the superficially misogynistic film with a radiant heat, which still gives off such a palpable glow to this day. In case one would conclude that Ford might only have an understandable reaction opposite a legendary beauty such as the iconic Hayworth, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Ladies who might seem to oddly paired with Ford brought out something gently sexy, funny and romantic in the actor. The tenderness between Margaret Sullavan and a very young Glenn Ford as refugees without a passport and a country in a disintegrating fascist dominated Europe in Eric Maria Remarque’s So Ends Our Night (1941-John Cromwell) has a fragile, romantically doomed quality that is quite memorable. Two decades later Ford again struck something captivating when he appeared in an unfortunately forgotten film, Dear Heart (1964-Delbert Mann), about an unlikely romance with a lady postmaster, played by Geraldine Page. Personally, one of the few times I find the bombastic Shirley MacLaine bearable on screen was opposite a comic, manipulative, yet soft-spoken Ford in The Sheepman (1957-George Marshall), when his steely determination counter-balanced her aggressively cute style. In The Undercover Man (1949-Joseph Lewis), Ford plays a Treasury agent investigating the mob, who he worries may come after his wife in the country. In a remarkable scene, which the director Joseph Lewis reported was improvised, all of his pent-up concern and longing for his wife, tenderly played by Nina Foch, is beautifully expressed in a few moments between the pair. Their sometimes halting, and even wordless conversations and ability to understand one another implicitly is one of the more terse, but accurate representations of love on screen.
Born Gwyllyn Ford in Quebec in 1916, growing up in Santa Monica, Ford was the only son of a Canadian railway employee and his wife. He found his way into the theater after working as Tallulah Bankhead‘s stage manager on three productions, (how I wish I could find out more about that!).
In 1938, he made his official movie debut opposite Jean Rogers, (along with Richard–then Nicholas, Conte) in Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence (1939), though he had appeared in a few “minor motion pictures” before this one. The 20th Century Fox film, a sort of late Depression era road picture that marries a homesteading story with picaresque “wild boys of the road” tale does meander, but the likability of the boyish lead is unmistakable. Ford signed a contract with the tyrannical but sometimes very imaginative Harry Cohn of Columbia Studios by the late ’30s. He formed a friendship with fellow contractee William Holden (and, if Cohn had his way, Ford‘s arch-rival), and their abiding bond of shared experience would last until Holden‘s death in 1981. The pair even made Texas (1941-George Marshall) together, an enjoyable oater, in this early phase of both their careers, comparing notes and learning the ropes from each other and the crew. This movie began Glenn Ford‘s string of 55 Westerns in his long career, a genre he felt particularly comfortable in throughout his career, claiming that “The Western is a man’s world and I love it.” Despite this promising youthful start, he did not begin to hit his stride as an actor in the movies until the postwar period, after he served in the Marines with distinction. This is when his distinctive, professional style began to appear, along with some of the themes of his best movies.
In the better Glenn Ford films, people make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are made by his character.
In the highly entertaining, if slightly preposterous melodrama, A Stolen Life (1946), his pipe-smoking young New England lighthouse keeper impulsively marries the wrong twin, (Bette Davis, having a field day in a dual role). The movie gives his young sap the chance to repent at his leisure, while valiantly trying to make the audience believe that he is a contemporary of his leading lady. In a somewhat more complex role, redolent of the undercurrents in post war America, in the little known Western, The Man From Colorado (1948-Henry Levin), Ford sank his teeth into a part as a veteran of the Civil War. His experience in that bloody conflict shapes his sense of justice once he becomes a highly respectable judge in the frontier. While those around him in this good Borden Chase story honor his service and respect his status, Ford‘s character becomes increasingly aware of his ability to decide life and death for those in his community, and his disintegration as a human being is reflected in the chagrin of his fellow veteran (a callow William Holden, who in real life was the actor’s best friend, seen at the right with Ford in character).
Another example of his underplaying a seemingly one dimensional character came in The Big Heat (1953-Fritz Lang). Glenn Ford‘s decent family man and honest cop underestimates the ripple effects of disturbing the equilibrium of a corrupt society, which eventually robs him of almost everything, even his self-restraint. Of course, as soon as Willis Bouchey shows up as a mealy-mouthed police official, we know that things are never going to be what they appear, but we are hardly prepared for the quiet transformation of Ford‘s personality that occurs in the course of this luridly violent but extremely well-crafted film. Inevitably, Ford‘s laconic anguish is overshadowed by the flashier work of both the powerful Lee Marvin and saucy Gloria Grahame in this movie, but we see the steel under the soft surface of his law man, even as his own self-knowledge torments and animates him. Working with Lang (and Grahame) again in Human Desire (1954) the actor gave his role of the doomed railroad worker am uncomfortable, late dawning self-awareness as he becomes trapped by his own choices, but his tragedy never quite equals that of Jean Gabin in the 1938 Renoir version of the Zola novel, La Bête Humaine.
In other films, the mistakes are made by others, who take him as he appears, making superficial judgments on his character. Invariably they are taken in by his consistently soft-spoken manner and mild demeanor. Sometimes Ford‘s character is underestimated by all those around him, as his sensitive veteran turned schoolteacher is judged a pushover by his co-workers and students in the inner city high school that is the setting for Blackboard Jungle (1955-Richard Brooks). Other times all his neighbors, and even the wife he loves (Jeanne Crain) and his cracked nemesis (Broderick Crawford), choose to believe that he is something more than he appears, as in The Fastest Gun Alive (1956-Russell Rouse).
Glenn Ford often appeared to be a quiet, affable, soft-spoken man who will probably do as he’s told, which he spent much of the movie The Violent Men (1955-Rudolph Maté), Trial and even tartly romantic trifle like Dear Heart (1964) disproving. That’s always a mistake, since Ford is an actor who excelled at playing men who were clearly terrified by the choices they were faced with, but were always unwilling to give up trying. That he played these characters in so many genres over the decades would seem to indicate that this unappreciated actor may have been expressing a bit of himself in his many roles as well.
Btw, I should add that in such a long career, not every movie was worthwhile nor was Ford everyone’s darling. A monument to miscasting may be seen in the occasionally aired remake of the 1921 Rudolph Valentino film of Ibanez’ The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), in which, despite the director Vincente Minnelli‘s choice of Alain Delon for the lead, somehow, Glenn Ford wound up playing a French-Argentinian playboy and painter, (though the two worked together in more appropriate material in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father).
Others found his attempts at comedy painful to observe, with some critics noting that Ford‘s exuberant performance in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956-Daniel Mann) was fitfully “funny but nerve-racking” to observe. Others felt that such fare was “not really his forte”. Personally, I found The Rounders (1966) with Ford and Henry Fonda giving two laid back performances as saddle bums looking for some fun, money (and a bit of sex), to be quite amusing. This was especially true in the deft way with dialogue between the two veteran actors and in the depiction of Ford‘s agonizing relationship with a recalcitrant horse. When the material stayed close to reality and did not require an arch, theatrical form of playing, but a bemused manner at life’s contradictions, Glenn Ford could play comedy rather well.
In Frank Capra‘s sometimes controversial account of the making of Pocketful of Miracles (1961) in The Name Above the Title, Ford went from being described as “Hollywood’s most cooperative actor” to being the cause of the veteran filmmaker’s unexpected retirement. Working on The Gazebo, a strained comedy-mystery in 1959, then new film actor Martin Landau said in 2006, that though he had no scenes with the star, he nevertheless visited the set to watch Ford work. “He was incredibly professional,” said Landau. “I think that was always the case. He came prepared, ready to do it, and he did it well. He was a pro.”
To help you enjoy his films on Friday, I’ll post the complete schedule (with all times listed as EDT) below as well as links to the Glenn Ford website and a long interview with his son, Peter Ford, who is the co-author of a reported forthcoming biography of the actor.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
Popular terms3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fan Edits Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs Guest Programmers HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Leadership Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival Tearjerkers Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood The Russians in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies