The League of Alternate Superstars: Glenn Ford

It is a shame that Glenn Ford (1916-2006), contemporary of many Hollywood luminaries including his chum William Holden, did not receive the credit he deserved for a long and distinguished film and TV career.  Perhaps the most egregious omission is that Citadel Press never published The Films of Glenn Ford.

In The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years, David Shipman wrote of Ford, “It is always a pleasure to renew acquaintance with him, especially in comedy, where his relaxed and impish performances as a bumbling ordinary guy have been much underrated.  In drama he remains the Little Man, often victimized and battling grimly against the forces of fate.”

Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford was born on May 1, 1916 in Quebec City.  In 1922 the family relocated to Los Angeles.  Gwyllyn, now Glenn, made his first feature film in 1937, Night in Manhattan.  In 1939, the same year as Holden gained fame in Golden Boy, Ford was 4th billed in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence but was in fact the key player.  His breakout role was as a young German caught up in the Nazi net cast over Jews and others the Fascist regimes considered undesirables in So Ends Our Night (1941), a major film starring Fredric March and Margaret Sullavan.  The same year he co-starred with Holden in the quality western, Texas.   Eventually the Holden character goes bad.  (Almost a decade later they reversed roles for The Man from Colorado, with Ford as a psychopathic colonel become federal judge after the Civil War.)

Like Holden, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and various other Hollywood leading men, Ford joined the service during World War II.  He enlisted in the Marines.

The war over, Ford returned to the Columbia Pictures fold and had his big breakout role as Johnny Farrell opposite siren Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946).  Now considered a staple of film noir, it would not be Ford’s last venture into that arena.  Although hardly anyone realizes it today, Ford and Hayworth were a legitimate movie team, co-starring in three other films:  The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952), and The Money Trap (1966).  Unfortunately, these films were primarily memorable for the casts, not the plots.

Ford became a major western hero, and sometimes, like James Stewart, a tortured one.  The same year as The Man from Colorado (1948), Ford starred in Lust for Gold, a tale of the search for the Lost Dutchman mine.  The ending featured a spectacular earthquake.  In Western Films:  A Complete Guide, author Brian Garfield suggested that as the amoral German immigrant, Ford gave the best performance of his career.  (Note that the same year The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had a similar plot and theme:  greed.).  Ford’s son wrote that co-star Ida Lupino ranked his father and Richard Widmark as her favorite leading men.

Five quality westerns followed:  The Violent Men (1955) opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, Jubal (1956) opposite Felicia Farr and Valerie French and the amazing male duo of Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger with Charles Bronson in support.  An acknowledged classic was next:  3:10 to Yuma.  Ford played ingratiating but dangerous outlaw Ben Wade, captured and assigned to Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a rancher hired to put him on the train over the dangerous obstacle of Wade’s scurvy gang.  Wade comes to respect Evans and actually helps him survive.  There were two westerns in 1958.  Cowboy was rather epic in scope, with a hard edge befitting this tale based on fact.  The dude played by Jack Lemmon joined Ford’s no-nonsense rancher on his cattle drive and became a man.  The Sheepman was not so hard-edged, with Ford battling with the cattlemen (naturally) and sparring with spunky Shirley MacLaine in this, her fifth film.  A sixth western intended as a large-scale remake of the epic 1931 Best Picture Academy Award winner, 1960’s Cimarron was a major disappointment, as would the 1962 remake of 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Ford’s first noir classic had been Gilda, and Ford had another significant—and vastly more violent entry in that realm in 1953.  Directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat joined the pantheon of most famous noirs.  After his family is attacked, Detective Dan Bannion (Ford) goes all out for revenge on Mike Lagana’s crime syndicate and its prime hitman (Lee Marvin).  It would not be much of a stretch to label Experiment in Terror (1962) a noir.  Ross Martin’s psychopath terrorized sisters played by Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers. Ford’s detective is out to nab the miscreant, and symbolic of changing times, in one scene Ford stands alone among a gaggle of female mannequins.  His attire may be symbolic:  still in fedora, which by decade’s end will disappear from the noggins of both policemen and hoods, but his trenchcoat has no belt.

Contemporary issues were also in Ford’s repertoire.  The most famous and significant film in this bailiwick was Blackboard Jungle (1955), whose theme “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets became the anthem for rock ‘n roll.  Ford played teacher Richard Dadier (or “daddio” to the punks) at an inner city school packed with society’s newly christened “juvenile delinquents”, including Vic Morrow.  The film was controversial on several accounts, not least in casting Sidney Poitier in a prime role as one of the students.

After Blackboard Jungle Ford began a spate of military movies in that almost forgotten comedy subgenre:  the “service comedy”:  The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957) Imitation General (1958), and Cry for Happy (1961). As Shipman indicated, he was also adept at light contemporary comedies (The Gazebo, 1960; Love is a Ball, 1963) and comedy-dramas (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, 1963; Dear Heart, 1964).

It may be that Ford’s on-screen persona was so soothing and made things seem so effortless that he was not a perennial Academy Award-nominee.  He did, however, receive nominations and win awards presented by other organizations, including the Golden Globe for Best Actor-Comedy or Musical (Pocketful of Miracles, 1961), the Golden Apple Award for Most Cooperative Actor (1948 and 1957), the Golden Boot Award (1987), the Laurel Award for Top Male Comedy Performance (Don’t Go Near the Water, 1957), and the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1987 San Sebastien International Film Festival.  He received his Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 1960.

By Kim

 

References

Ford, Peter.  Glenn Ford:  A Life.  Madison, WI:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.

Garfield, Brian.  Western Films:  A Complete Guide.  Rawson Associates, 1982.

Shipman, David.  The Great Stars:  The International Years.  London:  Angus & Robertson, 1972.

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