Friday, February 26

Glenn Ford

To tell the truth, he was never a favorite of mine.  I'm not even sure that he was an actor of any special note.  Oh, he was completely competent and had some good moments... a few very good moments... and that's about all I can muster.  I do think he was in fewer than 20 good-to-great films and I own them all.  I don't think I own any because they were Glenn Ford movies, per se, but simply that they were good films.

I have known a few people over the years who have said Glenn Ford was near the top of their stable of treasured stars.  When it was appropriate I would say that he wasn't among mine and I usually got a strange, what-planet are-you-from kind of look.  From those who actually wanted to engage in some lively conversation on him, I would say that I found him not to be very expressive... he seemed to make a habit of keeping his emotions in check.  And isn't that an odd sort of behavior for an actor?

He made few films where he was the bad guy or even leaned toward bad and they were, for the most part, his best films, certainly among the ones I enjoyed the most.  And why did he choose to be so blah in so much of his work, even allowing others to out-act him scene by scene?  And why are so many of his films just ordinary B flicks?

He was a Canadian who moved to Santa Monica, California, when he was eight.  His childhood was mainly happy and may have been rooted in the closeness he felt with his mother.  She was fairly dependent upon him from his teenage years until the end of her life.  He attended Santa Monica High School (my old alma mater as well... oh Samohi, dear old Samohi, queen of the setting sun) and became involved in school plays. 

Toward the end of his high school years, he got a job as a groom at Will Rogers' ranch in Pacific Palisades and learned how to ride a horse which would come in mighty handy in the years to come.  He took on a variety of part-time jobs at the same time that he got on with the Santa Monica Community Players.  People began seeing and appreciating his work and before long he was making a short at Paramount and had a small role in a film at 20th Century Fox.  Before long the wicked Harry Cohn offered him a contract at Columbia.

Ford hassled with Cohn as did nearly every employee but Cohn didn't treat the males as horribly as he did actresses.  Ford prospered at the studio.  From 1937 to 1946 he made quite a number of films, most ranging from ordinary to don't-see-it.  During those same years, he did two stints in the service and in 1943 married the dancing queen of MGM, Eleanor Powell.  There was never a better woman tap dancer.  They were married for 16 not-altogether-happy years.  She was older than he was but as his years went on, his next three wives got younger and younger.  Ford and Powell had a son, Peter, in 1945.

I didn't see him in a film, that I remember anyway, until 1952 but  the first one worth mentioning is A Stolen Life (1946).  Its star, Bette Davis, likes to take credit for discovering him, I suppose, but she didn't.  She did ask to borrow him from Columbia to work on this Warner Bros film.  Davis played dual roles, twin sisters.  One sister drowns and the other assumes her identity so that she will be married to the dead sister's husband, whom she once loved.  It may appear a bit melodramatic but Davis x 2 is fabulous and Ford seemed to keep up with her.

Gilda gave them both their best roles

The heady combination of A Stolen Life and his next film, the same year, put Glenn Ford on the map.  That film was Gilda.  In Argentina a gambling house owner befriends Johnny and offers him a job as his right-hand man.  It works out amiably until the boss introduces his new wife, who, as it so happens, used to be Johnny's girl and their affair ended badly.  Neither is happy to see the other.  A perfect film noir with fun twists and turns gives not only Rita Hayworth the role of her career but frankly, Ford as well.  I never enjoyed him more... a conceited smart-aleck, never really likable even as his character alters his attitude toward her.  I wish he'd done more work like this.

He and Hayworth had already made one film together and would make three more.  They had a brief affair during the making of this film but their relationship evolved into a good friendship.  They lived next door to one another for years and in her declining years, he was a true friend to her.

He was also a true friend to William Holden.  Holden's contract was shared by Paramount and Columbia.  In 1941 they appeared as two young cowpokes looking to make a fortune in Texas and in 1948 they went north for another horse opera, The Man from Colorado.  What makes this one memorable was Ford was a super baddie and as such made this routine film into something more meaningful.  Over the years, of course, I think Holden developed acting chops better than Ford did, but you couldn't prove it by this film.

Lust for Gold (1949) is just that.  Ford, Ida Lupino and Gig Young are all no-goods out to discover and keep for themselves those little sparkling nuggets. It's a somewhat forgotten film, particularly in his canon of work, and that's too bad since again it's one of his more compelling performances.

An Affair in Trinidad (1952) was the first Ford film I saw and I loved it.  It was the first film Hayworth did after her aborted marriage to Prince Aly Khan.  She came crawling back to Columbia and they threw her into this one, which I learned later was little more than a Gilda knockoff, complete with Ford in a similar role as well.

Oddly, for an actor of the 40s, Ford did very little film noir but The Big Heat (1953) was one of the best there ever was.  The story of a cop out to avenge the death of his wife, Ford had little chance to do much other than watch Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin steal the film from him.

Ditto The Violent Men (1955).  It was a routine western (which this little cowboy quite liked) about land-grabbing but Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson out-acted Ford at every turn.  It was an interesting film to notice how Ford rode a horse.  Did Will Rogers teach him to sit that erect and hold the reins so high?  No one ever fit in a saddle quite like Ford.

If Ford tended to be out-acted, after seeing Blackboard Jungle (1955), I began acting out.  My mama used to say one of her biggest mistakes was letting me see this movie.  When the film opened with the explosion of Bill Haley and his Comets' Rock Around the Clock, I thought I was on the fringe of a warp.  The story of a rather passive teacher at a New York high school full of delinquents was mesmerizing and I've never forgotten for a moment its impact on me.  I always thought Richard Widmark would have been better in Ford's role, but then I tended to always think that about the two.

I didn't appreciate The Trial when it was released in 1955 but I've come to admire it since.  It dealt with racism and mob rule and thrown in there, too, was the menace of communism.  Ford played an assistant to the attorney handling the case of a Mexican teen up for a murder he did not commit.  Dorothy McGuire was my reason for seeing it and Arthur Kennedy nabbed a supporting Oscar nomination which makes one wonder why Ford didn't want the showier role for himself. 

Ah, the Oscars.  Did you know that Ford was never even nominated for one?  Those who like him would likely call it an oversight... and we know the Academy can be kind of dense... but I find the info to bolster my stance on the actor.  I suspect he liked the glory and self-importance of being an actor but I don't think he usually wanted to put in the hard work.   

He did something right, however, in 3:10 to Yuma (1957).  A psychological western that largely took place in a hotel room where one man is holding another captive while we all wait for the train gave Ford one of his best roles of his career.  And he played the baddie!  Still, he was no better than Van Heflin as the good guy.  Ford would more or less turn into a cowboy star for his later career and not in a single film that was as good as this one.

They fell in love while making Cimarron

Cimarron (1960), the story of the 1889 Land Rush in Oklahoma, was a remake of an earlier film and the remake was panned.  I enjoyed the hell out of it.  Based on a big, blustery Edna Ferber novel, a solid Ford played an irresponsible absentee husband to patient and loving Maria Schell.  As always I didn't go see it for Ford (was Richard Widmark busy?) but rather because it was a western, a Ferber work and because of Schell, whom I was crazy about.

A side note is that Schell and Ford shared a similar angst off screen as they did on.  They fell in love.  She was wild about him but he was suffering due to the end of his marriage to Powell and couldn't commit in the way she wanted him to.  He would soon be involved with other actresses.

He made two simple-minded comedies with Debbie Reynolds and I still remember magazines being full of a weekly accounting of their relationship.  Even more breathlessly gossiped about was his affair with Hope Lange, with whom he also made a pair of films.  The first of those was Pocketful of Miracles (1961). 

Miracles is a Damon Runyon story of a well-to-do bootlegger who helps a panhandler (Bette Davis again) pretend to be a society matron for her visiting daughter.  Cute enough, although it had been done before by the same director, no less, Frank Capra.  It was then called Lady for a Day.  I still recall hearing about the trouble of making the film because the big movie star wanted his girlfriend, Lange, installed as leading lady over the director's choice of Shirley Jones.  What a brouhaha.

There were other reports of his behavior over the years, particularly from the 60s on.  He had long been on the sauce and he could dive into black moods, perhaps a circumstance of his part-Welsh background.  He long had a knack for being egotistical, petulant, the aggrieved movie star. 

Experiment in Terror (1962) was an exciting little piece of psychodrama about a sicko threatening a pair of sisters in an attempt to use one of them as a pawn in robbing a bank where she works.  Acting honors went to Ross Martin while Ford took the boring cop role he could have phoned in.

The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963... with Shirley Jones, no less), and two in 1964, Fate is the Hunter and Dear Heart are worth briefly mentioning but his costars, as usual, were more engaging.  In the first was adorable Ronnie Howard, then there was Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette reunited from The Birds in the second, and the superb Geraldine Page in the third.   How brave or foolish he was to work with an actress of her caliber.

I saw him twice and neither time was he impressive.  The first time was in 1961 at a special screening of West Side Story.  I sat directly behind him.  What I recall was how crabby he was.  I believe he wanted to write something down and was annoyed that the woman he was with did not have a pen or paper.  The second time, in the early 80s, he was at a service counter at the Century City AAA office and he was downright belligerent to the clerk.  I know she asked him to calm down and he may have given her the old do you know who I am line. 

He continuing working through 1991 but mostly in inferior projects.  He made more press off screen with his marriages and acrimonious divorces.  (His final marriage lasted less than two months.)  But after his final film we really didn't hear about him at all.  He had a series of strokes in his final years and passed away in Beverly Hills at age 90 in 2006.

Next posting:
A good 40s film

1 comment:

  1. Glenn Ford..I love his films...especially westerns...may rest in heaven..thank you