I’m taking a break from my Japan Journal in order to pay tribute to Glenn Ford, who would have turned 100 today, May 1, 2016. He was a movie star who may not have created as lasting a film legacy as many of his contemporaries, but still had a remarkable 54-year career in Hollywood. He died ten years ago, in 2006, at the age of 90. He had a pretty good 20-year run as a top-ranked studio movie star from the late 1940s to the late ’60s before turning to television and character work, which he did steadily up to 1981, working intermittently after that until his final screen and TV work in 1991, closing out a career that had begun in 1937. He’s probably best-remembered by film buffs today for three films: GILDA (1946), in which he played opposite a sultry, satin-clad Rita Hayworth; the film noir cop thriller, THE BIG HEAT (1953), directed by Fritz Lang; and the western 3:10 TO YUMA (1957), directed by Delmer Daves, in which he served as the film’s antagonist, one of the few times he played an outlaw in his career.
He tended to appear in medium-range Hollywood commercial fare—comedies, westerns, romances, war movies—which made him a good living but didn’t establish him in the pantheon of Hollywood stars that so many of his contemporaries occupied. He came up at the same time as his good friend William Holden and another future noir star, Edmond O’Brien, and was soon followed by several other stalwarts in his age range: Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck (whose centennial was on April 5), Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Richard Widmark. Holden, Mitchum, Peck, Lancaster, Douglas and Widmark all tended to get the best parts available, leaving Ford to pick up the journeyman work, which he apparently undertook willingly and with true movie star conviction. (I would argue that, given the interesting way his film career developed, Frank Sinatra, born in 1915, belongs in this group as well.)
As far as I can tell, Ford never phoned it in, but, alas, he never had that one director who could give him a career-defining role the way Holden had, first with Billy Wilder and SUNSET BOULEVARD and STALAG 17, then with David Lean and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and later with Sam Peckinpah and THE WILD BUNCH and Sidney Lumet and NETWORK. In THE WILD BUNCH, Holden is perfect, but I’m curious how Ford would have handled the part of Pike Bishop. (Ford was apparently considered for Robert Ryan’s part in the film at one point. I can’t see anyone but Ryan in the role of Deke Thornton, but, again, Ford might have been very interesting.) Mitchum, Peck, Lancaster and Douglas had lots of career-defining roles, some of which they engineered themselves by taking a hand in their own productions. Ford never seemed to have that kind of drive. Widmark’s career was probably closer to Ford’s, but even so, he had more attention-getting roles in his filmography, including Henry Hathaway’s KISS OF DEATH, Elia Kazan’s PANIC IN THE STREETS, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s NO WAY OUT, Sam Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, Stanley Kramer’s JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG, John Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN, and Don Siegel’s MADIGAN.
Even in his most famous films, however, Ford was overshadowed by his high-profile co-stars. GILDA belongs to Rita Hayworth with certain scenes dominated by George Macready as her sinister, possessive husband. The most memorable scenes in THE BIG HEAT belong to Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. 3:10 TO YUMA is really Van Heflin’s film, given that his character, the sheriff, is the most proactive in the film and Ford’s outlaw, a captive being escorted under fire to the title train, is basically just buffeted about.
THE BIG HEAT:
3:10 TO YUMA:
John Wayne had John Ford and Howard Hawks as powerful mentors who guided his career to the kind of screen immortality that really only came to a few. James Stewart had Anthony Mann in his corner and made five superb westerns with him (and three non-western dramas). Randolph Scott worked with Budd Boetticher on seven westerns and several of those remain his most memorable films. There are box sets devoted to these star-director combos, but none for Glenn Ford and any of his directors. He worked with Delmer Daves on three westerns (JUBAL, 3:10 TO YUMA, COWBOY), but in each case, his co-stars stole the show. In JUBAL, they included Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and that wonderful scenery-chewer Rod Steiger. In 3:10 TO YUMA, it was co-star Van Heflin. And COWBOY was Jack Lemmon’s film. Ford made two films for director Burt Kennedy in 1965, THE ROUNDERS and THE MONEY TRAP, both of which I would like to have re-screened for this piece, but they weren’t enough to take his career into a new phase. (Besides, THE ROUNDERS was more of a Henry Fonda film than a Ford one.) Ford was basically a straight man for much of his movie star career.
I knew who Ford was as a child and saw trailers for many of his films, but I was surprised to realize when I consulted his filmography that I didn’t see a single Ford film until I was a college freshman and I watched THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE (1956) on WABC’s 4:30 Movie time slot. I caught more and more films of his on TV but didn’t see him on the big screen until I caught revival theater showings of GILDA and THE BIG HEAT and, years later, 3:10 TO YUMA. There are still a lot of Ford films I haven’t seen.
While his contemporaries were reinventing themselves on the big screen in the 1970s (e.g. Burt Lancaster in ULZANA’S RAID, TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING and GO TELL THE SPARTANS; Robert Mitchum in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and THE YAKUZA; and Gregory Peck in THE OMEN, MACARTHUR, and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), Ford went into television where he starred in the modern western, “Cade’s County” (lasting one season, 1971-72), and assorted TV movies and miniseries before turning up in his most memorable late-career character role, as Pa Kent, adoptive father of Clark Kent, in Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978), the only film of Ford’s I saw on the big screen during its initial release.
If I had to pick the phase of Ford’s career that most intrigues me, it would be the decade following the end of the war. I’ve only seen about ten of those films but they include some of his best films and performances. He had a bitter, seething undertone in some of his performances that seems quite refreshing when contrasted with the easygoing manner he perfected in such later Hollywood star vehicles as IT STARTED WITH A KISS, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, and DEAR HEART. Here’s a summary of Ford’s career that I did for a blog entry on his film, THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (1951):
Glenn Ford had a long career as a star from the postwar period to the 1970s. To me his most interesting period as an actor was the immediate postwar decade, from GILDA (1946) to THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE (1956), including Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (1953), Richard Brooks’ BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955), and Delmer Daves’ JUBAL (1956), but also several lesser-known films I like a lot including FRAMED (1947), a very odd noir with a lively performance by Ford as a patsy in a DOUBLE INDEMNITY-type scheme; Henry Levin’s THE MAN FROM COLORADO (1948), a Technicolor western featuring Ford as a Union Army officer-turned-Federal judge who turns on his old war comrades and starts to run his district with distinct fascist tendencies; Henry Levin’s CONVICTED (1950), with Ford as an embittered convict who is given a second chance by a reform-minded warden; and Budd Boetticher’s THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953), which, now that I mention it, also had elements of strong women in a western setting and Ford’s character having to earn their trust. Ford played a wide range of characters here, not all of them good guys. He had a brooding quality that served these films well and tended to disappear from his screen portrayals by the time he became a major studio star in the late 1950s and spent his time thereafter making service comedies and bloated vehicles like CIMARRON and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES and bigscreen sitcoms like THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER.
I’d like to single out a few of these films. I just watched Joseph H. Lewis’s THE UNDERCOVER MAN (1949) for the first time, in preparation for this piece, and Ford plays a straight-arrow Treasury agent, basically an accountant with a badge, who’s following the paper trail of a mob bigwig (awkwardly referred to only as “Big Fellow” but clearly meant as a stand-in for onetime Chicago mob boss Al Capone, who’d been sent away in 1932). Ford’s Frank Warren is as upright and dedicated as they come, refusing to be bought off and standing up to mob thugs who come after him. He doesn’t see himself as a hero, just a guy doing a job that was handed to him. Yet he’s clearly in pain, worried about the safety of his wife (Nina Foch), and deeply affected when witnesses are killed and when a cop commits suicide after turning over key info to him that had long been tucked away. At some point after all this, he announces that he’s quitting until a murdered witness’s little daughter and Italian-speaking grandmother come to visit him, at great risk to themselves, bringing along a ledger that will make the government’s case against “Big Fellow.” It’s a heart-wrenching scene, beautifully played by Joan Lazer as the bilingual daughter and Esther Minciotti as the grandmother, and their emotional appeal leaves a slight but unmistakable crack in Ford’s stone-faced facade. And we believe it.
Ford is very good in a low-budget thriller called FRAMED (1947), in which he’s slated to be the patsy in a DOUBLE INDEMNITY-style insurance scheme cooked up by Janis Carter and Barry Sullivan. It’s not a good movie, but Ford is quite compelling as an unemployed mining engineer who finds himself subject to Carter’s rather unpersuasive enticement. We never quite believe he’ll be the victim his hapless antagonists are hoping he’ll be. The film opens with a bang, with Ford at the wheel of a speeding truck with its brakes gone trying to steer it to its destination without killing himself. Here’s what I wrote about Ford’s part in my IMDB review of the film:
We’re supposed to believe Ms. Carter can entice Ford, but he never displays anything but rank hostility in her presence. When he finally kisses her, it’s more of a physical assault than an act of lust. When it comes to carrying out the death-faking part, they enact a scene straight out of DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The plan they adopt is so poorly thought out that even the most cursory police investigation would see through it. Ford at least is punchy and irritable throughout, a side of him I’ve never quite seen before. He glares with the best of them and passes out drunk a couple of times.
I watched Henry Levin’s CONVICTED (1950) on YouTube last year. It stars Broderick Crawford, fresh off his Oscar win for ALL THE KING’S MEN, as a reform-minded warden who tries to right a wrong committed when he’d been a prosecutor and had to watch as a solid citizen who’d unintentionally killed a man in a barroom fight over a woman’s honor gets a steep sentence because of an incompetent defense lawyer. Determined to help the prisoner, who is now embittered by his experience, Crawford takes the job of warden and seeks to gain the prisoner’s trust and find some way to get an early release for him. Ford plays the prisoner in another of the few times he was on the opposite side of the law. It’s Crawford’s film, but Ford’s festering anger and gradual development of trust in the system provide the emotional core that the film needs to succeed. Again, an uncharacteristic role for Ford.
And for my full take on THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE, go to my blog entry of August 2, 2015. But here’s the paragraph where I talk about Ford’s performance in conjunction with that of the film’s female star, Gene Tierney:
Both Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney were major stars at the time, and both quite popular, but they don’t give movie star performances here. They’re playing hard-bitten characters and they don’t have the time to look glamorous. (They wear winter clothing in most of their scenes.) They’re quite contentious with each other at first, but they eventually come to terms with the fact that they both want the same thing. She wants the truth and only Ford can give it to her. He clearly falls in love with her in the course of it all, but it’s not a contrived romance; they both have to work at earning each other’s trust. They even spend a chaste night in a cave together after their first kiss, after she’s left town to try to get some help and exposed herself to the elements and he’s ridden in pursuit to stop her and they’ve had a big dramatic scene revealing enough in their pasts to understand and trust each other.
On the subject of westerns, I would argue that Ford’s performance in THE MAN FROM COLORADO (1948) is one of the best of his career and his character probably the most antagonistic he’d ever played. As far as I can determine, this was the farthest he ever stepped out of his comfort zone and one can only wonder what his career would have been like if he’d taken more chances like this.
In the film, directed by Henry Levin, Ford and his co-star William Holden play Union officers who return home after the Civil War to a mining town in Colorado with members of their unit with plans to take up with their mines where they’d left off before the war. Ford gets appointed to a law enforcement position and hires Holden to assist him, but they’re soon at odds over the fate of their former comrades who find their mines taken over by land barons who’ve managed to find legal means to nullify the soldiers’ claims. During all this turmoil Ford shows increasing signs of mental instability, something hinted at in the closing days of the war when he’d ordered a massacre of Confederate soldiers waving a white flag.
Eventually, Holden is forced to side with his unit against Ford, who has adopted lethal force as his favored tactic against the wronged miners. It’s all clearly meant to comment on the recent war and the return of servicemen who may not have come back whole. We watch Ford sink into madness, his tortured visage seen in numerous Technicolor closeups that constitute the film’s most searing images. It’s Ford’s film all the way and while I don’t consider westerns or color movies to be properly classified as film noir, I won’t object if someone labels this a noir western. I wish this film were better known and had something close to the reputation it deserves.
THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO:
Ford’s best western, in my view, was the one film he did for Budd Boetticher, THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953). It’s not a great western along the lines of Ford, Hawks, Mann, or some of Boetticher’s later westerns with Randolph Scott, but it’s a good, fast-paced, action-packed entertainment, beautifully shot, partly on location, well-acted by a large cast and offering a compelling story and set of characters. In the film, Ford plays the one man to leave the Alamo before it fell to the Mexican Army. He’s sent by the other settlers from north of the Alamo to check on their wives and children and prepare them to evacuate if the Alamo defenders can’t hold back the Mexicans. (The men drew lots and Ford was picked to go.) When he arrives at Ox Bow, he discovers that his wife and son were killed and he learns from a Mexican boy who survived the attack that the raiders were renegade Americans dressed as Mexicans. From then on, he has to counter everyone’s perception of him as a coward and a renegade, particularly after he joins up with the raiders, ostensibly to flee a lynching party but chiefly to wait for an opportunity to avenge his family. Eventually, after many plot turns, he has to protect a wagon train of women and children and develop a strategy for defending the party from the raiders.
Ford is still his angry, bitter self in this one and generally refuses to defend himself from the charges of cowardice until he finally gets his critics to listen. He’s something of a loner and prefers to find his own way of bringing down the renegades, who are led by Victor Jory. Only when the wagon train is imperiled does he recognize his duty to them and puts his own life in danger. It’s quite a physical role for Ford and his character, John Stroud, is frequently riding furiously, shooting it out, fending off knife attacks, struggling with a lynch mob—twice–or getting into pitched fistfights, including one at the top of a waterfall. All that and rescuing the Texas flag and putting it back upright while under cannon fire at the Alamo. Granted, the most strenuous action is done by a stunt man, but it’s still an impressive action role for Ford and quite a contrast with many of his later westerns, which slowed the pace for him.
The latest film in Ford’s filmography that I’ve seen is Kinji Fukasaku’s Japanese apocalyptic thriller, VIRUS (1980), in which Ford plays the ill-fated President of the United States. He’s quite good in it as he presides over the slow death by virus of the entire country. Other Hollywood stars on hand are George Kennedy, Robert Vaughn, Henry Silva, Chuck Connors, Edward James Olmos and Bo Svenson. I’d love to see the complete Japanese director’s cut on DVD with English subtitles provided for the Japanese scenes.
There are other Ford films I would like to have re-viewed for this piece, but the centennial date kind of snuck up on me while I was busy working on my Japan Journal entries. These films include THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, JUBAL, THE BIG HEAT, THE VIOLENT MEN, COWBOY, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, THE ROUNDERS, THE MONEY TRAP and THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. I would also like to finally see in its entirety TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON, in which Ford plays an uncharacteristic comedy role as a befuddled, accident-prone army captain stationed in Okinawa right after the war and confronted by a crafty local interpreter played by Marlon Brando, a film that’s gotten a lot of flack in recent years for its “yellowface” casting of Brando as an Okinawan.
There are a lot of additional Ford films I still haven’t seen and would very much like to, including LUST FOR GOLD (1949), a western co-starring Ida Lupino; another Fritz Lang film, HUMAN DESIRE (1954); Mark Robson’s TRIAL (1956), which has some political undercurrents related to the anti-communist fervor of the times; RANSOM! (1956), which was later remade as a Mel Gibson thriller; DON’T GO NEAR THE WATER (1957), a WWII service comedy set in the South Pacific; the western comedy, THE SHEEPMAN (1958), which co-stars Shirley Maclaine; TORPEDO RUN (1958), a WWII submarine drama co-starring Ernest Borgnine; and another service comedy set in Japan, CRY FOR HAPPY (1961), which has a significant number of Japanese co-stars, including Miiko Taka, Miyoshi Umeki, Michi Kobi and Japanese-American star James Shigeta. (No “yellowface” there.)
After posting the above yesterday, I did manage to sit and watch TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956) in its entirety. I had assumed that it was Brando’s film from start to finish, but I was wrong. Brando’s character takes a back seat to Ford in the second half, as Ford’s Captain Fisby “goes native” and seems to relish catering to the desires of the villagers rather than try to impose American-style democracy and education on them, which was the mission he was assigned. He builds the teahouse of the title rather than the pentagon-shaped school he was supposed to. This gets him in trouble with his commander, but in the meantime he’s having the time of his life. Ford, too, as an actor, shows sides of himself I hadn’t really seen before. He’s alternately befuddled, frenetic, anxious, hyper, goofy and giddy and the actor seems to be having way more fun with the role than he did in some of the other films I cited here. There’s even a sweet, tender moment in a farewell scene with Lotus Blossom (Machiko Kyo), the geisha who’s been assigned to Fisby (by the village). In fact, Fisby’s relationship with Lotus Blossom is much more important to the narrative than his relationship with Sakini, the local interpreter played by Brando. However, the film remains problematic in its depiction of life in Okinawa in 1946, presented on film as if the modern world had never intruded on the island and it hadn’t been the site of some of the worst fighting of the war and seen the highest proportion of civilian casualties. (Some estimates claim a loss of nearly half the island’s population.) All seems to have been forgiven. I wonder what Okinawans thought of this film.