Glenn Ford’s career is in definite need of reappraisal. He appeared in many quality movies throughout his years making movies. He starred in many different genre of film. His roles in two film noirs “The Big Heat” and “Of Human Desire” contain depths of complexity and ambiguity. In both his leading lady was the great Gloria Grahame. He made Westerns such as “Jubal” and comedy e.g. “Don’t Go Near the Water”. He died in 2006 at the age of 90. A biography on Glenn Ford was published in 2012.
The hairstyles signposted Glenn Ford’s long and active career; from the full and wavy to the sleek, dark gigolo look, to the short back and sides, to a severe crewcut that gradually shrivelled like dry grass on the prairie. His face, that began boyish in prewar B films, hovered somewhere between the rugged handsomeness of William Holden and Tom Ewell’s Thurberesque one, allowing him to be extremely dour in films noirs or to display the righteous nobility of a lone western hero, while also being able to play perplexed characters in comedies.
For Ford, who has died aged 90, was a versatile Hollywood star able to shift genres while retaining his sincere screen persona. Although his realistic speech and timing seemed to owe something to the Method – he often had a mumbled and hesitant delivery – the closest he ever came to the Actors’ Studio was as Marlon Brando’s co-star in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).
Born in Quebec of Welsh descent, he was the son of a railroad executive and mill owner, the nephew of Sir John MacDonald, a former prime minister of Canada. Another Ford kinsman was Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. Ford had tried a variety of jobs, becoming interested in the theatre, and was acting on stage in California when he was signed to a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1939.
At the beginning of his career he was in a number of undistinguished B pictures – an exception being John Cromwell’s anti-Nazi drama So Ends Our Night (1941) – but the films improved and Ford stayed with the studio until the mid-1950s. This period was interrupted by war service in the US marines, part of his activities consisting in the training of French Resistance fighters. (He later became a commander in the US naval reserves and served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.)
Matured from his war experiences, Ford, and millions of hot-blooded men all over the world, lusted after gorgeous Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), as she peeled off her long black gloves in a symbolic striptease while singing Put the Blame on Mame. The sexual chemistry between the two stars was so strong on the set that Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, who considered Hayworth his private property, had microphones hidden in her dressing room in case she started an affair with her leading man. But they quickly found the mics and teased the eavesdropping boss with risqué conversations.
At the time, Ford was married to leggy, toothy dancer Eleanor Powell, who retired from the screen to become plain Mrs Glenn Ford in 1943. (They divorced in 1959.) Yet Cohn paired Hayworth and Ford again in the listless and Bizet-less The Loves of Carmen (1948), in which Rita was a sexy Gypsy to Ford’s stiff Don José, and also in Affair in Trinidad (1952), another exotic melodrama.
Among Ford’s best films at Columbia were the two he made for Fritz Lang. In The Big Heat (1953), the audience is made to discover and experience the events subjectively as Ford’s cop does, while he mercilessly conducts a retributive investigation into the death of his wife in a car bomb explosion. Ford’s achievement was in the creation of a cold and calculating yet sympathetic character, who permits himself some warmth on the death of the pathetic gangster’s moll (Gloria Grahame).
In the same team’s Human Desire (1954), an updating of Zola’s La Bête Humaine, already filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938, Ford’s steely passivity allowed the other performances to bounce off him effectively.
In 1955, he gained a crewcut and went over to MGM, where he made an immediate impact in The Blackboard Jungle as a novice New York schoolteacher confronted with a class of hooligans. It was also the film which effectively launched Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock on the world. Ford’s pipe-smoking intensity suited the liberal worthiness of the picture, as did his lawyer defending a Mexican boy accused of rape and murder in Trial, of the same year.
Ford then switched successfully to comedy as the affable, ineffectual occupation army officer Fishy in The Teahouse of the August Moon, trying to bring American-style democracy to Okinawa, but who goes native himself, and the bumbling navy PR man trying to do likewise on a South Pacific island in Don’t Go Near the Water (1957).
At the same time, Ford made three Delmer Davies westerns. There was the brooding Jubal (1956), in which he inspires the Othello-like jealousy of Ernest Borgnine; 3.10 to Yuma (1957), in one of his rare villain parts, and Cowboy (1958), as Jack Lemmon’s tough, drunken partner.
At his busiest in the 1950s and 1960s, Ford moved smoothly from the serious rodeo drama The Violent Men (1955) and the horse opera The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) to the biopic operatics of Interrupted Melody (1955) as the husband of a Wagnerian soprano stricken with polio, to the comedy western The Sheepman (1958) opposite Shirley Maclaine. He good-humouredly played Damon Runyon’s bootlegger Dave the Dude in Frank Capra’s farewell film, A Pocketful of Miracles (1961). However, in his autobiography, Capra petulantly blamed Ford for the heavy-handed production’s failure.
There followed two movies by Vincente Minnelli. The first was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962), in which he was unhappily cast in Rudolph Valentino’s old role, but he exuded charm in the title role of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) looking for a mother for the then nine-year-old future director Ron Howard.
In the 1970s, Ford was more occupied as the hero of the series Cade’s County on TV than on the big screen, but nevertheless he cropped up from time to time to walk down a dusty street with spurs jangling in minor westerns and cameos in TV series and war pictures. One of his last feature film appearances was as Pa Kent in Superman (1978), the muscle-bound hero’s adopted father. The critic Pauline Kael thought it inspired casting because Ford’s resources as an actor had contracted to the point where he had become a comic-book version of the good American.
Ford, who was married and divorced four times, is survived by his son by Eleanor Powell.
· Glenn (Gwyllyn Samuel Newton) Ford, actor, born May 1 1916; died August 30 2006
His obituary by Ronald Bergan in “The Guardian” can also be accessed online here.