In Memoriam: Glenn Ford (1916-2006)
by Alan Rode
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Glenn Ford, one of Hollywood’s top male stars dating from the 1940s, who enjoyed an incredibly versatile and durable acting career that spanned over half a century, died in Los Angeles on August 30th at the age of 90.
While the exact cause of death was still being determined, Ford was in fragile health and had made no public appearances for over a decade due to a series of strokes.
Glenn Ford was one of a dwindling breed of movie stars who was immune to typecasting and experienced success in multiple film genres even though he became thoroughly identified as a Western icon. Regardless of whether he was frequenting a nightclub, on horseback packing a six gun or holding down a police squad room, Ford’s characterizations were relentlessly authentic; he simply never appeared to be acting. Perhaps he wasn’t. Ford remarked once that, People laugh when I say I’m not an actor, but I’m not, I play myself.”
Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford was born in Quebec, Canada on May 1, 1916. The son of a Canadian railroad executive, his family relocated to Santa Monica in 1924. Ford took up acting in high school, worked in stock and after debuting in a short at Paramount, made his screen debut at Fox in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence. Ford subsequently landed a contract with Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures in 1939 where he remained for the next fifteen years.
Ford subsisted in Columbia’s “B” unit until being cast as Johnny Farrell, opposite Rita Hayworth, in Gilda (1946). This legendary film noir, replete with snappy dialogue and sexual innuendo, established Ford as a major box office star for the next three decades.
Glenn Ford’s Columbia career was laden with darkly complex characterizations. In addition to comedies, dramas and the Westerns that he would be so firmly identified with, Ford starred in numerous film noirs including Framed (1947), The Undercover Man (1949), Convicted (1950), Affair in Trinidad (1952) (reunited with Rita) and Human Desire (1954). Some of Ford’s pictures that were not noir offered him an opportunity to play unusual characters who were externally heroic, but inwardly perverse The Man From Colorado (1948) features one of the actor’s more creepy roles as a psychotic Colonel who is so fond of killing Confederates that he becomes a peacetime Territorial judge whose approach to law enforcement includes impromptu hangings and arson.
Ford’s veritable enshrinement as a Western icon suited him perfectly. Tough, lean and of few words, Glenn Ford was at home in the saddle as few actors ever were. Many of his most distinctive Western films were made during the 1950’s: Jubal (1956), The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Cowboy (1958) and The Sheepman (1958).
Ford’s indelible portrayal of Sgt. Dave Bannion in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) remains one of the actor’s most definitive performances. As the revenge-obsessed cop wading through a municipal sewer of organized crime, corruption and avarice, he plumbed ice-cold depths of vengeance beyond the badge to even the score with the crooks who murdered his wife.
After leaving Columbia in the mid 1950’s, Ford went on to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to star as the idealistic slum high school teacher in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), fights off land grabbing baron Edward G. Robinson and his ruthless wife, Barbara Stanwyck in The Violent Men (1955) and is a magnate struggling to cope with his son’s kidnapping in Ransom! (1956).
After 21 years in the movies, Glenn Ford was voted the #1 box office star for 1958; a tribute to his enduring popularity. Into the next decade, he continued to appear in films of distinction: Experiment in Terror (1962), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963) and Fate is the Hunter (1964) until his star finally began to subside with both age and pictures of lesser quality.
The final phase of Ford’s career included several successful television series and a portrayal of Clark Kent’s father in Superman (1978) that introduced the actor to a new generation of moviegoers. Ford’s professional resume, which concluded with his forced retirement due to ill health in 1991, included over 100 feature films and television programs.
In addition to his acting, Glenn Ford served with distinction during World War II and retired as a full Captain in the United States Naval Reserve.
Despite the distinctiveness of his acting, Glenn Ford’s career is notable by the failure of both the Motion Picture Academy and the American Film Institute to formally honor the actor for his work. In the opinion of this writer, it is a singular omission that reflects considerable discredit on both of these organizations
At recent celebration of the actor’s 90th birthday at a sold-out Egyptian Theatre on May 1st, 2006, at which Gilda was screened, a videotape of the game, but diminished, actor was shown thanking the celebrants in attendance. Ford emotionally concluded, I wish I were up and around, but I’m doing the best that I can… There’s so much I have to be grateful for.”
We are grateful to Glenn Ford for leaving all of us such a distinguished legacy on film.
Alan Rode is a film historian, writer, and board member of the Film Noir Foundation. His book about Charles McGraw, film noir and Hollywood is due out next year.
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