Glenn Ford

'Versatile' actor who graduated from boyish, louche parts to lonely cops and harassed fathers

Wednesday 01 April 2009 12:14

Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford (Glenn Ford), actor: born Quebec 1 May 1916; married 1943 Eleanor Powell (one son; marriage dissolved 1959), 1966 Kathryn Hays (marriage dissolved 1968), 1977 Cynthia Hayward (marriage dissolved 1984), 1993 Jeanne Baus (marriage dissolved 1994); died Beverly Hills, California 30 August 2006.

Sacha Guitry, the French boulevardier dramatist, actor and wit, once remarked that no single individual could expect to be every age; that, as he put it, there was just one period of one's life at which one could sit for a portrait and feel secure that it would be a good resemblance.

Like many American actors of his generation, Glenn Ford seems in retrospect to have had two ages rather than one. There was, first, the boyishly personable, likeably louche Glenn Ford of 25, typically a mobster, adventurer or aviator and almost invariably (at least in one's memory) named Johnny - the sort of pretty, clean-cut young man who belatedly re-enters the life of the film's heroine and who, in its very closing minutes, about to fly down to a big construction job in Rio or Panama, is reunited with her on the airfield itself, her wedding gown (she has all but resigned herself to marrying some wealthy protector) fanned by propellers already awhirl. And then there was the Glenn Ford of 20 odd years later, the boyishness now as endearingly lined and crumpled as a seersucker suit on a muggy Fourth of July, the Glenn Ford who usually played harassed fathers and weary westerners and lonely, honest cops pecking at TV dinners in dingy rented apartments.

Partly because he tended to work for Columbia, which used to be the least distinguished of all the major studios, and partly because, if a pleasant enough performer, he was appreciably lacking in both intensity and spirituality, Ford remained a star of the second eleven, so to speak - a supporting star, if such an oxymoron is conceivable. He appeared in thrillers, war films, comedies and westerns, and thus was often referred to by critics as "versatile".

In a Hollywood context, however, this was a somewhat double-edged compliment, signifying in his particular case that his personality was ultimately too bland to carry any potent generic connotations and could be inscribed without strain in any genre whatsoever. He made some memorable films but it was seldom for him that one remembers them.

The nephew of Sir John Macdonald, a former prime minister of Canada, and a descendant of Martin Van Buren, eighth president of the United States, he was born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford in Quebec, where his well-to-do father was a railway executive. The Fords soon moved out to California, where Gwyllyn took up acting, first in high school, then with small, semi-professional theatre groups.

Having signed a contract with Columbia in 1939, he was almost immediately, as Glenn Ford, accorded leading-man status, if still exclusively in B-movies. Between 1939 and 1942, when he enlisted in the Marines, he made no fewer than 14 films, all now forgotten.

On his discharge in 1945 Ford (who two years earlier had married the actress and dancer Eleanor Powell) would see his career properly launched with Charles Vidor's romantic melodrama Gilda (1946), in which he was cast opposite Rita Hayworth. Like Casablanca (1942, to which it is on every level superior), Gilda became a Hollywood myth, a prodigy of popular culture that, given its director's track record (Vidor was no more than a competent journeyman), had no right to be one, a bastardised masterpiece born out of wedlock - the sort of film, in short, that they don't make any more. And, even if its fascination is due above all to Hayworth's extraordinarily erotic presence, the youthful Ford (their first meeting is a beautifully hackneyed chestnut: after enigmatically scrutinising him, she murmurs a retrospective reproach, "It's been a long time, Johnny. Why did you never call me?") looked splendid in a snow-white tuxedo.

In the same year, in Curtis Bernhardt's A Stolen Life, he had to contend with not one but two Bette Davises, playing twin sisters, one very, very good and, as naturally as night follows day, the other very, very bad. And in 1948 he was partnered with Hayworth again, as a preposterous Don José, in Vidor's The Loves of Carmen. This is also the sort of film they don't make any more and, watching it, one can see why.

Thereafter his filmography tended towards the indiscriminate (it included a title voted by some fan magazine as being the most boring in Hollywood history: The Doctor and the Girl, 1949), enlivened at regular intervals by a few decent westerns: The Man from the Alamo (1953), The Violent Men (1955), Jubal (1956, a version of King Lear), The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and Cowboy (1958, an enjoyable, atmospheric confection in which his co-star Jack Lemmon played Frank Harris, erotomane, mythomaniac and friend of Oscar Wilde). In 1955 he played a sympathetic schoolmaster in Blackboard Jungle, Richard Brooks's once admired, now hopelessly dated study of juvenile delinquency.

Best of all, though, were The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954), two exquisitely morbid dramas shot by Fritz Lang as through a lens, darkly. The former is one of Hollywood's finest films noirs (notorious for the scene in which Gloria Grahame is disfigured by a cup of scalding coffee), the latter a pitilessly grim adaptation of Zola's La Bête humaine.

The Sixties were not good years for Ford. His flair for comedy, revealed in Daniel Mann's The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), where he was nevertheless upstaged by Marlon Brando's wiry, wily, racistically conceived Okinawan interpreter, served him reasonably well in Frank Capra's Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Vincente Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963), but his career had seriously begun to grind to a halt before he himself was altogether prepared to quit.

Before he did, however, he made in 1978 what might be called a farewell comeback in Richard Donner's Superman, playing a genial Midwestern farmer who adopts the infant, orphaned superhero and slowly discovers that his foster-son's body is entirely composed of erectile tissue.

Gilbert Adair

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