Leading man Ford a master of all manner of roles

Commentary

Commentary

September 01, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

It was hard for any actor to hold his own alongside Rita Hayworth, who practically invented the term "screen siren" with her sultry star turn in the 1946 film noir classic Gilda. But Glenn Ford managed to do just that, and in what was his first big-time starring role.

Mr. Ford, who died Wednesday at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home at age 90, was cast as the male lead in Gilda, and surely the task must have seemed daunting for the 29-year-old actor. Hayworth was beautiful and sexy, the reigning queen of Columbia Pictures. And it must have been apparent that Gilda would succeed or fail based on her considerable charms.

Still, it was Mr. Ford, a contract player at Columbia since 1939, whose narration opened the film and set its cynical, deceit-laden tone. As Johnny Farrell, a two-bit hustler with a decidedly nasty attitude toward women in general (and Ms. Hayworth's Gilda, in particular), he was the glue that held the picture together. His character gave Gilda reason to smolder, and it was his relationship with crooked nightclub owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready) that gave the film its sinister, duplicitous edge.

True, it was Ms. Hayworth's scorching rendition of "Put the Blame on Mame" that seared itself most memorably into moviegoers' psyches. But it was Mr. Ford's mercenary narration, with lines like "To me, a dollar was a dollar in any language," that captured the film's tone.

Gilda proved classic Ford. In a career that spanned more than a half-century and 80-plus films, he was rarely the sort of marquee star whose face was plastered on the covers of Time and Life. He was also never splashy, and that enabled him to be easily overlooked; despite critical praise and continuing popularity (the Motion Picture Herald voted him the top money-making star of 1958), he was never nominated for an Oscar.

But his bedrock appeal made him an important commodity in Hollywood, and his career went through a number of stages, all of them successful.

On the heels of Gilda, he became a cornerstone of American film noir; even his heroes usually came with an edge, a sense of self-righteousness or self-awareness that played well into the genre's sliding moral code.

Mr. Ford's career took a turn for the inspirational in 1955, with his role as teacher to a gang of adolescent thugs in Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle. As the film opens, it looks as though Mr. Ford's Richard Dadier is just another unprepared, well-meaning teacher, about to be devoured by the mean streets represented by his youthful charges (including young actors Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky and Jamie Farr). But Dadier proves to be made of sterner stuff, and Mr. Ford never lets us doubt his underlying strength.

In the late '50s and early '60s, Mr. Ford turned to Westerns, putting his hard-won resiliency to work playing everything from the resourceful outlaw of Delmer Daves' 1957 3:10 to Yuma to the heroic homesteader of Anthony Mann's 1960 Cimarron.

His 1963 turn in Vincente Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father, as a widower struggling to raise his young son alone - and to find a prospective wife who meets his son's demanding standards - gave audiences the Glenn Ford many remember today: warm, admirable, loving, amiable. It was those qualities that were brought to bear in one of his last memorable appearances, as the inspirational Pa Kent in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman.

But in a career that continued full tilt until the early 1990s, when he suffered a series of strokes, Mr. Ford proved that he could master all manner of roles, from the cold-hearted to the heartbreaking. Of such things are real movie stars made.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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