Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Dave the Dude (1918-2006)

I myself am nearly too young to remember Glenn Ford really well. So, I can imagine that for most of the current movie-going audience he is really just a name, if he is remembered at all.

Strangely, he might be most recognized by post-baby-boomers from Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. He was one of several big Hollywood names in small roles in that movie. He played Clark Kent’s adoptive father, a role that mainly required him to collapse with a heart attack. The character would later be played on television by Eddie Jones (Lois & Clark) and Dukes of Hazzard alumnus John Schneider (Smallville).

But, of course, that role late in his lengthy working life was a mere footnote to a career that spanned five decades and something like 85 movies. (One of his earliest roles was in a Blondie movie.) But before we leave the footnotes of his career, it is worth noting that he also originated another role that wound up on TV. In 1963, he played single dad to future A-list director Ron Howard in a romantic comedy called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Ford’s and Howard’s characters would later be played on TV by Bill Bixby and Brandon Cruz.

Ford was one of those versatile leading men who could easily play a cowboy, a cop, a gangster, a soldier or a teacher. He appeared in something like 23 westerns, with names like Cowboy, The Redhead and the Cowboy, Cimarron, Border Shootout, Day of the Evil Gun, The Fastest Gun Alive, Heaven with a Gun, A Time for Killing, The Violent Men, The Man From Colorado and The Man From the Alamo. My personal favorite was 1965’s The Rounders, which was basically a three-character comedy starring Ford, Henry Fonda and a horse. They were supported by such classic character actors as Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan, Kathleen Freeman and Denver Pyle.

Ford’s war movies had titles like Destroyer, The Flying Missile and Torpedo Run. He joined sprawling international casts for war epics like Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Is Paris Burning? and Midway. He was a cop in The Big Heat (opposite Gloria Grahame), Experiment in Terror (opposite Lee Remick) and The Undercover Man (opposite Nina Foch). He was a cop gone bad in The Money Trap.

And, while the idea of taking movie high concepts and making them film titles seems like a recent development symptomatic of a dumbed-down popular culture (The Break-Up, Snakes on a Plane), let us not forget that Ford’s oeuvre from the mid-20th century included titles like Framed, Trial, Ransom and Terror on a Train.

Glenn Ford played a gangster in what qualifies as my sentimental favorite of all his movies. It was a remake that really did not need to be made, since the original was perfectly fine. But the director, Frank Capra, was entitled to do it since, after all, he had made the original, Lady for a Day, back in 1933. That movie was a shamelessly sentimental adaptation of a Damon Runyon story about street toughs with hearts of gold, who go to extreme lengths to help Dave the Dude’s lucky charm, a street denizen named Apple Annie (played by Mary Robson), pull off the deception of making her visiting daughter believe she is actually an aristocratic grande dame. As it happens, someone named David Burton directed a sequel, Lady by Choice, the next year. But it was Capra himself who would remake his own original classic 28 years later. It turned out to be Capra’s final film.

The one thing that Pocketful of Miracles had, and had in spades, that Lady for a Day didn’t was sheer star power. In addition to Ford as Dave the Dude, it had Bette Davis (at the brink in her career between classy roles and creepy exploitive ones) as Apple Annie. It also had Hope Lange as Dave’s doll Queenie, Arthur O’Connell as a count and, in other supporting roles, Peter Falk, Thomas Mitchell, Sheldon Leonard, Ellen Corby, Jack Elam, the most entertaining butler in cinematic history, Edward Everett Horton, and, in her screen debut, as Davis’s daughter, an actor who would quicken the pulse of boys and men for years to come, the extremely young Ann-Margret.

But there are really four movies that this Quebec-born actor (birth name: Gwyllyn Samuel Newton; his professional name came from the Canadian town, Glenford) will mainly be remembered for. One is the aforementioned Big Heat, a film noir directed by Fritz Lang, in which Ford is a cop seeking revenge for the murder of his wife. It is remembered, in particular, for a scene in which Lee Marvin throws scalding coffee at Gloria Grahame. Ford will also be remembered for the 1946 film that made him a star, Charles Vidor’s Gilda, in which he formed an explosive triangle with a sultry Rita Hayworth and her mysterious casino owner husband, George Macready.

Ford will also be remembered for two other 1950s films. One, Richard Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle, featured him as an idealistic teacher in a harrowing New York City school system. For its time, the movie was provocative and controversial. (Bill Haley’s shocking “Rock Around the Clock” played over the opening credits.) Ford had to face such incorrigible students as Vic Morrow, Jamie Farr and, as the student Ford really tried to reach, the young Sidney Poitier. The other film is Daniel Mann’s comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon, about the clash of cultures in post-WWII American-occupied Okinawa. (Will such a movie ever be made about Iraq?) Ford played a U.S. captain determined to bring American values to the natives, with no end of apoplectic frustration, before inevitably going native. He is aided by a translator, played by an eerily pixie-ish Marlon Brando. Five years later, Ford starred in a near-remake, with Donald O’Connor, called Cry for Happy.

The only other time that Ford appeared in a movie with Brando was, that’s right, Superman. He never did appear in a movie with Eva Marie Saint. But since the current Superman Returns is meant to be a second sequel to the 1978 Superman and in the new movie Saint plays Clark Kent’s mother, I suppose that makes at least once that Ford and Saint played husband and wife.

-S.L., 31 August 2006

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