What a great Western actor
Glenn Ford was one of the greatest of all Western actors. He appeared in a long series of cowboy films, 26 in all, and in all of them, even the ones of uneven quality, he was outstanding. He was strong and tough. He was ideal in the role of a man who’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Quiet, even taciturn, speaking with measured tones, he was the perfect Westerner. He rode supremely well, as if he and the horse were one. He underplayed in an almost Gary Cooperish way and once said, “Some actors count their lines as soon as they receive a script. I'm the opposite. I try to see how many lines I can whittle down...You can say just as much in 4 as you can in 14.” He also said, “If they tried to rush me, I'd always say I've only got one other speed, and it's slower.”
“When I was a young actor,” Glenn said, “I followed Spencer Tracy's advice, 'Learn your lines, hit your mark, don't bump into the props, and do the scene.' That's all a good actor needs to know in my opinion. 'Doing nothing well' is my definition of a good actor. One of the great misconceptions about this business is that you get in front of a camera and 'act.' That's the very thing an actor should not do. Be yourself--people need to identify with you. If they're not able to, you're in trouble."
Glenn Ford was born in Quebec in 1916. His parents were of British origin and his mother was Welsh. In fact his real first name was Gwyllyn, not perhaps the most Hollywood-friendly of handles (the idea of ‘Glenn Ford’ came from the Canadian town of Glenford, his father’s home). The family moved to California when Gwyllyn was eight and he went to school in Santa Monica. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1939.
He was a remarkably handsome man and became one of the movies’ biggest stars. The high point of his career was really the late 1950s, and he was voted the number one box office attraction in 1958, though he worked through into the 1990s. More than just good looks propelled him, though. He was a talented actor, best known for playing the part of an ordinary guy tested by extreme circumstance.
He acted in various theater companies in his early twenties before landing a contract at Columbia in 1939 under the astute Harry Cohn. He appeared in two Westerns in 1941, both entertaining, Texas and Go West, Young Lady, the former with his great pal William Holden. Then he interrupted his career to enter the US Marines.
His war service was based in San Diego and related to film, in the Photographic Section, and he did public relations work. After the war, in 1946 he shot to fame with the noir Gilda, appearing opposite the stunning Rita Hayworth, one of the most beautiful women Hollywood ever found (in my humble opinion). He made 66 dramas and 39 comedies, so Westerns, of which he ‘only’ made 26, were not what he is necessarily best known for. If you ask many non-Western fans (such people do exist) to name a Glenn Ford film, they might well say The Big Heat or Blackboard Jungle, or maybe The Teahouse of the August Moon. But for us, civilized, thinking, intelligent Western buffs, we only have to hear the name Glenn Ford to think immediately of such great pictures as Jubal, The Sheepman or 3:10 to Yuma.
His first post-war Western was the 1948 psychodrama The Man from Colorado and in many ways this was his first ‘serious’ Western. The others till then had been fun, lighter pictures, very well worth a watch but hardly Red River. The following year, 1949, Lust for Gold was the highlight, an unusual movie in which Ford put in a stunning performance. In both of these films he played a man on the edge of madness.
In the early 1950s we would highlight The Man from the Alamo and The Violent Men, both well-made, gripping Westerns of quality. The late 50s, however, was when he was really at his peak. Jubal (1956), The Sheepman (1957) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), the first and last directed by Delmer Daves, the middle one by George Marshall, were outstandingly good and Glenn Ford was magnificent in them. This was the apogee (I think that’s the word) of Glenn’s Western career.
In the early 1960s we had the Anthony Mann-directed remake of Cimarron (1960), not a great film it must be said; the fun George Marshall comedy Western Advance to the Rear (1964); and the charming, almost elegiac The Rounders with Henry Fonda in 1965. They were all OK or better than OK, though not perhaps quite in the very top drawer.
Sadly, you could argue that The Rounders was really Ford’s last good Western. Frankly, B westerns like A Time for Killing and The Last Challenge, both in 1967, were followed by Day of the Evil Gun, poor, in 1968 and the Disney vehicle Smith! aimed at the younger audience in 1969 (which regular readers of this blog will immediately shy like a bronc at because of its ! in the title). Not that I have anything against Disney. I do not think them to blame for the plastification of culture and the abasement of sensibilities, nor the pollution of young persons’ minds, nay, nor do I hold them culpable for the Disneyfication of the planet. Far from it. Anyway, where were we?
Heaven With a Gun in 1969 was a return to form, quite a good late-60s Western. Ford played southwestern Sheriff Cade for one season (1971–1972) in a mix of western drama and police mystery in CBS’s Cade County. There were also made-for-TV films such as Santee (1973) and The Sacketts (1979) when he was still good – he was always good – but he looked overweight and past his prime. His last Western appearance was a small part as a Sheriff in Turner’s not-great Border Shootout (1990) when he was 74. At least he didn’t do Italian westerns.
Glenn Ford suffered a series of strokes and died at his Beverly Hills home in 2006, aged 90.
He was credited with being the fastest gun in Hollywood, able to draw and fire in 0.4 seconds, faster even than James Arness.
His hat recently sold for $2,000.00 + $460 buyer’s fee at auction and that famous jeans jacket for $3,750.00 + $862.50. Cheap.
As for the ‘what might have been’ department, Sam Peckinpah considered him for Robert Ryan’s role in The Wild Bunch. But then he considered pretty well everybody. It would have been interesting, though I doubt anyone could have outdone Ryan in that part. He was penciled in for Hondo in 1953 but backed out in favor of John Wayne when he heard that John Farrow was directing (they didn’t get on). That would have been interesting.
Anyway, Glenn Ford was one of my all-time favorite Western stars and I’ll watch anything with him in it.
Glenn said, “The Western is a man's world and I love it.”