That rangy walk, those steely blue eyes, that quiet drawl: Henry Fonda (left) was ideally suited to Westerns. Whether as Frank James, Wyatt Earp or any number of other Western characters, Fonda would become one of the most memorable Western leads of all.
Though Fonda started acting in movies in 1935, Westerns – or at least adult ‘A’ picture Westerns - were not common then. It was not until 1939 that the grown-up genre really staged a comeback, when all the big studios wanted a Western. John Ford directed Stagecoach, released by United Artists in February. In April Warners showed Errol Flynn cleaning up Dodge City and Paramount had Joel McCrea nation building in Union Pacific. In November Universal gave us Destry Rides Again, with Fonda’s great pal James Stewart. But before all these, in January 1939 (and what a stunning year for Westernistas ‘39 must have been) Fox cast Tyrone Power as Jesse James. And when Fox needed Jesse’s brother Frank, they chose Henry Fonda.
Fonda was not an obvious choice. The New York Times called him “the most likable of the new crop of romantic juveniles”. He had never been in a Western movie. But he was born in the prairie city of Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1905, and those roots must have helped equip him for future Western roles. There were Western tinges to the Henry Hathaway-directed feud story The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in 1936, in which Fonda was third-billed. He was in a stage production of The Virginian in 1937, a play I for one would love to have seen. He starred as the Virginian with Dan Duryea (as Trampas or as Steve I am not quite sure; I can’t find the cast list – probably Trampas). So there were at least some Western credentials.
Hank as Frank
Fonda’s Frank James put him on the Western map. So much so that Fox decided on a sequel in 1940 and Fritz Lang directed The Return of Frank James – in some ways a superior picture. In both, Fonda’s Frank James is far from the historical reality; he is a noble figure with a deep fund of decency. But that’s Hollywood for you. And Fonda was superb in the part.
It is said that Fonda’s next involvement with the Western came in 1941 when he acted as (uncredited) technical advisor on the set of Fritz Lang’s follow-up oater, Western Union. But it was 1943 that saw him lead in a truly fine Western film: The Ox-Bow Incident. Fonda was fourteen years old when he observed a lynching. He watched a mob from the second floor window of his father's print shop. "It was the most horrendous sight I'd ever seen… We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope." Fonda made several films condemning the evil of lynching and questioning capital punishment in general; few are as grim and dark as the first, The Ox-Bow Incident, which Fonda and director William Wellman had to nag Darryl Zanuck into making. Zanuck agreed to the uncommercial vehicle only if Wellman and Fonda signed up to more audience-friendly movies. As Zanuck predicted, it did little at the box office in the darkest hours of the Second World War when Westerns were popular but only if they contained color and shooting and scenery. But it became one of the best ‘serious’ Westerns in the history of the genre and is still to be admired.
A dark, powerful Western and a great performance
John Ford had immediately seen Fonda’s potential. Fonda’s early Western career was tied to that of Ford. He would work for Ford twice in 1939, as Young Mr. Lincoln and in Drums Along the Mohawk, and in 1940 he would be a truly great Tom Joad in one of the Ford masterpieces, The Grapes of Wrath. Though none of these movies was a true Western, together they created Fonda’s profile as a salt-of-the-earth American. You might say he specialized in playing ordinary, decent Americans from humble origins. And they established in the public consciousness a tough, quiet man ready to what is right whatever the cost. The perfect Western hero, in fact.
Fonda served three years in the US Navy in World War II and on his return resumed his acting career. John Ford’s first post-war project was to be a Wyatt Earp story, and Fonda was ideal for the part – and the fact that he done service in the Navy helped too. Fox's My Darling Clementine (1946), despite Ford’s protestations as to historical accuracy, was complete baloney from a factual point of view but it was perhaps the greatest of all the mythic representations of Wyatt Earp as town-taming marshal, and Fonda was absolutely superb in the part. The film is a landmark Western and can be watched any number of times.
The famous pose. Fonda as Wyatt Earp.
In the late 1940s John Ford produced some of the finest Westerns of the century, and the cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) is a suite of stunningly good films. John Wayne starred in all of them, of course, but the power of Fort Apache also owed much to Henry Fonda. His rigid Easterner Colonel Thursday, opposite Wayne’s free-spirit Westerner Captain York, was another perfectly splendid role. Fonda was now incontestably one of the greatest of Western actors.
But it was followed by a Western hiatus. A decade passed before Fonda would climb into the saddle again. He was first and foremost, in his own thinking, a stage actor and he spent much of the 50s on the boards. The early and mid-1950s, that heyday of the Western movie, would pass Fonda by. He would be a celluloid Russian aristocrat or an obstinate juror but he wouldn’t don a Stetson again until 1957, when he appeared as a bounty hunter in Paramount’s The Tin Star, directed by Anthony Mann (Fonda sure worked for some of the great directors).
As mentor to young sheriff Perkins
Fonda? A bounty hunter? Surely not! But never fear, like most Hollywood bounty hunters of the period, Fonda’s was a goodie, deep down. He becomes the mentor of young sheriff Anthony Perkins, and he falls for widow Betsy Palmer and forms a family with her and her young son, going off to a new life in California together. There’s that ordinary decent American again, doing what a man’s gotta do and then settling down on a ranch.
Mentor again, this time on TV
In 1959 Fonda’s agents persuaded him to do a TV series, The Deputy, almost a Tin Star spin-off. NBC accepted the idea that Fonda would be the narrator-host, with occasional appearances as star. He would be ‘Chief Marshal’ Simon Fry in Arizona in the 1880s, with Allen Case in the title role. This allowed Fonda to travel and do other work. In fact Fonda featured as lead in only six of the thirty-nine episodes. The series did well enough to be renewed for a second season.
Back on the big screen in ’59, again at Fox, Fonda flirted more with being a baddie again in the Edward Dmytryk-directed Warlock. He was a clean-up-the-town marshal once more but this time only a semi-official one, not Earpish, a man of dubious reputation hired to shoot to kill, and, with close friend Anthony Quinn, a saloon owner. But it’s Fonda, so in the end he does the decent thing again. Still, The Tin Star and Warlock did suggest a hint of a new Fonda, with tinges of bad-guy here and there.
A hint of a homosexual relationship
As the 60s dawned Fonda was beguiled into appearing in MGM’s lumbering (but commercially successful) How the West Was Won. It was in fact a pretty bad film and all the big stars in it had little more than cameo parts. At least Fonda’s crusty old buffalo hunter was more convincing than his pal Jimmy Stewart’s frankly ridiculous mountain man. John Ford was one of the (three) directors, so perhaps that was what enticed Fonda.
A painting of Fonda in How the West Was Won
How the West Was Won was one of six Westerns Fonda made in the 1960s, a time when the true glory of the genre had somewhat departed. Still, there were some delights in store. The Rounders in 1965 was a charming light Western written and directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Fonda alongside that excellent Western actor Glenn Ford. It has a bawdy side but also a slight tinge of melancholy.
Partnered with Glenn Ford
Warners’ A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) was a poker drama, only coincidentally a Western, with Fonda and Joanne Woodward as his wife as super-skilled con artists. It’s clever, and entertaining.
Playing poker with Robards and Bickford
That was followed the year after by Welcome to Hard Times, which I must get round to reviewing soon, another Burt Kennedy effort which was an interesting flop. Kennedy wanted gritty reality and Fonda could give him that. He plays a townsman reluctant to face up to a gunman and accused of cowardice. The picture was probably too hard (and too slow) for its own good but Fonda is fine in it.
With pal Stewart
In 1966 Fonda got back together with his old friend James Stewart in a not-great but still quite gripping Western, Firecreek. Stewart is an amateur town marshal and Fonda leads a band of desperadoes into the town. So once again Fonda is on the wrong side of the law. But again he is (of course) a baddie with saving graces. Vincent McEveety was no John Ford and the picture has a slight ‘B’ feel to it but once again Fonda is brilliant. In 1970 Stewart and Fonda would team up again (for the last time) in another light-hearted Western, The Cheyenne Social Club, directed, rather surprisingly, by Gene Kelly. Fonda was a talented amateur artist and it was while on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club that he presented his friend Jimmy Stewart with a painting of Stewart's beloved horse Pie.
With director Gene Kelly on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club
But between Firecreek and The Cheyenne Social Club came the big shock for Fonda fans when in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) a bandit shoots a small boy dead, in cold blood, the camera pans round and who should the killer be but Henry Fonda! Those steely blue eyes were now put to another purpose. As railroad assassin Frank, Fonda is scary, and one of the baddest badmen you will see. It was brilliant casting. It worked.
Widescreen blue eyes
Fonda’s last two Westerns were, quite frankly, sad. Warners’ There Was a Crooked Man paired him with an overacting Kirk Douglas in a red fright wig and was a prison drama, with Fonda as a bearded prison governor. It was really bad. Even worse was to come when Fonda appeared, aged nearly 70, in an Italian Western of no merit whatsoever, My Name is Nobody, and, poor man, seemed to be wandering round the set vaguely, wondering what on earth he was doing there. The two pictures were his last Westerns, and his worst.
But we shouldn’t remember him for those (they aren’t worth watching, not even for Fonda) but for the likes of The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine or Fort Apache. These are great Westerns in which Fonda is absolutely splendid.
Henry Fonda had a fine talent as an actor and he brought a subtlety and nuance to Western lead roles that was quite rare. Only Wayne in his better efforts (Hondo, say, or Red River; The Searchers, of course) or Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter or The Bravados, or Gary Cooper in High Noon, Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, only these matched his ability, and Fonda is one of the best ever Western leads.