A studio star who moved effortlessly across genres in long
and productive career
The hairstyles signposted Glenn Ford's long and active career; from the full and
wavy to the sleek, dark gigolo look, to the short back and sides, to a severe
crewcut that gradually shrivelled like dry grass on the prairie. His face, that
began boyish in prewar B films, hovered somewhere between the rugged
handsomeness of William Holden and Tom Ewell's Thurberesque one, allowing him to
be extremely dour in films noirs or to display the righteous nobility of a lone
western hero, while also being able to play perplexed characters in comedies.
For Ford, who has died aged 90, was a versatile Hollywood star able to shift
genres while retaining his sincere screen persona. Although his realistic speech
and timing seemed to owe something to the Method - he often had a mumbled and
hesitant delivery - the closest he ever came to the Actors' Studio was as Marlon
Brando's co-star in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).
Born in Quebec of Welsh descent, he was the son of a railroad executive and mill
owner, the nephew of Sir John MacDonald, a former prime minister of Canada.
Another Ford kinsman was Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United
States. Ford had tried a variety of jobs, becoming interested in the theatre,
and was acting on stage in California when he was signed to a contract with
Columbia Pictures in 1939.
At the beginning of his career he was in a number of undistinguished B pictures
- an exception being John Cromwell's anti-Nazi drama So Ends Our Night (1941) -
but the films improved and Ford stayed with the studio until the mid-1950s. This
period was interrupted by war service in the US marines, part of his activities
consisting in the training of French Resistance fighters. (He later became a
commander in the US naval reserves and served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.)
Matured from his war experiences, Ford, and millions of hot-blooded men all over
the world, lusted after gorgeous Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), as she peeled
off her long black gloves in a symbolic striptease while singing Put the Blame
on Mame. The sexual chemistry between the two stars was so strong on the set
that Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, who considered Hayworth his private property,
had microphones hidden in her dressing room in case she started an affair with
her leading man. But they quickly found the mics and teased the eavesdropping
boss with risqué conversations.
At the time, Ford was married to leggy, toothy dancer Eleanor Powell, who
retired from the screen to become plain Mrs Glenn Ford in 1943. (They divorced
in 1959.) Yet Cohn paired Hayworth and Ford again in the listless and Bizet-less
The Loves of Carmen (1948), in which Rita was a sexy Gypsy to Ford's stiff Don
José, and also in Affair in Trinidad (1952), another exotic melodrama.
Among Ford's best films at Columbia were the two he made for Fritz Lang. In The
Big Heat (1953), the audience is made to discover and experience the events
subjectively as Ford's cop does, while he mercilessly conducts a retributive
investigation into the death of his wife in a car bomb explosion. Ford's
achievement was in the creation of a cold and calculating yet sympathetic
character, who permits himself some warmth on the death of the pathetic
gangster's moll (Gloria Grahame).
In the same team's Human Desire (1954), an updating of Zola's La Bête Humaine,
already filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938, Ford's steely passivity allowed the other
performances to bounce off him effectively.
In 1955, he gained a crewcut and went over to MGM, where he made an immediate
impact in The Blackboard Jungle as a novice New York schoolteacher confronted
with a class of hooligans. It was also the film which effectively launched Bill
Haley's Rock Around the Clock on the world. Ford's pipe-smoking intensity suited
the liberal worthiness of the picture, as did his lawyer defending a Mexican boy
accused of rape and murder in Trial, of the same year.
Ford then switched successfully to comedy as the affable, ineffectual occupation
army officer Fishy in The Teahouse of the August Moon, trying to bring
American-style democracy to Okinawa, but who goes native himself, and the
bumbling navy PR man trying to do likewise on a South Pacific island in Don't Go
Near the Water (1957).
At the same time, Ford made three Delmer Davies westerns. There was the brooding
Jubal (1956), in which he inspires the Othello-like jealousy of Ernest Borgnine;
3.10 to Yuma (1957), in one of his rare villain parts, and Cowboy (1958), as
Jack Lemmon's tough, drunken partner.
At his busiest in the 1950s and 1960s, Ford moved smoothly from the serious
rodeo drama The Violent Men (1955) and the horse opera The Fastest Gun Alive
(1956) to the biopic operatics of Interrupted Melody (1955) as the husband of a
Wagnerian soprano stricken with polio, to the comedy western The Sheepman (1958)
opposite Shirley Maclaine. He good-humouredly played Damon Runyon's bootlegger
Dave the Dude in Frank Capra's farewell film, A Pocketful of Miracles (1961).
However, in his autobiography, Capra petulantly blamed Ford for the heavy-handed
There followed two movies by Vincente Minnelli. The first was The Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse (1962), in which he was unhappily cast in Rudolph Valentino's
old role, but he exuded charm in the title role of The Courtship of Eddie's
Father (1963) looking for a mother for the then nine-year-old future director
In the 1970s, Ford was more occupied as the hero of the series Cade's County on
TV than on the big screen, but nevertheless he cropped up from time to time to
walk down a dusty street with spurs jangling in minor westerns and cameos in TV
series and war pictures. One of his last feature film appearances was as Pa Kent
in Superman (1978), the muscle-bound hero's adopted father. The critic Pauline
Kael thought it inspired casting because Ford's resources as an actor had
contracted to the point where he had become a comic-book version of the good
Ford, who was married and divorced four times, is survived by his son by Eleanor
· Glenn (Gwyllyn Samuel Newton) Ford, actor, born May 1 1916; died August 30
Ronald Bergan The Guardian 1 September 2006