NIGHT IN MANHATTAN (1937) – Directed by Herbert Moulton, featuring Gwyllyn Ford

Of interest mainly because it was the first time Gwyllyn Ford appeared in front of a camera, NIGHT IN MANHATTAN is simply a musical short film aimed at promoting some exciting young talent as potential motion picture stars. Apparently such glorified screen tests were quite common in this era and when the short was being put together, the producers at Paramount recognized they needed a good MC to frame the proceedings.

Fresh-faced and eager, Gwyllyn Ford does a commendable job, though without any indication of the great talent that would manifest itself in the years to come. He was only 21 here and ironically, though he talks about the featured artists receiving their first big chance, none of the acts are known today (including a young lady who does a remarkable tap dance on pointe shoes! Eleanor Powell would’ve been impressed). Gwyllyn was the one who would benefit most from this screen test, capitalizing on his relaxed, likeable persona and making his first film appearance count. (It is true he did not receive a contract offer from Paramount after this screen test, but the experience must have been invaluable). Perhaps it was to his advantage that he was not required to play a character but rather just be himself as host. (Ford would of course later go on record to say that every part he played was more or less himself, though this is sometimes misunderstood to mean that he had no range and was not acting. This is simply not true, as we shall see!)

What is evident even at this early stage in Gwyllyn’s career is the rich baritone voice that became a Ford trademark and which, when settled into chest resonance in the years to come, proved one of his best qualities as an actor. In NIGHT IN MANHATTAN his voice retains some youthful head tone to it, but it is still warm. Few leading men have higher, tenor speaking voices. Gwyllyn’s voice was a definite plus in his appeal as a film actor. What is also here apparent is that early on, Gwyllyn had a tendency, as most young actors do, (and what was undoubtedly required of him in this film), to speak quickly. This is contrary to the measured confidence inherent in the later great Ford performances. It is interesting to observe this feature, knowing of this later development.

Naïve young Gwyllyn was paid $35.00 for this appearance. Not a bad pay cheque in 1937, except that he was expected to use part of that sum to rent a tuxedo. The acquisition of a suitable tux set him back $15.00 and an apocryphal story has it that he wound up in the same tux once worn by Marlene Dietrich in one of her earlier films, (possibly MOROCCO, with Gary Cooper). This is the only film in which Glenn Ford is billed using his real name, Gwyllyn.

HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE (1939) – Directed by Ricardo Cortez, starring Nicholas Conte, Jean Rogers, Raymond Walburn & Glenn Ford

Perhaps disgruntled at not getting a contract at Paramount, Glenn Ford went east to New York where he opened and closed on Broadway in the space of a week. Lacking the money to return to the west coast, he shuffled around New York for a while, staying with friends in Greenwich Village. Not long after he befriended Tallulah Bankhead. She was then a big Broadway star and was set to appear in Lillian Hellman’s THE LITTLE FOXES. Glenn was to appear with her.

Tom Moore, an intuitive casting agent at 20th-Century Fox, persuaded his bosses to give Glenn a screen test. Moore hastily summoned Ford back to Los Angeles, forever denying him another shot at Broadway. The move almost backfired as the powers at Fox Studios hated Ford’s screen test. Nonetheless, with Tom Moore’s patient needling, Fox did agree to hire Glenn to appear in HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE in 1939. He was hired for a period of two weeks over the objections of the director, Ricardo Cortez, and thus made his feature debut in this low-budget, end-of-the-Depression era melodrama.

Glenn Ford’s solid training in the theatre gave him an acting technique (how to use his voice, gestures, posture, understanding of character, etc.) which served him well in the course of his film career. While his performances grew to maturity by the later forties and developed into a vintage of consistent near-perfection for the remainder of his career, Ford (by 1939 officially Glenn and not Gwyllyn) brought confidence and youthful energy to his performance in HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE.

While Ford’s performance is less than perfect (he’s a bit stiff at times, compared to his later ease in front of the camera), he still gives a good performance that sets forth for the first time two of Glenn Ford’s most enduring and defining characteristics as an actor: sincerity and confidence.

HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE is sometimes assumed to be a Western but is, in fact, a story set firmly in the 1930s. Scenes of hobos riding the rails particularly confine this film to that period.

Despite being awarded fourth billing (not bad for an official debut!) Ford’s character, Joe, is essentially the protagonist for the film. The opening scene whereby Ford expresses his burning desire to eschew the bustle of city life for a quiet ranch out west, establishes him as the central character whose journey we must be interested in for the film to work. While the first scene is rather talky and expositional, Ford manages to inject it with an enthusiasm and sensitivity that endears him to the audience. Here is a nice young man—hopeful, eager and possessing an Everyman quality—that audiences can care about and root for. Not an easy accomplishment given that he had no established screen presence for the audience to identify with. Few movie goers would have remembered him from a musical short/screen test two years previous.

Ford carries the dialogue in this opening scene with aplomb, something a debuting actor without stage experience might find extremely daunting. Here is an example of Ford’s confidence as a performer manifesting itself, even if his character, Joe, though eager, retains the vulnerability of a young man who doesn’t presume to know all the answers.

Since the advent of “‘60s cool,” onscreen leading men have rarely been allowed to appear anything less than cocky, smug and full of all the right moves. While not as naïve as Andy Hardy (from the beloved series of ‘30s films contemporary to HEAVEN), Ford firmly establishes his screen persona at this point in his career as a ‘character juve’ or juvenile with leading man potential. Another way of defining this term is that Ford was thought of as interesting (one who has character, is not bland) and young (juvenile).

As the starting point in an appreciation of Glenn Ford’s artistry as an actor, HEAVEN WITH A BARBED WIRE FENCE is a commendable and worthwhile effort.

MY SON IS GUILTY (1939) – Directed by Charles Barton, starring Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey, Julie Bishop & Glenn Ford

Despite Ford’s competency in his debut film, Fox studios chose only to award Glenn a one-year contract, however they found nothing for him to do. It must have been with some relief then when Ford’s agent convinced Columbia Studios to give this newcomer a chance. Ford was released from Fox and signed on with the studio that was to be his home until his enlistment in the Marines on December 13, 1942.

Glenn Ford retains his fourth billing status in this dated pot-boiler, but has much less to do than in his debut film. In fact, for the first half of MY SON IS GUILTY Glenn Ford as Barney plays a rather weak, uninteresting character who gets shoved around by bad guy (and guilty son of the title) Bruce Cabot.

The story is simple. Beat cop Harry Carey, that master of understated realism, welcomes home his son, Bruce Cabot, who has just spent two years in prison. Naturally dad hopes his son will go straight and settle down with his childhood friend and would-be sweetheart, played by Jaqueline Wells. Glenn plays Cabot’s rival. You can tell by the title of the film what happens as Cabot does indeed go bad again, resulting in the inevitable showdown with dad. The plot would have made a good Western.

There are some surprises in this film and, although dated, there is real entertainment value to be found. Edgar Buchanan appears, not long after he turned over his dentist’s practice to his wife in real life and pursued his dream of being a character actor. Buchanan went on to appear with Ford in several films and again on television in CADE’S COUNTY. They were long-time friends, although they have no scenes together here. It would be interesting to know if they even met while working on MY SON IS GUILTY in light of the friendship that was to form between them.

Also of note is a nightclub scene where we are treated to a terrific dance routine by the stunning (and here, very young) Nicholas Brothers. Harold and Fayard are always a joy to watch and although they do not advance the plot, they are a bright spot in this mediocre film.

But the real point of interest for Ford fans is how Glenn creates an interesting character out of a paucity of material. First up is a scene where Cabot threatens to pull a gun and shoot Glenn. Glenn stares Cabot down and tells him to go ahead, calling his bluff. This is a turning point for the development of Barney (Glenn’s role) and he really begins to come into his own after this. Glenn also joins with Carey to try and apprehend Cabot and in so doing matures into a believable and deserving suitor for Wells’ affections.

One feature of Glenn’s early performances is his tendency to break into a broad, toothy smile. This ‘aw shucks’ look is exactly right for the characters he is playing. I do not mean to suggest that the smile is not calculated. Rather I mean to point out the contrast between this very boyish characteristic and the tight-lipped, rather reserved smile Ford adopted in his later films. The open-mouthed smile is uninhibited and youthful. Close-mouthed, Ford suggests maturity and warmth. I have no doubt Ford was conscious of this look on camera and used it to full advantage in maturing into the great actor he became.

Ford’s voice is best remembered by his fans as being smooth and velvet-like, a deep baritone capable of gentleness as much as quiet authority. In MY SON IS GUILTY, Ford’s voice is still rich, but continues to be pitched a few tones higher than in his post-war roles. It is, however, more controlled than in NIGHT IN MANHATTAN, where his diction reflected his stage background and his choice of emphases on key words was less than subtle.

MY SON IS GUILTY is not a great film and does not offer a great Glenn Ford performance, but it is a key film in tracing his evolution as a film actor of note. He takes a nothing part and infuses it with integrity and more than a suggestion of quiet strength.

One scene, where Ford tells Wells that Cabot will regret crossing paths with him again, is played in a rather dated, almost theatrical style. Ford turns slightly away from Wells as he speaks, favouring the camera. It’s an obvious bit of blocking (movement) that was no doubt dictated by the director. The effect says ‘important moment here’—head angled for emphasis. But the remarkable thing is that Glenn manages the awkward situation with perfect honesty and believability. Instead of the common young actor’s tendency to push and even overplay the dramatic, Glenn holds back. And because the movie is a melodrama, his countering the set-up of the scene with an understated delivery (in many ways a Ford trademark) allows the scene to work. Had Ford fallen into the trap of pushing and overplaying (as Cabot, a mediocre actor, does) he would have mired the scene in a 1930s style of acting that looks very dated today. It’s a defining moment for the 23-year-old actor. It’s also an indication why he went on to become one of the greatest stars in motion pictures, known for his realistic, truthful acting style.

You may cringe a bit watching this dated crime drama, but you’ll savour the portents of great things to come. I recommend this film for Ford fans. He plays, for the first time, with established stars (Carey and Cabot) and holds his own remarkably well.

FILMS OF 1942-43