THE ADVENTURES OF MARTIN EDEN (1942) – Directed by Sidney Salkow, starring Glenn Ford

While this is not an A picture, it is the first film in which Glenn Ford was allotted solo top billing. This acknowledges his new star status.

We’re in Jack London territory here, with overtones of THE SEA WOLF in particular involving a tyrannical ship’s captain and a hearty young crewman (Ford as Martin Eden).

The bulk of the story is landlocked however, with young author Martin Eden struggling to gain recognition as a serious writer. A critical court case, charges of plagiarism and a stormy love affair rounds out the plot. Glenn Ford is front and centre, offering a performance that is mature yet infused with the passion of youth. His Martin Eden must by cynical and hardened, yet convey the sensitivity of the artist. Not an easy combination to play.

There is a scene early on in the film when Ford has to intrude on a posh, upper-class cocktail party to confront the host with a diary that purports to hold key information that will keep Eden’s friend from going to jail. The stakes are very high.

Ford takes the scene and dominates it. He knows this is his moment and he delivers. There is nothing forced or desperate about his performance. It is truthful and real and shows as clearly as any scene in his early career, that Glenn Ford had undeniable star power.

The only available video of this important Glenn Ford film is taken from a worn TV print. We must always keep in mind that all these older films were made to be shown in theatres on large screens. Originally the prints were pristine. Watching one of these films now—even if it has the advantage of being digitally restored on DVD—we must recognize that it is not how it was intended to be shown. It is rather like judging a famous painting by a small photograph of that same painting—a fraction of the size and detail of the original. How much subtlety and nuance is lost in the transfer? It takes real artistry for an actor’s performance to transcend the ravages of time on available resources and still impress today.

I submit that Glenn Ford in this film—his first top-billed starring role—crosses the line from ‘character juve’ to full-blown leading man.

The merits of THE ADVENTURES OF MARTIN EDEN are tied almost exclusively to Ford’s performance. See it to witness the quiet birth of a young star. He would continue to shine for almost fifty years.

FLIGHT LIEUTENANT (1942) – Directed by Sidney Salkow, starring Pat O’Brien & Glenn Ford

Glenn Ford’s stardom now privileged him to work with bigger stars. First up was Pat O’Brien in FLIGHT LIEUTENANT, the story of a disgraced pilot (O’Brien) who struggles to keep his dark secret from the son (Ford) he deeply loves. O’Brien, the rough-talking, rapid-fire-delivery contemporary of fellow firecracker James Cagney, steals the show with charisma galore. And that’s okay because O’Brien is a pleasure to watch. Glenn Ford on the surface seems to take a step back in terms of his screen progress. But there is a respectful deference at work here. After all, how difficult must it be for even an experienced star like Pat O’Brien to carry a movie? The responsibilities of handling the central starring role in any film is daunting. Ford might even have appreciated sharing the spotlight with his established co-star.

Whether we must attribute the next steps of Ford’s career to the shrewd planning of Harry Cohn at Columbia or to some other career building mentor, Ford was indeed fortunate that someone had the wisdom to match him with more experienced stars, first to alleviate the pressure of carrying a film by himself and second to continue to meet new challenges by working with the very best people. As a contract player, Ford would have had little or no say in the direction of his career.

FLIGHT LIEUTENANT may not have been Glenn Ford’s most challenging film role, but playing opposite Pat O’Brien proved a valuable experience in more ways than one. O’Brien, like Fredric March in SO ENDS OUR NIGHT, became a mentor to young Glenn Ford during the making of this film, and even introduced Ford to his future wife, the great tap dancer Eleanor Powell (O’Brien had just worked with her on a USO war bond tour). Matchmaking Pat O’Brien was therefore responsible not only for encouraging and enriching Ford’s growth as an actor, he was directly responsible for dramatically changing his life! In fact it is not inaccurate to say the deep love for his father that Ford as Danny Doyle has for O’Brien in FLIGHT LIEUTENANT is possibly a glimpse of Glenn Ford’s love for his own father, who had passed away in 1940 during the making of BABIES FOR SALE.

An only child, Ford said in an appearance on THIS IS YOUR LIFE in the early seventies that he adored his parents. While his mother lived to a ripe old age (and Ford’s interaction with her on THIS IS YOUR LIFE is very touching) his father died relatively young, in 1940. This makes the last shot of Glenn Ford in FLIGHT LIEUTENANT especially poignant. In close-up, reacting to the sudden, heroic death of his father (O’Brien), Ford says proudly ‘He was my father’.

Ford has gone on record to say he never practiced Method acting (‘becoming’ the character he was portraying and relying on emotional recall to trigger his own emotions when acting). Rather he was a ‘just do it’ kind of actor. Nonetheless the personal experience of losing a loved one is often remembered when playing a related scene. The experience of having lived through such a loss feeds the performance and grounds it in truth.

FLIGHT LIEUTENANT is a good ‘40s melodrama with a solid performance by Glenn Ford in what is, beside the charismatic Pat O’Brien, essentially a supporting role.

THE DESPERADOES (1942) – Directed by Charles Vidor, starring Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor & Glenn Ford

Randolph Scott was one of the biggest stars of the 1940s, especially in Westerns. Glenn Ford loved Westerns and this pairing of him and Scott was bound to produce a film of interest to Western fans. Directed by George Marshall and shot in glorious colour (Ford’s first colour film), THE DESPERADOES is everything a good Western should be, big, loud, full of action and romance and with a whacking good climax at the end.

Supporting players of the calibre of Edgar Buchanan, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Claire Trevor and Evelyn Keyes ensure that this film gets the epic treatment. Ford is Cheyenne Rogers, a sometime outlaw who is friends with Randolph Scott, now a sheriff. Ford of course wants to go straight but circumstances conspire against him and eventually implicate his friend Scott as well. Lots of plot twists and rip-roaring action take place before the satisfying resolution, which is preceded by a stampede of wild horses set off by an explosion of nitroglycerin!

With each film Ford seems to mature and his playing becomes more assured and confident. Here, in his beloved Western genre, Ford is totally at home and looks as if he lived in this period. He handles love scenes with more style than Scott and seems to have learned how to throw a more realistic punch than in TEXAS. The Glenn Ford voice is starting to settle in his chest and he speaks with more authority than when he plays eager youngsters. Still in his twenties, Glenn Ford in THE DESPERADOES shows every sign of the maturity that graced his best performances in the 1950s, his best decade as a film star.

Watching Ford in a Western, one is struck by the unique way in which he rides a horse, elbows out, both hands holding the reins. That style is not evident in this film, which indicates that it is a technique learned later. It is only by comparing his films and tracing his evolution as an actor that we become aware of the constant honing of his skills and improvements each time out.

Randolph Scott was a decent actor, particularly in Westerns, but Ford shows more depth of character, probably because he was a better actor. Scott had a one-dimensional face that seemed unable to convey subtlety. Ford oozes complexity in the way he arches his eyebrows or moves his hands as if forming a thought. He is an actor who is comfortable with himself and is able to link his body language to his thoughts and speech. While this seems terribly obvious I must remind people that acting in front of a camera is not a ‘natural’ thing to do. Sometimes your blocking requires you to stand closer to another person than you would in real life. Other times you have to be aware that the camera must see your eyes, all the while trying to remember your lines and why you are saying them.

THE DESPERADOES is a lot of fun to watch, not only for its tremendous action sequences but because of the fine performances throughout. Ford is in good company here and seems to really enjoy himself. This is a must for Western fans as well as Ford/Scott fans.

DESTROYER (1943) – Directed by William A. Seiter, starring Edward G. Robinson & Glenn Ford

Edward G. Robinson was one of the finest actors who worked in films. Glenn Ford must have felt privileged to work with him. DESTROYER is a flag-waving WWII propaganda film that has the integrity not to hide its message. One very moving scene has Robinson telling the disgruntled crew of the ship John Paul Jones the story of the real John Paul Jones, and how his bravery inspired the first American naval victory against considerable odds. While this is pure propaganda it is honest propaganda, the kind that does not hide behind a veneer of false promises but unabashedly celebrates patriotism and the true cost of freedom. WWII was raging by this time and America needed films like DESTROYER.

But lest one think DESTROYER is a standard war movie allow me to point out that there are very few battle scenes. The main battle is between Robinson and Ford, two men of different generations and points of view who ultimately learn to work together. Of course the fact that Ford’s tough Mickey Donohue falls in love and eventually marries Robinson’s daughter has a lot to do with their eventual ‘appreciation’ for one another. The resulting story is told with humour and high production values.

Ford’s Donohue is a very abrasive character, another stretch for him. Gone is the infectious boyish smile that crossed his lips in any number of earlier films. Ford’s Donohue is tough, commited and pig-headed. And he’s not afraid to be unlikeable at times, which gives an edge to his characterization.

Beside old pro Robinson it would be easy for Ford to get lost in the shuffle but he doesn’t. And Robinson isn’t Ford’s only worry. Edgar Buchanan in an interesting role as a sailor (it’s always strange seeing him in anything other than a Western!) is also on hand to steal scenes.

By this point Glenn Ford was about to leave motion pictures behind, having provisionally joined the Marines. He was allowed to finish principal photography on DESTROYER before beginning his training. Knowing that the U.S. was now at war and that Ford was about to put his life on the line with so many others lends a poignancy to the last shot of Ford in the film, when he stands on his ship as it heads out to sea and salutes to his new bride and father-in-law.

Rather like FLIGHT LIEUTENANT, in which an older, colourful actor (Pat O’Brien) was the whole show and Glenn Ford essentially offered fine support, DESTROYER features Edward G. Robinson at the centre of the film. However Ford’s character is equally as colourful and while the film is not constructed around him, he manages to make his very considerable presence register.

DESTROYER is a somewhat dated film, locked into its specific time during WWII. But it has high production values and a strong story to complement the fine performances all around. And as Glenn’s last film for almost three years, it is worth a look, if only for sentimental reasons.

FILMS OF 1942-43