Today is the birthday of Henry Fonda (1905-1982).
Fonda is one of my favorite movie stars. By design, he embodies a sort of American ideal. Ultimately I imagine the origin of this feeling is aesthetic, but it’s interesting to me to contemplate how this instinctive feeling feeds into the “moral”. First, his cornfed Nebraska accent, with its strange disjointed rhythms, the understated music of his speech patterns, the high pitched intonation, often strangulated, as though his voice were released only reluctantly, as though he’d be much happier not to talk at all. This combined with his tall, lank frame, upright posture, and those wide, blue, staring eyes with the long lashes. The eyes have a sort of vacant quality which allow us to write whatever we want on them. Usually (because the script tells us to) we ascribe to his characters squeaky clean motives. We are conditioned to interpret his quiet blankness as a code: sometimes we read it as Christ-like innocence. That placidity looks like the inner peace that comes with virtue. The farmboy accent adds an American quality. He’s no aristocrat. His decent qualities are an expression of democracy.
There were a couple of very smart directors who, recognizing this, turned it on its head. John Ford, who virtually invented Fonda in films like Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk (both 1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946) turned that “virtue” into a vice in Fort Apache (1948), when he cast Fonda as an unbending, by-the-book martinet of a cavalry commander whose stubbornness results in disastrous defeat. And Sergio Leone gave him his darkest role as the villainous “Frank” in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a performance so ugly and “real” somehow that I can scarcely look at it. We know that Fonda the man could be guilty of icy cruelty to his children and his many wives. Even a glimpse in this direction is like staring at the sun. Put the mask back on!
Not that Fonda should never be cast as a crook. But we want him to be a conflicted, voice-of-reason sort of crook like Frank James in Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940), or to run afoul of the law as a martyr in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).
Fonda took time off from acting to serve in World War Two; in the post-war period he seemed to attack the project of making meaningful, didactic work with new vigor. There was Mr. Roberts, the title role of which he played both on Broadway and in film (and which brought his final break with Ford in 1955). He was a poor, innocent schlub in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), and a much more active hero in Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men (1957) and Anthony Mann’s The Tin Star (1957). And the consummate Kennedy-esque liberal politician in The Best Man (1964) and Fail Safe (1964).
As an older man, he sort of coasted on his rep, often playing authority figures, such as admirals in war pictures and scientists in disaster movies: too many of the latter to name here, and besides, that’s its own blogpost.
A great interview about playing against type for Leone:
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc