Here’s Mr. Ford…
Our guest of honor sure had a way of landing some interesting roles, and one of the most iconic films he did by far was 1946’s Gilda. It might be more iconic for Rita Hayworth than Glenn Ford, but it’s a tossup as to who makes the bigger impression. The film was tumoultous behind the scenes, but everyone came out winners.
American Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) makes a living gambling in Buenos Aires, and one night a mysterious stranger saves him from a mugging, leaving him with a tip about another casino in town. The one proviso is that he’s not allowed to cheat.
Heh. Telling a guy like Johnny that he’s not allowed to cheat is like waving the proverbial red cape in front of the proverbial angry bull. Johnny goes to the casino, cheats, gets busted, and meets the owner, who, funnily enough or not, turns out to be the guy who saved him in the back alley. His name is Ballin Mundson (George Macready), he’s a German, and he’s a wee bit scary. He ought to be, seeing as his casino is a front for his tungsten cartel.
Ballin knows right off the bat that Johnny’s moral code is not exactly kosher, and invites him to be his right-hand man. Johnny, who knows the law will close in on him sooner or later, jumps at the chance, thinking he’s landed a sweet deal. That is, until Ballin brings Johnny home and introduces him to his wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Neither one of them lets on, but they have a history together.
One of Johnny’s jobs is keeping an eye on Gilda, who leads an active social life despite her marriage, dating guys and coming home whenever she wants. Gilda doesn’t take kindly to Johnny dogging her, and she’s not shy about saying she hates him. He’s not shy about, well, anything.
Things tend to spill out, and one night Ballin sees Johnny and Gilda kissing. In a jealous fit, he decides to accidentally-on-purpose take himself out of the picture, leaving everything to Gilda and Johnny in charge of the cartel. The timing is very convenient, because certain other individuals want Ballin to hand over his cartel to the German government.
The newly-bereaved Mrs. Mundson only briefly plays the role of the grieving widow. She and Johnny get married right away, but the union is less than blissful. Johnny spends his days and nights at the office and all but abandons Gilda. However, things are not what they seem and certain players might only appear peripheral.
Gilda is an intensely sexual film, even for the post-war Production Code era. The first time we see Gilda she does a hair-flip, that famous motif used throughout the film that no one’s ever been indifferent to. According to TCM, at the time of the film’s release, hair stylist Helen Hunt used to get fan mail and hate mail about Gilda’s hair. Any hate was misdirected, though. Hunt may have done Rita Hayworth’s hair, but director Charles Vidor told Hayworth what to do with it.
Hair wasn’t Gilda’s only source of controversy. Some film scholars have suggested that there are overt homosexual overtones in the relationship between Ballin and Johnny, I don’t know if I agree with that idea; it might be there or not. The reviews of the time, such as this one from the Detroit Free Press, played up male audience members liking Hayworth and female ones liking Ford, so it’s hard to say if anyone picked up on possible subtexts. Gilda tends to ring differently for different people, so no doubt there are diverse opinions on what lies beneath.
And anyway, maybe the Hayes folks had bigger fish to fry. The original E.A. Ellington story was a gangster tale set in Reno, Nevada, but the Hayes Office made a fuss, probably because it glorified violence, so it was all moved to Buenos Aires and added Nazis to the mix. The people of Buenos Aires were pretty happy that the film was set in their country, but they rioted when the ticket prices were inflated.
And what of Glenn Ford, our leading man? He was fresh out of the Marines when cast in Gilda, so, according to his son, Peter Ford, he presented a tougher, hard-boiled onscreen persona. He was also temporarily hot and heavy with Rita Hayworth, who was separated from then-husband Orson Welles at the time, but it didn’t last.
Unfortunately, Mr. Welles didn’t get the memo. The formidable (and drunk) Orson appeared at Ford’s wife, Eleanor’s house one night about a year after Gilda wrapped, but by the time the police showed up, he was gone. Needless to say, Eleanor wasn’t too happy about her husband’s fling, so Ford had to talk fast.
Family drama aside, Gilda was a career-maker for Glenn Ford. His performance is intense and virile, with his Johnny going from a scruffy two-bit hustler to mob stooge, and his chemistry with Rita Hayworth practically threw sparks. His star had nothing to do but rise, cementing his status as a Hollywood legend. Whether a viewer chooses to take the film at face value or parse it for deeper meaning, Ford’s performance is truly remarkable.
For more of the great Glenn Ford, please see Rachel at Hamlette’s Soliloquy and Eva-Joy at Coffee, Classics, and Craziness. Thanks for hosting this event, Eva-Joy–it was fun. Thanks for reading all, and hope to see you on Monday for a look at another 1950s sci-fi classic. Have a good weekend…
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Ford, Peter, with Patrick McGilligan. Glenn Ford: A Life. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.