Worth Remembering: William Holden (1918-1981) and Glenn Ford (1916-2006) – Golden Boys 

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By most accounts, Harry Cohn was a royal son of a bitch.

For the uninformed, Harry Cohn was co-founder of Columbia Pictures, and the autocratic ruler of the studio from its founding in 1919 until his death in 1958.  He was vulgar, crass, tyrannical, a screaming, foul-mouthed verbal bully i.e. a royal son of a bitch.

He was also a cheap son of a bitch.

Originally considered a “Poverty Row” studio, Cohn’s Columbia –  at least at first – refused to build a roster of salaried stars as the other studios did.  Cohn didn’t want the overhead or the headaches he saw saddling other studio chiefs with their contract talent.  Cheaper and easier was to pay those studios a flat fee for the one-time use of their marquee value stars to give Columbia’s B-budgeted flicks an A-list shine.  Columbia was considered such a nickel-and-dime outfit at the time that other studios often loaned their stars to Columbia as a form of punishment; Columbia as a penal colony.

By the late 1930s, though, even Cohn saw the benefit in having his own on-tap stars and began to build a stable, but even then he wanted a configuration which would minimize the problems he saw other studios having with rebellious stars.  A favored Cohn tactic:  hire one actor as an always threatening waiting-in-the-wings replacement for another – hire a Kim Novak to keep a Rita Hayworth in line, for example.  Start mouthing off you were unhappy with your salary or with the pictures you were being assigned or the directors working with you, and on suspension you’d go, your name growing colder in the public consciousness while your salaried clone got all the parts – and the public attention that went with them — you would have gotten.

And that was Cohn’s thinking in 1939 when both William Holden and Glenn Ford were put under contract to Columbia.  Cohn envisaged them as fit for the same kinds of roles and, as such, saw the opportunity to play them against each other.

But the actors fooled him.  Instead of cutthroat competitors, they became good friends and remained so until Holden’s death in 1981.

Oh, they did sometimes compete for the same parts but it was hardly the kind of manipulative managerial power play contest Cohn had hoped for.  Rather, it was one even the two friends had to laugh at.  Ford would later tell of both he and Holden stuffing paper in their shoes to boost their heights as they went after the same role.  “Finally, neither of us could walk, so we said the hell with it.”

Fittingly as friends, the course of their separate careers mirrored each other to an almost Twilight Zone-y degree:

Holden’s family had moved to southern California from Illinois while Ford’s had migrated to the same part of the country from their native Quebec.  They were both discovered about the same time on the west coast theater circuit, put under contract about the same time (Ford originally to 20th Century Fox, Holden in a deal which split his services between Columbia and Paramount), and both won their first starring roles in 1939 — Ford in the Western Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence, Holden in the melodrama Golden Boy. And each came damned close to blowing his chance as a film actor first time out.

Ford only landed at Columbia after Fox cut him loose following a dud of a screen test.  And Holden’s career came even closer to ending before it had begun.

The story has long been a favorite bit of Hollywood lore, probably because it plays so much like something from a movie:

Holden had been given the lead in the screen adaptation of Clifford Odets’ stage play about a young man torn between boxing and the violin, but the novice film actor’s work during the first days of Golden Boy’s shooting had been so underwhelming the producers had decided to can him.  But co-star Barbara Stanwyck saw something in the young actor the execs didn’t, and she lobbied forcefully for him until she convinced the chiefs to keep Holden on.  The actor’s work grew more assured over the course of the picture, his career was launched, and thereafter he was known as  Golden Holden or – appropriately enough – Golden Boy  (the actor never forgot what Stanwyck had done for him, and every year on the anniversary of the beginning of the Golden Boy shoot, he would send Stanwyck a bouquet of roses, and even surprised her with a public thank-you for the career she’d made possible for him at the 1978 Academy Awards when they appeared as joint presenters).

For the next few years, Ford and Holden worked regularly building up their resumes with solid work in mostly minor films until the outbreak of World War II.  Holden went into the Army Air Corps, Ford into the Marines, and when they came back to Hollywood after the war, they found themselves – like so many actors who’d gone into military service at the time – having lost much of the commercial traction they’d built up in the pre-war years.  In another eerie parallel, each would find their stalled careers rebooted in spectacular fashion with a breakout performance in a film classic.

Ford hit pay dirt first in the 1946 noirGilda, as a silky ne’er do well grifting about South America who teams up with even silkier and more of a ne’er do well in George Macready.  Macready coos, Ford purrs, and it’s a surprisingly unsubtle and – still to this day — daring bit of mutual homoerotic seduction which brings the two men together, making the ensuing love triangle when Macready’s new wife shows up (Rita Hayworth in her own iconic star-making turn) a true three-way.  When Ford falls for Hayworth’s Gilda, it’s hard to tell if Macready is more burned his friend is running off with his wife, or that his wife is running off with his boyfriend.

The 1946 audience may not have picked up on the boy-boy subtext, but Ford’s steamy coupling with Hayworth (the two would pair up onscreen in four more films) made Gilda a hit, and vaulted the actor instantly into leading man ranks.

Holden’s big break didn’t come until 1950, but it happened with an even more memorable noir, Billy Wilder’s horror show about past-it Hollywood glamour, Sunset Boulevard. It’s a brave performance in a brazen film, Holden playing a flat-busted screenwriter who leaves his integrity at the door to hustle his way into the favors of a reclusive, forgotten, frightfully deluded silent film star (real-life silent great Gloria Swanson).  Scandalous in its time, still creepy today, Sunset – like Gilda – became one of the touchstone movies of the postwar period and put Holden into the orbit of bonafide Hollywood A-list stars.

Though Holden would land a greater number of major hits and be the bigger commercial star, both actors would consistently rank among the top box office draws of the 1950s.  Between them, they compiled a truly outstanding body of work including the social-commentary-camouflaged-as-romantic-comedy Born Yesterday (1950 – Holden); the Dirty Harry-esque classic noir The Big Heat (1953 – Ford); WW II POW camp drama Stalag 17 (1953 – Holden); the movie that brought both rock ‘n’ roll and the postwar juvenile delinquency crisis to the big screen in Blackboard Jungle (1955 – Ford); a blazing indictment of the demeaning corporatization of the American worker in Executive Suite (1954 – Holden); pressure cooker Western 3:10 to Yuma (1957 – Ford); Korean War classic The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954 – Holden); one of the most authentic portrayals of life on the cow trail in Cowboy (1958 – Ford); the steamy Picnic (1955 – Holden); a sly skewering of Ford’s own Western image in The Sheepman (1958 – Ford); Frank Capra’s last film, the Damon Runyon gangster comedy, Pocketful of Miracles (1961 – Ford); and one of the all-time classics of American cinema, David Lean’s epic war film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957 – Holden).

Though Cohn had intended to threaten each with their interchangeability, Holden and Ford were hardly that.  They were two distinctive brands of actors which was only natural as – despite their close friendship — they were two distinctive brands of people.

Holden (born William Beedle), the son of a well-to-do family, was a bit of a sophisticate and globetrotter for much of his life.  He collected fine art, kept a second home in Switzerland, and perhaps most famously, founded a game preserve in Kenya which was often a gathering place for the good-timing jet set crowd.

There was also something melancholic to Holden, at least in his later years.  At some point, by his own admission, he lost his passion for acting, staying with it simply to maintain his lifestyle.  He was an alcoholic for much of his life, was hit with a suspended sentence for being involved in a fatal drunk driving accident in Italy in the 1960s, and apparently died bleeding out from a head wound from a fall, too intoxicated to call for help.

He was also, to be blunt, the prettier of the two actors.  He had the kind of manly good looks tailor-made for movie magazine covers and one-sheets.  One could argue Picnic was largely sold on the power of its iconic beefcake poster featuring a bare-chested Holden being pawed by a lusting Kim Novak.

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Though he played a variety of roles, always with distinction, it’s no surprise, then, that the roles which best suited Holden were savvy guys, sophisticates and/or street-smart guys, men who’d seen the world, knew how it worked, and knew how to work it.  He may have sent ladies’ hearts fluttering as the virile but aimless drifter of Picnic, but he always looked more at home in a suit or a uniform i.e. the wastrel playboy younger brother of uptight Humphrey Bogart in another teaming with Wilder in the romantic comedy delight, Sabrina (1954); the slick ladies’ man competing with David Niven to deflower virgin Maggie McNamara in the – for its time – titillating The Moon Is Blue (1953); the idealistic intellectual of Born Yesterday trying to open ditzy Judy Holliday’s eyes to the law-bending practices of her boorish businessman boyfriend; the equally idealistic junior exec of Executive Suite trying to save his company’s soul; the brutally judgmental cavalry officer of Escape from Fort Bravo (1953); the world-seasoned correspondent in the three-hankie soaper Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955); the equally world-seasoned expatriate in the equally soapy The World of Suzie Wong (1960); the forceful Broadway director of The Country Girl (1954); the conniving POW of The Bridge on the River Kwai. It is equally unsurprising that of his three Oscar nominations, one was for the fast-talking, fast-pitching, self-hating de facto gigolo of Sunset Boulevard, and his one Best Actor win was for the caustic, cynical, barracks black market maestro of Stalag 17.

There was always something more proletarian about Glenn (born Gwyllyn) Ford.  Ford’s father, a railroad man, had early on advised him to develop a practical trade to have something to fall back on should acting fail him, and even after he became a major star Ford was known to do his own house repairs – plumbing, wiring, the whole blue-collar working man shebang.  If there’s anything to the idea that the character of the man influences the character of the role, it was probably more clear in Ford than Holden.  Ford certainly thought so saying, “I’ve never played anyone but myself on screen.”

Like Holden, Ford played a wide range of roles, usually acquitting himself well, but despite his career breakout as a smoothie casino operator in Gilda, he would become better remembered for his Everyman-flavored characters.  In fact, Ford would take a critical drubbing for being painfully miscast in the 1962 remake of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the playboy role first done in 1921 by Rudolf Valentino. The actor himself admitted, “I’m out of place doing sophistication.  I’m so uncomfortable in a tuxedo.”

It would be hard to picture Holden the glib smoothie as the tentative, frustrated inner city schoolteacher Ford played so memorably in Blackboard Jungle, or the constantly befuddled fish-out-of-water public relations officer of Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).  While Holden could be the seasoned globe-trotting correspondent involved in a hot-and-heavy affair with a Eurasian doctor during the Chinese revolution in Love Is a Many Splendored Thing or fall for a Hong Kong prostitute in The World of Suzie Wong, he couldn’t be the guy-next-door Ford played as a widower fumblingly trying to find the proverbial “nice girl” in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), or the small-time salesman trying to connect with the spinster postmistress of Dear Heart (1964).  Holden tries to reinvigorate the heart of a furniture company in Executive Suite, while Ford only wants to save the reputation of his friend, a dead pilot accused of negligence in Fate Is the Hunter (1964).  If Holden was in a corner, his was the kind of character who tried to fast-talk his way out, whereas Ford floundered and flustered.  Watching Ford overwhelmed by the culture clash of Teahouse, lost in the inanity of military public relations in Don’t Go Near the Water (1957), caught up in a laughable blackmail scheme in The Gazebo (1959), or watching his smooth-running bootlegging operation unravel in the course of his trying to do one good deed in Pocketful of Miracles, it’s clear no actor could flounder, fluster, stammer, and comically collapse as well as Ford.

As much as their personas, their acting styles were radically different as well.  Holden’s emotions were right there; where he raged (the climax of Executive Suite), Ford simmered (the Ahab-like sub skipper of Torpedo Run [1958]); when Holden wrestled with fear (The Bridges at Toko-Ri), Ford fell into a quiet sweat that made you feel the knot in his stomach (The Fastest Gun Alive [1956]).  It was, perhaps, Ford’s more low-key approach which might’ve been responsible – despite a host of acclaimed performances – for his never even being nominated for an Oscar; his work was too subtle to be appreciated.  Holden – whatever the emotion – was certain in what he felt – love, sadness, anger — while Ford had an ability to show a half-dozen different emotions at war with each other.

In Cowboy, his veteran trail boss tries to let down his shell to connect with his young upstart partner (Jack Lemmon) who has mistaken callousness for toughness (“You haven’t gotten tougher,” Ford tells him later, “you’ve gotten miserable”) and offer some solace over the Mexican woman who’s jilted Lemmon.  It all flickers across Ford’s face; the awkwardness, the embarrassment, the knowing the advice will be unwelcomed yet the urge to reach across to the young man, the realization that any words will only sound lame.  Or in Fate Is the Hunter, as Ford, at a safety hearing trying to explain that a devastating air crash may have been more about fate than human error, he fumbles for words, knowing how insane his story sounds, how lacking in solace it will be for the kin who’ve come to hear why they’ve lost their loved ones; it is a beautifully played scene of a man grasping for words to describe something beyond words.  And there’s The Fastest Gun Alive (Ford, in real life, was reputedly one of the fastest draws in Hollywood, able to draw and fire in 0.4 seconds) where soft-spoken store clerk Ford brags to being a speedy draw, then later, when being pushed into a shootout to save his town threatened by gunslingers, must chokingly confess to his own fear, having never drawn against a man.  The quivering tone, the catch in his voice, the glum, unheroic resignation are all pure Glenn Ford.

Heading into the 1960s, the careers of both actors continued to parallel, but now unhappily, as their marquee value began to decline with their middle years.  But Holden was given a late career gift which bypassed Ford.

In 1969, Holden was cast by director Sam Peckinpah in the classic deconstructionist Western, The Wild Bunch. Holden was 51 by then, and the years of alcohol made him look older, but that was perfect for the role of a fading legend of an Old West bandit being pushed to extinction by New West progress (there’s a story Peckinpah considered Ford for the role played by Robert Ryan, an old riding partner of Holden now forced by circumstance to hunt him down; Ryan did an excellent job but it’s tantalizing to consider the added dynamic which might’ve been gained if the part had been played by Holden’s real-life friend Ford) .  The movie rekindled Holden’s career (ironically at a time when he was less committed to it), and led to an Emmy-winning turn in the cop drama TV movie The Blue Knight (1973), and one of the best roles of his career, an Oscar-nominated turn as a TV news division chief trying to stave off the debasing rising tide of reality TV in the frighteningly prescient Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky black comedy, Network (1976).  With his fading good looks and seen-it-all world weariness, Holden became the go-to guy as an emblem of a kind of dignity and class and honorability which seemed to be falling beneath a steamroller of raucous, cacophonous sensationalism.

Ford, who kept acting until his health began to fail him (a supporting role in the 1991 cable movie The Final Verdict was his last screen work), never got that Third Act spike.  There were a series of minor Westerns (one of his favorite genres; he did two dozen over the course of his career, more than any other single type of film on his resume), sometimes made overseas, and he also found work on TV, some of it memorable (The Brotherhood of the Bell – 1970), some of it less so (The Disappearance of Flight 412 – 1974).  But no matter how large or small the part, how large or small the screen, Ford always brought his A-game.

One of the brightest spots in his late career was what was really no more than a cameo as Pa Kent in Superman (1978).  He has only two scenes:  where he and his wife (Phyllis Thaxter) discover the toddler from space who will grow up to be Clark Kent/Superman, and a scene with teenaged Clark (Jeff East) where, in that wonderfully stumbling Ford fashion, he grapples with trying to explain to his adopted son his grand if undefined, undivined purpose.  The brackets of those two scenes tell us everything we need to know about a decent, hard-working man always trying to do right without always being sure of what it is, and hoping he has passed those same qualities on to his son.  And then the scene ends with Ford done in by a failing heart, and for a second – in that way only Ford seemed to be able to do – a host of emotions rush across his face, he quietly utters “Oh, no,” and we see the great pain of his knowing he’s leaving his struggling, confused son just when he knows the boy needs him most.

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William Holden and Glenn Ford – each barely made it out of the Hollywood starting gate, each was launched on a stellar career by a studio manipulator bent on turning them against each other, each ended with a body of work any dedicated performer has to envy.  But what the bigger accomplishment might have been for both men is that in an industry infamous for double-dealing, back-stabbing, bad-mouthing, and for the schadenfreude-esque mantra, “It’s not enough for you to do well, but for your friends have to do badly,” that not Harry Cohn or the inherent competition of the business or their own differences ever got in the way of a friendship they maintained all their lives.

– Bill Mesce

3 Comments
  1. GMT says

    Very insightful article on two of Hollywood’s finest. This is one of the few articles I’ve read where it’s clear the writer has actually seen the movies he talks about.

    Of the two, I would vote for Holden as the better dramatic actor. I’ve always admired his ability to convey so much with just his eyes. There is a scene in Bridges at Tok-Ri where Holden is alone, standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier the evening before he has to go on deadly bombing run. Without saying a word, the look on his face conveys the deep fear he is feeling. Great acting.

    Of the two, Ford was definitely more versatile. He could be morose and dark (The Big Heat, Gilda, The Money Trap, Human Desire, etc.), stalwart (Blackboard Jungle, The Violent Men, Cowboy), intense (Ransom, Trial), warm (Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Don’t Go Near the Water, Cry for Happy), evil (Lust for Gold, The Man from Colorado), romantic (Love is a Ball, It Started with a Kiss, Interrupted Melody, Young Man with Ideas) and funny (The Gazebo, Tea House of the August Moon, Imitation General). While I agree with the writer’s assertion that no other actor (in his peer group: Widmark, Mitchum, Peck, Lancaster, Douglas, Holden, et. al.) could flounder, fluster, stammer and comically collapse as well as Ford, there is one actor who surpassed him in that regard: Jack Lemmon.

    For the most part, Holden and Ford were more naturalistic in their approach to acting. I never understood why other actors who were more bombastic and theatrical in their approach were nominated and awarded Oscars. In my humble opinion, it was clear they were acting. While their performances were impactful, they were not realistic, like the typical Holden or Ford portrayals.

  2. Fredric Lee says

    Great Ford/Holden piece, one mistake only Holden better looking than Ford, the male female charm with his leading ladies is incredible from Donna Reed to Bette, Hayworth to Shirley Jones to Evelyn Keyes to in real life Judy Garland.

    Write a book on these two, you nailed them perfectly.
    I call them Heart and Soul. Thanks

  3. Bronco46 says

    This is fine article. Well written, and seems to come from the heart. These two men were both a joy to watch. I myself was especially fond of anything that starred William Holden; but I never missed a Glen Ford performance either.
    I’m guessing they will continue to be popular with each succeeding generation.

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