The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Westerns of Henry Fonda

Hank


That rangy walk, those steely blue eyes, that quiet drawl: Henry
Fonda (left) was ideally suited
to Westerns. Whether as Frank James, Wyatt Earp or any number of other Western
characters, Fonda would become one of the most memorable Western leads of all.

Though Henry Fonda started acting in movies in 1935, Westerns – or at least adult major studio Westerns –
were not common then. It was not until 1939 that the grown-up genre really staged a
comeback, when all the big outfits in Hollywood wanted a Western. John Ford directed
Stagecoach, released by United Artists in February. In April Warners
showed Errol Flynn cleaning up Dodge City and Paramount had Joel McCrea nation building in Union Pacific. In November Universal gave us Destry Rides Again, with
Fonda’s great pal James Stewart. But
before all these, in January 1939 (and what a stunning year for Westernistas ‘39
must have been) Fox cast Tyrone Power as Jesse James in their big-budget Technicolor picture directed by Henry King. And when the producers needed Jesse’s brother
Frank, they chose Henry Fonda.

Fonda was not an obvious choice. The New York Times called him “the most likable of the new crop of romantic
juveniles”. He had never been in a Western movie.
But he was born in
the prairie city of Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1905, and those roots must have helped
equip him for future Western roles. There were Western tinges to the Henry Hathaway-directed feud story The Trail of
the Lonesome Pine
in 1936, in which Fonda was third-billed. He was in a stage
production of The Virginian in 1937,
a play I for one would love to
have seen. He starred as the Virginian with Dan Duryea (as Trampas or as Steve,
I am not quite sure; I can’t find the cast list – probably Trampas). So there were at least
some Western credentials.
 
Hank as Frank
 
Fonda’s Frank James put him on the Western map. So much so that
Fox decided on a sequel in 1940 and the famous Fritz Lang
directed
The Return of Frank James – in some
ways a superior picture. In both movies Fonda’s Frank James is very far from the
historical reality; he is a noble figure with a deep fund of decency. But
that’s Hollywood for you. And Fonda was superb in the part.

It is said that Fonda’s next involvement with the Western came in
1941 when he acted as (uncredited) technical advisor on the set of Fritz Lang’s
follow-up oater
,
Western Union
. But it was 1943 that saw him lead in a truly fine Western film: The Ox-Bow Incident. Fonda was fourteen years old when he observed a lynching. He
watched a mob from the second floor window of his father’s print shop. “It
was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen… We locked the plant, went
downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears
in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end
of a rope.” Fonda made several films condemning the evil of lynching and
questioning capital punishment in general; few are as grim and dark as the
first, The Ox-Bow Incident, which
Fonda and director William A Wellman had to nag Darryl Zanuck into making. Zanuck
agreed to the uncommercial vehicle only if Wellman and Fonda signed up to more
audience-friendly movies. As Zanuck predicted, it did little at the box office
in the darkest hours of the Second World War when Westerns were popular but
only if they contained color and shooting and scenery. But it became one of the
best ‘serious’ Westerns in the history of the genre and is still to be admired.
 
A dark, powerful Western and a great performance
 
John Ford had immediately seen Fonda’s
potential. Fonda’s early
Western career was tied to
that of Ford. He would work for Ford twice in 1939, as Young Mr. Lincoln and in Drums Along the Mohawk, and in 1940 he would be a truly great Tom Joad in one of
the Ford masterpieces, The Grapes of
Wrath
.  Though none of these movies was a true
Western, together they created Fonda’s profile as a salt-of-the-earth American.
You might say he specialized in playing ordinary, decent
Americans from humble origins. And they established in the public
consciousness a tough, quiet man ready to what is right whatever the cost. The
perfect Western hero, in fact.
 
As pioneer
 
Fonda served three years
in the US Navy in World War II and on his return resumed his acting career. John
Ford’s first post-war project was a Wyatt Earp story at Fox, and Fonda was ideal
for the part – and the fact that he done service in the Navy upped him in Ford’s estimation. My Darling Clementine (1946), despite
Ford’s ridiculous protestations as to historical accuracy, was complete baloney from a
factual point of view but it was perhaps the greatest of all the mythic
representations of Wyatt Earp as town-taming marshal, and Fonda was absolutely
superb in the part. The film is a landmark Western and can be watched any
number of times.
 
The famous pose. Fonda as Wyatt Earp.
 
In the late 1940s
John Ford produced some of the finest Westerns of the century, and the cavalry
trilogy of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) is a suite of
stunningly good films. John Wayne starred in all of them, of course, but the
power of Fort Apache also owed much
to Henry Fonda. His
rigid Easterner Colonel Thursday, opposite Wayne’s free-spirit Westerner Captain York,
was another perfectly splendid role. Fonda was now incontestably one of the
greatest of Western actors.
 
Outstandingly good
 
But it was
followed by a Western hiatus. A decade passed before Fonda would
climb into the saddle again (and by the way, he always hated horses). He was first and foremost, in his own thinking, a
stage actor and he spent much of the 50s on the boards. The early and mid-1950s,
that heyday of the Western movie, would pass Fonda by. He would be a celluloid Russian
aristocrat or an obstinate juror but he wouldn’t don a Stetson again until 1957,
when he appeared as a bounty hunter in Paramount’s The Tin Star, directed by Anthony Mann (Fonda sure worked for some
of the great directors).
 
As mentor to young sheriff Perkins
 
Fonda? A
bounty hunter? Surely not! But never fear, like most Hollywood bounty hunters
of the period, Fonda’s was a goodie, deep down. He becomes the mentor of young
sheriff Anthony Perkins, and he falls for widow Betsy Palmer and forms a family
with her and her young son, going off to a new life in California together.
There’s that ordinary decent American again, doing what a man’s gotta do and
then settling down on a ranch.
 
Mentor again, this time on TV
 
In 1959
Fonda’s agents persuaded him to do a TV series, The Deputy, almost a Tin Star
spin-off. NBC accepted the idea that Fonda would be the narrator-host, with
occasional appearances as star. He would be ‘Chief Marshal’ Simon Fry in
Arizona in the 1880s, with Allen Case in the title role. This allowed Fonda to
travel and do other work. In fact Fonda featured as lead in only six of the
thirty-nine episodes. The series did well enough to be renewed for a second
season.

Back on the big screen in ’59,
again at Fox, Fonda flirted more with being a
baddie again in the Edward Dmytryk-directed Warlock. He was a clean-up-the-town marshal once more but this time only a
semi-official one, not Earpish, a man of dubious reputation hired to shoot to kill, and, with close friend
Anthony Quinn, a disreputable saloon owner. But it’s Fonda, so in the end he does the decent
thing again. Still, The Tin Star and Warlock did suggest a hint of a new
Fonda, with tinges of bad-guy here and there.
 
A hint of a homosexual relationship
 
As the 60s dawned Fonda was beguiled into
appearing in MGM’s lumbering (but commercially successful)
How the West Was Won. It was in fact a pretty bad film and all
the big stars in it had little more than cameo parts. At least Fonda’s crusty
old buffalo hunter was more convincing than his pal Jimmy Stewart’s frankly
ridiculous mountain man. John Ford was one of the (three) directors, so perhaps
that was what enticed Fonda.
 
A painting of Fonda in How the West Was Won
 
How the West Was Won was one of six Westerns Fonda
made in the 1960s, a time when the true glory of the genre had somewhat
departed. Still, there were some delights in store.
The Rounders in 1965 was
a charming light Western written and directed by Burt Kennedy and starring
Fonda alongside that excellent Western actor Glenn Ford. It has a bawdy side
but also a slight tinge of melancholy.
 
Partnered with Glenn Ford
 
Warners’ A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) was a poker
drama, only coincidentally a Western, with Fonda and Joanne Woodward as his wife as super-skilled con artists.
It’s clever, and entertaining.
 
Playing poker with Robards and Bickford
 
The year after that he was back with Burt Kennedy on the dark and somber Welcome to Hard Times, a film that was a critical and box-office flop but which nevertheless had merits and in which Fonda is again fine.  He plays a townsman reluctant to face up to a gunman
and accused of cowardice.
 
With pal Stewart
 
In 1966 Fonda got back together with his old friend James Stewart
in a not-great but still quite gripping Western,
Firecreek. This time Stewart is
the townsman obliged but untrained to deal with a dangerous outlaw (Fonda). So
once again Fonda is on the wrong side of the law. But again he is (of course) a baddie with
saving graces. Director Vincent McEveety was no John Ford, far from it, and the picture has a slight
‘minor’ feel to it but once again Fonda is brilliant.


In 1970 Stewart and Fonda
would team up again (for the last time) in another light-hearted Western, The Cheyenne Social Club, directed,
rather surprisingly, by Gene Kelly. Fonda was a talented amateur artist and it was while on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club that he presented his friend Jimmy Stewart with a painting of Stewart’s beloved horse Pie.
 
With director Gene Kelly on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club
 
But between Firecreek
and The Cheyenne Social Club came the
big shock for Fonda fans when in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) a bandit shoots a small boy
dead, in cold blood, the camera pans round and who should the killer be but
Henry Fonda! Those steely blue eyes were now put to another purpose. As
railroad assassin Frank, Fonda
is scary, and one of the baddest badmen you will see. It was brilliant casting.
It worked.
 
Widescreen blue eyes
 
Fonda’s last two Westerns were, quite frankly, sad.
Warners’ There Was a Crooked Man
paired him with an overacting Kirk Douglas in a red fright wig and was a prison
drama, with Fonda as a bearded prison governor. It was really bad. Even worse was to
come when Fonda appeared, aged nearly 70, in an Italian Western of no merit
whatsoever, My Name is Nobody, and,
poor man, seemed to be wandering round the set vaguely, wondering what on earth
he was doing there. The two pictures were his last Westerns, and his worst.

But we
shouldn’t remember him for those (they aren’t worth watching, not even for
Fonda) but for the likes of The Ox-Bow
Incident, My Darling Clementine
or
Fort Apache.
These are great Westerns by any standards, in which Fonda is absolutely
splendid.

Henry Fonda had a fine talent as an actor and
he brought a subtlety and nuance to Western lead roles that was quite rare.
Only Wayne in his better efforts (Hondo,
say, or Red River; The Searchers, of course) or Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter or The Bravados, or Gary Cooper in High Noon,
Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven,
only these matched his ability, and Fonda was and remains one of the best ever Western
leads.
 
 
Thanks, Hank.

 

7 Responses

    1. Yes. the most glaring example of that, I think, was Gary Cooper, who was perhaps the greatest of all the Western actors yet appeared in a whole series of duds.
      Jeff

  1. I know this is heresy (especially here) … but I could never warm to Fonda, much like I could never warm to Peck. Both seem so busy being righteous paragons that they forget to be human. There seems to be a lack of warmth in both that is slightly off putting to me.

    1. Yes, I understand your point. 'Warm' is not a word you automatically associate with Fonda. You might say rather that he burned with a cold fire. Peck was different though, in my view. I think he could be warm and human, as in The Gunfighter, for example. As for righteous paragons, both Fonda and Peck played bad guys, though usually of course with saving graces.
      Jeff

  2. I Beg to differ regarding "my name is nobody" IMHO it's superior when it's viewed within the spaghetti western context. Fonda's western baggage lends depth and credibility to his role much like Eastwood in Unforgiven and Wayne in the Shootist. I enjoyed Fonda's performance and the film despite all the wacky comedic interludes. Again just my opinion ofcourse 😉

    1. You may be right. As a non-fan of spaghettis, this context doesn't help me like the film any more but I can quite see that spaghetti admirers would like it.
      Jeff

  3. I've been watching all of the western movies that I can with him in it, while dealing with this lockdown in Chicago. What a great actor that had a charismatic, high intelligence about him. I saw "Welcome To Hard Times," and don't know what to make of it. It left a strong impression on me. That's for sure. Both good and bad.

    Now, you'd be doing God's work my friend if you were able to list the 6 episodes he was featured in. I watched a random episode on youtube for the first time. The best part about it was the first two minutes he was in it, and the final two minutes when came back into town. Everything between that was pretty bad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Labels