On the Occasion of Wallace Ford’s Birth
Wallace Ford’s life was stranger than fiction.
He was raised in an orphanage and a series of foster homes. He lived the life of a hobo as a teenager and adopted his stage name from a fellow tramp. His early training as a performer took place n dance halls and vaudeville troupes. He was 38 years old before he learned the identity of his parents. And he reportedly never attended school a day in his life, but became one of Hollywood’s most dependable actors, with roles in more than 100 movies.
During his prolific screen career, Ford was seen opposite a variety of leading ladies including Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Loretta Young, and was featured in such popular films as Spellbound (1945) and The Rainmaker (1956). He was also a significant presence in the films of both the pre-Code era – in pictures that included Possessed (1931), Freaks (1932), and Employees’ Entrance (1933) – and film noir, in Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Dead Reckoning (1947), The Set-Up (1949), and He Ran All the Way (1951).
In celebration of Ford’s date of birth – February 12, 1898 – I’m taking a look today at the actor’s beginnings and the path he took to the silver screen.
The man who eventually became a star of both stage and screen was born Samuel Jones in Bolton, Lancashire, England, but the early circumstances of his life are a bit sketchy. According to one account, the lad’s father, Samuel Jones, Sr., was killed in India while fighting the British. Still a toddler at the time of his father’s death, young Samuel became “accidentally” separated from his mother. Another version claims that Samuel’s mother was led to believe that her baby died at birth and the infant was placed in an orphanage by a relative. (Sounds like the plot of a movie, doesn’t it??) The details of his early years notwithstanding, it is known that for several years Samuel lived in London’s Bernard Foundling Home, and was later transferred to the institution’s Canadian branch, from which he was farmed out to 17 foster homes before the age of 11. Samuel ran away from the 17th placement – with a farmer in Manitoba – and joined a vaudeville troupe known as the Winnipeg Kiddies.
Leaving the troupe in 1914, Samuel made his way to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he earned money selling newspapers and performing in local saloons and pool halls. In one such pool hall, Samuel met a tramp by the name of Wallace Ford. The two became fast friends and, impressed with Samuel’s dancing ability and amusing impersonations of Charlie Chaplin and Theodore Roosevelt, Ford arranged for the talented young man to perform in various vaudeville houses they encountered while “hoboing” across the country. With the entry of the United States in World War I in 1917, Samuel and Ford planned to enlist, but Ford first wanted to return to his hometown in Sioux City, Iowa, to bid farewell to his mother. The men never made it. Ford was killed in a freight train accident and, in homage to his friend, Samuel adopted his name.
The newly christened Wallace Ford served during the war with the U.S. Calvary at Fort Riley, Kansas, and after his release, he signed on with a stock company in Grand Island, Nebraska. The company was known for performing “pirated” plays, by which they paid a man in Chicago to attend the opening nights of new plays, write down the dialogue and directions in shorthand, type the notes, and ship them off to Grand Island. Later, the actor joined Stuart Walker’s stock company in Indianapolis, and in 1919 appeared in the company’s hit production of Seventeen, which ran for nine months in Chicago and received a rousing reception on Broadway.
For the next decade, Ford was seen in a variety of Broadway productions, including Abraham Lincoln, Gypsy, and Abie’s Irish Rose. In the cast of the latter production, in which he played the title role, Ford met a young actress named Martha Haworth. The two were married on November 27, 1922, welcomed a baby girl, Patricia Ann, five years later, and would go on to enjoy one of Hollywood’s longest marriages.
Meanwhile, Ford’s entry in films was just ahead. In 1930, he appeared in two Warner Bros. shorts, Fore and Absent Minded, then got his big screen break when he was cast as Joan Crawford’s boyfriend in MGM’s Possessed (1931). During the next four years, the actor was seen in an average of eight films a year, including The Beast of the City (1932), where he was a cop who falls for a gangster’s moll played by Jean Harlow; Three-Cornered Moon (1933), an hilarious screwball comedy (and one of my favorite movies of all time); The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), directed by John Ford and starring Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur; and The Informer (1935), which earned Academy Awards for Best Actor (Victor McLaglen), Best Screenplay (Dudley Nichols), and Best Director.
Ford went on to appear in more than 100 feature films in a career that spanned four decades and lasted until shortly before his death in 1966 – the previous year, he played the good-natured, alcoholic father of Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue. In February 1966, Martha Haworth, Ford’s wife of more than 40 years, died after a long illness. Just four months later, on June 11, 1966, Ford suffered a heart attack and died while hospitalized at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. Friends theorized that the actor’s grief over his wife’s death had hastened his own demise.
Several days after his death, Ford was honored at a memorial service in Brentwood, California; reading like a “who’s who” of the screen, more than 60 honorary pallbearers were listed, including such luminaries as John Ford, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy, Lee Tracy, Lloyd Nolan, Bing Crosby, Ralph Bellamy, Ed Begley, William Talman, Alan Hale, J. Carroll Naish, Frank McHugh, Otto Kruger, Keenan Wynn, Leon Ames, Vincent Price, Clarence Must, and Arthur O’Connell. Although the “histrionic hobo” started his life in an orphanage and honed his craft in saloons and pool rooms, Ford rose above his circumstances and managed to become one of the most respected and beloved performers of his time.