Friday, May 16, 2014

Birthday Boy: Leading Man

Some actors - like today's birthday boy (he would have been 109) - have images so seemingly immutable that it is simply disconcerting to discover that they didn't spring from the womb square-jawed and craggy.  For example, Henry Fonda started out a juvenile, and a really rather pallid one at that.

I don't think one can say it was his fault - it took some 20 films for the studios to figure him out, and in the meantime he spent a lot of time looking admiringly at star ladies ranging from Janet Gaynor to Alice Faye to, as here, Miss Lily Pons, in her magnum opus of 1935, I Dream Too Much.  Really, it's hard to think of anyone who could be more out of place in a Pons poperetta, with gala numbers by Jerome Kern and Delibes, than Henry Fonda - it's almost impossible not to wonder how Tom Joad has turned up in a festive Paris park (complete with gamboling character types - RKO didn't stint on a Pons picture, no matter how much money they lost).

Of course, once he got past his run as an all-purpose and seemingly disposable fresh face, Fonda got into a stride that few actors can match.  If today he's remembered too often as On Golden Pond's old poop or just Jane's dad, one has only to turn back the years to check out Jezebel or The Mad Miss Manton or even I Dream Too Much (known to unkinder critics as I Scream Too Much) to see exactly why he didn't end up just another Douglass Montgomery or John Payne, serviceable but somehow generic.  He had It, even if Fox and RKO and Warners hadn't quite figured out what It was, yet.

As for Miss Pons, well, she had a kind of it, but it took only two more films to determine more or less conclusively that whatever that was, Her version was, however marvelous on its terms, not a cinematic phenomenon...

1 comment:

  1. I adore Henry Fonda and it IS interesting to see him turn up in a musical like "Lillian Russell" opposite Alice Faye, looking utterly out of place. He's a revelation in "The Lady Eve" -- one of my all-time favorites. It took a special kind of actor to fit into both the commercial schlock AND classier fare. I think only Don Ameche could pull that off.