Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ford Tough!

Yet another Hollywood type that seems to have gone by the wayside in these homogenized times is the tough-as-nails, overbearing dame. Though Miss Constance Ford certainly had her share of roles that don’t fit this particular criteria, this is one area in which she soared. She excelled at it in its many variations.

Those who only know her from her lengthy tenure as Ada on Another World may be surprised to learn that she had a strong career in film and primetime television prior to that. And those that know her from her work in film may be surprised to find out that she began her career as a model! In fact, her face was used to launch Elizabeth Arden’s lip color Victory Red in 1941. Her angular features in this era are in contrast to the more solid and hearty looks she would display in the 1950s and 60s.

She spent the early part of the 50s in a myriad of television dramas and anthology series before debuting in the movies in 1956 with The Last Hunt, a Robert Taylor/Stewart Granger saga about buffalo hunters. Other TV work and routine film roles followed. By 1959, however, she essayed a part that is unforgettable and stands today as an example of one of the all-time repressed, neurotic, intense, harping and controlling mothers – that of Sandra Dee’s mom in A Summer Place.

A Summer Place was a love story between teenagers Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, two clean-scrubbed kids who happen to have a parent each who were also once in love long ago. Troy’s mom Dorothy Maguire and Sandra’s dad Richard Egan are reunited at the same time the teens meet and love blossoms for all four of them. Unfortunately for them (but luckily for the viewer!), Troy’s dad Arthur Kennedy and Sandra’s mom Ms. Ford are steadfastly against all of it. Ford couldn’t be any more constricting and demanding if she tried. Her obsession with Dee’s virginity surely put the fear of God into many a teenage girl who was watching and if that didn’t do it then perhaps seeing her shove Dee into the (supremely tacky) Christmas tree did! Millions of viewers adored the theme song from this hit film and danced away to it for years, but Poseidon can’t forget Constance Ford.

Two years later, Ford played Arthur Kennedy’s wife in the film Claudelle Inglish. This cinematic Holy Grail has yet to float into the Underworld for viewing, but is high on the list of must-see movies. She plays another less than desirable mother, this time attempting to marry off her pretty daughter Diane McBain to a rich boy in order to get her out of her own lifestyle and financial doldrums. This time, instead of pushing her daughter to stay virtuous, she pushes her daughter to land a meal ticket!

Ford continued to appear in supporting roles in Warner Brothers dramas (on TV and in movies), often working with actors she’d previously appeared with. She had a small role in Rome Adventure as the bookseller who employs Suzanne Pleshette, played a tough prison inmate in House of Women with Shirley Knight and appeared in the odd psychological thriller The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari with Glynis Johns, frequently playing either imposing types or at least strong-willed, generally independent women.

In 1963, she joined the sprawling cast of The Caretakers, a movie concerning the implementation of group therapy in a mental hospital. Robert Stack played the crusading doctor, trying to move treatment into the 20th century while Joan Crawford played head nurse Lucretia (!) Terry, devoted to the old ways. Ford played her right hand man, Nurse Bracken, who carried out her strict orders with little or no empathy. Interestingly, the novels The Caretakers and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were both written in 1959 and featured nurses with similar sounding names, Bracken and Ratched. Though Nurse Ratched is easily the more famous, Nurse Bracken is enjoyably severe in her own right. A highlight of the film is seeing Crawford and Ford in black leotards training new nurses in judo for self-defense!

Several years after this, following more primetime TV work and a stint on Edge of Night, Ford began the long run on Another World. As Rachel’s stern, but long-suffering, mother, she won over a legion of fans who enjoyed her still-tough, yet good-hearted, persona, the only person who ever seemed to be able to straight talk Rachel (as played by Robin Strasser and later by Victoria Wyndham.) Ford also managed to incorporate a fair amount of light-hearted humor into the character. Where she once had excelled at playing butch, threatening bitches, she now enjoyed the opportunity to portray a more well-rounded, caring, but no-nonsense type of character and one with a strong moral code. She stayed with the show from 1967 to 1992, leaving only because of ill health and when she died, the character died soon after as well. In true Ford fashion, she was tight-lipped about her illness until practically the very end.

Not a great deal of this work is readily available to view, but some choice bits pop up on youtube.com occasionally and one clip is attached here (Poseidon’s first featured link at the Underworld!) so that readers can catch that famous Ada temper at full throttle.

Connie, you were a captivating screen presence and are missed! Thankfully, many of her performances remain for the world to enjoy again and again.


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