It's true that Ward Bond got his start in films by pushing his way into the football cast of John Ford's 1930 "Salute." And Ford certainly gave Bond consistent work, often at the expense of bullying the actor and comparing his face to a horse's rear. But there exists the idea that Bond was a big dumb lug who only appeared in Ford's movies, and that simply isn't true.
Ward Bond was a talented, physical actor with the plug-ugly puss that would forever consign him to the character actor background. Yet as he mastered screen acting, he was soon in demand, appearing in dozens of films; his popularity goes far beyond doing favors for John Ford. Bond also worked on a film by film basis; unlike the major stars of the day he didn't have any long-term contracts with studios in the 1930s and consequently was able to work almost year-round.
Now back to 1939 and the best year ever for Hollywood movies (if you believe me). As I said earlier, Bond appeared in 21 films in this year alone, including John Ford's "Drums Along the Mohawk" and "Young Mr. Lincoln," Warner Bros' "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," Allan Dwan's "Frontier Marshal," and some potboiler named "Gone With the Wind." He might well have appeared in John Ford's "Stagecoach" as well, but for the fact that he couldn't drive horses as well as Andy Devine.
This was also the year when his toiling away in bit parts began to pay off. In the above films Bond showed real versatility. His physical trainign gave him a macho gracefulness, he knew his way around an Irish accent or two, and he had the charm of a professional drunk. He played a genial, almost comic settler in "Drums," a loudmouth butt of Henry Fonda's jokes in "Young Mr. Lincoln," an American legionnaire in "Nazi Spy," the cowardly sheriff of Tombstone in "Frontier Marshal," and a Yankee solider in "Gone With the Wind." There was still a gruffness to his roles, but he handled comedy and drama with ease; he was at his best in "Gone With the Wind" as a sympathetic Union officer trying to arrest Leslie Howard but flummoxed by some quick thinking and fake-drunkeness by Gable:
(the embedding is disabled for this clip - my apologies!)
By all accounts Bond was an opportunistic, brash, no-good loudmouth who thought nothing of telling waitress to shove undercooked food where the sun don't shine. He was also a syncophant who laughed loudest at John Ford's unfunny jokes while emptying ashtrays and fetching more booze. Yet as I pointed out in my earlier entry, he was also a damn talented actor, and his work in 1939 seemed to convince producers and directors beyond John Ford.
In the 1940s he was getting even better roles; in 1941 he would play opposite Errol Flynn in "Gentleman Jim" and Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon." Bond had the advantage, like John Wayne, of not bothering to enlist to fight in World War II. Fewer actors around meant less competition. Yet I'm sure Bond would have been a successful actor anyway, as his talent proved time and time again.
We'll check back in with Bond again in this blog, but in the meantime, let's leave with Bond at his best; as the boxer John L. Sullivan conceding victory to Gentleman Jim Corbett at the end of "Gentleman Jim."
-Drums Along the Mohawk
-Young Mr. Lincoln
-Gone With the Wind