Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Henry Fonda

One of Hollywood’s premier actors, Henry Fonda, is the subject of May 2022’s Retrospective Roundtable. Few actors have had a career with such a breadth of performances in classic films from Young Mr. Lincoln to 12 Angry Men to Once Upon a Time in the West. Likewise, Fonda has worked with a wide variety of auteurs such as Fritz Lang, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, and more. This speaks to Fonda’s versatility as an actor, which we hope we’ve captured through sharing our thoughts on a number of our favorite roles of his:

You Only Live Once (1937)

An early noir feature from Henry Fonda, You Only Live Once tells of reformed convict Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) and his struggle to find peace. Though Eddie has turned a shoulder on his past life of crime, ‘the law’ isn’t convinced he is finished. When a bank robbery occurs that results in the death of six people, Eddie is framed for the crime and arrested. It gets exponentially worse when he is sentenced to death by electrocution.

One of Fritz Lang’s earlier features, You Only Live Once isn’t too concerned with innocent before proven guilty; however, the cursory consideration of the legal system allows Lang to attribute Eddie’s predicament to fate and explore such ‘big ideas’ for his film rather than dwell in courtrooms or attempt to provide social commentary. This is Eddie’s story, which Henry Fonda excels at conveying, and Fonda elevates the role such that we can see Eddie as a symbol for the struggles of man against what might all but be certain. With a simple plot and focused direction and acting, You Only Live Once is allowed to spin on this idea and the result is an early career standout for Henry Fonda. – Alex Sitaras

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

To play a historical figure of the stature of Abraham Lincoln is a daunting challenge for any actor, yet few were better suited to the famed President than Henry Fonda. Maybe not the spitting image of the man and, who knows, maybe he did not even sound like Lincoln, but Fonda exudes the quality that is most closely associated with Lincoln: honesty. There is a down-to-Earth nature with which Fonda speaks in all of his films, something that makes him an immediately sympathetic and believable figure.

Director John Ford took an interesting approach in Young Mr. Lincoln, making not a traditional biopic but a film that explores Lincoln’s aura before he has even become a political figure. Rather, he is a young lawyer trying to find his way in the world, thinking of politics, defending a pair of brothers accused of murder, and falling in love. He is at a crossroads of his life, forming who he is to become while also finding his voice in the public arena. It is a fascinating take on the character and makes for a great film, but it is Fonda who breathes life into Lincoln. His earnest way of speaking, flowing and commanding the attention of onlooking crowds with ease and understanding. One wants to follow this man wherever he is going, while Fonda brings the hidden conflicts to the surface. His eyes, the tone of his voice, and his demeanor say so much, wearing the thoughts and confusions of young Abe for the audience to see. This is a quintessential piece of American mythmaking, bringing to life Abraham Lincoln for all to see and trying to capture the essence of the man. Henry Fonda was the one tasked with bringing that essence into human shape and, as he always did, he captured it so easily that it appears almost effortlessly natural. – Kevin Jones

The Lady Eve (1941)

Preston Sturges’ films sparkle with not just clever dialogue but an unspoken yet tangible joy that runs through his work. In The Lady Eve, it is Barbara Stanwyck’s con woman character who pulls even her most devious of tricks on Henry Fonda’s wealthy snake-loving heir with a playful, winning smile. Stanwyck is so good that most actors playing Fonda’s role would have been subsumed by both her and the movie’s bravado. Yet Fonda pulls it off. Fonda is a generous enough performer that he is willing to be straight man to Stanwyck’s charming conniver. But Fonda is also the emotional core of the film. It is his sincerity that wins Stanwyck over and puts their relationship on more of an even keel. That is why we feel for Fonda when he finds out the truth about Stanwyck. Fonda also manages to get laughs of his own. No one quite delivers Sturges’ signature witty dialogue with the half-muttering awkwardness that Fonda does, and it somehow makes Sturges’ lines even funnier. And Fonda also manages some great physical humor, especially with his numerous pratfalls, but also a tender love scene with an interfering horse. Most men weren’t worthy of Barbara Stanwyck in many of her movies, but Fonda proved otherwise with his work. – Eugene Kang

The Fugitive (1947)

Reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s famous venture to India in the post-war years to direct The River, John Ford found himself in Mexico in the latter half of the ‘40s, on commission to direct his own film on foreign land, The Fugitive, one of his more unique and yet all but forgotten pictures, in which Ford shoots faces like Bergman and fixes expressionist imagery as the backbone of the film. As film critic, and distinguished Ford authority, Tag Gallagher described of the film: “Ford jettisoned most of the script and… made a highly abstract art film” — so let it be no surprise that the critical and financial reception towards The Fugitive was unideal, only Ford himself would ardently defend it, stating “I just enjoy looking at it”. And while Gallagher’s words may imply a sort of messy and confused narrative, or one that barely exists, The Fugitive is actually very straightforward: it tells the story of a nameless Catholic priest from the West and his efforts to escape the Mexican state of Tabasco; it is in Mexico that religion has been outlawed and the authoritarian government’s police forces are actively arresting and prosecuting any clerics or followers of faith (presumably faith broadly-speaking but the film’s emphasis is clearly in relation to Catholicism, evident given Ford’s own religious roots).

Much like Renoir enlisted the help of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray to serve as a cultural advisor on The River so that the India portrayed on film was authentic, Ford recruited Mexican filmmaker Emilio Fernández though instead for the purpose of being the film’s associate producer. Fernández would introduce Ford to many of the most important crew members who would contribute to the film, including important members of the cast as well as cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa — and the entirety of the film’s crew would end up being Mexican (to which Ford praised their efforts as being on par with Hollywood’s best). And yet, despite all of this, the presence of Mexico is little more than decor; all-around, Ford seems less concerned with curating narrative details and the specifics of the world on display, as opposed to crafting a film driven almost purely by texture.

With The Fugitive, Ford utilizes all of the hallmarks of German expressionism to create an intense and distressing atmosphere, one to complement and bring visceral weight to the tale of a man who will not defy his convictions, even in the face of death, and in the process of defiance, becoming a martyr and inspiring countless others to keep those convictions alive. At the heart of the film is Henry Fonda, who plays said priest — his performance is reserved and minimalist, fitting for an unnamed and practically symbolic figure. Fonda’s performance is near ascetic, reminiscent of something out of a Bresson film — this, in conjunction with the film’s expressionist imagery and theme, adds a level of “artsy” transcendence to the film that one would never expect to see from a John Ford picture. – Timan Zheng

The Wrong Man (1956)

One of the few films from director Alfred Hitchcock that was based on a true story, The Wrong Man focuses on Christopher “Manny” Balestrero. He is a classic Hitchcock protagonist, wrongly accused and facing suspicion wherever he turns as he is an everyday, normal guy who has been accused of robbing an insurance company. Though he maintains his innocence, witnesses and evidence pile up, all pointing at Manny as the hold up man.

One needs to take just one look at Fonda to know this is absurd. He is so docile and laid back, the panic in his voice increasing noticeably over time as he tries to climb his way out of this huge predicament. All the while, he deals with the mental state of his wife Rose (Vera Miles), who has naturally taken the news quite hard. It is a tricky role for Fonda, another real character and one who plays with great detail. His every tick, reaction, and word, feels authentic, capturing the feeling this man would be in under such circumstances while also putting all of his cards on the table. Fonda was never one to hold back, not holding in emotion as Manny tries to explain his way out of jail. It is not hard to find sympathy for a character such as this, but Fonda makes it especially easy with Hitchcock’s casting a perfect choice and Fonda delivering one of his best performances. – Kevin Jones

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

When Sergio Leone pitched Henry Fonda for Once Upon a Time in the West, he did so with an awareness of the mythos that Fonda had created with his many roles. Fonda was young Mr. Lincoln and Tom Joad and other relatable characters that people cheered for. Fonda must have felt the burden of that overwhelmingly positive stereotype, so it is no surprise that he approached this role of a child-murdering gunman with such seriousness. Leone wasn’t kidding when he wanted Fonda to go against his famous, squeaky-clean image for this film. Fonda gets to be vicious, cowardly, horny and deceitful. His grizzled handsomeness and his startlingly blue eyes make him a striking figure even in a Leone Western where everyone is perpetually covered in dirt. It could be argued that Leone was the one responsible for making Fonda so iconic since Fonda has relatively little dialogue and screen time compared to other actors, but Fonda must be applauded for how immersed he was in his role. Even if you didn’t know the legacy of Henry Fonda, his villain makes a powerful impression. – Eugene Kang

On Golden Pond (1981)

On Golden Pond exists within a subgenre of family film, one occupied by intensely personal stories from directors and actors that draw from their own lives. Though based on an Ernest Thompson play of the same name, Jane Fonda bought the rights for the play so that her father and her could tell this story whilst recalling their father and daughter relationship.

Each summer, the Thayers, Norman (Henry Fonda) and Ethel (Katherine Hepburn) Thayer, vacation at their lake cottage on Golden Pond, located in New England. Shot in New Hampshire, the setting is idyllic though not all is perfect, suggested right from the opening shot of the film, a crow. Norman, turning 80 that summer, is particularly aware of his age, and laments that his life is slipping away from him, memory issues and heart problems reminding him daily of his age. This contributes to his cantankerousness as does a visit from his daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda), her fiance Bill (Dabney Coleman), and Bill’s son Billy (Doug McKeon). As to be expected, Norman doesn’t mince words with Bill, though Bill takes it in good humor. Chelsea explains to Ethel that even though her and Bill live in Los Angeles, she still feels that she has to answer to Norman. She doesn’t feel like she was ever enough for him.

While Chelsea and Bill vacation in Europe, Billy stays with Norman and Ethel. The thirteen year old Billy sees through Norman’s facade, and the two become close, Norman mistakenly calling Billy by Chelsea’s name. We see that Billy is the son Norman never had, and upon returning from Europe, Chelsea and Norman get into a tiff when she confronts him about his behavior towards her. Norman admits he thought his relationship with Chelsea wasn’t good since he believed they didn’t like each other. Chelsea is crushed by Norman’s admission.

Though On Golden Pond revolves around family drama, the film is also a story about the unwelcome experience of becoming old. Norman is forced to consider that his life is slowly ending and just as Norman’s life was ending, so was Henry Fonda’s. On Golden Pond was the last film Fonda performed in, and he passed away the following year. For his role in On Golden Pond, Fonda won Best Actor at the Academy Awards, closing out a stellar career with a deeply felt performance. – Alex Sitaras

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