The Glenn Ford Suit
In the late 1940s and early 50s Glenn Ford was an actor who gave my friends and me a lot of thrills at the movies. Now I know that the 1950s is a long time gone but from the vantage point of age and memory (mine) it seems like only a few weeks ago when my friends and I would go to The Center Theater to watch one of his films and talk about it all week after school. For one thing, in those days he rarely played the good guy. He was always the character on the edge so that you never knew until close to the end which way he would go. He was always ambiguous which was nice because his characters always kept us guessing, always kept us in suspense.
In the plots of many of the films he was always in some intriguing place like South America, Central America or the Caribbean (Gilda-1946, Affair in Trinidad-1952, Plunder of the Sun-1953, Appointment in Honduras-1953). At the time such locales were somewhat exotic. But the truth is that they were all shot on a sound stage at Columbia Pictures Studios. But on screen they told us it was South America or wherever so we believed them. Plus there were always a few mustachioed guys speaking with accents and several dark haired women with flashing eyes and nicely rolling hips to convince us even more. Ford always played an American expatriate down on his luck. Sometimes he was a gambler or a guy on the run from the Mob or a disgraced detective or cop. Once in a while he might be a CIA agent just posing as a wastrel. But we didn’t find that out until the end.
Early in the picture he would wander into some nightclub looking disheveled and unshaven. He rarely shaved in those movies. He always looked handsomely dirty and roughed up. Not so much that he looked derelict. Just enough to look reckless and sexy. He would enter the club in the middle of a song being sung by a sultry singer who would of course be played by Rita Hayworth looking for all the world like mortal sin personified. Their eyes would meet and you knew right then and there that trouble was in the air. Man/woman trouble? To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (1992) “Is there any other kind?” Glenn would ask for the boss and the barman would point him to the back. He would go but not before making some smart remark to Ms. Hayworth who was at the bar calling for a drink. When he made the remark some underling would tell him confidentially; “Watch your step. That one belongs to the boss.” The boss was usually played by George Macready a quite good character actor who spoke with what sounds like a British accent although he was born in Providence, Rhode Island. The trick with the accent is that it made him sound both cultured and corrupt and maybe even decadent. Macready was older and had a long squirrelly face with a scar so you knew right away he was a bad guy. He would look at the disheveled looking Ford and tell him; “I need a man like you.” And hire him on the spot to do some menial job around the club. But that was a cover for what he would really be doing. Often smuggling diamonds, running guns or selling US secrets to some foreign government.
On the personal front Ford would find out that Rita not only belonged to the boss but that she was in fact his wife. So messing around with her was definitely out of the question given the morality of the times. Still we could sense that they had eyes for each other so it was only a matter of time when all their suppressed emotions would erupt in a frenzy of passionate kisses and florid background music. This is when Rita would say; “I can’t stand him touching me. I can’t even stand him looking at me.” Of course the question then becomes, if she feels that way why did she marry the man? “He was a friend of my father and after Dad died he brought me up. So I felt that I owed him something.” Or; “He took me out of the gutter and made me respectable and not looked down upon or spit on.” And indeed the marriage did seem to be a curious one. Rita and Macready never kissed on the lips, only on her cheek. And this was as it should be. They were visually incompatible. He was old and corrupt, she was young and sensuous. The idea of such a marriage was an aberration and we in the audience knew it. She was meant for Glenn and somewhere in the middle of the film it’s going to hit her like a ton of bricks. In the meanwhile Macready keeps her on a very short leash. Outside of letting her sing in his nightclub he kept her a virtual prisoner in the house. The only other thing she seems able to do is sunbathe in the back garden or by the pool looking fetching in some brief outfit. And Macready always had some underling spying on her every move and reporting it back to him.
“We’ve got to get you out of here.” Glenn would tell her between kisses. “We’ll go tonight.”
But of course Macready knows of their plans because of his underling’s report. “How dare she do this to me after all I’ve done for her?” He would mutter to himself. “She’ll pay for this. And he’s going to pay too.” That’s when we knew the double cross was in. In today’s movies people don’t double cross each other anymore. They lie, they betray, they cheat each other but they don’t call it “double cross”. I liked it when they did. There was something more underhanded and evil about the act.
Macready would try his double cross and it would backfire on him. Ford or someone else would kill him in a fight and Rita, a free woman now, would run into his arms. And it was precisely at this moment that we would find out that Ford wasn’t the unkempt piece of gutter scum everyone thought him to be. In fact he was quite the opposite. He was a Treasury agent sent by the government on a special assignment to break this Nazi ring that was smuggling counterfeit dollars into the US.
Ford was an okay actor in these films. Later on he became a very good actor. But in those early days he was competent and not too much more. But the thing that thrilled us about him was the way he dressed. It seemed that he wore the same suit from movie to movie. So much so that we called it “The Glenn Ford Suit”. And since the films were in black and white we had to guess at its color. No problem there. We figured it to be dark brown or rust with blue lines about an eighth of an inch all through the fabric. In real life they were hideous looking but on Glenn Ford they looked great. So great that we all wanted Glenn Ford suits. There was an Arabic man named Ahmed who had a men’s store on Main Street. So we went to him and showed him a photo of the suit from some fan magazine then told him we each wanted one just like that. “I can order them for you.” He said. “But it will cost twenty five dollars each.” Twenty five dollars for a suit! Even to look like Glenn Ford that was pricy for our teenage pocketbooks because none of us had any money except what we earned from some part time jobs we had. But when he said we could pay it off on installments a deal was struck. We got our suits and all was right with the world.
When we put them on the suit fit us like a second skin. That Saturday we wore them to the movies and everyone thought we looked cool. Particularly the girls. You could see their eyes just sparkle when they looked at us. And whenever they were close they were always reaching out and touching not us but the suit.
Another thing about the Glenn Ford suits is they didn’t just look good on you. They had a way of making you stand with your legs apart and your eyes squinting. If you smoked you blew smoke out in a kind of stylish way that made the smoke curl in interesting patterns before evaporating. It also made you listen with a kind of smirk on your face that said you were ready to punch the talker if he said something you didn’t like. And if you were talking to a woman you knew how to look in her eyes and burn her down with your crinkly smile. And if you didn’t like what she was saying you blew smoke in her face. None of us really smoked. I still don’t. But in my Glenn Ford suit I smoked. It was a prop that went with the suit.
You also knew how to talk when you wore that suit. For example if you walked into a club and asked “Who owns this joint?” and the bartender asks; “What’s this all about?” You would look over the place, take a draw from your cigarette, blow out the smoke and say; “I don’t talk to men who wear aprons. Let me see the boss.” And if he hesitated you would pull him across the bar, slap him a few times and he would run to do your bidding damn quick. It never ever came to that but we were always ready.
Friends said we looked great in our Glenn Ford suits but our mothers said we looked like idiots. “Those suits and your skin are exactly the same color. From a distance with those stripes you look like lizards.”
They didn’t see anything resembling Glenn Ford about us. But we weren’t surprised. Mothers never knew anything about what was cool and what wasn’t. Because if they did they would recognize they were the parents of the coolest guys in town. Or in the world for that matter. All thanks to one thing; Our Glenn Ford Suits.