27 January 2022

Francis Ford

Francis Ford (1881-1953) was an American actor and director of the silent era. Ford was the male lead in such silent films as the Universal serial The Broken Coin (Francis Ford, 1915), co-scripted by Grace Cunard, the female lead of the serial. Francis was the elder brother and mentor of director John Ford. He also appeared in many of the latter's films, including Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Quiet Man (1952). Ford may have acted in over 400 films, with many of his early credits poorly documented and probably lost.

Francis Ford
American postcard by Commercial Colortype Co., Chicago, no. M-34. Photo: Universal.

Francis Ford
American postcard by Kline Poster Co. Inc., Phila. Image: Universal.

Specialised in Abraham Lincoln

Francis Ford was born Frank Thomas Feeney in 1881 in Portland, Maine, USA. He was the son of John Augustine Feeney and Barbara "Abbey" Curran. By 1878, John had moved to Portland, Maine, and opened a saloon, at 42 Center Street, that used a false front to pose as a grocery store. John opened four others in the following years.

Francis left home. He joined the army in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War but was discharged when the authorities discovered he was only seventeen years old. After a brief marriage to Dell Cole from whom he had a son, Philip Ford (1900-1976), Francis lived off odd jobs, worked in a circus, and then became a stage actor where he met his second wife, the actress Elsie Van Name.

In 1909, he drifted into the film business in New York City, working for David Horsley, Al Christie, and the Star Film Company's San Antonio operation under Gaston Méliès. He made his film debut in small roles and was often in charge of props, costumes, and set design. He adopted the name Ford from the automobile.

From San Antonio, Francis began his Hollywood career in 1910 working for Thomas H. Ince at Ince's Bison studio, directing and appearing in Westerns. Francis's transition from the Ford family home in Maine to having a career in Hollywood as an actor and director motivated his little brother John Ford to do the same, largely as an act of competition.

Separated from his wife Elsie, Francis Ford moved to Universal in early 1913. His 1913 Lucille Love, Girl of Mystery was Universal's first serial, and the first of a string of very popular serials starring Ford's collaborator and lover Grace Cunard. Their serial The Broken Coin (Francis Ford, 1915) was expanded from 15 to 22 episodes by popular demand, It was probably the highlight of Ford's career.

He played the role of President Lincoln on several occasions, notably in On Secret Service (Thomas H. Ince, 1912|), The Great Sacrifice (Raymond B. West, 1913), From Rail-Splitter to President (Francis Ford, 1913), and The Toll of War (Francis Ford, 1913). He also planned to make a twelve-part film on the life of Abraham Lincoln, but this project did not materialise. Francis also played General George A. Custer in Custer's Last Fight (Francis Ford, 1912).

In 1914, when Francis was the head of the Universal Film Manufacturing Co.'s shorts and serials department, he assigned his twelve years younger brother John Ford, who was working odd jobs around the studio, to Harry Carey's unit. In 1914, Francis played Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (Francis Ford, 1914) with John as Dr. Watson.

Francis Ford in The Broken Coin
Spanish cromo (collector's card) by Amatller Marca Luna, series 1a, no. 31. Photo: Universal. Francis Ford as Count Hugo in the serial The Broken Coin (Francis Ford 1915), released in Spain as 'La Moneda Rota'.

Francis Ford, Grace Cunard and Eddie Polo in The Broken Coin
Spanish postcard. Photo: Universal. Francis Ford, Grace Cunard, and Eddie Polo in The Broken Coin (Francis Ford, 1915), co-scripted by Cunard. The serial is presumably lost.

An ample feel for light comedy

In 1917, Francis Ford left Universal and separated from Grace Cunard. He founded a short-lived independent company, Ford Films, which released Berlin Via America (Francis Ford, 1918), and briefly opened his own studio at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street.

Francis mentored John, collaborating frequently as writers, directors, and actors in each other's projects, but it soon became clear that his younger brother's star was on the rise.

Frank's directorial style remained suitable for serials but failed to evolve. Ford's final known directorial credit is for The Call of the Heart (Francis Ford, 1928), a 50-minute vehicle for 'Dynamite the Devil Dog'.

Francis Ford turned to acting exclusively circa 1929. He is often uncredited, as in his appearance in James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). As an actor, he would provide convincing portrayals of men of authority - men sometimes ruthless if not downright unsavory. He played the Republican judge in his brother John's The Informer (John Ford, 1935).

But he also had an ample feel for light comedy. Thus he played in John's The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952), as the village elder who - almost in the manner of slapstick - rouses himself from his very deathbed to witness the film's donnybrook dénouement.

Francis Ford passed away from cancer in 1953 in Los Angeles at the age of 72. He was married three times, to Delia Agatha Cole (1900-1909), Elsie Van Name (1909-1934), and Mary Elizabeth Swearingen (1935-1953). His sons were film actor/director Philip Ford and Francis Joseph Ford Jr. a.k.a. "Bill".

Francis Ford in The Broken Coin
British postcard. Photo: The Trans-Atlantic Film Co. (British subsidiary of Universal in Europe). Francis Ford as the male lead in The Broken Coin (Francis Ford, 1915), co-scripted by Grace Cunard, the female lead of the serial.

Sources: Bill Takacs (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

No comments: