best film:   Sergio Leone’s epic 1968 western Once Upon a Time in the West has the safe lead here as Henry Fonda’s best film. Two John Ford films, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946) come in silver and bronze.


Fonda’s Frank is one of the great screen villains. Fonda almost always played a man of virtue, so to see him here, with his steely, sadistic glare – well it is just jaw-dropping – and he is spectacular. It is 22-minutes into the film before Ennio Morricone’s theme for Frank marks the arrival of Fonda for the infamous massacre.


best performance:   Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath is the best single performance of 1940 – and right there with the best of the decade in the 1940s.  Fonda’s aptitude for portraying moral virtue has never better been put on display (and he would lean into this often during his career – and even play against that for his villainous Frank in Leone’s epic) and it absolutely never feels like a rich Hollywood actor portraying a poor farmer during the dust-bowl set depression. It is absolutely an authentic performance. His monologue to his mother (Jane Darwell) at the end speaking directly from John Steinbeck is genius screen acting.


Fonda embodied one of 20th century literature’s finest characters – Tom Joad


stylistic innovations/traits:  Henry Fonda is in three (3) masterpieces (he excellent in all of them), thirty (30) overall archiveable films, and has roughly one hundred (100) total credits after sifting through the appearances and television. Fonda only had two Oscar nominations (not aways a great barometer of an actor’s excellence, clearly) and won in 1981 in a sort of ceremonial tribute for On Golden Pond (this was just one year after his actual honorary award – oddly enough). On Golden Pond does not factor in at all on his resume.  Fonda is pretty much always the lead or co-lead when talking about his thirty (30) archiveable performances (The Longest Day, How the West Was Won, and Fedora are exceptions). His career spanned longer, but that prolonged stretch between 1937 and 1968 (with two sizable gaps) is truly remarkable – and it starts with a Fritz Lang gangster film, and ends with a Sergio Leone western – not bad. The two gaps include a few years off for the war (no credits at all in 1944 or 1945) and then the odd gap between Fort Apache in 1948 and Mister Roberts in 1955 right smack dab in the middle of his prime (both films with John Ford – well – sort of on Mister Roberts – but more on that in the directors worked with category below). Fonda did theater work in that stretch. As mentioned, Fonda excelled at playing men of moral high standards (Abraham Lincoln of course, Juror 8 in 12 Angry Men, and then the president again in Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe). He takes that persona built up over thirty (30) years and then completely (and brilliantly) flips it in its head for the sadistic Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. What a masterstroke of casting and performance – a coup. Fonda could easily fill in for Cary Grant and do screwball comedy (The Lady Eve) and though overall he did not have the sort of suave sophistication of Grant – Grant could not exactly sit there in Fort Apache and argue with John Wayne or heaven forbid try to play Tom Joad, either. It is a testament to Fonda’s depth of filmography that strong work in films like Jezebel, Fort Apache, You Only Live Once and Young Mr. Lincoln do not land in his top five (5).


Fonda as juror 8 in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men – Fonda’s strongest performance of the 1950s


directors worked with:  John Ford (7), Otto Preminger (3), Sidney Lumet (2), Ken Annakin (2), Fritz Lang (1), William Wyler (1), Preston Sturges (1), Alfred Hitchcock (1), King Vidor (1), Anthony Mann (1), Franklin Schaffner (1), Sergio Leone (1), Billy Wilder (1).


Fonda in My Darling Clementine – one of the finest of the seven (7) archiveable films Fonda and Ford made together. Ford and Fonda had a famous falling out on the set of Mister Roberts in 1955 and Ford was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy during the film. It is a shame this duo stopped working together. One has to assume that the Jimmy Stewart role in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (a very fine role and film) would have starred Fonda instead of Stewart if it were not for this falling out.


top five performances:

  1. The Grapes of Wrath
  2. Once Upon a Time in the West
  3. My Darling Clementine
  4. 12 Angry Men
  5. The Lady Eve


archiveable films

1937- You Only Live Once
1938- Jezebel
1939- Drums Along the Mohawk
1939- Jesse James
1939- Young Mr. Lincoln
1940- The Grapes of Wrath
1941- The Lady Eve
1942- The Ox-Bow Incident
1946- My Darling Clementine
1947- Daisy Kenyon
1947- The Fugitive
1948- Fort Apache
1955- Mister Roberts
1956- The Wrong Man
1956- War and Peace
1957- 12 Angry Men
1957- Tin Star
1959- Warlock
1962- Advise and Consent
1962- How the West Was Won
1962- The Longest Day
1964- Fail Safe
1964- The Best Man
1965- Battle of the Bulge
1965- In Harm’s Way
1968- Firecreek
1968- Once Upon a Time in the West
1968- The Boston Strangler
1978- Fedora
1981- On Golden Pond