While the name Harrison Ford conjures images of Indiana Jones and Han Solo for most moviegoers, there was another actor by the same name who worked in films from 1915 until 1932. Ford was a major star of the 1920s, even though he is all but forgotten now. He worked with many of the silent era’s biggest stars. When sound became popular, Ford was in his mid-40s. He made two short talkies in 1929 and one last feature film in 1932 before retiring. He was 48 years old. All told, he appeared in 84 silent films and 3 talkies. Ford specialized in light leading-man roles opposite major female stars. In a way, he was like George Brent or Gene Raymond, but remained popular and in-demand until the end of the silent era. Among the stars he worked with are Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies, Bessie Love, Constance Talmadge, Corinne Griffith, Marie Prevost and Clara Bow.
Luckily, several of Ford’s films survive and it’s interesting to see his work as a leading man. Ford never achieved the status of male stars like John Gilbert, William Haines, Ramon Novarro or Rudolph Valentino, but he was a favorite among the divas who often lit up the screen.
Ford’s first big films were in 1921 when he starred with Norma Talmadge in the first of 3 films they would make together. Passion Flower was a somber story about sexual abuse, with Talmadge’s character suffering at the hands of her grandfather. It was heavy stuff for 1921. Also in 1921, Talmadge and Ford teamed for an interracial romance in Love’s Redemption, with Talmadge playing a Jamaican girl. Ford’s last film with Talmadge came in 1922 when they starred in the first screen version of Smilin’ Though, a big-hit love story remade with both Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald.
Ford displayed his comedic talents with Constance Talmadge in the 1922 hit comedy, The Primitive Lover. Talmadge stars as Phyllis Tomley, a woman who reads romance novels and thinks that marriage to her husband Hector (Ford) is dull. The film starts with Phyllis daydreaming about a romantic novel scenario. She compares this tripe to her dull husband and pines for the novel’s author (the hero) who is believed to be lost in the jungle (which is nothing but a publicity hoax). Phyllis impulsively decides to get a quick divorce and marry the author (Kenneth Harlan). Hector decides that if Phyllis wants a “primitive lover,” then he’ll show her a thing or two. He kidnaps the couple in Reno and takes them into the mountain wilderness where he exposes the preening author/hero as a phony. Phyllis becomes impressed with Hector, unaware that he has a local Indian helping him to hunt and build fires. The Primitive Lover is fun and Ford works well as the inventive husband.
In 1922, Ford also co-starred with Gloria Swanson in a romantic film titled Her Gilded Cage, another of Swanson’s domestic dramas. Three years later in 1925, Ford made The Marriage Whirl with Corinne Griffith. That same year, Ford landed a seemingly plum role in D.W. Griffith’s That Royle Girl, which starred Carol Dempster and W.C. Fields. The film was a huge flop, but Ford also made a cameo appearance (though uncredited) in Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust.
The following year, Ford starred with Marie Prevost and Phyllis Haver in Up in Mabel’s Room, a bedroom farce about a ditzy woman (Prevost) who divorces her husband and then wants him back after changing her mind. But he’s already being chased by the vampy Haver. At a weekend house party, all the men (who are chasing the same women chasing Ford) end “up in Mabel’s room” through a comical series of misunderstandings. Ford is especially funny in this role-reversal film as the prissy ex-husband who refuses the advances of all the women.
In 1927, Ford teamed with Bessie Love for the road trip comedy Rubber Tires. It centered around a family that travels west to pay the back taxes on their house in California. Bessie is the brain of the family and Ford is the boyfriend. Ugly cars and the desolate Midwest countryside make this an amazing time capsule of yesterday’s America. May Robson is the mother and John Patrick plays the “he-beauty contest” winner on his way to crash Hollywood. This might have been a better film in 1927 because Bessie Love and Harrison Ford were big stars, and this film is a Cecil B. DeMille production directed by, of all people, Alan Hale! Still, it’s a cute comedy and it provides Love and Ford with plenty of chances to be humorous.
Ford re-teamed with Prevost for another snappy comedy, The Girl in the Pullman. In another comedy of re-marriage, Ford plays a dentist engaged to a prudish woman (Kathryn McGuire), but finds out that his planned marriage is one day before the issuance of his final divorce decree. To make matters worse, his soon-to-be ex-wife (Prevost) has decided she wants him back. The plot is similar to Up in Mabel’s Room, but the action here takes place on a train speeding to California. Franklin Pangborn (playing Hector Brooks) goes along for the train trip and gets involved in the marital crossfire. Ford is hilarious as the on-and-off husband trying to avoid his wife, his wife-to-be, her mother, and a meddlesome drunk who tries to lure everyone into his train compartment for a “wee drinkie”. Things get more complex when the railroad car gets disconnected and hurtles through the mountains.
But Ford’s most famous teaming may have been with Marion Davies in three of her best silent films: Little Old New York (1923), Janice Meredith (1924) and Zander the Great (1925). Little Old New York was a smash hit for Davies and was one of the year’s biggest moneymakers. It was based on a best-selling novel about an Irish girl posing as her own dead brother to inherit a fortune. Producer William Randolph Hearst spared no expense in reproducing period detail and costumes. Set against 19th century New York City, the film boasts some great sequences, including Fulton’s steamboat race and an incredible riot scene in which Davies (who is stripped and almost flogged) is exposed as a fraud. Ford plays the heir’s protector and is excellent as the confused man who gets odd signals from the young “boy”.
Janice Meredith was a flop in 1924 but looks better today as a historical drama, which features Davies as a fictitious heroine in the Revolutionary War. The film is famous for re-enacting many scenes from the war, including a beautifully rendered version of Washington crossing the Delaware. As usual with any film Hearst was involved in, the period detail and historical accuracy are again excellent. The film shows a strong performance by Davies, who plays the daughter of a wealthy Royalist. She falls in love with a mysterious bond-servant (Ford) who turns out to be a nobleman and an American supporter. Janice Meredith offered Ford a solid dramatic role.
Zander the Great is a terrific comedy with Davies starring as a 12-year-old orphan named Mamie Smith. The opening shows a group of girls laboring over their washtubs. The audience doesn’t see any of the girls’ faces until one of them stumbles and falls. The camera zooms in on the girl and it’s Davies. The hideous matron beats her, but she’s saved when the trustee sends her to live with Mrs. Caldwell. Mamie helps the woman with her infant son, Zander, while she waits for the return of her husband from Mexico. Years pass and Mrs. Caldwell dies. The orphanage swoops in to take the young boy away, but Mamie escapes to Arizona, where the boy’s father (Harrison Ford) is hiding out with his gang. Through pure luck, she happens upon their hideout (he’s a bootlegger) and wins them over with her cooking. After various adventures and a big shootout, things end happily for all.
Sadly, most of Harrison Ford’s films are lost, as is the case with many silent stars. But those that exist show this talented actor as a major comic foil and a dramatic leading man. Despite co-starring with the era’s most glamorous actresses, Ford had a scant career in talkies. His work in silent films has been virtually forgotten.