Fonda, Henry: Screen Image–Ordinary Farmers

Henry Fonda became the screen personification of the American farmer-pioneer with his very screen debut, The Farmer Takes a Wife, in 1935.  In this romantic drama, set in the 1920s, he plays a farmer whose sole wish is to work the land and live peacefully with his wife, played by Janet Gaynor.

Later on, Fonda played a fighting pioneer in the pre-Independence era in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk,

He was a farmer fighting social injustice in the powerful film version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, rendering what his arguably his strongest–and most memorable–screen performance.

Fonda continued to symbolized the ordinary American soldier in Mister Roberts, and fought for basic American ideals, such as trial by a fair, democratic jury in Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men.

Other male stars of Fonda’s generation, such as John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, also established reputations by playing sympathetic roles, to the point of being severely circumscribed by what the public was willing–and unwilling–to accept.

Fonda played few villainous roles until the last decade of his career; his earlier portrayal of the outlaw Frank James, in two Westerns, was whitewashed and even glamorized.

Fonda in fact was much more convincing as an innocent man accused of murder in Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, and he gave a memorable performance in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, as Manny Balestrero, the honest musician who was mistakenly identified as a hold-up man.

Like John Wayne, his portrayal of villains or criminals was an occasional departure, an exception.  However, as British film critic Philip French has pointed out that  the casting of Fonda and Wayne in villainous roles has signified different meanings: “When Wayne is cast as a criminal, there is usually a suggestion that something is wrong with the law in a local, easily resolved way; when Fonda is cast as an outlaw, the implication is that there’s something basically wrong with society.”  This differential reading of Wayne and Fonda’s roles attests to the immense power of their respective screen personas.