This post is a part of the What A Character blogathon, sponsored by Outspoken and Freckled (Kellee), Once Upon A Screen (Aurora), and Paula’s Cinema Club (Paula), giving tribute to the great character actors and actresses who support the classic movies we love. Thanks, Ladies, for a fun opportunity. It’s an honor to be among superb company!
At first glance of the What A Character blogathon call for entries, the first character actor to instantly pop into my mind was Ward Bond. Of all my favorite moments in Gone with the Wind (1939), he stands out in one particular scene that I often look forward to seeing. Throughout my years of watching classic movies, I eventually recognized that he seemed to be in each one, especially the most notable. Okay, so I’m exaggerating but sometimes I do think, Geez, what top movie is he not in?! This led me to pay close attention to his presence in some rather impressive films.
Here he is in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) with James Stewart:
Wardell E. Bond was born in 1903 in Benkelman, Nebraska. A handsome and hulking figure at 6’2” with an unforgettable deep voice, he was a starting lineman for the University of Southern California’s football team. It was his team in 1928 to win the school’s very first national championship, leading the football program towards legendary status with a total of eleven championships to date. (As a football fan, I found that to be an interesting tidbit.) It was also at USC where he met John Wayne (then known by his given name of Marion Morrison), which was the start of an enduring friendship.
Bond began acting in college at the urging of Wayne, who was then working his way through college behind the movie set as a prop man. John Ford met soon Bond and cast him in his first film, Salute (1929) with George O’Brien and Stepin Fetchit. It was 1930 when he co-starred with John Wayne for the first time in The Big Trail, Wayne’s first starring role. His stint in Salute marked the first of twenty-six films he performed in with John Ford at the helm, as a member of Ford’s stock company.
As I finally took a closer look into his entire list of films, I realized that my hunch about the number of top films of which he was a part seemed to be right. I went through the American Film Institute’s lists of its Top 100 Films (1998 and 2007) and compared it to his filmography at iMDB.com. I learned that from his seven movies on AFI’s list, Bond earned the distinction of being the only actor to appear in most of the organization’s highly regarded movies. In each, he played a supporting role and these were all films before 1960(!):
- It Happened One Night (1934),
- Bringing Up Baby (1938),
- Gone with the Wind,
- The Grapes of Wrath (1940),
- The Maltese Falcon (1941),
- It’s a Wonderful Life, and
- The Searchers (1956).
Then, after taking a look at the list of Best Picture nominees as so honored by the Academy Awards committee up to 1960, I realized I was hard pressed not to find Ward Bond somewhere. He performed in thirteen of them – he holds the record! (Those in boldface won the Oscar for Best Picture of the year):
- Arrowsmith (1931),
- Lady for a Day (1933),
- It Happened One Night,
- The Informer (1935),
- You Can’t Take It With You (1938),
- Gone with the Wind,
- The Long Voyage Home (1940),
- The Grapes of Wrath,
- The Maltese Falcon,
- Sergeant York (1941),
- It’s a Wonderful Life,
- The Quiet Man (1952), and
- Mister Roberts (1955).
In the remarkable movie year of 1939, he was in twenty-one of them, which included those as noted above – in addition to Made for Each Other with James Stewart and Carole Lombard, The Oklahoma Kid with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, Dodge City with Errol Flynn, Union Pacific with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, and Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums along the Mohawk with Henry Fonda.
In several of his films, Bond went uncredited. However, that in no way meant he was unrecognized. In It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, he’s the bus driver who happens to begin Peter and Ellen’s journey, and not without some lively dialogue either. The crescendo of his “Oh, Yeah?” to the face of Clark Gable awaiting physical confrontation is always funny. Each time I see it, for some reason, I still think they’re going to come to some sort of blows. His part was very important and he warranted some acknowledgment, even it was to just call him “The Bus Driver”. If they hadn’t gotten on his bus, they wouldn’t have left town. If she hadn’t told him to wait and actually expected him to (to the tune of his “Oh, Yeah?”), she wouldn’t have gotten left behind and subsequently, Peter wouldn’t have stuck around. So, to me, his bus driver fueled the story and he should have gotten some sort of merit for bringing him to fruition. (I’m off of my soapbox now…)
His role as the Yankee Captain, Tom, in Gone with the Wind, will always be the most prominent to me as a fan; this is one where he is among those billed in the movie’s opening credits. It’s the scene with the women and the return of the men from the raid in Shantytown after Scarlett was attacked. Tom only had a few words with Captain Butler (Clark Gable, again, of course), but his span of emotion and reactions from bravado to authority to one struggling to maintain his composure through his embarrassment of saying Belle Watling’s name in the presence of the ladies and back to a sense of authority really garnered my attention. He had a short amount of screen time, but I find it to be one of the most memorable. Besides, he really tickled me. Tom was really embarrassed and it showed. Acting genius… thank you!
Bond seldom had a lead role, but he managed to seize as much attention as those top billed. He absorbed his roles. In my favorite western movie, The Searchers, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, I always find myself looking forward to seeing him. He was the army captain and preacher, Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton, somehow merging honor and duty of the fighting militia with the occasional heart of a peacekeeper… no Father Mulcahy here. Only Bond could pull it off and it was believable. Here’s one of his best scenes:
As a fan of television westerns, I’d be remiss not to mention his final project as the star of Wagon Train which aired from 1957 to 1961. Sadly, he was only among the cast until 1960, when he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-seven. John Wayne gave the eulogy at his funeral.
Ward Bond’s hard work has indeed been duly recognized. He was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers and he’s remembered with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Bond had performed in over two hundred fifty films, which includes so many more among the esteemed that aren’t noted here, and this sealed his mark as one of Hollywood’s most notable character actors of all time. I think he was one of the few great supporting actors to embody the role of the characters he played. He wasn’t just showing up on the screen. He gave those folks gusto. He clearly supported the story and in many moments, he lit it up and I will continue to enjoy taking note of his celluloid presence weaving around Hollywood’s great and earlier movies.