Henry Fonda, like James Stewart and Gary Cooper, was one of the prototypical “All-American” actors of the studio era. But if you believe that Fonda's generally one-dimensional characters represented the average American male, then my guess is that you've just landed on planet Earth and you've never met an American – or any human being, for that matter.
Poor Henry Fonda was stuck playing those shy, naive, honest, courageous – and usually quite dull – characters in dozens of movies. But in a handful of his vehicles, e.g., John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Fugitive (1947), Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957), Franklin J. Schaffner's The Best Man (1964), and even Mark Rydell's On Golden Pond (1981), you could sense a certain steeliness underneath the Nice Guy facade. Those were his best performances.
TCM will be showing 11 Henry Fonda features, in addition to David Heeley's documentary Fonda on Fonda (1992), in which Jane Fonda remembers her father. (See Henry Fonda movie schedule below.)
Unfortunately, TCM won't be showing any hard-to-find early Fonda vehicles such as The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935) or The Moon's Our Home (1936). But there are some goodies in store.
Here are my top three recommendations:
12 Angry Men, in which members of the jury must decide the fate of a young man accused of murder – eleven of them believe the accused is guilty, but one man sees things differently. Some of the psychological insights found in Reginald Rose's screenplay (from his own teleplay) are a little heavy-handed, but the performances are almost uniformly brilliant.
Inspired by a true story, The Wrong Man (1956) stars Fonda as an innocent man accused of robbery. One of Alfred Hitchcock's most serious efforts, this psychological drama offers a layered depiction of people and relationships crumbling under relentless social oppression. Vera Miles is excellent as Fonda's distraught wife.
I'm not a major Preston Sturges fan, but The Lady Eve (1941) is one of those few “masterpieces” that I thoroughly enjoy. Barbara Stanwyck is outstanding as the con artist who sets her eyes on mild-mannered Fonda, who in this instance plays his usually shy, naive, etc. characters to excellent effect. Also in the Lady Eve cast: shameless scene-stealers Charles Coburn and Eric Blore.
In my view, the best things about John Ford's classic “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” Western, My Darling Clementine (1946), are Joseph McDonald's black-and-white cinematography and Linda Darnell's fiery Chihuahua. (I'm not referring to a dog here.)
The best thing in Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is Alice Brady's performance; in Ford's Fort Apache (1948) is that one gets to spot silent film veterans Irene Rich and Mae Marsh; and in the Oscar-nominated Western epic How the West Was Won (1963) is that it ends.
I haven't watched In Harm's Way (1965), yet, but Patricia Neal is supposed to be quite good in it. Can't think of a better recommendation.
Henry Fonda film schedule (PT) and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00 AM Fort Apache (1948)
An experienced cavalry officer tries to keep his new, by-the-books commander from triggering an Indian war. Cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple. Dir.: John Ford. Black and white. 128 min.
5:15 AM Firecreek (1968)
A pacifist sheriff must use tougher means when his town is threatened by a band of outlaws. Cast: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens. Dir.: Vincent McEveety. Color. 104 min.
7:00 AM How the West Was Won (1962)
Three generations of pioneers take part in the forging of the American West. Cast: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne. Dir.: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall. Color. 165 min.
10:00 AM In Harm's Way (1965)
An aging Naval officer leads his men against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Cast: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal. Dir.: Otto Preminger. Black and white. 167 min.
1:00 PM Midway (1976)
Spectacular re-creation of the World War II battle that turned the tide for the U.S. in the Pacific. Cast: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum. Dir.: Jack Smight. Color. 131 min.
3:15 PM My Darling Clementine (1946)
When the Clantons steal his family's cattle and kill his brother, Wyatt Earp signs on as sheriff of Tombstone and vows to bring them in. Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan. Dir.: John Ford. Black and white. 97 min.
5:00 PM Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
The future president considers a political career while practicing law. Cast: Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver. Dir.: John Ford. Black and white. 100 min.
7:00 PM 12 Angry Men (1957)
A jury holdout tries to convince his colleagues to vote not guilty. Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall. Dir.: Sidney Lumet. Black and white. 96 min.
8:45 PM Wrong Man, The (1956)
A musician is mistaken for a vicious thief, with devastating results. Cast: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle. Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock. Black and white. 105 min.
10:45 PM Lady Eve, The (1941)
A lady cardsharp tries to con an eccentric scientist only to fall for him. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn. Dir.: Preston Sturges. Black and white. 94 min.
12:30 AM Big Street, The (1942)
A nightclub waiter, who's in love with a selfish showgirl, gets to prove his love when she's injured. Cast: Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball, Eugene Pallette. Dir.: Irving Reis. Black and white. 89 min.
2:00 AM Fonda on Fonda (1992)
Jane Fonda recalls her father Henry's career as a star of stage and screen. Dir.: David Heeley. Black and white. 46 min.