Watching 1939: Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939)

Release date: 
Nov. 3, 1939

Jean Rogers, Raymond Walburn, Marjorie Rambeau, Glenn Ford, Richard Conte (billed as Nicholas Conte), Eddie Collins, Ward Bond, Irving Bacon, Kay Linaker

20th Century Fox

Ricardo Cortez

Joe Riley (Ford) leaves New York City to hitchhike across the United States to a 20-acre ranch he bought in Arizona. Along the way he meets drifter Tony Casselli (Conte) who convinces Riley to ride the rails with him. They also meet Spanish refuge Anita Santos (Rogers), who is trying to find her uncle in California. The trio also picks up Prof. B. Townsend Thayer (Walburn) who joins the group as they travel to Arizona. They experience tragedies along the way, and the ranch isn’t quite what Joe expected.

1939 Notes:
• In 1939, actor Ricardo Cortez began directing. This is one of four films he directed that year.
• Glenn Ford’s first feature-length film. He was in two films released that year.
• Richard Conte’s first film role. He wasn’t in another film until 1943 after this one.
By the numbers:
– Jean Rogers was in four films released in 1939.
– Raymond Walburn was in five films released in 1939.
– Marjorie Rambeau was in four films released in 1939.

Jean Rogers, Raymond Walburn, Glenn Ford and Richard Conte.

Other trivia: 
• Richard Conte is billed as Nicholas Conte.
• Richard Conte was signed to this film based on a screentest he made for “Golden Boy” – a role he lost to William Holden.
• Filmed in Thousand Oaks, Newhall and Sagus, CA.
• Story written by Dalton Trumbo

Jean Rogers and Glenn Ford in “Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
This week’s 1939 film may not be a title you are familiar with, but it was the first film of two actors who became top stars in the 1950s: Glenn Ford and Richard Conte (billed under his real name, Nicholas Conte).

Ford had only been in one film short prior to this, “Night in Manhattan” (1937), billed as his real name Gwyllyn Ford.

Ford and Conte co-star as young men traveling across the United States. Ford’s character is traveling to Arizona where he bought a ranch, and everytime he talks about it he has a wistful gleam in his eye. Conte’s character is a bit more gruff and worldly; and knows the ways of riding the rails and hitchhiking. His character could be compared to the roles John Garfield was playing over at Warner Bros.

“Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence” was directed by a former actor, Ricardo Cortez. Cortez’s film career dated back to 1917, with credited film roles come in 1923. Cortez is best known for his early 1930s films, where he often played a cad. Though Cortez was still acting some in the late-1930s (and continued acting until 1960), Cortez was trying his hand at directing in 1939; working behind the camera in four films that year.

Unfortunately, the experienced Cortez was not kind to newcomer Ford, according to his son Peter Ford’s biography, “Glenn Ford: A Life.”

On the first day of filming, Ricardo Cortez walked on set and said to the cast and crew, “I want you all to know they stuck me with this guy in the lead. I didn’t want him. I wanted a real actor for the thing and not some unknown amateur. I’m disgusted, but there’s nothing I can do, so I ask you for your patience as we put up with him,” according to Ford’s biography on his father.

The insults didn’t end there. Cortez would comment that Ford had a stupid expression or said, “Christ, what did I do to deserve a no-talent like you on this film?”

Ford would remember it as the worst experience he would have in the movie business.

“Every time I looked up, I saw pity in the eyes of the other people on set.” The cameraman, Eddie Cronjager, would whisper “Don’t let the jerk get you down.”

Cortez’s biographer, Dan Van Neste, acknowledges the director’s cruelty to the newcomer but says Cortez also had issues with his personal life during this time and may not have known he was being cruel.

Whichever you want to believe, I think his behavior is disappointing, because I was so excited to watch a Cortez directed film!

Despite the insults, I never would have known this was the first film for Ford or Conte. They both looked very young, but were as natural as they were later in films.

However, as both were getting started, World War II interrupted their careers. Conte wouldn’t make another film until 1943, after he was discharged from the United States Army for issues with his eye. Ford continued to make films, but joined the Army Air Corp in 1942. Ford and fellow newcomer William Holden both assumed they would be forgotten in Hollywood by the time they returned – if they returned. However, all three became major stars of the 1950s.

Also in the film are character actors Raymond Walburn and Marjorie Rambeau, who are the real highlight of the film. Walburn usually plays a bit of a pompous blowhard, but he’s endearing here. Rambeau unfortunately doesn’t turn up until later in the film, but she’s memorable just the same.

The only bad casting in the film to me was Jean Rogers as Anita Santos, an illegal immigrant who traveled to the United States from Spain, trying to escape the Spanish War. Her accent is terrible and she just isn’t great in the role. They should have cast another actress or made her role one of a girl running away from home. Maybe Ricardo Cortez should have complained about this miscasting instead.

Running at just 62 minutes, “Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence” packs a punch. It’s funny, endearing and at other parts tragic. You find yourself cheering for group of travelers, hoping that they find their “heaven” in the end.

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