Wallace Ford — The Boy Without a Name (1932) 🇺🇸

Wallace Ford — The Boy Without a Name (1932) | www.vintoz.com

February 17, 2023

Hollywood has in its midst a true story more dramatic than the most breath-taking screen epic, more searing in its pitiless reality than a Public Enemy and more romantic than a "Seventh Heaven."

by Harriet Parsons

There is in the film colony a young man who, until a year ago, did not know his name, his age, his parents or his native land. Back of him lay some thirty years of bitter struggle, years of wandering with the spectre of hunger always at his heels. Before him lay the fruits of a hard-won success in the theatre — a success achieved under a name he had arbitrarily chosen for himself. Beyond that he knew nothing of himself — nothing of whence he came or what his heritage might be. The name by which you know him is Wallace Ford and I tell you his story in these pages because, since his debut in Possessed, he has become a film personality to be reckoned with.

The story of Wallace Ford's childhood is necessarily sketchy for it must be pieced together from such fragments as remain in his own memory. There are few of us who cannot reconstruct our early years with the aid of parents or others who surrounded us from birth. But until a year ago Wallace Ford had no one to whom he could turn for such information — no one who could fill in the gaps for him. Even now that some of the missing fragments have been supplied the picture is broken and incomplete.

Until recently Wally Ford knew only that he had been an orphan from birth — a charity child passed from household to household, often unwanted, frequently mistreated, dependent always on people who were no kin to him. Think of what that means. He has never known a relationship with a single person of his own flesh and blood.

At the age of eleven he found himself on a farm in Ingelow, Manitoba, a God-forsaken Canadian village, the ward of an enormous, hulking farmer and his equally enormous wife. He remembered vaguely that he had been adopted some four or five times prior to that. And still more vaguely he seemed to know that first of all he had been one of many boys in Dr. Bernardo's Catholic Orphanage in Toronto. Because it was the custom of the institution to import a number of destitute and parentless lads each year from London and find them "homes" in the larger colony of Canada, he knew that he might very possibly have been English-born. In some inexplicable fashion he felt sure that such was the case — that he was an Englishman — but he had no way of making certain.

One thing he knew — that he was wretchedly unhappy. It was quite clear to him that his foster parents had adopted him in order to have a chore boy — someone to perform the menial tasks of the household without pay. They had no love for him nor he for them. At length, weary of beatings and harsh words and knowing from remarks overheard that his guardians were deliberately hiding from him the facts of his ancestry and birth, he ran away. He felt no gratitude or obligation toward the two towering bullies who demanded cringing obedience from him and gave him nothing in return.

An undersized, forlorn little boy, he cut himself loose from the only ties he knew and went bravely out to face an alien world — nameless, kinless, friendless. He called himself Samuel Jones because others had always called him that. But he believed it to be a name plucked from thin air and attached to him by the Catholic fathers because he had to be called something. Though small, the fact that he had to fight his way alone and that he was somehow cut off from the normal human circumstances that surround most children, made him feel older than he really was. Because he felt grown up, he decided arbitrarily that he was fifteen. He knows now that he was only eleven when he embarked on that solitary and difficult expedition into the world.

He walked miles to the ramshackle little railroad station at Ingelow. There a friendly engineer and fireman let him ride with them in the cab to Winnipeg. To repay them he shoveled coal and helped stoke the engine all the way, not because they demanded it but because there was firmly implanted in him the idea that he must earn his way through life — every step of it. Even at eleven, when most children take for granted the support and protection of their elders, Samuel Jones expected to have to pay for everything he got. Brutal that such knowledge should have been gained so young. Yet it brought Samuel Jones through a boyhood that would have turned nine out of ten lads into criminals, or at best beggars, and made him a man of honor, independence and integrity.

When that engine puffed into the roundhouse at Winnipeg, young Samuel found himself plumped into the midst of a railroad strike. The strikers were holding the roundhouse as a fort, refusing the scabs entrance and the scabs — or strike breakers — in return were besieging the roundhouse and taking pot shots at any regulars who ventured out. Because he was only a child, Samuel could come and go without danger. He made himself valuable by bringing in food and cigarettes to the beleaguered railroad men, and when the strike was over he was awarded a job as call boy. It was his duty to wake the train crews and get them out on schedule. There were surprisingly few late trains out of Winnipeg during Sammy's few months on the job. When he couldn't rouse the weary men by pounding on their doors he climbed through the transom and went to work at closer quarters. Eventually he earned himself a railroad pass to Winnipeg and set out in search of bigger worlds to conquer.

In Winnipeg he remained until the outbreak of the World War, eking out an existence by means of any work he could find. No job was too hard or too menial as long as it brought in an honest penny. At one time he was an usher in the local stock company headed by the late Theodore Roberts. Whenever there was a chance for him to play a bit he did so — not because of any love for the theatre or any ambition to become an actor — but simply because it was another way to make money. Between shows he sold papers on the corner. In those days he had one starkly simple motive for everything he did: to ward off starvation. The sum of his ambition and dreams of the future was a square meal and a place to sleep. Thus, when the War broke out and Canada was calling for volunteers, he tried through every recruiting office within miles to get into the army. At that time he believed himself eighteen and was adding a couple of years for good measure. But he was in reality only fourteen and no medical examiner would pass him. He was desperate — not because of thwarted patriotism — how could he yearn to serve his country when he didn't know what that country was? — but because of hunger and the need for a steady job.

It was at this time that he met a man named Wallace Ford. Ford was a man of intelligence and education — but a born hobo. He believed the world owed him a living and would never pay for anything if he could beg, borrow or steal it. An American by birth, he was bumming his way back to the United States and young Samuel, hoping to find more prosperous conditions over the border, went along.

During the two years it took them to get from Winnipeg, Canada, to Iowa, Samuel was under the constant influence of the older man's radical beliefs and complete lack of ethics. Added to this, the desperate difficulty of getting honest work along the way conspired against Samuel's integrity. But his childhood realization that one got only what he earned in this world armored him against temptation — then and later. Today, looking back, the erstwhile Samuel Jones says he knows there must have been good blood and good character somewhere in his ancestry or he would never have come clean-handed through those soul-trying days.

In his wanderings with Wallace Ford, Samuel did every conceivable kind of work: harvested in the wheat fields, washed dishes, waited on the table in saloons. Sometimes he was paid in currency, sometimes in food. Always he was in actual want. He had a good voice and used to sing in the street for pennies. Occasionally he got a chance to sing or play a bit on the stage.

Toward the end of the trek, Ford heard that his mother was dying in Sioux City, Iowa, and turned toward home. They were riding the rods and a day's journey from Sioux City Samuel saw him fall to his death between the wheels of the train. With the only human life which had ever been close to him wiped out before his very eyes, the boy did not know where to turn. He and Ford had lived from day to day with no set destination or plan, until they headed toward Sioux City. Their companionship had been the only thing which remained constant as they wandered from job to job and city to city. Almost automatically, Sammy continued to Ford's home. There, before she died, he asked his friend's mother if he might take the name of Wallace Ford. He had always hated Samuel Jones.

Bearing the dead man's name, the self-christened Wallace Ford continued to struggle with the same problem of existence which had dogged the footsteps of Samuel Jones. Shortly before his namesake's death, America had entered the War, and, as in Canada, he tried in every city to enlist. At length, to his joy, he was drafted and hastened to report, seeing visions of a steaming plate of beans. The thought of death did not alarm him as long as he could eat regularly while risking it. But to his horror, the recruiting officer informed him he would not be called for thirty-one days. To his question, "How am I to live in the meantime?" the hard-boiled sergeant answered, "That's your problem," and gave him a quarter. As usual he managed somehow and when at last, a month later, he was called for service in the U. S. Navy he felt that his troubles were over. Two days later peace was declared and he was honorably discharged!

If memory serves him right, it was during the ensuing few years that Wally Ford first began to regard the stage definitely as his profession and to have glimmerings of an ambition beyond the next meal. Stock work in St. Joseph, Missouri, followed by a chance in Stuart Walker's repertory company in Indianapolis, launched him on his pursuit of a career. He scored as the lead in Seventeen and Walker sent him to New York. For the first time he had visions of something more than a hand-to-mouth existence but for a while it was a vision only. Even with his first Broadway breaks, the battle continued. There was the time he had to rehearse three weeks without pay. Broke and too proud to ask for an advance, he waited on table nights in Silver's cafeterias. When actors he knew came into the lunchroom he would invent excuses to stay in the kitchen.

Even after his hit in Abraham Lincoln — even while he was playing Abie in the sensationally successful Abie's Irish Rose, he was living in a tiny, cramped hall bedroom that had been intended as an alcove. The bitter memory of past hunger was eternally with him and he saved every cent he could spare. He had never known what it was to have steady employment before and his past was not conducive to optimism about the future.

Abie's Irish Rose was generally conceded to be unadulterated hokum but it brought Wallace Ford an emotional experience of rare depth and beauty. For it brought about his meeting with Martha Halworth. She was playing a small part, he the lead. They fell in love and in a year's time were married. It sounds simple enough, a conventional enough romance — but when you know the background, the underlying currents and the barriers which stood in the way of their happiness it will seem to you as it does to me — one of the sweetest, finest and most dramatic of love stories.

Martha Halworth's father is Joseph Halworth who created the role of John Storm in The Christian. The name stands for something in the theatre. Back of her were family, tradition, security. Mrs. Halworth wanted, naturally, to know who this boy was into whose hands her daughter was ready to entrust her future happiness. Wallace Ford could not tell her for he did not know.

But Martha Halworth knew that she had met the one man. She married him in spite of all parental objection — married him not knowing whence he came nor what his heredity might be. It was a brave thing to do. For all she knew, this Wallace Ford, who did not even know his name, might have sprung from stock polluted by crime, insanity... Heaven knows what. But Wally's fineness, integrity and courage were enough for her. She defied the darkly veiled facts of his origin to make him anything else.

In this splendid gesture on the part of the woman he loved Wallace Ford found restitution and solace for the bitter hurts which life had inflicted on Samuel Jones. For the first time in all his years of lonely struggle he had someone who belonged to him, who stood by his side and shared in his joys and sorrows.

Wally did not take this great gift for granted nor treat it lightly. Before he would marry Martha Halworth he saw to it that he had twenty thousand dollars in insurance. If he could not give her the assurance of a known and honorable family background, he would at least bestow on her material protection. So, during their courtship, he continued to live in his single hall room, saving desperately. Even when he was playing the leading role — that of the hoofer — in the Chicago production of Broadway, he would, when he and Martha dined together, limit their expenditure to fifty cents apiece. And she, knowing what lay behind his seeming frugality, loved and respected him more.

Their marriage, in spite of all the odds that were against it, has lasted five years, more than justifying Martha Halworth's trust. Wally Ford has proved himself both as a man and as an actor. Since his success in the Los Angeles production of Bad Girl provided the open sesame to the movies, he has been rapidly building a name for himself in this new medium. Under contract to M-G-M, he scored in Possessed and in "Freaks," and will be seen later in "The Beast of the City" and "Are You Listening?"

On the screen, the boy who never knew any of the happy life of the average American youth, somehow reminds you of the chap who lives next door, or the boy who was president of your senior class back in high school.

A year ago, Wally Ford came into possession of a valuable paper — a paper to which most of us never give a second thought save when securing passports, marriage licenses or other official documents. I refer to his birth certificate. Many years ago, his wanderings took him to Detroit. There he met a Catholic priest to whom he told his story. Interested in the boy's strange problem and eager to help him, the Father sought for twelve long years to unearth the facts of his birth. And he succeeded at last. Wallace Ford knows now that his true name is Samuel Jones Grundy. He was startled to find himself four years younger than he had believed... strange, indeed, to have four years suddenly lopped from the past and added to the future. His childhood instinct told him correctly that he was an Englishman — for his birthplace was Bolton, Lancashire. The facts reveal that his father died shortly after Wally came into the world — but there is a possibility that his mother may be alive somewhere today. It is believed that she was a street singer in her youth — one more dramatic touch in an amazing and colorful tale.

So Wallace Ford, who took a dead man's name, has at last a name of his own. No longer is he a man without a country, cut off from his heritage. But the shadow of lonely, half-starved Samuel Jones — nameless, kinless, friendless — still lurks in his eyes, a pitiful little ghost who will not be exorcised. Wallace Ford and Samuel Jones are one, but often when Wally's mouth laughs there are the ghosts of tears in Samuel's eyes.



Although he's a success now, Wallace Ford's boyhood and youth is unbelievable in its heartbreak.

People being what they are, Ford found his unknown parentage a handicap. But one believed in him.

With Jean Harlow in "The Beast of the City." This is his latest film, just recently released.

In "Freaks," the M-G-M circus picture. That's Coocoo, the Bird Girl, with Wallace.

With Joan Crawford in Possessed. It was this part which made Ford a success in a big way.

Wallace Ford played the hoofer in the famous stage play, Broadway. Although that was made into a picture some time ago, Wallace didn't go movie till fairly recently. His first stage hit was made in the renowned Abie's Irish Rose.

Collection: Modern Screen MagazineApril 1932