Everyone remembers the late great actor Glenn Ford for a different reason, whether it be his roles as Pa Kent, Mr. Eddie's Father, Dr. Faraday, or - on perhaps a more famous note - as the lead of many a fine cowboy or film noir protagonist. But what of his films before he became a big star? Well, thanks to the Fox Cinema Archives, we can at long last view Glenn's very first major role - as a feller named Joe Riley in the 1939 film Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence - without having to scour hundreds of television listings and trying to figure out how to program our modern-day recording devices in advance.
Now, although Glenn had appeared in at least one motion picture prior to his part of Joe Riley, his status of unfamiliarity with both Hollywood and the public resulted in him being fourth billed here - despite the fact that he is the main character. And he's a character many can aspire to being: a Depression-era man who has become completely drained of the bustling world around him, and who has recently purchased a 20-acre parcel of farmland in Arizona. When we first meet Joe, he is visiting the top of the Empire State Building, bidding adieu to the Big Apple and its inhabitants below with a well-deserved discharge of saliva - which results in a wonderful conversation with a similarly-minded security guard (an uncredited Paul Hurst, who almost always played a cop or guard) about what to raise on his farm.
And so, Joe - who has spent all of his money on his farm - sets across America hitchhiking (as he has next to no money left to spend on transportation), dreaming of his future life as a farmer, and meeting all sorts of interesting people along the way. One such person is Tony - who is portrayed by another future star in his official film debut: Richard Conte (billed here as Nicholas Conte) - a drifter who advises our hero on the fine art of hopping on trains and trucks in order to get around. While Joe's first attempt at such an act of stowing away is unsuccessful, it introduces us - and him - to our top-billed performer: starlet Jean Rogers (yes, Dale frickin' Arden and Superman's Earth father are in the same movie together, kids!), who portrays an illegal Spanish-born immigrant (of half-Anglo descent, so it's believable) named Anita.
Soon, all three happy wanderers are traveling together - though Joe is adamant that Anita is bad luck since women only screw everything up for a guy in his eyes (something that goes back to his opening conversation with the guard). Through Tony, they make the acquaintance of an older hobo with a heart of gold whom everyone just calls "The Professor" - a very refined, educated man, but who simply decided that life would be best spent as a free man devoid of everyday responsibilities (work, bills, etc.). Inhabiting the role of The Professor is none other than the versatile and sincere Raymond Walburn - and the casting of the actor (who gets second-billing, in case you're wondering) couldn't be any finer in my opinion (well, unless Nigel Bruce had been available, that is).
And thus, we witness a journey of newfound friends unfold in a strange fantasy world where a pretty young thing like Jean Rogers is perfectly safe amid dozens of homeless men, and people are more than eager to help a brother (or sister) out just because that's the way they are. It was definitely a fantasy in 1939, and it's most assuredly as unreal as you can get today, too - but it's a good kind of fiction: one that can lift spirits and build dreams of tomorrow for its viewers. Or maybe I was reading too much into it, but I can do that, right? But then, this movie was written by the great Dalton Trumbo, so I would say I was seeing everything in the correct light.
Also appearing in this fun, forgotten flick about the pursuit of life, love, and happiness (when America was exiting the Depression and the rest of the world was entering a global war, to boot) are Marjorie Rambeau (who gets third-billing, interestingly) as the owner of a saloon, and bit parts by Eddie Collins (who served as the model and was the voice of Dopey in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Irving Bacon, Kay Linaker (who went on to write The Blob), Ward Bond, and the memorable mug of Fred Kelsey - a regular foil for Laurel & Hardy as well as The Three Stooges - as (surprise!) a dumb law official with a cigar. Eagle-eyed film scholars will spot even more familiar faces in the fray here, though most (if not all) of them are only seen very briefly.
Fox adds Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence to its lineup of Cinema Archives - a series of Manufactured-on-Demand releases on DVD-R that are available through mail order only. The vintage 20th Century Fox production looks and sounds quite beautiful here, presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a mono English audio option. For some reason, the DVD artwork - which gives us a partial reprint of the movie's original one-sheet - completely omits Ford and Conte's names (did the people who put this one together even realize who the man was?). Like most MODs, there are no extras included, but this one's worth it just getting the chance to see an extremely youthful Glenn Ford show off he chose the right profession in life at such a young age. Plus it's a enjoyable tale, too.