Some actresses may give off the aura from the screen of being larger than life, but Dorothy Ford presented that image for real, in person. Standing 6’2″ tall, the dark-haired, beautifully proportioned Ford parlayed her height (which should have been an impediment) and good looks into a Hollywood career lasting more than 20 years. Born in Perris, CA, and raised in Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Tucson, AZ, Ford appeared in school pageants and went into modeling after she graduated; her 38-26-38-and-a-half figure coupled with her 6’2″ frame made her ideal for photographic work. Her first experience as a performer came about when Billy Rose cast Ford in his aquacade alongside Johnny Weissmuller.
She also did a stint as an Earl Carroll showgirl, appearing in revues including Something to Shout About and Star Spangled Glamour. Ford’s physique and striking good looks quickly brought her to the attention of casting offices, and she made her screen debut in 1942 in Lady in the Dark, playing a model. MGM put her under contract in 1943 and cast her in the musical Thousands Cheer (1944) and Broadway Rhythm (1944), in which she was seen sipping champagne with Charles Winninger; her other appearances that year included roles in Meet the People, Bathing Beauty, Two Girls and a Sailor, and The Thin Man Goes Home. She was seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) as part of an onscreen performing act, and worked in King Vidor’s An American Romance (1945) before she left MGM.
Ford took acting seriously and even spent time working and studying as a member of the Actors’ Lab, the West Coast equivalent of New York’s Group Theater. She did decidedly better in screen time and roles in her Universal Pictures debut, in Abbott and Costello’s Here Come the Co-Eds (1945), which at last gave Ford a chance to act. Playing the towering captain of a women’s basketball team appearing as “ringers” in a college game, Ford exuded confidence and boldness, as well as a sly streak, and dominated every shot she was in. Most of Ford’s subsequent screen roles were genuine acting assignments. After a brief return to modeling in Rio de Janeiro, as part of South America’s first postwar fashion show, she went back to MGM in Love Laughs at Andy Hardy, in which she played a young woman who is dateless until she crosses paths with Mickey Rooney — the height difference between the actress and the diminutive star became a centerpiece of the plot. This was also Ford’s first major role to play off of her height.
By that time, Ford was often referred to in the press, in a complimentary manner, as a “Glamazon,” and she was outspoken in encouraging more tall women to stand up for themselves: In one interview, she advised female readers that “if nature has made you tall, then be good and tall,” chiding tall women who tried to stoop over or otherwise hide their height. Ford herself wore her 145 pounds extremely well and was regarded at one point in the 1940s as one of the most strikingly beautiful women in Hollywood. In an era in which Maureen O’Hara was regarded as formidable at 5’8″, Ford made her 6’2″ work for her, and not just in “freak” roles, which she resisted taking. Following an appearance in a New York stage production called The Big People, which played off of her height in a positive way, she was back in Hollywood in On Our Merry Way (1948), an unusual independently made anthology film. In 1949, she got cast in the Western Three Godfathers, directed by John Ford, and was given one of the more interesting parts of her career, portraying a woman who becomes the potential love interest of the character played by John Wayne in two key scenes. Ford’s career slowed down considerably as the 1950s began.
Her biggest role of all, in terms of screen time, came along in 1952 when she was cast in the Bud Abbott/Lou Costello comedy-fantasy Jack and the Beanstalk — the movie gave her several choice bits of comedy and choreography with Lou Costello as a very tall woman in modern times and the servant of the giant in the fantasy sequences. Costello evidently liked Ford and appreciated her sense of humor, because he later put her into one installment of The Abbott & Costello Show (“The Vacuum Cleaner Salesman”) on television. She also made small-screen appearances on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet and The Red Skelton Show, among other series, during the 1950s. Following an appearance in the Bowery Boys vehicle Feudin’ Fools, Ford’s big-screen career wound down in some surprisingly high-visibility films; John Wayne cast Ford in The High and the Mighty (1954), in a small role as a glamour girl with her hooks into Phil Harris, and Billy Wilder used her in the opening segment of The Seven Year Itch (1955). Ford faded out of movies over the next couple of years in much lower-budgeted films, in a pure eye candy part in The Indestructible Man and as a stripper in Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. She remained involved with the movie business even after giving up acting, joining MGM as a technician in the studio’s film lab beginning in 1965.
Many of Ford’s old films are still widely shown on cable, and — often thanks to her presence — remain inherently striking to contemporary viewers, who marvel at the boldness and beauty of this extraordinary screen figure. ~ Bruce Eder.