"Big Four" Highlights


Fonda’s Finest Moment

An old family film captures true love

By Jason Godin

The old sticks-and-stones saying that insists words have no effect is proved wrong by one look at the silver screen. A film could have a decorated ensemble cast, breathtaking cinematography and a stunning soundtrack, but it will fade from memory without memorable dialogue, the kind that touches its audience by touching on timeless truths. Though language has been diluted by texting and tweeting, ultimately words still matter. This fact may explain the enduring on-demand TV availability of the 1968 version of “Yours, Mine and Ours,” starring Henry Fonda as Frank Beardsley, a U.S. naval officer and widower with 10 children who marries another widower named Helen North (Lucille Ball) who has eight children.

The words of one scene particularly stand out. Frank awakes late at night after hearing Helen’s early labor pains. During the red-alert rush to get her to the hospital, he finds his oldest son engaged in a close-quarters fist fight with the boyfriend of his wife’s daughter. When Frank asks what’s going on, the boyfriend replies: “Nothin’. That’s the whole problem with your daughter.”

It is a statement to make any father of a daughter simmer, and the boyfriend deserved the punch he got from the brother. What follows in the movie, however, is not an example of might makes right, but a profound paternal wisdom in the form of Fonda’s famous “true love” soliloquy directed at his tearful stepdaughter:

“You wanna know what love really is? Take a look around you … Take a good look at your mother … It’s giving life that counts. Till you’re ready for it all the rest of it is just a big fraud. All the crazy haircuts in the world won’t keep it turning.”

“Life isn’t a love-in. It’s the dishes, and the orthodontist, and the shoe repairman and ground-round instead of roast beef. And I’ll tell you something else. It isn’t going to bed with a man that proves you’re in love with him. It’s getting up in the morning and facing the drab, miserable, wonderful everyday world with him that counts.”

What is love about? Selflessness. It is a lesson that never goes out of fashion, best learned in the hectic realities of family life. And it is one with words that mean a lot when coming out of the mouth of a father.

In May 1976 Henry Fonda confided in an interview with Ladies’ Home Journal , “I’m not trying to set myself up as a good father, because I wasn’t a good father.” He continued, “I recognize all the problems my children have had, and I don’t claim any credit for what they’ve become. They’ve become what they are in spite of me.”

By that point, Fonda had won acclaim playing Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and Juror #8 in “12 Angry Men” (1957). He was set to hit the big screen that same year as Admiral Chester Nimitz in “Midway” (1976), and would go on to win the 1982 Oscar Best Actor award for his role as Norman Thayer, Jr. in “On Golden Pond” (1981).

Fonda didn’t feel he was a good dad in his private life. In a memorable scene during his remarkable professional career, however, he found part of what it means to be a great father. It was a timeless lesson about love – one for you, me and all of us to share.

Jason Godin is associate editor of Fathers for Good.