ITOL’s Cinematic Dads: Pa Kent

For Father’s Day we asked some of our ITOL team to write about their favourite cinematic Dads. Here’s Valerie Kalfrin’s piece on a ‘Super Dad’ in the form of Glenn Ford’s Jonathan ‘Pa’ Kent in “Superman” (1978).

Film is full of memorable fathers and father figures. Sometimes they’re a film’s moral center, like Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, defending a black man against an unjust rape charge and trying to educate his children about racism and prejudice. (The American Film Institute named him the greatest screen hero of all time). Other times, they’re the conscience a character needs, like Furious Styles (Laurence Fishburne) in 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood”, teaching his son (Cuba Gooding Jr.) about gentrification, responsibility, and dodging violence in South Central Los Angeles.

But an indelible screen dad doesn’t have to have a huge role. I’m thinking of Glenn Ford as Jonathan “Pa” Kent in 1978’s “Superman”. (This was one of my early ventures to the movies as a kid, so I’d no idea at the time that Ford was a screen legend whom Rita Hayworth toyed with in 1946’s “Gilda”.) He’s a great example of an understated moment saying so much and impacting the main character long afterward. 

Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter in Superman (1978) © 1978 Warner Bros.

Kent is past middle age when the Toddler of Steel drops from the sky in what appears to be a meteor—and he’s so decent that at first, he wants to bring the child to the proper authorities. But once the boy lifts his pickup truck, saving him from injury, he and his wife, Martha (Phyllis Thaxter), raise young Clark with love and honesty. 

“An indelible screen dad doesn’t have to have a huge role. I’m thinking of Glenn Ford as Jonathan “Pa” Kent in 1978’s “Superman.” He’s a great example of an understated moment saying so much and impacting the main character long afterward.

Glenn Ford and Jeff East in Superman (1978) © 1978 Warner Bros.

Jonathan’s key moment comes just before a heart attack takes his life, when he tells a teenage Clark that all these amazing things he can do aren’t meant for showing up the jocks in their small town but for a reason greater than himself—even if he doesn’t know what that is yet. His words and his death give the future superhero a gravitas and humility—because with all of his powers, he couldn’t save his dad—and also set him on a path where he’ll really take flight.

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