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It's always fun to discover a batch of interesting new films, and Warners' Barbara Stanwyck The Signature Collection finds some real surprises in the filmography of Hollywood's most enduring leading lady. Stanwyck's career spanned six decades --1927 to 1987 -- an amazing feat considering how few talented actresses are able to work steadily for more than ten years or so. At first glance this list of Stanwyck vehicles is fairly unfamiliar, with Robert Wise's Executive Suite standing out as the sole title still given major attention. But Ms. Stanwyck shows her impressive talent to even better effect working for Curtis Bernhardt, Mervyn LeRoy and George Stevens. With Stanwyck in the lead, middling scripts bounce up two or three levels in quality.
Annie Oakley is an RKO picture from 1935, when George Stevens' sterling career was ramping up to speed. Viewers familiar with the Betty Hutton musical or Robert Altman's hangdog Buffalo Bill and the Indians will find Stanwyck's Annie especially interesting. Central to all three interpretations is the fact that Annie Oakley bested her sharpshooter husband, Frank Butler. The conclusion of the 1950 musical has Betty Hutton pretend to miss, so that her hubby can retain his pride and wear the pants in the family. That outcome can be read as a sign that the coming decade would regress to an earlier image of women as the submissive sex.
In Stevens' version (screenplay by John Twist and Joel Sayre) is twenty years older but socially more advanced. Hick sharpshooter Annie misses a shot in the beginning because she thinks it a shame to see the handsome Toby Walker (Preston Foster) lose a bet. But from then on, when Melvyn Douglas' promoter brings Annie to Buffalo Bill Cody' show, Walker respects and promotes Annie, pretending to dislike her only for publicity's sake. Then Toby's eyes are damaged. A clever (if dated) set of misunderstandings guarantee that Annie and Toby are separated after he accidentally wounds her. And Stevens makes sure that their eventual reunion is played at the right pitch. Stanwyck is a charmer, downplaying the yokel naïveté and earning our respect as both a crack shot and a lady.
Annie Oakley has an extremely pleasing gentleness about past events (at the time, only forty or fifty years gone) and a respect for its characters. Annie's trick-shooting prowess isn't exaggerated, and William Cody's Wild West circus looks like something that would knock 'em dead back in the dime novel days. Sitting Bull is played by Chief Thunderbird, who started acting in The Perils of Pauline in 1914. The 'injun' humor is restrained. Dick Elliott appears as Ned Buntline, the pulp biographer who invented the tall tales in the dime novels that made Cody and Oakley famous.
My Reputation leaps ahead eleven years and twenty-five films to postwar Warner Bros., which at the time was wrestling with a full stable of powerful leading ladies including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Ida Lupino. My Reputation is a real soaper that reads like a copycat retread of Since You Went Away. David O. Selznick's grandiosely overblown drama of the home front depicted a nervous war wife finding solace in terrific gowns and a handsome quasi-suitor. Catherine Tunney wrote this story from a Clare Janes novel called Instruct My Sorrows; the beautiful Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a widow with two central-casting boys and a to-kill-for estate house not far from Chicago. 1
My Reputation takes place during the war. Jessica's husband didn't die in combat. She mentions working for the Red Cross a couple of times, and has reduced the servants in the house to just one. Wishing to escape a meddling mother (Lucile Watson), Jessica goes on a jaunt to Lake Tahoe and meets Major Scott Landis, a soldier using two weeks' leave for a skiing vacation. Landis is played by George Brent, Hollywood's world-champion co-star for powerhouse actresses, the kind of guy who doesn't upstage the star, talk dirty or hog publicity. Back in Chicago, Jessica and Scott enjoy a totally honorable 'friendship' until Jessica's rotten society friends spread gossip about an illicit affair. At the conclusion Scott has to ship out for combat duty. Jessica has no trouble choosing his affection over her mother's abuse, and plans to run away with Scott to New York for a real 'fling.' But her boys have been affected by the gossip, and Jessica must choose between her personal happiness and their psychological health.
That plot is not as sticky as it sounds, for Stanwyck, Brent and director Curtis Bernhardt do excellent work aided by Max Steiner's score and classy cinematography from James Wong Howe. Jessica Drummond is believably vulnerable yet rallies to face down her enemies. It's all very enjoyable. Eve Arden does best-pal duty, as she did for Joan Crawford the year before in Mildred Pierce. Warner Anderson is the nice-guy suitor who never has a prayer of winning Jessica, and Jerome Cowan is a friend's philandering husband. Frankly, My Reputation stacks up as less of a chore to watch than much of its competition, especially Crawford's overwrought vehicles Possessed and Humoresque, which now play like high Camp.
1949's East Side, West Side is an interesting blend of soap opera, thriller and murder mystery with cryptic references to bigger issues. Screenwriter Isobel Lennart twisted plotline maintains suspense and an unusually good cast guarantees our interest. Stanwyck is reunited with Van Heflin, her co-star from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Heflin is again a man of mystery who breezes into town as Stanwyck's life turns upside-down. In his fourth American film, James Mason again plays a dapper but dangerous character, this time an outwardly devoted husband addicted to an extramarital affair. As the object of Mason's affections is Ava Gardner, we spend over half the film sympathizing with his character. Who could resist?
The story pits ritzy East Side socialite Jessie Bourne (Stanwyck) against her husband Brandon (Mason), who keeps seeing the recklessly predatory Isabel Lorrison (Gardner) despite heartfelt assurances that he won't stray. Enter exciting Mark Dwyer (Heflin), a government intelligence agent just returned from spy work in Italy. Model Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) came from Dwyer's West Side lower-class neighborhood and is hoping to snag his wedding proposal, but the older Heflin takes an interest in Jessie's troubles instead. This unusual five-some comes to an unexpected boil with a murder that threatens to ruin the Bournes' social standing. Mark Dwyer, formerly an NYPD officer, steps in during the investigation.
East Side, West Side doesn't have much of a reputation but it plays well enough now; the cast is enjoyable in itself. Once again, Stanwyck holds the emotional center of a complicated story that in the wrong hands could easily have become silly. The intense James Mason is always interesting to watch. In 1949 he was one of the handsomest men in Hollywood; he'd soon be paired with Gardner in the Technicolor Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Van Heflin's character is the most ill defined and superficial. He has to let the adoring Cyd Charisse down gently (not a very convincing scene) and pursue a married woman without becoming unlikable. On top of that, he's very cavalier about his shady espionage job, which the film accepts without further questions (this being 1949, after all). Intervening in a murder investigation in which he has a personal stake, OSS/CIA man Dwyer moves evidence around and acts as an independent agent. If this were a film noir, we'd suspect him as the guilty party, like Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.
Director Mervyn Leroy blends New York locations and MGM's back lot, making East Side, West Side into a slick programmer. Also in the cast is future first lady Nancy Davis as Jessie's one good friend. It's one of Nancy's first films, but the last for the blacklisted star Gale Sondergaard, who wouldn't be credited in a feature again for twenty years. 2. Familiar faces William Frawley, Tom Powers and Lou Lubin show up, as well as Paula Raymond. The striking 'Amazon' in the third act who throws such a good punch is none other than Beverly Michaels, also in her first film. She'd make a name for herself in a couple of Hugo Haas potboilers, as well as star in the deliriously sordid Wicked Woman. Ms. Michaels just passed away in June of this year.
1950's To Please a Lady is one of Barbara Stanwyck's least interesting pictures. It plays like a throwback to the 1930s; if one is in a perverse mood, it makes a great unintentional comedy. Stanwyck is the high-powered columnist Regina Forbes, a Walter Winchell with a woman's angle. Regina specializes in uncovering and demolishing society's villains, and enjoys forcing a crooked developer to plead his case while she tries on shoes. Then Forbes aims her radar at midget car racer Mike Brannan (Clark Gable), a lone wolf champion with a reputation for killing other drivers. Brannan claims he's innocent and just trying to win; she's confused by her attraction for him and fixes it so he's banned from the tracks. But the stubborn lovers can't stay away from each other. Forbes eventually realizes that in her own way she's ruthless too. Mike eases up a bit on his 'anything to win' mindset.
Nobody in the history of movies has yet found a dramatic solution to showcase cars driving in a circle. To Please a Lady is just cornball nonsense from one end to the other. Ace director Clarence Brown seems to realize this and puts the film on automatic pilot, leaving Stanwyck and Gable on their own to flesh out paper-thin characters. The result is almost embarrassing. Regina Forbes' killer columnist is really a vulnerable sweetie in need of love. Brannan watches her writhing luxuriously as she talks to him on the phone (she thinks he's far away), a scene that presents the closest thing to female masturbation before the 1970s. Midget car racing is real and dangerous but on film the cars look like harmless toys. Behind the wheel, manly Mike Brannan looks like he's been shoehorned into a 10-cent supermarket Kiddie Kar. The surfeit of rear-projection driving doesn't help either.
The end of the film is almost distasteful. The obviously jealous Adolph Menjou sneers at Regina as she runs to Mike's side. Regina now 'understands' Mike's show-no-mercy driving philosophy because one of her column's victims has committed suicide. Mike isn't really a killer and Regina's political targets are indeed bad guys, so the message is that ruthlessness is okay, as long as you have 'heart.' Gee, maybe Regina Forbes can hook up with that nice young Senator Nixon -- he can help her find plenty of subversives to unmask, which will save money on research!
Fourth-billed Will Geer would last only a few months before being blacklisted as well. He'd be allowed back into Hollywood films eleven years later.
If the previous show is a half-baked attempt by Louis B. Mayer to revive the old MGM spirit, 1953's Jeopardy tries to be dynamic and different on too small of a scale. The story sounds like a radio play for Suspense! theater and could have been filmed in a couple of weeks, tops. The sensational hook for the posters was to show Stanwyck threatened with rape, and add the tagline, "She did it ... because her fear was greater than her shame!"
Ambitious director John Sturges had done eight films for MGM in just three years, among them the impressive noirs The People Against O'Hara and Mystery Street. Sturges wouldn't really get attention until Escape from Fort Bravo and finally hit it big two years later with Bad Day at Black Rock. He probably made MGM happy by bringing in this picture for next to nothing.
Jeopardy is minimalism pure and simple. It has no interior scenes and no nighttime scenes. We meet the Stilwins on the road to a Mexican vacation, much of which could conceivably be second-unit work. When they finally reach a deserted cove to camp and fish, Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan) gets stuck in a Cornell Woolrich-style bind -- his leg's caught under a heavy timber, and the tide is coming in. Wifey Helen (Stanwyck) runs to get help, leaving little Bobby (Lee Aaker, the cute brat from The Narrow Margin) to keep Dad company while he drowns in slow motion.
Unfortunately, Helen runs into a fugitive murderer, Lawson. He's played by Ralph Meeker in full-on creep mode, perhaps warming up for his nasty Mike Hammer character in Kiss Me Deadly. Helen wants Lawson to help free Doug from his death trap. Lawson's counter-plan is to use Helen to help him sneak past Federale roadblocks, steal Doug's clothing and maybe rape Helen in the bargain. Helen makes a deal: save my husband, and I'll do whatever you want.
The film unspools like an episode of a television show. We can imagine Roger Corman catching a matinee of Jeopardy and thinking, "If I can find a star who'll work cheaply enough ..." The bare-bones story generates some basic suspense. As soon as the family crosses the border we wonder what horrible thing will happen, even though the script takes pains to represent Mexicans as honest and friendly. We're also pretty sure that Sullivan won't drown ("Mommy ... Daddy's just like my old goldfish!") and that the vicious Meeker won't do more than muss Stanwyck's hair. The 'fun' is imagining all of these disasters. The film's most disturbing sight -- beyond the wild look in Ralph Meeker's eye -- is when a policía opens fire with a machine gun on Meeker and Stanwcyk's car. Where's the Blackwater recruiter?
(Spoiler) The film shows the hypocrisy of the Production Code censors. Murderer Lawson is allowed to escape, although Stanwyck does say in voiceover that she 'knows' he'll be caught. However, Lawson's only on-screen victim is 'just' a Mexican farmer.
Executive Suite is the most prestigious film in the collection but Stanwyck is only one of six stars doing ensemble duty. Directed by Robert Wise and written by Ernest Lehman, the film shows the tough tactics that go into a change of command in a modern American corporation, when its president dies suddenly and leaves five Vice-Presidents with an equal claim to the job.
The VPs are a mix of sins and virtues. Numbers man Fredric March thinks he can nab the job by simply assuming its responsibilities. He also has no qualms about blackmailing salesman Paul Douglas with the knowledge that Douglas is having an adulterous affair with his secretary, Shelley Winters. March also has playboy Louis Calhern over a barrel. Thinking that his dead boss won't be identified for a couple of days, Calhern has sold his stock short, to buy it back when its value plummets. When that doesn't happen, the only person who can bail out Calhoun is March, if March is elected the new President. March also thinks he has the vote of the majority stockholder Julia Tredway (Stanwyck), who is in an emotional crisis because she was the secret, and unloved, mistress of the dead company President.
Opposing March is a weaker trio of VPs: Walter Pidgeon, Dean Jagger and young William Holden, the company's chief researcher. Holden's wife June Allyson encourages him to fight for the job and then purposely holds up a phone message, to stop him from getting it. When the company officers finally enter the boardroom to choose a new leader, Holden doesn't know if he has a chance or not.
Wise moves the film quickly and uses no musical score, a very modern touch. Actress Nina Foch plays the company's executive secretary, who tries to remain professional amid this pool of sharks; she was nominated for an Academy Award. Oddly, Barbara Stanwyck is the only actor that doesn't benefit from Wise's no-nonsense direction. Her big emotional scene is on the ragged side, and we have to assume that it was for lack of directorial support.
It doesn't affect Executive Suite in the slightest; the film remains a top-notch 'business ethics' picture.
Warners' Barbara Stanwyck The Signature Collection presents uniformly fine transfers of all of the films, even the old RKO Annie Oakley. It carries a musical short called Main Street Follies and a Merrie Melodies cartoon about performers on a steamboat, Into Your Dance. The other films come with original trailers. My Reputation has two radio adaptations, the musical short Jan Savitt and his Band and the cartoon Daffy Doodles, where Daffy Duck is a hit 'n' run mustache-painter. The East Side, West Side disc offers a "Passing Parade" short called Stuff for Stuff, an Orwellian 'informational' film that claims that free trade between developed and undeveloped countries is an even swap. Compensating is the excellent Tex Avery Cartoon Counterfeit Cat. To Please a Lady and Jeopardy share a disc; a radio show for Jeopardy appears starring the original cast. Was it broadcast live or edited in a studio? Executive Suite has a commentary by Oliver Stone, who emphasizes the ruthlessness of the film's characters and makes generalizations about the evils inherent in big business. A "Pete Smith" comedy Out for Fun is just okay, but Tex Avery's cartoonBilly Boy is hilarious: "Whattaya know? Billy's Back!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. There's probably an explanation for this, although I've never heard it. Sam Fuller also used 'Jessica Drummond' as Barbara Stanwyck's character name in 1957's Forty Guns.
2. (this being 1949, after all)
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