Sorry, Wrong Number: Zero For Four

#27 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

By 1948, Barbara Stanwyck had made fifty-six films.  She’d played gold diggers, murderers, adulteresses, and burlesque queens.  She’d made screwball comedies, melodramas, film noir, mysteries, and romances.

For her fifty-seventh film, she played something entirely new and completely unforgettable.

Sorry, Wrong Number was a film version of a hugely popular radio show.  It tells the story of Leona Stevenson, a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on the telephone and over the course of the film discovers she is the intended victim.

Leona Stevenson—neurotic, weak, and waiting for rescue—was quite a departure from the go-get-’em dames Stanwyck normally played.

The plot is outrageous nearly to the point of lunacy, Leona Stevenson is a thoroughly unlikeable woman, and half the film is Leona in bed, talking frantically on the telephone as she pieces together the murder plot—and the possibility of her husband’s involvement—together.

It shouldn’t work.

And yet it does.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Leona was a vain, spoiled young woman who has grown into a shrewish wife.  She married a man beneath her, and has trapped him into a lifestyle he cannot afford without her father’s money.  When she doesn’t get her way, she throws fits that aggravate her weak heart. Yet Stanwyck has a way of infusing even this woman with a depth that makes the audience understand and root for her.

All the while, alarm bells are going off in the minds of the audience.  Is Leona really about to be murdered, or is this another of her neurotic episodes?  Does her husband have some hand in the plot?  Why?  Does she really have a weak heart?

Though the film was directed by Anatole Litvak, the story has a Hitchcockian feel.  The suspense is built masterfully through the flashbacks, booming music, and Leona’s fear that spills into paralyzing hysteria.

The ending—which I will not spoil here—will leave you breathless. The world is filled with kids who saw this movie on television and grew into adults forever afraid of a ringing phone.

Maybe that’s why we all started texting.

Stanwyck earned her fourth Oscar nomination for the role of Leona Stevenson.  Once again she competed in a field of legends with fellow nominees Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne, and Olivia de Havilland.  She ultimately lost to her friend Jane Wyman for her role playing a mute in Johnny Belinda

Stanwyck was forty-one years old with fifty-seven films under her belt.  Twenty years in the movies and by any measure she’d had a damn good run.  When she was starting out in the business, she’d told herself she would retire at forty.  That’s what many of her contemporaries did—Irene Dunne, Garbo, Norma Shearer all more or less hung it up at forty.  Her marriage to Robert Taylor was on the rocks, and might have been saved had she curbed her ambition.  She was going prematurely grey and didn’t want to dye her hair.  

She would never get another shot at the Best Actress Oscar.

But Barbara Stanwyck quit the movie business?  Not a chance.

Sure, she was twenty years into her career, but it turned out she had nearly forty more to go.

And several of her most iconic performances—on the big screen and the small—were in a future she couldn’t yet see.

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