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.

Christmas in Connecticut: “The Things a Girl Will Do for a Mink Coat”

#26 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

When I found a battered DVD copy of Christmas in Connecticut in a secondhand bookstore, the clerk told me it was his mother’s favorite Christmas movie.

I can see why.

Elizabeth Lane is the ultimate wife and mother.  In her popular columns for Smart Housekeeping, she writes of her bucolic life on a farm in Connecticut with her husband and baby.  She spends evenings beside a crackling fire in her stone hearth.  She uses a spinning wheel and scours the local antique shops for the perfect rocking chair.

But mostly, she cooks.

Her recipes have sent Smart Housekeeping’s circulation soaring, and sailor Jefferson Jones salivates over them while slurping tasteless broth in a hospital while recovering from war wounds.  He dreams of an old-fashioned Christmas dinner with all the trimmings at Mrs. Lane’s table.

Through the magic of movies, his nurse just happens to know the head of publishing at Smart Housekeeping, and she’s soon arranged for Jefferson to spend his first Christmas out of the hospital at the Lane Farm in Connecticut.

So far, so good.

Then we get our first look at the Martha Stewart of 1945.

Barbara Stanwyck is dressed in a sleek white blouse, picking at a breakfast of sardines on a coffee saucer and pounding away at a typewriter.  The radiator hisses, and her undergarments are hanging on a line on her balcony that overlooks the heart of New York City.

Last time I checked farm wives didn’t run around in wardrobes designed by Edith Head.

Her panicked editor arrives with the news that their boss invited a sailor to her home for Christmas.

The problem, of course, is obvious:  Though her publisher doesn’t know it, Elizabeth Lane is a fraud.

She has no farm, no husband, no baby.

And she can’t cook.

But she just bought a gorgeous mink coat that’ll cost her six month’s salary, and she’s willing to do anything to keep it and her job.

Which means this bachelor girl needs a farm, a husband, and a baby pronto.

Christmas in Connecticut is a frothy, fun Christmas romantic comedy.  The best scenes of the movie are when Stanwyck, the career girl, has to pretend to be the perfect farm wife and mother despite the fact that she can’t cook, doesn’t know how to change a diaper, and is completely bewildered when a cow shows up in the kitchen.

Dennis Morgan plays the charming sailor who finds himself falling in love with the hostess he believes is married.  Stanwyck’s character heartily reciprocates the sentiment, and the plot thickens before resolving itself quite happily.

Stanwyck is as charming and convincing as ever in the role.  

Good Christmas movies hold a special place in our heart, because we watch them over and over during the holiday season.  They are meant to be watched with out of town family members, or as a rest from a day shopping at the mall.  They reinforce—either with heavy sentiment, or, as in Christmas in Connecticut—with a light touch—the importance of love and family.  They can make you nostalgic for the Christmases and family you never had.

So this December, take a break from the Hallmark Movies.  For one night, put aside Die Hard, Home Alone, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, It’s A Wonderful Life, and White Christmas.

Pop some popcorn, put on your fuzziest socks and warmest pajamas, and curl up with Stanwyck and Christmas in Connecticut.

You’ll be glad you did.

Double Indemnity: The Crown Jewel of Film Noir

#25 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity.

If you’re a baby boomer, when you think of Barbara Stanwyck, you think of The Big Valley, which ran for four seasons in the late sixties.  Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the tough matriarch who ruled the Barkley family in the wilds of 1870’s California.

But if you’re a film buff, you think of a cheap blonde wig and an ankle bracelet that seduced Fred MacMurray into murder.

You think of Double Indemnity.

Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, the fatalist femme in film noir.  

Stanwyck had made her career playing hard-boiled dames with soft centers, and Fred MacMurray was the affable everyman who ceded the spotlight to his female co-stars.  

Neither Stanwyck nor MacMurray had ever played characters as rotten as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff, the lethal housewife and willing insurance salesman who plot to murder Phyllis’ husband and abscond with the insurance money.

The results are electric.

Walter burns for Phyllis with a combustible mix of lust and greed that ultimately sours to revulsion.

And Phyllis?  She’s one cold fish from wire to wire. 

To satisfy the production code, Walter Neff murders Mr. Dietrichson off-screen.  Instead we see only a close up of Stanwyck as Phyllis.  She doesn’t watch the murder of her husband inches away, but stares straight ahead with a look of almost sexual satisfaction that will make your blood run cold.

Phyllis drives while Walter breaks her husband’s neck

Things go wrong, of course.  Walter’s murder isn’t as perfect as he believes, and he’s dogged by his conscience and a suspicious insurance claims man.  

Phyllis and Walter soon wish to be rid of one another, but the murder between them binds them tighter than lust or money.

Events spiral out of control with consequences lethal to more than just Mr. Dietrichson.

Double Indemnity is number 38 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies.  It’s on every list of the greatest film noirs, often in the top spot.

It’s a classic about the rotten core of humanity, and the whole film orbits around Stanwyck’s performance.

And still she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar.  Once again she competed in a stacked field and lost to Ingrid Bergman for her performance in Gaslight.

Two women at the top of their game—it’s a shame one of them had to lose.

But as we’ll see next week, Stanwyck had one more chance at the golden statuette, and it all begins with a late night phone call.

The Lady Eve: “I Need Him Like the Axe Needs the Turkey”

#24 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

There are many good films, fewer great films, and fewer still that are masterpieces.

The Lady Eve is beyond even a masterpiece—it is a perfect film.

If I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t change a thing in writer/director Preston Sturges’ crown jewel of the screwball comedy.  I wouldn’t eliminate any of Henry Fonda’s falls, or soften Barbara Stanwyck’s revenge.  I wouldn’t add in explicit love scenes or four-letter-words forbidden by the production code.

And I’d cut off the hand of anyone who tried to change one word of Preston Sturges’ sparkling script.  It delights in making a fool of Henry Fonda and using innuendo-laced dialogue to subvert every rule of the censors.

The setup is simple enough:  Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father (Charles Coburn perfect in his supporting role) are card sharps out to fleece the rich but naive Charles Pike, an absent minded scientist who studies snakes and is a reluctant brewery heir.

Charles doesn’t have a chance against Jean’s conniving, but the trick is on Jean when she falls in love with him.  

Thus far it’s a standard romantic comedy plot, though there is nothing standard in Barbara Stanwyck’s tough girl melting in the face of love performance.

Before she can confess and go straight, Charles discovers her duplicity and calls off their engagement.

And here’s where things get interesting.

Jean’s heart hardens right back up—or does it?—and she crafts a revenge plot of bold brilliance and exquisite simplicity.  She’ll don a fancy wardrobe and a British accent and convince him she’s Lady Eve Sidwich, his perfect mate.  And then once she has him on the line, she’ll dash his illusions about the lovely and virginal Lady Eve.

It’s impossible to pick the best moment in the movie.  Every scene is a present unwrapped before the audience to reveal a brilliant cut diamond of humor, wit, and star power.

The film opens with Jean bonking Charles on the head with an apple, a moment loaded with the biblical implications of temptation.

Then there’s the iconic scene of Jean scoping out Charles in her compact mirror and giving a mocking play-by-play of the fortune hunting women who strike out with the shy bookworm.  Stanwyck plays it with just the perfect dose of cynical amusement.

Charles meets Jean

There’s Jean seducing him in her cabin with the description of her ideal mate, falling in love during a moonlight walk, and Jean cheating her father at cards to keep him from cheating Charles.

Jean ends the first act crying with heartbreak and begins the second vowing her revenge with the line, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”

She orchestrates an invitation to the Pike mansion as Lady Eve and completely befuddles poor Charles.  Her brazen confrontation is better than the best disguise.

Charles meets the Lady Eve Sidwich

On top of that, you’ve got Charles ignoring his manservant who correctly insists, “it’s positively the same dame.”  And a wayward horse who keeps interrupting a tender moment Charles has planned with Eve.

And then there’s…oh, watch it yourself, why don’t you?

And then tell me if you find a false note.  I sure didn’t.

Writer/director Preston Sturges wrote the part specially for Stanwyck after working with her on Remember the Night.  Jean Harrington was based on the antics of his own mother, and being raised with a woman even remotely like Jean Harrington meant that Preston Sturges lived a colorful life and was full of stories.  Stanwyck, Fonda, and Sturges all reported having a blast on the set of The Lady Eve, and I think that playfulness shines through in the finished film.

Stanwyck hadn’t done comedy before.  She typically played gold diggers, or tough young girls pulling themselves up in the world by the force of their will.  The Lady Eve opened up a whole new genre for her, and she was ultimately nominated for an Oscar for her screwball comedy Ball of Fire, made the same year. 

She’s great in Ball of Fire, but The Lady Eve is in another league.  It’s a cut above the other comedies of the 1940s, and a cut above the comedies made today.  She lost the Oscar that year to Joan Fonatine in Hitchock’s Suspicion.  There’s no shame in losing to Fontaine, but I have my own suspicion that if she’d been nominated for The Lady Eve she would’ve won.

By 1941, Stanwyck was proving herself one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses.  She’d been hard as steel as Lily Powers in the pre-code Baby Face, break-your-heart vulnerable in Stella Dallas, and laugh out loud funny in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire.

She already had a career that would cement her place in Hollywood history.

Yet she was cruising toward her most famous role at ninety in a state with a speed limit of forty-five miles an hour.

The King of Hollywood Meets the Screwball Queen

#22 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Clark Gable married five times and slept with every woman who would have him, regardless of his—or her—marital status.

But the only woman he ever loved was Carole Lombard.

Clark Gable made eight movies with Joan Crawford.  He made seven with Myrna Loy, six with Jean Harlow, four with Lana Turner, and two each with Marion Davies, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Heddy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner.

But he made just a single film with the leading lady of his heart.

They met on the set of No Man of Her Own, a rather charming Paramount picture.  Clark Gable plays Babe, a gambler and card sharp.  To avoid trouble with the police, he leaves New York City and hides out in a small town until things cool down.  He meets Lombard’s Connie Randall, a bored and beautiful librarian who is ripe for adventure.

Babe turns on the charm, and Connie is not immune.  Though inexperienced, Connie is not naive, and when Babe proposes they spend the night together, she presents a counteroffer—they flip a coin, and if she wins, they get married.

She wins the toss.

They proceed from lust to marriage to love.  Babe hides his criminal enterprise from Connie, but eventually gives it up and goes straight to be worthy of her.  Yet in the end Connie proves an able match for Babe, for she has known of his gambling and stealing all along and loves him anyway.  

No Man of Her Own is a good but not great movie, forgettable but for the fact that Gable and Lombard eventually became Hollywood’s real-life power couple.

There’s chemistry between them on the screen.

On the set, however, there was nothing doing.

Lombard was still happily married to her first husband William Powell, and Clark Gable thought Lombard swore far too much for a lady.

Four years later, they met up again at a party and this time Gable fell in love with her, even if she did swear like a drunken soldier.

But in her profanity, as in so many other things, Carole Lombard was crazy like a fox.  It started as self-defense.  As a young, beautiful blonde in Hollywood, the men she worked with both on and off camera were constantly pawing at her.  Lombard delivered her profanity in a breezy, devil-may-care attitude that usually turned their minds from seeing her as a romantic object, to one-of-the-guys, a pal.  Thus she got the men to keep their hands to themselves without alienating those who could help advance her career.

She played pranks, threw parties, went hunting and fishing with Clark and his friends.

And fell for him just as hard as he fell for her.

They married in 1939 during a break in filming Gone With the Wind.  It was a private ceremony with only a few attendants, as neither wanted the media to turn it into a circus.

Because she was as savvy with her business dealings as she was with her swearing, she made more money than Clark, despite him starring in the most commercially successful movie of all time.

She could convince anyone to do anything.  She talked Alfred Hitchcock into directing her in  a screwball comedy.  He did it because he loved her.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a good film, starring Lombard and Robert Montgomery as a couple who find out four years after their wedding that due to a technicality their marriage license isn’t valid, and that they’re not legally married.  It was Hitchcock’s only comedy in his long career.

When World War II broke out, Carole Lombard wanted to help.  She wrapped filming on her film To Be Or Not To Be with Jack Benny and signed on to sell war bonds.  She took her mother on a cross-country trip and due to her tireless efforts, sold a record-breaking two million dollars of war bonds in a single day.

While on that trip, she pondered the next phase of her life and her career.  

Trying to win an Oscar, she’d dipped her toes into some films with more serious subjects.  Maybe she could do another one of those.  Or maybe she’d keep making comedies—she was already signed on to star in They All Kissed the Bride with Melvyn Douglas.

Maybe she’d take an extended leave from Hollywood—throw herself into the war effort.  Convince Clark to enlist in the war, then start a family when it was over.  She knew a lot about the movie business—maybe when she returned to work she’d direct a film herself.

But for now, all she wanted was to finish the war bond tour and return home to Clark.

If they made a movie of the story of Carole Lombard’s life, I’d tell you to turn it off right now. 

You don’t want to know how this story ends.

She didn’t make They All Kissed the Bride, or start a family.  She didn’t direct.  

On January 16, 1942, the plane she was taking back to Hollywood and Clark and her future crashed in the mountains outside Las Vegas.

There were no survivors.

Carole Lombard was dead at thirty-three.

Because she was flying back from her war bond tour, President Franklin Roosevelt declared her the first woman killed in the war.  In June the United States christened a war ship the S.S. Lombard, and it served in the Pacific theater throughout the war.

Clark Gable fulfilled her dying wish and enlisted in the United States Army Air Force.

Joan Crawford filled her role in They All Kissed The Bride, and donated her salary to the Red Cross that had helped search for the bodies in the Nevada mountains.

Though she’s left us with a stack of wonderful films, Carole Lombard’s death at thirty-three cut her down in her prime.  Hollywood is haunted by the films she never made.

If she’d lived, she’d almost certainly have eventually won an Oscar.  She had the looks of a quintessential Hitchcock blonde, and the director loved her.  She likely would’ve starred in one of his thrillers and perhaps opened up a whole new chapter in her career.

Thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Katharine Hepburn had never even met Spencer Tracy, much less made a picture with him.  She scored ten of her twelve Oscar nominations and three of her four Oscar wins after age thirty-three.

At thirty-three, Bette Davis had not yet made All About Eve, Barbara Stanwyck had not made Double Indemnity, and Joan Crawford had not made Mildred Pierce.

Undoubtedly, the best was yet to come for Carole Lombard. 

Her death ripped the guts out of Hollywood, and out of Clark Gable.

Hollywood recovered, of course.  Hollywood is bigger than any one star, even one as bright as Lombard.

Gable never did.  Despite living eighteen more years and marrying two more times, upon his death Clark Gable was buried next to Carole Lombard Gable.

(You Won’t) See Jane Swim

#16 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

The Catholics had been raging about the immorality of Hollywood since 1930.  By 1934, the inevitable collision occurred once the Catholics began speaking a language Hollywood understood.

Money.

In 1933, the National Legion of Decency was formed, a Catholic organization that advised which films were suitable for audiences.

Priests encouraged parishioners to join the Legion, which entailed signing a pledge card conveniently located in the Sunday pews.  The pledge begins:

I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. … Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.

Catholics feared the movies would interfere with their eternal salvation, and Hollywood’s box office began to suffer.

Finally the critics had Hollywood’s attention.

In 1934, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Dougherty pressed his advantage and preached from the pulpit that Catholics in his diocese were to boycott all movies, and made clear that to disobey was to sin.

The boycotts raged, and other Christian groups joined, spreading the movement beyond the Catholic Church.  Christian groups wrote letters in protest of the films, and stayed home.

Within weeks, Hollywood had lost several million dollars.

Cardinal Dougherty, our old friend Martin Quigley, and all those in favor of good, clean, pictures had their boot on Hollywood’s neck.

The studios didn’t so much surrender as decline to commit box office suicide.

The studios dragged out the old production code out of a closet, dusted it off, made a few changes, and probably figured they’d be back to their old tricks after the dust settled.

But Joseph Breen had other ideas.  He was the head of the newly formed Production Code Administration, and had an independence from the studios that Will Hays and his censorship board had lacked.  Now, movies could not be shown unless they earned the PCA’s official seal of approval.

Breen had true power, and he wielded it for two decades.

One of the first films to test the limits of Breen’s new power was Tarzan and His Mate, the first of many sequels to Tarzan the Ape Man.

As it’s been remade many times over, most people know the basic plot.  Tarzan is a mythic white man who is king of a piece of African jungle so remote no other white man has ever seen it.  How Tarzan came to live in the jungle (with a huge knife) is never explained.  In the first film, British socialite Jane Parker accompanies her father on safari and meets and falls in love with Tarzan.  She stays with him in the jungle, and in subsequent films they have all sorts of adventures.  Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller plays Tarzan in a total of twelve Tarzan movies, the first six with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.  (When the films moved from MGM to RKO in the 1940s, Brenda Joyce was recast as Jane.)

Tarzan and His Mate is the second film in the series, and inarguably the sexiest.  The film shows Jane and Tarzan—an unmarried couple—in bed together.  Even without the bed scene, it is obvious by their constant touching and tender looks that Jane and Tarzan have a robust sex life.  

Jane also wears a surprisingly skimpy loincloth that had angry prudes sending Maureen O’Sullivan thousands of letters objecting to the costume.  No objections to Johnny Weissmuller’s equally revealing loincloth are recorded.  

Jane’s silhouette is also shown as she undresses inside a tent.

But most damning, there was an underwater scene where Jane and Tarzan go for an extended swim.

And Jane is stark naked for nearly three minutes.

I don’t have to tell you that Joseph Breen blew a gasket, do I?

It didn’t matter that the scene was tasteful and not tawdry.  It didn’t matter that it was a expression of love not raw sex.  It didn’t matter that it was a brilliant underwater ballet so intricate that O’Sullivan needed a swimming stunt double for part of it.

Don’t take my word for it.  See for yourself:

None of it mattered.  Breen rejected the film outright.  Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer at MGM appealed the ruling, but to no avail.

Unless the swimming scene was removed (along with some others), the film would never see the light of day.

Thalberg removed the scene, and I imagine he gritted his teeth the whole time.

After the code enforcement, the Tarzan movies changed.  They became less sexy, more silly.  The films focused less on the chemistry and love story between Jane and Tarzan and more on Tarzan’s adventures.  Jane is increasingly sidelined, and ultimately becomes a passive spectator to Tarzan’s heroism, and a doting mother to their son.

In future films, they are not shown in bed together, and Jane’s skimpy loincloth becomes a full dress.  Tarzan’s loincloth shows no discernible increase in length.

They find an abandoned baby in a plane crash and raise him as their own, because the code prohibits them having a biological baby when they are not married.  (No allowances are made for the fact that there is no one around to marry them.)

Even so, let me be clear—these are wonderful films.  Popcorn movies of the highest order. 

Although I hadn’t intended to watch them all, I tore through all the Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films.  They fell into a predictable groove—opening with a scene of domestic tranquility before some outside force threatened their Garden of Eden.  Over the course of the film, Jane and Tarzan would go for an extended swim, Tarzan would kill a lion, crocodile, hippo or all three with his bare hands, and their monkey Cheetah would get into mischief and laugh his crazy head off. Tarzan would eliminate the threat, and their idyllic life would be restored.

It should’ve worn thin, but I loved it every time.  I watched these films in the early days of the coronavirus, when professional sports and borders were closing and offices took the unprecedented step of sending workers home indefinitely.  Everything was new and terrifying, and I would turn off CNN nearly trembling and enter the magical world of Tarzan.

But it highlights a recurring theme in my mind—wondering about all the films that were never made because of the strict enforcement of the production code that began in 1934.

With the enforcement of the production code, all movies had to be suitable for all ages.

As The Nation asked, “How can a movie which satisfies a child of twelve be made morally safe for a man of 35?  Thus far the censors have spent all their time protecting children against adult movies; they might better protect adults against childlike movies.”

As we’ll see, the great creative minds of Hollywood were more than up to the task.