First Comes Courage (1943):  “I’ll Quit When You Quit”

Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne in First Comes Courage (1943)
Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne in First Comes Courage (1943)

First Comes Courage (1943) opening

Unfortunately, Dorothy Arzner was unable to complete direction on her final film, First Comes Courage.  Though she received full directorial credit, Charles Vidor finished the film after she came down with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia.  It was the only film she directed that she was unable to finish.

First Comes Courage is set in Norway 1942.  We open on Nicole Larsen (Merle Oberon), a Norwegian woman scorned by her countrymen for carrying on a love affair with German officer Major Paul Dichter (Carl Esmond.)

We immediately learn that Nicole is a spy, fighting to free Norway from German occupation.  She feeds intelligence from her Nazi lover to the Allies that helps them bomb critical Nazi strongholds.

Dichter begins to suspect Nicole, and sensing his wavering commitment, she calls for reinforcements.  Norway’s American allies decide to assassinate Dichter and make it look like he was a random casualty in the latest Allied raid.  They will then evacuate Nicole to safety.

American Allan Lowell volunteers for the assignment, and we soon find out why—he and Nicole were lovers before she began romancing Dichter for information.

Merle Oberon and Carl Esmond in First Comes Courage 1943
Nicole (Oberon) and Major Dichter (Esmond)

To determine for sure whether or not Nicole is a spy, Dichter takes two actions—he feeds her false intelligence and proposes marriage.

Knowing she will gain more power as a commander’s wife, she calls off the assassination and agrees to the marriage.  But it’s too late, for when she feeds Dichter’s fake intelligence to the Allies and they bomb a worthless cannery, Dichter knows his bride-to-be is a traitor.

He goes through with the wedding anyway and confronts her on their wedding night.  She is finally free to release the scorn and disgust she has for him, and calls him a coward and expresses no remorse for betraying him.

He plans to make her murder look like an accident to save face with his fellow officers (no good Nazi marries an Allied spy, after all) but Allan shoots him dead before he has the chance.

Merle Oberon and Carl Esmond in First Comes Courage 1943
Nicole (Oberon) and Major Dichter (Esmond)

Allan believes he and Nicole will finally be together, but she insists on staying behind in Norway, knowing that as the widow of a German officer, she’ll have even more power and access to information that will help the Allies.

Allan begs her to quit—she’s done enough, and she’s in too much danger.

Allan insists they are never to be apart again, but Nicole is resolute, telling him:

“Oh but darling it isn’t that kind of world anymore.  People don’t dance and laugh and ski, as we once used to.”

She understands that unless and until they win the war, none of them will have freedom to love, no matter what they might pretend.

After one final protest, she tells him, “I’ll quit when you quit.”

The film ends with Allan returning to the army’s boat as Nicole makes her way back to the dangerous mission that will almost certainly end in her death.

First Comes Courage is an inventive World War II thriller, a celebration of patriotism and bravery that was common in films of the era.  Oberon plays Nicole with an appropriate intensity—we can see her loathing for the man she pretends to love, and her fear that discovery is imminent.  We can also admire Nicole’s resolve to continue and wonder if we’d do the same in her shoes.

The film’s Achilles’ heel is that there is zero chemistry between Oberon and Brian Aherne.  And so while I applaud Nicole’s courage in returning to her field of battle, I don’t quite buy that she was heartbroken over leaving Allan behind.

Unfortunately for Arzner, the film flopped in 1943, her second in a row after Dance, Girl, Dance.

Her ultimate split from Hollywood seemed a mutual breakup—she wanted to make films with strong, independent female characters but a code-enforced Hollywood at war had no interest in them.

Chalk it up to irreconcilable differences.

Dorothy Arzner would never direct another feature film, but she continued to have an active career in the film industry.  She made Women’s Army Corps training films, produced plays, and even had a radio show.  She started teaching cinema in 1952, eventually joining the faculty of UCLA in 1961.

At UCLA, she taught cinema and film to Francis Ford Coppola, who speaks warmly of Arzner on the Dance, Girl, Dance DVD extras.

She even hooked up again with her old friend Joan Crawford, directing Pepsi commercials after Crawford married Alfred Steele, her final husband and the CEO of Pepsi.

Dorothy Arzner’s films are worth watching today because they put strong women at the center of the story in a time when that was rare.

More than anything, I wonder what films we missed out on when Arzner’s career was cut short by the implementation of the production code.

She was a unique voice in Hollywood, directing the early works of such eventual stars as Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell.

We’re lucky that her films have been preserved and we can still enjoy them today.

First Comes Courage (1943) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940):  Critics Then and Now are Wrong

Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) opening

At the time of its release, Dance, Girl, Dance lost money.  Dorothy Arzner’s penultimate film was a flop, dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences.

Yet today it is undoubtedly Arzner’s most well-known and respected film.  It was rediscovered in the 1970s when scholars praised its “female gaze” point of view and crowned Arzner a feminist icon.

The film is neither as bad as the critics of 1940 said, nor is it the tale of empowered womanhood that modern feminists want it to be.

Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Arzner took over the film when its original director, Roy del Ruth quit over creative differences with producer Erich Pommer.  Arzner could see that the script lacked direction, and worked with the writers to focus the story on the differences between two up and coming dancers.

Frenemies Judy (Maureen O’Hara) and Bubbles (Lucille Ball) dance together under the tutelage of Madame Basilova.  Judy is a gifted ballerina who wants a serious and respected career.  Bubbles has less artistic talent, but she’s got a nose for what sells and eventually starts raking in the money playing “Tiger Lily” at a burlesque theater.

When Judy falls on hard times, Bubbles offers her a part in the show, playing the stooge—July does her ballet routine to a crowd that boos and demands the return of Bubbles.

Resentment simmers between the women, and boils over when they both fall in love with the same louse, Jimmy Harris, who is himself still in love with his ex-wife.

The film earns its feminist street cred when a fed up Judy stops in the middle of her act to lecture the heckling crowd:

“I know you want me to tear my clothes off so’s you can look your fifty cents worth.  Fifty cents for the privilege of staring at a girl the way your wife won’t let you.  What do you suppose we think of you up here—with your silly remarks your mothers would be ashamed of?”

She goes on (and on) in the same vein before ending with:

“…so you can go home when the show’s over and strut before your wives and sweethearts and play at being the stronger sex for a minute?  I’m sure they see through you just like we do.”

It’s a stinging indictment and makes for a great isolated YouTube clip, but it feels wildly out of character for Judy and out of place in the film.

And it seems doubtful that a room full of men in a 1940s burlesque club would give her a standing ovation as they do in the film.

Maureen O'Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

This lauded display of feminism is immediately followed by an epic on-stage cat fight between Bubbles and July (Bubbles is jealous of Judy’s ovation, and Judy is tired of playing second fiddle to Bubbles).  They slap, punch, kick, pull hair and roll around on the floor in front of a stunned crowd.

It’s funny, it’s truer to the characters, and it winds them both up in night court with black eyes and eventual apologies.

In the end, they both get want they want—Bubbles tricks a drunken Jimmy into marriage and makes a fortune off their quickie divorce, and Judy finds love and creative fulfillment when she meets kindly Steve Adams, who offers her a role in his ballet.

It’s a good, funny film that should be enjoyed as such. 

It’s not a polemic against male chauvinism, and the truth is the film would be better if Judy’s scolding speech had been left on the cutting room floor.

But if it had, we likely wouldn’t be watching Dance, Girl, Dance today.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Ball of Fire (1941):  The Last Great Screwball Comedy

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

After the success of Meet John Doe, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up later that same year to make Ball of Fire.

Ball of Fire had some superficial similarities to Doe—in both, Cooper plays a good-hearted naïve man taken for a ride by the more cynical and street smart Stanwyck.

In Doe, Stanwyck goes looking for a man to embody the words she wrote in an anonymous newspaper column.

In Ball of Fire, Cooper goes looking for a woman of the world to explain slang to him.

But if they are mirror images in terms of subject matter, they’re miles apart in tone.

Doe explored some of director Frank Capra’s favorite themes—political corruption, patriotism, and a sentimental side that advocates loving thy neighbor.

Doe gave you a few smiles, but Capra wanted the audience to think.

Ball of Fire was written solely for laughs by screenwriting duo Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and directed with exuberant irreverence by Howard Hawks.

The story is a playful retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, refashioning the dwarfs as a group of old bachelor professors who’ve been living together for years to write an encyclopedia.  The only one not ready for the retirement home is young and handsome linguistics Professor Bertram Potts, but he’s as cut off from the world as the rest.

And Snow White?

She’s the gangster’s moll Sugarpuss O’Shea, who agrees to help with the project so that she can hide out from the cops who want her to testify against her mobster boyfriend.

Gary Cooper was the titular John Doe, but Stanwyck was the Ball of Fire.

Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

As her biographer Axel Madsen wrote:

“The way slangy Stanwyck manhandles the English language fascinates linguistics professor Cooper.  He got the kudos in Meet John Doe, she ran away with Ball of Fire reviews.  Cooper’s absent-minded professor was a nice piece of light acting, but Barbara as Sugarpuss O’Shea was sensational.”

Sugarpuss O’Shea is one of Stanwyck’s signature parts—and she nearly didn’t get it.

As she told Paul Rosenfield, “They didn’t want me for the picture. They cast it with Ginger Rogers. The gossip then was that she wouldn’t do it because the part was, well, a hooker really. And Ginger’s morals and beliefs wouldn’t let her play it. Me, I didn’t give a damn.”

No one could’ve done more with the part than Stanwyck—not Ginger Rogers, or Carole Lombard, who also turned down what would have been one of her final roles.

The screen crackles when Stanwyck’s O’Shea is charming Potts and the other professors, all of whom are thrilled to have a woman (not counting their housekeeper Miss Bragg, which they don’t) in their midst.

O’Shea convinces them to let her stay in the house with them as she teaches Potts everything he needs to know for his encyclopedia article on slang.  Along the way she teaches the professors to dance and steals all their hearts.

When her gangster boyfriend (an early role for Dana Andrews) decides to marry O’Shea so she can’t testify against him, she has second thoughts.

She’s fallen in love with the professors’ naïve goodness, and doesn’t want to take them for a ride.  And when Potts proposes to her (with a much smaller ring), she realizes he’s the man she wants.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her role—though in hindsight it’s baffling that she wasn’t nominated instead for her work in The Lady Eve.

And now we’ve come directly to the problem with Ball of Fire.  It’s true ancestor is not Meet John Doe, but The Lady Eve, made earlier the same year with Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

The Lady Eve is a perfect film with a script that sings, two equally charming leads, and not a moment of wasted time.

Ball of Fire uses much of the same conceit—Stanwyck plays a con artist who falls in love with her mark, another egghead who’s book smart but clueless about women.

Ball of Fire replicates the great erotic scene in The Lady Eve when the hero ends up holding the heroine’s bare foot.  And Stanwyck even calls Professor Potts “Pottsie,” in the same way she called Fonda’s character “Hopsie.”

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Unlike The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire goes on a bit too long in parts.  The antics of the professors grate a bit, and the film is like an airless balloon whenever Stanwyck is not onscreen.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Ball of Fire to compare it so much to The Lady Eve—but it’s never a good idea to remind those watching of another film—especially a superior one.

Audiences of 1941 didn’t mind, though.  Five days after Ball of Fire was released, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  The film was a huge box office success, as it’s silliness and sexiness was exactly what Americans were looking for to distract themselves from the unthinkable nightly reports on the wireless.

It’s the last great American screwball comedy (except, perhaps for 1942’s Palm Beach Story), as the genre vanished overnight when the Americans entered World War II and films veered away from zany screwballs toward patriotic propaganda.

Ball of Fire (1941) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.  1994.
  • Paul Rosenfield, “Saluting Stanwyck: A Life on Film”, “Los Angeles Times” (1987).

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Meet John Doe (1941): The Start of the Stanwyck and Cooper Magic

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Meet John Doe (1941)

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up for the first time in 1941 to make Meet John Doe.

Though new to one another, both had experience working with director Frank Capra.  Cooper and Capra had made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.  Stanwyck and Capra had made four previous films together, and he always proclaimed Stanwyck to be his favorite actress.

The film opens when reporter Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is fired from her job when new publisher and aspiring politician D.B. Norton buys up her newspaper and cleans house.

She sits down to her typewriter and bangs out her final column in a red hot fury—she’s got a mother and two younger sisters to support, and she’s a damn good reporter cut from the roles only to save a few bucks.

Her final column causes an outpouring of support from the paper’s readers—she’s published a letter to the editor from a mysterious John Doe, an anonymous man who vows to jump off a building to his death on Christmas Eve to protest society’s ills.  The paper is flooded with people wanting to help John Doe by giving him a job.

Her former editor drags her back into the newsroom and demands the identity of John Doe.

The only problem—there is no John Doe.  Ann made him up.

And the city’s rival newspaper is accusing them (correctly, it turns out) of fraud.

Enter Gary Cooper as Long John Willoughby, a hobo and former bush league baseball pitcher the newspaper hires to pretend to be the John Doe who wrote the letter.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)
Barbara Stanwyck sizes up Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941)

Ann writes more letters in John Doe’s name, and soon the fake John Doe is giving speeches and inspiring the nation to “love thy neighbor.”

He’s also falling in love with Ann, though he worries that she sometimes forgets that he isn’t really the idealistic John Doe she made up in her head.

Meet John Doe was the final Frank Capra film released before he went overseas on a special assignment from President Franklin Roosevelt.  He shot a series of seven war documentaries called Why We Fight used to recruit soldiers and convince the public of the necessity of war.

And yet Meet John Doe has the same mix of cynicism, hope, and despair that Capra put into It’s A Wonderful Life, which he and Jimmy Stewart made in a fog of post-war disillusionment.

As John Doe’s movement grows, the vultures start circling—politicians see potential voters in the non-political John Doe clubs, and Ann herself goes from a woman struggling to keep her family fed in the wake of her father’s death to one wearing fur coats and diamond bracelets paid for by her publisher.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in Meet John Doe (1941)

In the final scene, Willoughby is as forlorn and disgusted as the John Doe he has spent the film pretending to be.  Politicians have corrupted his movement and he believes Ann has betrayed him.  After being exposed as a fake, the members of the John Doe clubs have rejected him and gone back to lives filled with petty fights instead of loving their neighbors.

The only way he can prove that his movement is real and good is to take the Christ-like path of dying for his message.  He climbs to the top of the roof of the tallest building in the city and prepares to jump off, just as Ann wrote in her original fake letter.

But Ann is there, pleading for a chance to start again—both their romance, and their movement.

Will John stay and fight or will he jump?

You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out.

As Meet John Doe is available for free for Amazon Prime Video subscribers in the United States, you have no excuse not to watch it tonight.

Meet John Doe (1941) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Unfortunately, “The Razor’s Edge” (1946) Is Deadly Dull

Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power
The Razor's Edge (1946)

The Razor’s Edge might have been a different film.

Legendary producer Darryl Zanuck served in both World Wars.  He enlisted as a teenager in the U.S. Army and saw European action in World War I.  By the time the second World War rolled around, Zanuck was an Oscar winning producer who could’ve gotten out of his service or at least stayed stateside, but he insisted on documenting the fighting in active war zones and making patriotic films.

When he returned, he bought the rights to W. Somerset Maugham’s penultimate novel and intended to make a prestige film about man’s search for meaning.

Zanuck originally hired George Cukor to direct, but he and Cukor disagreed on the direction of the main character.  Progress stalled, which was fine with Zanuck—he was waiting for Tyrone Power, who’d enlisted in the Marines, to return home from the war to play the leading role.

When Power came home, Cukor and Zanuck had parted ways and Cukor was engaged in another project.

Cukor—who wanted Maugham to write the screenplay—would’ve made a different film.

We’ll never know if it would’ve been a better one.

Tyrone Power plays Larry Darrell, a man with existential questions after a fellow soldier sacrifices his life to save his in World War I.  Larry wants to marry his sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), but though she loves him dearly, she wants reassurances that he will commit to adult responsibilities like an office job and having children.

He prefers to loaf—his term—around.  Eager not to lose him, Isabel agrees to delay their wedding while he travels alone to Paris to find himself.  When they reunite after a year, they’re as in love as ever but at an impasse—he wants her to live as a questing pauper with him, and she wants a husband who wears a tie to work and earns a salary high enough to buy her fine dresses and a nanny for their eventual children.

He’s content to go on as they are, but Isabel gives him an ultimatum—settle down or lose her forever.

Larry travels to India to learn from a guru, and Isabel marries a rich man.

As the film progresses—scene after never-ending scene—we watch the years unfold as Larry marches toward enlightenment while studying with mystics and doing manual labor to make enough money to survive.

Meanwhile, Isabel and those preoccupied with worldly concerns are dashed against the rocks of fate.  Isabel and her husband lose their fortune in the stock market crash of ’29, and cast their friend Sophie (Anne Baxter) out of their inner circle when she becomes an alcoholic after her husband and baby are killed in a car wreck.

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter

Look—intellectually, I get it.

Larry is essentially walking the path to sainthood—he heals the sick, cares for those less fortunate, and might as well have taken vows of poverty and chastity.

The problem is that sainthood is deadly dull.

The only time the film is remotely interesting is when a jealous Isabel bears her fangs after Larry announces he is marrying Sophie.  Even then, she has no real reason for jealousy—Larry is merely marrying Sophie to save her from her alcoholism.  As anyone who’s ever known an actual alcoholic can predict, his efforts are unsuccessful.

Gene Tierney as Isabell in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney

It’s true that Anne Baxter had a lovely Oscar-winning performance for supporting actress, and that the film garnered 3 other nominations including best picture.

It’s true that 1946 was filled with important films that grappled the trauma of coming home from war—The Best Years of Our Lives won the Oscar for best picture that year.

It’s true we should care about the plight of such people.

But for me, The Razor’s Edge doesn’t pierce the skin.

The Razor's Edge (1946) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  1. TCM Website: https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/87754/the-razors-edge#notes
  2. Darryl Zanuck Bio: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fil.067

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If You Loved “Bewitched”, Try “I Married a Witch” (1942)

Veronica Lake and Fredric March in "I Married A Witch" 1942
Veronica Lake and Fredric March in "I Married A Witch" 1942

Ever since Puck spread the flower’s juice meant for Demetrius on Lysander’s closed eyes in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, audiences have been entertained by comedic tales of love potions gone wrong.  The course of true love never did run smooth, not for couples created by the Bard or Hollywood.

One you may have missed is I Married a Witch (1942), an often overlooked tale of revenge gone charmingly awry.

Cecil Kellaway and Veronica Lake star as a deliciously unrepentant father-daughter warlock and witch who exist to wreak havoc on the human world.  Their dastardly ways catch up to them in colonial New England when a group of Puritans, led by Jonathan Wooley, burn them at the stake and bury their ashes beneath a tree to imprison their spirits.

Just before their interment, Jennifer gets one last shot in by cursing the Wooley men to always marry the wrong woman.

Veronica Lake  in "I Married A Witch" 1942

Fast forward a few generations, and Daniel and Jennifer are released when lightning fells the tree that imprisoned them.  Eager for further vengeance on the Wooleys, Jennifer tracks down the most recent descendant, Wallace (Fredric March.)  To Jennifer’s delight, Wallace is on the brink of marrying his own shrew (an early role for Susan Hayward), just as all his forefathers have done, thanks to her curse.

Then Jennifer gets an even better idea—she will convince Wallace to fall in love with her, and proceed to make his life a living hell.

Despite her father’s reservations, he agrees to give Jennifer human form and soon poor Wallace is rescuing the naked witch—in the body of Veronica Lake, blonde locks as shiny and flowing as ever—from a fire on the eve of his wedding.

Wallace has a lot to lose if anyone finds out that Jennifer (with the help of a little magic) spent the night in his bed, even if he wasn’t in it.  His fiancé may be a shrew, but she’s the daughter of the man who is backing his run for governor.  He’s not immune to Jennifer’s charms, but he’ll lose his fiancé, his reputation, and the election if he succumbs to them.

To obliterate his resistance, Jennifer concocts a love potion so that Wallace will fall irrevocably in love with her, but through a series of missteps the Bard would approve of, she ends up accidentally drinking the potion herself.

Now the witch is in love with her sworn enemy—and determined to have him.

Veronica Lake and Fredric March in "I Married A Witch" 1942

Sol Saks, who wrote the pilot episode of the long-running TV series Bewitched (1964-1972), credited I Married a Witch as one of the influences for his story of a witch who decides to marry and live as a suburban housewife.  Fans of the TV show will certainly enjoy the film, which has a similar vibe, even down to Jennifer’s wacky, interfering father, a direct ancestor to Agnes Moorehead’s wonderfully meddling Endora.

Daniel and Jennifer in “I Married a Witch”; Endora and Samantha in “Bewitched

Veronica Lake is most remembered for her long blonde hair that fell seductively over one eye, and playing the temptress in film noirs with Alan Ladd.  But as she proved in both Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and I Married a Witch, she was quite capable of comedy when given the opportunity.

Veronica Lake and Fredric March in "I Married A Witch" 1942

Fredric March is a bit miscast, and the film certainly would’ve been better had Joel McCrea played Wallace, as the director and producer wanted.  McCrea and Lake had just come off their triumph in Preston Sturges’ classic Sullivan’s Travels, and their chemistry on-screen was palpable.

Off-screen, however, McCrea detested Lake and turned down the role of Wallace Wooley, later telling Robert Osborne, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.”  (Though they did end up making a second film together, Ramrod, in 1947.  Hollywood’s players have always been good at setting aside their differences when there’s enough money on the table or careers are in free fall.  They call his professionalism.)

For her part, Lake didn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward McCrea, though in discussing Witch in her autobiography, she bluntly asserted, “I hated Fredric March.”

“Love is stronger than witchcraft,” Jennifer tells Wallace at the end of the film when she overcomes her father’s mystical attempts to keep them apart.

And the magic of movies—certainly witchcraft by another name—is stronger than any offscreen animosity when the cameras start rolling.

 "I Married A Witch" 1942 Verdict - Give It A Shot

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

I’m Here to Defend “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947)

Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart face off in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart
Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) opening

Critics and historians are united in their hatred of The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the only film that Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck made together.

In a nutshell, Bogart plays a painter who is most inspired when plotting to kill his wives.  Stanwyck plays the initially unwitting second Mrs. Carroll before sussing out that her husband is poisoning her nightly glass of milk and has the third Mrs. Carroll all picked out.

Every biographer of Bogart and Stanwyck dismisses the film out of hand, insisting that the miscasting, especially of Bogart, is criminal.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Let’s survey the literature:

  • Bogart biographers Sperber and Lax note, “In an instance of stunning miscasting, [Bogart] played a psychotic artist….”
  • Stanwyck biographer Axel Madsen believes that, “both were miscast.”
  • Stanwyck biographer Al DiOrio goes one step further, writing that, “Bogart was miscast as the psychopathic artist, and the film in general was very strange.”
  • Bogart biographer David Thomson judges the film as “dull, fabricated, uninspired.”
  • Harshest of all, in his survey of Stanwyck’s films, Dan Callahan proclaims the film “reaches a whole new level of miscalculation and incompetence” and suffers from, “Humphrey Bogart embarrassing himself as a lunatic painter.”  

Ouch.

It’s time for me to don my Ruth Bader Ginsberg lace collar because Reader, I dissent.

I’m not elevating it to the heights of Casablanca (1942) or Double Indemnity (1944), but The Two Mrs. Carrolls is an entertaining film and undeserving of universal panning.

Let’s flesh out the plot a bit.  Sally (Stanwyck) and Geoffrey (Bogart) meet and begin a whirlwind romance.  Sally is in love and ready to marry the sensitive painter when she finds a letter from his wife. 

When Geoffrey explains that while he is married with a young daughter, his wife has been an invalid for many years and the marriage is now in name only.  Sally is sympathetic, but she hardens her heart and sends Geoffrey packing.

Flash forward a few years, and Geoffrey has married Sally after the passing of his first wife.  Sally is the perfect wife—good-natured and a caring stepmother to his daughter Bea.

She doesn’t bat an eye at the haunting Angel of Death style portrait Geoffrey painted of his first wife at the end of her life.  She doesn’t even mind when Geoffrey hangs it in a prominent place in their home.

At first, Geoffrey finds the quiet of his remote new home and the support of his loving wife peaceful and conducive to his work.  One often suspects that there’s a tender side behind Bogart’s tough guy roles—can’t you see Rick Blaine as a sensitive painter if llsa had stayed and the Germans had never marched down the center of the streets of Paris?

Humphrey Bogart in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

When he becomes blocked in his work, Geoffrey’s mind descends into madness and paranoia.  Instead of miscasting, I see Bogart’s work here as his first crack at a characterization he would later perfect in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Caine Mutiny (1954).

The audience sees the threat Geoffrey poses Sally before she does—if there’s any miscasting in the film, it’s that Stanwyck should never play anybody’s fool.  Her best work comes when she’s playing someone overly cynical.

Onscreen or off, Barbara Stanwyck was never naïve.  

Barbara Stanwyck in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

The film begins to quicken and breathe as Sally uncovers damning evidence that her husband is trying to kill her.  When Sally makes a comment about Bea’s mother being an invalid, Bea is surprised at the notion and assures Sally her mother was fit and healthy until her final illness—an illness that sounds eerily similar to the one Sally is currently experiencing.

An illness that began right around the time her husband began making eyes at the younger Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith) while painting her portrait.

Horrified but unwilling to believe the truth, Sally rushes into Geoffrey’s off-limits studio.  A chill ran up my arm when she discovered his work-in-progress—a horrifying portrait of Sally as the Angel of Death.

Barbara Stanwyck  in the Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

Geoffrey will presumably complete the portrait after he finishes offing her.

The film ends with a psychological stand-off:  Sally knows that Geoffrey is trying to kill her but is trying to conceal her fear until help arrives.  Geoffrey knows that she knows but is trying to reassure her so he can kill her.  When she locks him out of the bedroom and he comes through the window like his own Angel of Death, we scream right along with Stanwyck.

If there’s one thing to nitpick, it’s that the film pulls its punches in that final confrontation.  You’ve got Humphrey Bogart trying to kill Barbara Stanwyck.  Two of the toughest actors to ever grace the screen are locked in a fight for survival, and I wish the director had let those thoroughbred horses run just a little more.

What wouldn’t you give to watch Sam Spade and Phyllis Dietrichson go toe to toe?

It’s not so much miscasting as a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging film.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.  1994.
  • DiOrio, Al.  Barbara Stanwyck:  A Biography.  1983.
  • Callahan, Dan.  Barbara Stanwyck:  The Miracle Woman.  2012.
  • Thomson, David.  Humphrey Bogart.  2010.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947): The Most Beautiful Woman in the World Falls in Love With a Ghost

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison embrace in the Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) opening

In the golden age of Hollywood, film casting was often a game of musical chairs. 

The makers of Daisy Kenyon (1947) originally thought to cash in on the success of Laura (1944) by reuniting director Otto Preminger with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney.

Twentieth Century Fox Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was impressed with Joan Crawford’s career revival in Mildred Pierce (1945), and thought he could engineer a similar comeback for Norma Shearer in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Though she hadn’t worked since 1942, Zanuck wrote in a memo that “Norma Shearer has one great picture left in her yet.”

But when the music stopped, Crawford had been cast as Daisy, Gene Tierney had shuffled over to play Mrs. Muir, and Norma Shearer was left without a chair.

I think Zanuck was right about Shearer, but if she had one last great film in her, we never got to see it.  She never worked in Hollywood again.

Instead of playing opposite the 45-year-old Shearer, 39-year-old Rex Harrison was paired with the 27-year-old Gene Tierney.  Zanuck was not overly disappointed to cast Tierney, whom he called “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

And he certainly couldn’t have objected to the result.  The film was nominated for an Oscar for black and white cinematography and currently sits at number 73 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest Love Stories.

Set during the last gasp of the Victorian era, Tierney plays a widow with a young daughter.  She wishes to live on her own terms, out from under the stifling thumbs of her deceased husband’s mother and sister.  She has a small pension which allows her to leave London and rent a surprisingly large and beautiful seaside house in Dorset.

She soon discovers why the rent is within her price range—the house is haunted by the former owner Captain Daniel Gregg, a rough and tumble sea captain who committed suicide and chases away anyone who wishes to live in his house.

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison in the Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Tierney, Harrison

But Lucy Muir and her daughter (played by nine-year-old Natalie Wood in her third credited role, filmed just before she would forever charm the world in Miracle on 34th Street) were made of sterner stuff than their predecessors and refused to be put off by howling winds and flickering candles.

Natalie Wood and Gene Tierney in the Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Natalie Wood, Gene Tierney

Soon Captain Daniel shows himself to Lucy, and is eventually won over when she is not put off by his surly exterior.  They begin a tentative friendship, and when Lucy’s money runs out, Daniel comes up with a crazy idea to prevent her from having to leave the house.

He will dictate the story of his life, which Lucy will write and sell as a sensational adventure novel.  Making a lifelong living off the sale of a single novel is more unlikely than falling in love with a ghost, but Lucy does both over the course of the film.

But loving a ghost you can never touch is not easy, and Lucy attracts an ardent—and all too human—suitor she meets in London while selling the book.  George Saunders is delicious as Miles Fairley, a cad with all the charm of a used car salesman who nonetheless capture’s Lucy’s attention.

He is flesh and blood, after all.

Gene Tierney and George Saunders in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Gene Tierney and George Saunders

With a twist ending that surely inspired The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), the film finds a satisfying conclusion to the world’s most impossible romance.

In 1968, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was rebooted as a television show that ran for two seasons, though it was more comedic and less romantic than the film.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir goes down like a cup of hot tea on a cold night, a charming love story that asks only that its audience suspend disbelief and allow itself to fall under the spell of fantastical ghosts and romance.

Settle in and enjoy.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Daisy Kenyon (1947): Joan Crawford Has Them Eating Out of the Palm of Her Hand

Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda stand beside a sitting Joan Crawford in Daisy Kenyon (1947)
Dana Andrews, Joan Crawford, and Henry Fonda in “Daisy Kenyon” (1947)
Daisy Kenyon (1947) opening banner

After a successful run with MGM, Joan Crawford’s career was on a slow slide into oblivion when she came roaring back to life with her Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce (1945).

She proved to audiences—and herself—that there was a place in Hollywood for a Joan Crawford no longer young enough to play the ingénue.

She followed Pierce up with a trio of quality films—Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), and Daisy Kenyon (1947)—that launched the second, and more interesting half of her career.

It is to Daisy Kenyon that we turn our attention today.

Based on a novel of the same name by Elizabeth Janeway, Daisy Kenyon is a post-war New York love triangle between Daisy, her longtime married lover Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews) and new suitor Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda.)

Some worried that Crawford, in her early forties, was too old to play the 32 year old Daisy from the novel.  Though the much younger Gene Tierney was considered, the film is better for having cast Crawford, who plays Daisy as a woman ultimately beyond her years in wisdom.

Joan Crawford lying on a bed on the telephone in Daisy Kenyon (1947)
Crawford

Though Dan’s heart has long been with Daisy, he is fully ensnared in his marriage.  He and his wife have two children who adore him, and the ambitious Dan works as a lawyer in his father-in-law’s firm. 

Daisy has mostly been content as Dan’s mistress, devoting herself to her career as a freelance commercial artist.  The film opens with Dan breaking a date with Daisy, something it’s obvious he does frequently, and which is part and parcel of being a mistress instead of a wife.  But Daisy is growing tired of waiting for Dan to divorce his wife, and she picks a fight with him.

She’s beginning to see what is obvious to the audience—that Dan will never leave his wife. 

Their affair is breaking her heart.

In anger, and perhaps a touch of desperation, Daisy begins dating the widowed Peter.  The two men in Daisy’s life could not be more different.  Dan is a charismatic glad-hander who juggles all the people and situations in his life with aplomb.  Peter has returned from World War II emotionally scarred.  He’s awkward and has nightmares about the war.  Dan is ambitious, in the thick of things, wanting to be in the center of every room and at the heart of the action.  Peter wishes to move to a remote village along the sea and live an isolated, quiet life.

Finally realizing that Dan will never leave his wife, Daisy marries Peter, but she remains torn between the two men who refuse to give her up.

Dana Andrews and Joan Crawford stand looking at one another in Daisy Kenyon (1947)
Dana Andrews, Joan Crawford

Daisy Kenyons trio of stars elevates this potential soapy melodrama into something deeper that was not appreciated at the time of its initial release.  Despite infidelity and betrayal, the film has no real villains—Dan is not toying with Daisy, he truly loves her.  Daisy marries Peter in good faith, wanting to move on from being a mistress.  Peter may still be in love with his dead wife, but he wants to build a life with Daisy.

As biographer Donald Spoto writes in Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford, “Daisy Kenyon presents, with a rare kind of emotional honesty, a trio of credible adults struggling with unhappy situations.”

Things come to a head when the plot takes a turn none of the leads saw coming and Dan’s wife want to divorce him.

Suddenly the tables turn and Dan is available while Daisy is married.  But Peter won’t hold her to her vows if she wants out.

With Dan free, Daisy finally has what she’s always wanted. 

Or does she?

And in case you’re wondering—of course Joan Crawford rocks the shoulder pads here.

No one has ever done it better.

Daisy Kenyon (1947) Verdict:  Give It a Shot

Sources

  • Spoto, Donald.  Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford.  2010.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

5 Classic Films to Watch this Mother’s Day Weekend

Clockwise from left: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwcyk in Stella Dallas

The Golden Age of Hollywood is rife with tales of motherhood.  These often provided plum roles for some of Hollywood’s best actresses.  As we celebrate mothers this weekend in the United States, here are 5 great films (and 5 legendary actresses) who portrayed memorable mothers and were nominated (and in some cases won) an Oscar for their efforts.

All are available for free or under $4 to stream in the United States on Amazon Prime.

The Unconventional Mother:  Stella Dallas (1937)

There are many definitions of a “good” mother.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Stella, a tacky, low class divorcee who pals around with losers and yet is a spectacular mother to her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley).  Their Gilmore Girls-esque friends first relationship doesn’t prevent Stella from making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her daughter will have the social standing she herself could never achieve.

Stay until the last scene, which will tear your heart out if you have one.

*2 Oscar nominations:  Stanwyck for Best Actress, Shirely for Best Supporting Actress

*Available free in the U.S. with an Amazon Prime Subscription

Wartime Brit with a Stiff Upper Lip :  Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, an ordinary Brit living her ordinary life when Hitler brings the fight to her doorstep.  Without a fuss, the Minivers rise to the occasion—her son joins the war effort and her husband sets off with his small boat to help rescue the boys in Dunkirk.  Through it all, Mrs. Miniver keeps hope alive and does what needs to be done to preserve the British way of life.

Stay for a harrowing—at the time—scene in which a Nazi soldier breaks into the Miniver house when Kay is home alone.

*12 Oscar nominations, including wins for Best Picture, Greer Garson as Best Actress, and William Wyler as Best Director

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

A Mother Too Good for Her Daughter:  Mildred Pierce (1945)

She may have been Mommie Dearest to her real-life children, but Joan Crawford plays Mildred Pierce, a mother who nearly breaks herself apart in over-sacrificing herself for her daughter.

In a role reversal from Stella Dallas, in Mildred Pierce it’s the daughter Veda who longs for social status.  Mildred works as a waitress and then a baker to make her daughter’s dreams come true.  She’s a hardworking success, and though her eventual restaurant makes her a wealthy woman, in spoiled Veda’s eyes she will always be low-class and not good enough.

Stay until Mildred delivers cinema’s most deserved slap to bratty Veda. 

*6 Oscar nominations, including a win for Joan Crawford for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Immigrant Matriarch :  I Remember Mama (1948)

Fifty-year old Irene Dunne, whom you may have seen in screwball comedies with Cary Grant, plays a Norwegian immigrant mother in this heartwarming tale of a mother with a “wide open heart for other people’s trouble.”  Daughter Katrin writes the story of her life and reminisces about the joy and heartbreak inherent in growing up in a loving family.

Stay for the scene when Katrin realizes her mother pawned a family heirloom to buy Katrin the dresser set she desperately wanted.

*5 Oscar nominations, including Irene Dunne for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Substitute Mother:  Now, Voyager (1942)

Sometimes the mother we need is not the one who gave birth to us.  Bette Davis masterfully plays Charlotte Vale in an ugly duckling tale.  Charlotte is a frumpy spinster, beaten down by her overbearing mother.  When she goes on a cruise and gets away from her mother, she blossoms into a beautiful swan and even has a love affair with Jerry Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid.)

But Charlotte’s fate is not to become Jerry’s wife—or even long time lover.  Once back home, Charlotte meets Jerry’s troubled daughter Tina in a sanitarium and recognizes a kindred spirt.  Both are unloved and unwanted by their own mothers, and Charlotte takes Tina under her wing in a relationship that fills the holes in both their hearts.

Stay for the scene when Davis utters her famous line of, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

*3 Oscar nominations, including Bette Davis as Best Actress and a win for Musical Score

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $3.99