A Lost Lady (1934): This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Barbara Stanwyck in A Lost Lady (1934)
A Lost Lady (1934) opening banner

As any reader knows, a poor film adaptation of your favorite novel can break your heart.

It’s even worse for authors:  Jodi Picoult has disowned the 2012 adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper, and will likely never sell the film rights to another one of her bestselling novels.  P.L. Travers hated Mary Poppins and Bret Easton Ellis disliked American Psycho.  Even Stephen King, who’s had dozens of successful adaptations, hasn’t been shy about his distaste for the 1980 film The Shining

For these authors, and most who dislike film adaptations, the criticism boils down to this:  it might be an okay movie, but it’s not the story I wrote.

Even this critique, it turns out, is as old as Hollywood itself.

As any kid who read My Ántonia in high school English class knows, Willa Cather was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and one of the best chroniclers of the pioneer days in the American West.  In this and her other pioneer novels, she expertly showed the bravery, hardship, and grit that was required to set out to make your fortune in an uncivilized land.  

There’s no doubt that Cather’s pioneer trilogy of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia could be made into lush, wonderful films that could bring in a boatload of Oscars and devotion from fans.

But we’ll never see any of them on screens big or small, all because of an all-but-forgotten film starring Barbara Stanwyck in 1934.

Willa Cather writing
Willa Cather

Willa Cather wrote A Lost Lady in 1923, a short but moving novel set in the late nineteenth century about the death of the early pioneers and the pioneer way of life.  Marian Forrester is the beautiful and much younger wife of Captain Daniel Forrester, a railroad man.  They spend part of the year in their home in Sweet Water, a western stop on the transcontinental railroad.  

In the novel, we see Marian only through the eyes of others, primarily Niel Herbert, a boy who grows into a young man.  He idolizes Marian as the ideal woman and wife.  She is beautiful, and a legendary hostess known from Sweet Water to California.  She always knows the right word to say, the right drink to pour, the right dances.  But there is a lurking cynicism that only shows in flashes.  Marian Forrester is a lovely woman with an unknowable heart that makes her all the more appealing.  She is loyal to her husband but terribly lonely on the prairie.  Neil is dismayed when he discovers that she is having an affair with a man passing through town.

Barbara Stanwyck in A Lost Lady (1934)

The Captain and his friends are the last of a dying breed, the honest pioneers who put honor ahead of business.  When the market crashes, the Captain goes against his lawyer’s advice and spends most of his fortune to ensure his employees get their full savings from a failed bank.  The gesture is admirable, but when the Captain dies, Marian is left with nothing and quickly falls from grace.

The Captain is dead.  The pioneer spirit is dead, giving way to a colder, more capitalistic world.

But Marian Forrester refuses to die.

Barbara Stanwyck in A Lost Lady (1934)

Neil, a young man by this time, is disillusioned by watching Marian struggle, consorting by necessity with unsavory characters whom he feels are beneath her.  He wants her to remain the pure, perfect wife, and expresses his resentment in the novel’s most famous lines:

“It was what he held most against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”

So what did Hollywood do when it got its hands on this complicated story about the death of the pioneer days, the mystery of another’s marriage, and the subtle coming of age story of an idealistic young man?

Flattened it like a pancake, and left its heart on the cutting room floor.

It isn’t a terrible film.  It just isn’t the story Cather wrote.

In Hollywood’s version, Stanwyck plays Marian Forrester, and while she is excellent in this film, she is slightly miscast for Cather’s version of Marian.  Stanwyck herself, and Hollywood’s Marian, is too honest and direct.

Cather’s Marian is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who charmed and drew in all the men around her without ever revealing her essential self—a woman like our aforementioned Grace Kelly would’ve been perfect for this role, but for that fact that she was five years old and playing with dolls in Philadelphia when the film was made.

As in the novel, Marian marries Captain Forrester out of gratitude and affection.  He rescues her after a great heartbreak (when her fiance is shot by his mistresses’ husband) and a great injury (a fall that breaks her leg).  

In the film, Marian has lost the will to live, but Captain Forrester believes he can love her back to life.  He is thrilled to show off his new wife to his friends, and untroubled by his loveless (and apparently sexless) marriage.  

They promise an unflinching honesty, which becomes a problem when Forrester leaves town on a business trip and Marian finds her long-dormant libido awakened when handsome cad Frank Ellinger comes to town.

Marian tells the Captain about the affair, and he sets about stoically letting her go, even though he is now as heartbroken as she at the beginning of the film.  His stress causes a heart attack, and his near death makes Marian realize she loves him after all.  She breaks it off with Ellinger, and nurses the Captain back to love and faith, as he once did for her.

The film ends with them both equally in love for the first time in their marriage, and the promise of a happy, fulfilling, and true marriage.

Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Morgan in A Lost Lady (1934)
Happily married to the Wizard of Oz

There is no mention of the American West.  No reversal of fortune.  Niel is Marian’s age and falls in love with her but agrees to a platonic friendship out of respect for the Captain (and because she does not reciprocate his feelings.)  When he discovers her affair with Ellinger, he is not so much disillusioned as wondering why it can’t be him.  

At one point, he says to her, “you think I’m judging you, but I’m not,” when of course, the entire novel is his ever-changing judgement of her.

A well-acted, serviceable movie, kept alive today by Stanwyck’s reputation.

But is it any wonder that Cather absolutely despised the film fashioned from a few bits of her novel?

She hated it so much, in fact, that she had her will stipulate that her novels and stories could never be made into films or plays, even after her death.

So no actress or director will ever get another crack at Marian Forrester and A Lost Lady, which seems a shame.  Some have written that the novel is unfilmable, but I disagree.  Sure, with a poor director, it could become one of those films where strong emotions are conveyed with excessively long close-ups, but in the right hands, someone could do justice to Cather’s masterpiece.  

Any actress would love to sink her teeth into the role of Marian Forrester.

But we will never see it, nor will we see My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or any of Cather’s other works.

Cather said that she never wanted to be associated with words in a script she hadn’t written, and accurately accused Hollywood of mutilating her great work.

But in her version of A Lost Lady, Niel judges Marian harshly for letting go of the old pioneer ways and engaging in a sort of crass commercialism in order to survive.  Cather does not seem to approve of Niel’s judgement, and in fact the novel ends when he has aged and reconsidered Marian with the wisdom time brings.  His bitterness has drained away and he can understand her point of view, and even hope that she is happy with her second husband, who pulled her out of poverty and draped her in furs.

Cather lived to be seventy-four and died in 1947, seemingly without ever reconsidering her harsh critique of the crassness of Hollywood.

That’s her right, of course.  And her stories live on in the pages of her novels, for subsequent generations to discover.

But I can’t help but mourn the Cather films that will never be made, imperfect and crass though they may have been.

A Lost Lady (1934) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Cather, Willa.  A Lost Lady.
  • Smith, Ella.  Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.
  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.

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

Barbara Stanwyck in A Lost Lady (1934)

Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

Bette Davis

Part VII: Bette Davis: The Shrew Who Would Not Be Tamed

Of Human Bondage (1935) opening banner
Dangerous (1935) opening banner

It’s time.

Bette Davis is the Queen of Hollywood.

Part VII of this blog is her coronation.

Even in an industry filled with originals, they broke the mold when they made Bette.  Probably she broke it herself, for though she was undoubtedly a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, she wanted no one following in her footsteps.

She could be a nightmare to work with.  She wrested control from weak directors, intimidated her co-stars, and took Warner Brothers to court to demand better roles.  She was mouthy, she was brash, and she left no fight unfought.  She had four husbands, none of which, she says, were “ever man enough to become Mr. Bette Davis.”

And no one ever put her in her place.  Not for long, anyway.

She did it the hard way. It says so right on her tombstone.

Bette Davis tombstone

With nothing more than determined fury, she can put even the worst movie on her back and carry it into something you simply cannot tear your eyes from. 

Bette’s got it all.

You want the back of the baseball card statistics? 

One hundred films spanning nearly sixty years.

Ten Best Actress Oscar nominations, including a five-year run of consecutive nominations. 

Zero supporting actress nominations—Bette Davis was not supporting role material.  If she was in a film, she took it over.  As she herself said, “I will never be below the title.”

Two Oscar wins.

The first woman ever to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

You want modern day relevance?

In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf drunkenly imitated Davis from her film Beyond the Forest, looking around at the home her husband has worked so hard to provide and proclaiming, “What a dump.”

No less than Taylor Swift covered the song “Bette Davis Eyes” during her Speak Now World Tour in 2011.

And in 2017, FX aired Feud: Bette and Joan, an eight-episode miniseries chronicling the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  Susan Sarandon plays Davis at the apex of her feud with Joan Crawford.

You want the films?

I thought you’d never ask. 

Let’s start with Dangerous, the first film to garner her an Oscar nomination—and her first of two Oscar wins. 

Her Oscar for this film is often written off as a consolation prize for work in Of Human Bondage, made the year before and though widely praised, was not even nominated.

Though shocking in its time, Of Human Bondage is a bit of bore today but for one incredible scene in which Davis viciously dresses down Leslie Howard’s character.  He’s a kind but pathetic man who’s thrown his life away for her despite the fact that she obviously doesn’t deserve such a sacrifice.

This scene—and this film—is an early draft of many of Bette’s eventual masterpieces.  It showcases her ability to make herself ugly onscreen both inside and out.  No one has ever played the unrepentant bitch with as much relish as Bette Davis, and no actress was ever as willing to make herself hideously ugly for the sake of a role.  (At least until they started handing out Best Actress Awards for the effort.)

It’s a shame that if Bette was only going to win two Oscars that one went to Dangerous, if only because she has so many iconic performances (Judith Traherne, Regina Giddens, Charlotte Vale, Margo Channing to name just a few) and Joyce Heath is not among them.

But Dangerous has its charms.

Davis plays Joyce Heath, a down on her luck stage actress who has become a drunk.  She is rescued by Don Bellows, who was once so moved by one of her performances that he cannot stand to see her suffering.  He takes her to his country house to dry out away from the spotlight.  She spends the first half of the film getting drunk and throwing bitchy barbs his way.

He sees through her pain, and they fall in love.  He throws over his lovely and dependable fiancée and plans to marry Joyce.

The catch?  She’s already married.

Joyce’s husband refuses to give her a divorce, so Joyce drives them both into a tree, figuring that either she’ll end up dead or he will.  Either way she’ll be free of him.

But they both survive, and her husband is permanently crippled.

Unlike in Of Human Bondage, here the shrew relents.  Joyce realizes she has ruined lives and must repent.  She gives up Don and the film ends with her going back to the husband she doesn’t love, intent on making amends by taking care of him and giving him a happy marriage.

Franchot Tone and Bette Davis in Dangerous (1935)

Just like Joyce Heath, Bette Davis had her eye on another woman’s fellow during the film.  She’d fallen in love with her co-star Franchot Tone, and meant to have him.

The problem?

He was head over heels in love with his fiancée, Joan Crawford.

And thus the seeds of a legendary feud were planted.

Of Human Bondage (1935) Verdict - Film Buffs Only
Dangerous (1935) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

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

Bette Davis

Sleeping Your Way To The Top

#13 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman
Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman
Opening banner for Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1932)

One of the most popular pre-code storylines was that of a beautiful young woman who seduces unsuspecting men in a calculated effort to raise her station in life by becoming his well-kept mistress.  If the gold digger is clever enough and persistent, she may even find herself a rich man’s wife.

In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck is deliciously calculating as Lily Powers, a woman who begins life ruthlessly exploited by men until she turns the tables and learns to use men to get what she wants.

It’s a great film, and no one could’ve played it better than Stanwyck.  Her deep, non-nonsense voice and the cold look in her eyes tells you these poor saps never had a chance.

The film opens in her father’s seedy speakeasy, where Lily serves beer to shirtless and sweaty men who constantly manhandle her.  Her father takes money from a man for sex with Lily, and it’s clear it isn’t the first time.

The whole film is worth watching just for the opening scene.  No shrinking violet, Lily fends the men off with cutting remarks and even smashes one overzealous john over the head with an empty beer bottle.  Still she cannot escape the grim circumstances of her life.

When her father dies in an accident, Cragg, an elderly cobbler and her only male friend, encourages her to use her beauty and looks to gain power over men.

She moves to the city and gets an office job by sleeping with the boss’ assistant.  Soon she’s moved up to the boss, then his boss, and then his boss.  The movie uses a great visual of showing the outside of the office, tracking higher and higher up the building as Lily literally “sleeps her way to the top.”

Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers in Baby Face (1933)
Barbara Stanwyck

While Lily Powers is motivated by desperation, the Red-Headed woman’s Lil “Red” Andrews is simply after mischief.  

It was a role Jean Harlow was born to play.

Harlow’s career began with Howard Hughes, playing Helen, the promiscuous girlfriend of Roy in Hell’s Angels.  Fame grew as she played highly sexual mob molls, most famously in The Public Enemy.

But Harlow found her stride in Red-Headed Woman, her first headlining role.

Unlike Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman is played as burlesque, an outrageous farce of the gold digger trope.  Red is a shameless maneater, going as far as to lock her prey in a room with him so he can’t escape her seductions.

The tone suited Harlow’s style perfectly.  Harlow was a young, curvy, beautiful woman who oozed sex.  But her voice didn’t match her body—you expect a husky seductive tone, like Stanwyck, or Lauren Bacall, or even Jessica Rabbit.

But when she talks, she sounds more like a gum-cracking truck stop waitress. 

There’s a playfulness to her sexuality that previewed the screwball comedy.

And in the hands of the right screenwriter, that combination is magic.

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not the right screenwriter.  The famous author did not have nearly the success in Hollywood as he had as a Great American Novelist.  Writing scripts takes a very different skill set than writing novels, and very few can master both.  The novelist has complete freedom over the world and is the sole voice (at least until his editor sees the first draft).  The novelist has a comparatively long time to complete the work and fewer structural rules.

In contrast, the screenwriter (especially in the 1930s) worked under tight deadlines, sometimes writing or rewriting scripts over a weekend.  There is constant feedback from multiple sources, a strict structure, and the work of many writers is ultimately cobbled together to form the finished product.

For a legendary novelist like Fitzgerald, it can feel like a major demotion.

So for all his literary brilliance, Fitzgerald could not capture the humor and wit producer Irving Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Woman, and he called in Anita Loos, his ace in the bullpen that could always get the job done.

Screenwriter Anita Loos
Anita Loos

Anita Loos could do it all.  In her long career, she worked on over a hundred film scripts.  She also wrote for Broadway, as well as having multiple fiction and nonfiction works published.

She had a particular talent for writing the sexual innuendo-laced female dialogue that Thalberg wanted for Red-Headed Women.

Once Loos fixed the script—which was really a complete rewrite, Thalberg knew it had a winner.

Red-Headed Woman is a zany delight, filled with physical comedy that borders on slapstick and a script that zings as Red steals away one husband before going after another, and falling in love with a third.

The best part?

She gets away with it.  

No moment of repentance, no promise to change her ways, no seeing the light through true love.

Instead, we see Red in the back of a limousine, with the rich husband who bankrolls her lifestyle and the man she loves chauffeuring the car.

Who says a woman can’t have it all?

Baby Face Verdict (1933):  Film Buffs Only and Red-Headed Woman (1932):  Film Buffs Only

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

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman