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

So Big (1932):  “Epic of American Womanhood”

Barbara Stanwyck riding in a wagon as Selina Peake De Jong in So Big, 1932.
Barbara Stanwyck
So Big 1932 movie opening banner

Few novels have ever been as successful as Edna Ferber’s 1924 epic novel So Big.  The story of Selina Peake De Jong, a woman who triumphed over widowhood, sexism, and the unforgiving midwestern soil captured the hearts of critics and audiences.

It was the first novel to both win the Pulitzer Prize and be the best-selling novel of the year.1  This is a feat so rare and impressive that only three additional novels have achieved it—Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936.)

For those of you keeping score at home, Ferber’s novels Cimarron and So Big were both the top selling novel of the year.  From 1918-2017, only 14 authors have the distinction of writing more than one best selling book of the year. 

Who’s on that list with Ferber?  Zane Grey, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Jean M. Auel, and John Grisham.

Who isn’t?  Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike.

(To be clear, my point is not to disparage these writers.  I love them all.  It is merely to point out that Ferber’s fall from the public consciousness is truly inexplicable.)

So Big tells the life story of Selina Peake, a young woman whose life is upended when her adored gambling father is shot dead and penniless.  Well-educated but broke, Selina takes a job in a rural farm town outside Chicago.  She’s a fish out of water, a delicate beauty who appreciates art, poetry, and beauty in a town filled with Dutch immigrants in a fight to the death with their farms, trying to wring just enough of out the land to survive.

No one understands her but little Roelf Pool, a young boy who longs to escape farm life and become an artist.  He’s the only one who doesn’t laugh when Selina says the cabbage fields are beautiful, and she takes him under her wing.

Quote from Edna Ferber's novel So Big

Selina falls in love with a local farmer, marries, and becomes widowed shortly thereafter, left with a young son and a farm full of land that can’t seem to grow anything.  Against all odds and the town’s predictions, Selina makes a success of the farm, making enough money to send her son Dirk to college.

Years later, when Selina is old and withered from a hard life of farming, Roelf Pool returns after many years away, having made it as a successful artist.  Selina notes the contrast between him and her own son, who is embarrassed of his mother’s farm, carrying on with a married woman, and working a job he hates for the money and trappings instead of pursuing his dream of becoming an architect.

She’s proud of Roelf but disappointed in her own son.

In 1932, William A. Wellman directed a remake of the original silent film version of So Big.  Barbara Stanwyck, queen of the tough girls who grit it out, starred as Selina.  George Brent starred as a grown Roelf Pool, and one Bette Davis starred as Dallas O’Mara, a young painter whom both Roelf and Dirk fall in love.

It is the only time in sixty years that Stanwyck and Davis shared the screen.

Hardie Albright and Bette Davis is So Big (1932)
Hardie Albright, Bette Davis

I was determined to watch this film, despite the difficulty in obtaining a copy—nothing at the library, nothing on Amazon Prime, YouTube had a single grainy clip.  I ended up buying a homemade disc on eBay from someone who had recorded if off Turner Classic Movies.

With Ferber’s most prestigious novel as source material, a director who would go onto win an Academy Award for writing the original A Star is Born, and two of the best actresses to ever live, this film had to be a winner.

Yet watching So Big is like drinking flat champagne—all the elements are there but there’s just no fizz.

Ferber, who assessed her films with clear eyes, wrote, “Two motion pictures—a silent one and a talkie—were made of the novel.  Both seemed to me very bad indeed.”2

A third version was filmed in 1953 with Jane Wyman, but Ferber likely felt—as most do—that it was strike three.

There’s a reason it’s so difficult to find a copy.

There’s no doubt that So Big is a difficult novel to film, and it may have been beyond the capabilities of Hollywood in 1932.  Selina ages from a young girl to an old woman, and while the story has some cinematic moments, much of it is a meditation on what makes a good life.

Barbara Stanwyck riding in a wagon with Dickie Moore in So Big
Barbara Stanwyck, Dickie Moore

Stanwyck was only twenty-five and had not grown into the actress she would become.  I’d love to see what Stanwyck would’ve done with the role in her prime.  But perhaps she would’ve been miscast for the role by the time she’d found her stride, for her specialty was a gritty woman shot through with cynicism and defiance.  One who knew the way life worked and was determined to take what she could get.

Selina Peake De Jong, by contrast, was as gritty as they come, but never lost her idealism throughout her long, hard life.  After toiling in the soil for decades, she still thought cabbages were beautiful.  She wanted her son to quit his high paying job and pursue his dreams.

Stanwyck would’ve told him not to be a sap.

And Bette Davis’ role is so underdeveloped that she leaves no mark on the film.

I’ve discussed 113 films for this blog.  So Big is the one I’d most like to see remade in 2022.  Hollywood’s taken three swings at it and never hit the ball out of the infield.

I think there’s a great film in the pages of Ferber’s masterpiece.

But no one’s made it yet.

Sources

  1. Annotated Podcast. Episode 18:  Edna Ferber.  Dec 6, 2018.
  2. Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

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

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)

The Other Love (1947): “Rage Against the Dying of the Light”

A lit cigarette ligther
The Other Love (1947) opening banner

Years before Bette Davis scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination playing Judith Traherne, Barbara Stanwyck knew the leading role in Dark Victory was a winner.  Despite starring in the Lux Radio Theatre version of the play, she couldn’t convince David O. Selznick or Jack Warner that she could play a woman in the prime of her life cut down by disease.

Eight years later, she finally got the chance in The Other Love.  Stanwyck plays Karen Duncan, a world famous concert pianist who is sent to a Swiss sanatorium to treat a serious lung illness.

In Dark Victory, Judith discovers her fate when she accidentally discovers her case file stamped with “prognosis negative” on her doctor’s desk.  It is a brutal moment of reckoning.

For Karen Duncan, the truth comes slowly.  It is in these moments when the film—and Stanwyck—shine brightest.

On her first night in the sanatorium, a white orchid is delivered to her room.  Thinking her handsome doctor sent the flower, she is pleased and elated.  She then discovers that the flowers were sent by “a man who died months ago to a woman who died yesterday.”  That is, the front desk forgot to cancel the standing order for the daily flowers that were sent to the previous occupant of her room.

Barbara Stanwyck in The Other Love (1947)

Dr. Tony Stanton takes her cigarette lighter away and forbids smoking.  While searching around in his office, she discovers a drawer overflowing with the confiscated lighters of the dead.  

She hears a patient coughing and a look of pure horror crosses her face.  Lost in an employee-only area she sees nurses wheel away a body.

Despite Dr. Stanton’s constant assurances, death surrounds her.

Because it is the 1940’s, Dr. Stanton does not tell her the full extent of her illness, and that it is possibly terminal.  Instead, he gives her rules she is not to question.  She can’t smoke, she can’t drink, and worst of all—she can’t play the piano.

She can never have too much exertion.

Though she follows them, she chafes against the restrictions.

Barbara Stanwyck and David Niven in The Other Love (1947)

After an ordered month in bed, Karen is set loose from the sanatorium for a day’s shopping in the village.  By chance she meets Paul Clermont, an attractive race car driver who flirts with her and invites her to dinner.  Though she refuses, when she returns to the sanatorium, she is overjoyed at the normality and believes she is on the road to recovery.

Dr. Stanton—who unbeknownst to Karen has just met with a specialist who pronounced her case all but hopeless—forbids future visits to the village, chides her for getting too much excitement, and pours her a tonic to calm her.

Mistaking his concern for jealousy, Karen throws the glass into the floor so that it shatters.  (Editor’s note:  There is no move I love more in the 1940’s than female stars smashing glassware in fits of temper.  Stanwyck gives a fine example here, but Joan Crawford in Humoresque sets the standard.)

The doctor’s restrictions have become chains.

His concern is understandable—her life is in the balance, and his job is to keep her alive.

But her job is to live.

Karen puts one of her own records on the turntable.  For a moment, she just stands there, listening to the music she once made that she can no longer play.  As if to prove to herself that she is well, she goes to the piano and begins to play.

Her inability to keep up with her own recording shatters her.

Barbara Stanwyck in The Other Love (1947)

She sneaks away from the sanatorium and finds Paul Clermont, the impulsive, attractive man she met in the village.  Knowing nothing of her illness, he sweeps her away into a whirlwind romance of drinking, smoking, and gambling.

We are supposed to see Karen’s action as reckless, that she is putting her small chance of recovery at risk.  But when she sits at a piano playing and smoking, it is clear she is a woman who understands she only has so much time left.  

Death stalks her.  Paul gives her a white orchid, bringing up the ghost of the first night at the sanatorium.  And after Paul kisses her passionately, she loses her breath and rushes from the room.

For the first time, she begins coughing, huge wracking coughs she cannot control.  Coughs like the ones she heard from the dying in the sanatorium.  

Barbara Stanwyck in The Other Love (1947)
“Oh, please, God, no. Not now.”

She lays her head on a table.

“Oh, please, God, no,”  she says.  “No, not now.”

Dr. Stanton, who cares for her as more than just a patient, eventually tracks her down and shows up on the scene by lighting her cigarette with the lighter he took from her.

In the end she returns to him and the sanatorium, chastened and significantly weakened by her escapades.  The doctor brings her back from the brink of death, and they marry.

At the film’s end, she is wrapped up in blankets in their cozy little cottage while the doctor plays the piano badly and she speaks of a future that will never come.  She has gotten past her petulant tantrums, and waits patiently for death.

Reader, I hated this ending.

In Dark Victory, Judith gave up a shallow life for a deeper one when she accepted the terms of her brain tumor.  Though she could not defeat the tumor, she lived her life and died on her own terms, with a dignity that gave her a victory even over death.

Karen Duncan’s death did not feel like acceptance.  It felt like surrender.

I once read that when the great cook Julia Child lost her sense of taste, she lost her will to live.  I do not believe that the great pianist Karen Duncan would live in a world where she could not play piano.

Exist, yes.  But not live.

Better to die after a final concert, pouring her heart out into the piano one last time.

I didn’t want her wrapped in blankets while her doctor-husband played mediocre piano.  

She would die, there was no outrunning her fate, but I did not want her lighter to end up in that doctor’s box.  

Rather she fling it over a cliff, and herself after it.

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The Other Love (1947) 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.

A lit cigarette ligther

East Side, West Side (1949): The Real Housewives of 1940’s New York

Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason in East Side, West Side (1949)
East Side, West Side (1949) opening banner

Director Mervyn LeRoy has a stable full of thoroughbreds and he lets them run.

Let’s get this straight right off the top:  I love this film.

We’ll start with James Mason, who plays Brandon Bourne, a rich man who knows all the right people, goes to all the posh places, wears tailored suits but beneath that thin veneer is nothing but a weak, worthless cad.  He cheats on his devoted wife as a matter of course, safe in the knowledge that she will accept—if not believe—his flimsy excuses about where he’s been and his empty promises that each time is the last time.

James Mason and Ava Gardner in East Side, West Side (1949)
Gardner and Mason

Though Brand will take up with any beautiful woman who will have him, Isabel Lorrison has her claws in particularly deep.  Ava Gardner is never better as the woman who knows she can snap her fingers and make another woman’s husband come running.  Her part in the film is smaller than the others, but she makes her mark, stealing every scene she’s in.

You’ve got Van Heflin, an excellent actor who isn’t as remembered as he should be playing Mark Dwyer, the man who is everything Brandon Bourne is not, and who longs to show Brandon’s wife what real love and devotion look like.

Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin in East Side, West Side (1949)
Stanwyck and Van Heflin

And at the center of it all, you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck as the stoically long-suffering wife, Jessie Bourne.  Through all the subplots about Mark Dwyer and his childhood friend, Brand and Isabel, a murder mystery, and an exploration of the different neighborhoods in New York, this is a film about how Jessie Bourne comes to leave her long marriage.  You watch her suffer the small indignities of having to pretend everything is fine with her friends while they all know the truth of her husband’s infidelity.

The film is filled with scene after scene you can feast on:  Brand coming home after staying up all night and groveling to Jessie, who keeps forgiving but not managing to forget.  A reticent Jessie squirms with discomfort when her friend (in one of Nancy Reagan’s first roles) questions her about Brand’s philandering.  Isabel taunting Brand, knowing he won’t be able to give up their trysts.  Mark Dwyer and Jessie falling in love while he makes eggs and mushrooms in her kitchen.  The icy showdown between Jessie and Isabel.

Ava Gardner and Barbara Stawnyck square off in East Side, West Side (1949)
Gardner and Stanwyck face off

It’s all leading to Jessie finally calling it quits.  When Brand comes home to face the music for the final time, I couldn’t wait for Jessie to let him have it.  I wanted this shy, stoic woman to finally let it rip—to scream, list his myriad indiscretions, throw things at him.

But this is not Jessie Bourne’s way.

In one of the best acted scenes of Stanwyck’s long career, her Jessie Bourne listens carefully while Brand lists all the reasons she should take him back one more time.  He’s scared because he knows how far he’s pushed her this time, but he believes—he always believes—that he can find a way to get her back.

When he’s finally finished, Jessie looks at him with dry eyes.  You can hear the tears in her throat, but she’s done all the crying she’s ever going to do for Brandon Bourne. No screaming, no throwing things—Brandon has finally killed all Jessie’s love for him and there’s nothing either of them can do to change it.

Stanwyck kills the delivery, and it’s a damn shame I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of it. This tumbler gif from duchesscloverly will have to do:

East Side, West Side is a well directed, excellently acted melodrama.  It’s the life and love of New York City’s upper crust in the 1940’s.  It’s got everything—love, drama, murder, infidelity.  

It’s a fine film that should be more celebrated and remembered.

Give it a shot.

East Side, West Side (1949) Verdict:  Timeless, See It Tonight

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

Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason in East Side, West Side (1949)

The Thorn Birds (1983): One Last Thrill

#28 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds (1983)
The Thorn Birds (1983) opening banner

Born in Brooklyn in 1907, Barbara Stanwyck was orphaned at age four when her mother was knocked off a streetcar and killed and her father took off for a job digging the Panama Canal and never returned.

She was raised primarily by her eight-year-old sister Mildred and grew up in a series of what she called “impersonal” foster homes.

She didn’t like teachers or guardians telling her what to do.  She understood early that if she worked hard and earned her own money she could call her own shots.

At fourteen she quit school and got a job in a Brooklyn department store.  She would never again depend on anyone for financial support.

At fifteen she became a chorus girl.  At twenty she had her first leading role on Broadway.  At twenty-two she appeared in her first Hollywood film in a starring role.

She never looked back.  And she called her own shots until the day she died.

Barbara Stanwyck, circa 1931
Circa 1931

Except, perhaps, for the seven years of her marriage to her first husband, Frank Fay.   She’d had early success on Broadway, but Stanwyck was terribly shy, and sixteen years younger than her successful Broadway star husband.

Fay liked having an admiring protege for a wife, and for a time he did all he could to advance her career.  Their fortunes reversed in Hollywood, as Stanwyck’s movie career soared while Fay’s never got off the ground. 

Fay dealt with his jealousy by drinking and knocking his wife around.  Stanwyck did all she could to save the marriage—including bankrolling several failed Frank Fay Broadway projects and adopting a child, but was left no choice but to divorce him in 1935.  

One star fades, another is born.  

Stanwyck and Fay’s marriage was widely rumored to be a source of inspiration for the often-remade 1937 film A Star Is Born.  

Love had burned her once.  It would burn her again.  

* * *

Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

In an extremely unusual move for the time, Barbara Stanwyck did not sign a long term contract with any studio.  This allowed her to retain much more control over her roles than the average star of the era, and is why she was able to show such range and versatility in the characters she played.  

But she had to forgo the security and comfort of the long term contract.  MGM, especially, coddled their top contract stars.  Louis B. Mayer fancied himself a father figure and the MGM stars his children.  He managed their personal lives, kept embarrassing episodes out of the newspapers, and talked many of his children out of salary raises.

Stanwyck hadn’t had a father since she was four and didn’t need one now.  She didn’t confuse colleagues with family.  She’d clean up her own messes and negotiate her own salaries, thank you very much.

In 1944, the Treasure Department confirmed she earned more money than any other woman—not actress, but woman—in America.

(Though it must be said that she did consent to Louis B. Mayer’s insistence that she and Robert Taylor marry after a damaging article noted that she and Taylor lived next to one another and played house without having actually tied the knot.  This same article sped along the marriage of one Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.  But nothing in Stanwyck’s history suggests she would’ve married Robert Taylor if she really hadn’t wanted to.)

The other advantage of having a single studio backing your career?

Come Oscar time, studios campaigned hardest for their contract players.  (Another freelancer of the era was Cary Grant, another Old Hollywood legend who never won an Oscar.)

* * *

In 1936, Robert Taylor starred with Loretta Young in Private Number.  He was already a well-known heartthrob but still inexperienced enough that success was a novel thrill.  He took his new girlfriend Barbara Stanwyck to see his name in lights atop a theater marquee.

“The trick is to keep it there,” she said. ^

Robert Taylor and wife Barbara Stanwyck
Stanwyck and Robert Taylor

Taylor and Stanwyck were married from 1939-1952.  Stanwyck was very much in love with Taylor, and made some of her best movies during this period.  Because Stanwyck and Taylor were so private, it is hard to know exactly what went wrong in their marriage, but Taylor reportedly had affairs with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner that deeply wounded Stanwyck.  But the core of the matter was that Taylor wanted a wife who put him before her career and doted on him.

No matter that Robert Taylor was the love of her life—Stanwyck could never be that woman.

Love had burned her twice.  She wouldn’t give it a third chance.  

* * *

Life had left its marks on her, but she kept them covered up.

She was reticent with the press, believing that talking about real or perceived scandals only added fuel to the fire.  She had few close friends, and except during her marriage to Robert Taylor, avoided most of the Hollywood social scene, preferring to stay home and read.  She kept most people at arm’s length.

She never talked about her past, even to those closest to her.

She would only say that as a child what she longed for most was a warm coat.  

She believed in the American dream.  She had lived it—dragging her four-year-old self out of a Brooklyn gutter to the top of the Hollywood Hills. 

She prized self-reliance above all else and never indulged in self-pity.  She could be fiercely loyal, but she expected absolute loyalty in return.  She was not one to sacrifice endlessly for others.  

She fought hard for—and received—custody of her adopted son after her divorce from Frank Fay, but she had no model for motherhood.  In an overzealous quest not to spoil him, she neglected and alienated him.  She resented that he did not make the most of opportunities she never had at his age.  Eventually she cast him off to a succession of boarding schools and they were irrevocably estranged by the time he was in his early twenties.

* * *

And yet the tales of her professionalism, humor, and generosity on set are legendary. 

Without fail, she showed up on time and with the entire script memorized.  She rarely flubbed a scene, or even missed a word.  She didn’t second guess her hair and makeup people, and continually amazed them when she walked onto the set without even checking their work in a mirror.  She stood around in fur coats in hundred degree heat instead of changing between scenes so that filming wouldn’t be slowed down if the director needed her in a shot.  She often didn’t use stand-ins, knowing the cameraman’s work was easier without a body double.  She lived to do her own stunts, many of which were quite dangerous.

Quote after quote from directors and fellow actors talk about how rare it was for someone who was such a star to be so unaffected, low drama, and cooperative on the set.

She had great affection for the crew, and knew the names of everyone down to the electricians and the prop managers.  She never put herself on a pedestal, believing she was no more or less important to the success of a film than anyone else  She was quick to share credit for her successes, and took full blame for her failures.

In return, directors and crews absolutely adored her.  They called her The Queen.

Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden on the set of Golden Boy (1939)
Stanwyck with Holden on the set of Golden Boy (1939)

She was generous with younger actors, working with them on films and not overpowering them in their scenes.  She worked with William Holden in 1939’s Golden Boy, his first picture.  He was nervous and not performing well, and was about to be fired, which likely would’ve ended his career before it began.  Stanwyck fought for him to remain, and ran lines with him in her dressing room every night after filming ended.  Holden was devoted to her for the rest of his life.

William Holden’s tribute to Barbara Stanwyck

* * *

So what did she do with all those dark places hidden within her heart?

All the bitterness braided through the success.  The regrets, the heartbreak, the fairness fate had never shown her in her youth.

She did not rage at those who had wronged her, or command attention on set with outrageous demands.  She did not thirst after press coverage, good or bad.  She did not even confide in friends.

She never gave herself over to addictions, never lost herself in booze, food, sex, or pills. 

What did she do?

She waited for the cameras to roll, and then she let it all out for the world to see.

Barbara Stanwyck in Remember the Night (1940)
Remember the Night, 1940

“Stanwyck doesn’t act a scene,” said director Frank Capra, who used Stanwyck more than any other actress, “she lives it.”

The woman who never loosened the reins on her emotions could rage, laugh, suffer, whine, and cry in the guise of someone else.  

As Capra also said:  “She just turned it on—and everything else on the stage stopped.”

* * *

She gave Hollywood a master class in aging well.  

When her hair went grey, despite all the howling about how it would ruin her career, she refused to dye it.  As honest and direct with herself as she was with everyone else, she had no illusions of remaining forever young.

Barbara Stanwyck in Roustabout (1964)
Roustabout (1964)

When she aged out of a particular role, she let it go and kept going forward.  She felt that that nothing was more pathetic than a woman chasing her lost youth.

This flexibility was the key to the second half of her long career.

One year at a time, she went from a few strands of grey to a head of prematurely white hair that became her trademark in her later years.  That gorgeous white hair, along with her figure, which had not changed nearly as much from her twenties, made her a more handsome woman than any dye job or makeup could have accomplished.

Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley (1965)
The Big Valley, 1965

When the good film parts dried up for good in 1965, she turned her attention to television and finally found the juicy western role she’d long coveted:  Victoria Barkley, matriarch on The Big Valley.  The show ran 112 episodes over four seasons, with Stanwyck appearing in every episode.  At sixty-two, she was doing her own stunts, gaining a whole new audience, and looking better than any of her contemporaries.

And still she kept going.

* * *

So you want the case for why Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress to never win an Oscar?  Here it is:

Barbara Stanwyck “kept it there” for nearly sixty years.  She starred in eighty-one films, with top billing in all but two.  

I covered six of her best films in this blog:  Baby Face (1933, covered in Part II on the pre-code films), Stella Dallas (1937), The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). [Author’s note: I’d later cover more Stanwyck here, here, and here.]

These are universally considered some of her best films—but I could’ve made my case with the films I left on the cutting room floor:  as the spunky sharpshooter in Annie Oakley (1935), a cynical shoplifter softened by love in Remember the Night (1940), the intrepid reporter who inspires the nation in Meet John Doe (1941), and the stoically suffering wife of a philandering husband in the underappreciated East Side, West Side (1949.)

Barbara Stanwyck in East Side, West Side (1949)
East Side, West Side (1949)

She was the third woman (behind Bette Davis and Lillian Gish) to win the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

She acted more, better, and longer than nearly anyone who ever won the Best Actress statuette.

The lack of an Oscar wasn’t a knock on Barbara Stanwyck’s career.

It was an embarrassment to the Academy.  

An award that celebrates excellence in acting that had not recognized Barbara Stanwyck’s efforts was an award not worth winning.

In 1981, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences redeemed itself by awarding Barbara Stanwyck with an honorary Oscar for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”

At seventy-four, she had finally climbed to the top of the mountain.

She had done it all, seen it all, and now won it all.

And still she kept going.

* * * 

At her age, parts were hard to come by, and it was unlikely Stanwyck would ever get another good one.

And then came Mary Carson and The Thorn Birds.

Richard Chamberlain and Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds (1983)
With Richard Chamberlain, The Thorn Birds (1983)

The Thorn Birds was not a feature film, but an eight-hour made-for-tv miniseries that aired over four nights on ABC in 1983.  It was based on Colleen McCullough’s 1977 blockbuster novel of the same name. The Thorn Birds is a sexy, soapy tale of forbidden love, and remains the second-most watched miniseries in the history of television, behind only 1977’s Roots.

And there was seventy-five year old Barbara Stanwyck as Mary Carson, stealing every scene in episode one and lighting the fuse on a plot that would enthrall the nation.  

Mary Carson is the wealthy owner of Drogheda, a sheep station in the Australian Outback.  She is bitter, lonely, and infatuated with the young and handsome Ralph de Bricassart, a priest serving in the Outback as punishment for an unknown transgression.

Mary amuses herself by dangling her fortune in front of Ralph, who humors her in hopes she will bequeath her considerable estate to the church and catapult him from exile into a cardinalship

Unlike the others, who see him only as a humble priest, Mary sees through to his burning ambitions and his infatuation with young Meggie Cleary.

Barbara Stanwyck on the set of The Thorn Birds (1983)
On the set of The Thorn Birds

Barbara Stanwyck is sensational.  She won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance, and these were no consolation prizes, but earned solely by the merits of her work in the series.  Her Mary Carson is cutting, cruel, and yet Stanwyck infuses her with just enough vulnerability and charm that we can’t quite hate her.  Most impressive is her lusting after a man nearly fifty years her junior comes off deliciously predatory instead of pathetic.

Ralph learns too late she is as formidable an enemy as he will ever face.

In one of Mother Nature’s best plot twists, the crew had to age Stanwyck with make-up for her final scenes.  The seventy-five year old Stanywck, who had refused to wage a war on aging looked too young to portray a seventy-five year old Mary Carson.

Both Stanwyck and Mary Carson know they are nearing the end of the road.  When Mary Carson makes her final knockout speech about how she is still young inside her decaying body, it is hard to know if it is Carson or Stanwyck speaking. 

One last trip to the mound, and Stanwyck still had her fastball.

Ever perfect and prepared, she did the scene in one take, and the bowled over cast and crew gave her a standing ovation.

It was the finest possible coda to an incredible career.

TCM Tribute to Barbara Stanwyck by Laura Dern
Barbara Stanwyck
Barbara Stanwyck 1907 – 1990

Sources:

^ From “Stanwyck” by Axel Madsen

All Frank Capra quotes from “Starring Miss Stanwyck” by Ella Smith

The Thorn Birds (1983) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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Barbara Stanwyck in The Thorn Birds (1983)

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948): Zero For Four

#27 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck holds a telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) opening banner

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.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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Barbara Stanwyck holds a telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945): “The Things a Girl Will Do for a Mink Coat”

#26 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Dennis Morgan and Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Christmas in Connecticut (1945) opening banner

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.

Elizabeth Lane's Christmas menu in Smart Housekeeping from Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

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 in Christmas in Connecticut (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.

The view outside Elizabeth Lane's (Barbara Stanwyck) in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

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.

Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

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.

Barbara Stanwyck and S.Z. Sakall in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

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.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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Barbara Stanwyck and S.Z. Sakall in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Double Indemnity (1944): The Crown Jewel of Film Noir

#25 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity.
Double Indemnity (1944) opening

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.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)

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 (Barbara Stanwyck) drives while Walter breaks her husband's neck in Double Indemnity (1944)
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 29 on the American Film Institute’s list of 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.

Double Indemnity (1944) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)

The Lady Eve (1941): “I Need Him Like the Axe Needs the Turkey”

#24 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)
The Lady Eve (1941) opening banner

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.  

Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)

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.”

Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)

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.

Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and director Preston Sturges on the set of The Lady Eve (1941)

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.

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Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941)