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)

Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Believe In Santa

Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Opening Banner

It’s easy to make a passable Christmas movie, but hard to make a great one.  

A great Christmas has to walk a tightrope— sentimental but not saccharine.  Funny but not crude.  Traditional but original.  Appealing to the entire family.  Eminently rewatchable.  

They absolutely have to stick the landing—a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas that has your heart melting and not your eyes rolling.

It’s nearly impossible.

Most Christmas movies are quickly forgotten, around for a season and only half-watched as you munch on popcorn and contemplate gifts for those hardest to buy for on your Christmas list.  They’re enjoyable but predictable, a pleasant two hours passed but quickly forgotten.

But when a filmmaker manages the impossible, the results are magical.

Beloved Christmas movies become part of family Christmas traditions, watched each year as the tree is trimmed or after all the presents are opened.  They are souvenirs of childhood, keys to unlock the sweet nostalgia of good times with the ones we love.

Love Actually.  Home Alone.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  White Christmas.  Christmas in Connecticut.  A Christmas Story.  All make me laugh and feel as warm inside as a Christmas hot toddy.

So does Miracle on 34th Street.

Unnecessarily remade multiple times, the 1947 original is a classic and earned Edmund Gwenn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Santa Claus.

It starts out with a setup that can be seen any night of the week on the Hallmark Channel—skeptical all-work-and-no-play Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with her idealistic neighbor Fred Gailey.  Doris hires a man to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s Day Parade and soon discovers that he believes he is the real Santa.  Fred is charmed.  Doris is dismayed.

Maureen O'Hara and John Payne in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle gives us our first real look at Natalie Wood, who plays Doris’ equally skeptical daughter.  Under her mother’s tutelage, Susan does not believe in Santa Claus or anything else that defies good common sense.  

At only eight years old, one can already see the star that Natalie Wood would become in films like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story.  Her Susan is charming as a girl who has not been allowed to indulge in childish fantasies and acts like a little adult.  

Fred and Kris Kringle—the man hired to play Santa—work together to crack open the hearts of the stubborn Walker women.

So far, so good.

But when Kris Kringle is thrown into an insane asylum for insisting he is Santa Claus, the movie makes an unexpected U-turn from fantasy-laced romance to courtroom drama.

To get Santa out of the asylum, lawyer Fred sets out to prove in court that Kris Kringle is the one true Santa Claus.

Here’s where the movie gets original and funny.  Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever.  Fred’s legal maneuverings are based around the idea that no one involved—not the judge, not the prosecuting attorneys—want to be quoted in the newspaper as saying Santa doesn’t exist and therefore breaking the hearts of the city’s children.  (And more importantly in the case of the elected judge, his constituents.)  Those involved in the case against Santa are shunned at home by their wives and children.

Meanwhile, Doris and Susan are ultimately won over by Kris Kringle.

When the post office begins delivering all the mail addressed to Santa Claus to Kris Kringle at the courthouse, Fred uses this as proof that the U.S. government officially recognizes Kris Kringle as Santa Claus.

The judge rules in his favor, Santa is released from the looney bin, and everyone makes it home in time for Christmas Eve dinner.

Little Susan gets the last scene in the film when she becomes a true believer in Santa when he manages to deliver her impossible Christmas request—a lovely house in the suburbs, which a newly engaged Doris and Fred agree to buy.

Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

It’s a great film, and if you’ve never seen it, make a point to this week.

To all my readers, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.  I’m grateful to all those who read and support this film series in particular and my writing in general.  Even with the pandemic, I have much to be grateful for this holiday season.

I’ll be back next week at the usual time and place for the last movie blog of 2020.  Then it’s full speed ahead into 2021.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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

Edmund Gwenn and a skeptical Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)