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.”
It’s time for me to don my Ruth Bader Ginsberg lace collar because Reader, I dissent.
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?
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.
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.
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.
It’s not so much miscasting as a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging film.
- 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.
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