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

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.

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.

Stanwyck and Van Helfin

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.

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.

Beer and Blood and Grapefruit

#9 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

To study old American movies is to study American history, which makes you realize what a winding road we’ve taken from landing the Mayflower to Zooming our way through the 2020 pandemic.

From my modern viewpoint where congress could not agree on the fact that the sky is blue, I find it impossible that two-thirds of congress and the states once agreed to outlaw the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol.  

Welcome to Prohibition.

For thirteen years, from 1920-1933, the country was dry.

Dry on paper, that is.

For on the one hand, the temperance movement was celebrating the elimination of alcohol and all its evil effects, poverty and disease chief among them.

On the other hand, it was the Roaring Twenties, one of the most romanticized periods of American history, where the rich drank champagne while wearing flapper dresses and tuxedos, while the lower class packed into speakeasies for a taste of bathtub gin.

The twenties were a complete contradiction.  That sounds more like the America I know.

Prohibition created a huge vacuum in the supply of alcohol, but the demand remained.  Someone willing to break the law to fulfill that demand stood to make a killing.

Enter the bootlegger.

Al Capone

As Al Capone, the first and most famous bootlegging gangster said, “I give the public what the public wants.”

Hollywood did the same.

Because gangsters were another American contradiction.  At once envied and feared, valorized for their ostentatious wealth and rebellion against an unpopular law and vilified for fighting like animals over territory and leaving the city streets soaked in blood.

Producer Jack Warner was interested in making films about the gritty life of those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.

MGM had their stars, Universal had their monsters, and Warner Brothers had gangsters.

Little Caesar was the first full talking gangster film, the story of the rise and fall of two friends, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)  

Rico and Joe move to Chicago, where Rico ruthlessly works his way to the top of a gang of organized crime.  As he ascends from enforcing thug to top dog, Rico buys expensive suits, expensive cars, expensive guns.

Little Caesar…Robinson even looks like Capone

Joe loses his taste for the violence and falls in love.  He wants to make an honest living as a dancer, but learns quickly how difficult it is to quit the mob.

Rico is addicted to money, power, and the thrill of danger.  It gets lonely at the top, and despite the women, money, and booze, Rico grows paranoid and angry.  He must always look over his shoulder and stay one step ahead of the cops and his enemies.

Rico has a moment of redemption when he finds he cannot kill Joe, despite the fact that Joe’s girlfriend intends to spill the mob’s secrets to the police.  

But as the film takes pains to show—mainly to get it past the regional censors—a life of crime doesn’t pay and Rico’s descent is swift and complete.  The cops dismantle his organization, and he ends up living in a homeless shelter, all his fancy clothes and women gone.

Rico dies in the gutter he was once so proud to have crawled out of.

To the dismay of those who wanted cleaner pictures, Little Caesar was a box office hit.

Despite the ending, the film promoted a romanticized view of organized crime.  Children idolized Rico and his fancy lifestyle but quickly forgot the moralizing title cards.

While the censors wrung their hands, Jack Warner ordered up another picture just like it.

The Public Enemy is even better.

The film opens with the protagonist Tom Powers as a young boy.  We see that while he has a decent mother and father, Tom is a bad seed with a predilection for stealing and cruelty.

He purposely trips a girl who’s roller skating and his father takes a strap to him that is obviously well worn from prior whippings.

James Cagney plays the adult Tom Powers as he works his way up the ranks of an organized crime gang that sells bootleg beer.  For the first time in his life, Tom has power and money.

His upgraded suits, fancy cars, and false charm are just a veneer over the surface of his thin skin.  Violent and insecure, he can’t let even the smallest slights go unavenged.

Tom tries to give a wad of cash to his mother (who is only too happy to believe his lies about where it comes from), but his brother Michael rejects it and accuses Tom of hiding behind a gun.  Insulted, Tom tears the money to pieces and throws it in Michael’s face.

Later, Tom proudly brings a keg of his bootlegged beer to a family dinner.  Michael throws the keg across the room, shouting that Tom is a murderer and the keg is full of “beer and blood.”

With a chilling grin of cruelty, Tom tells his war hero brother, “Your hands ain’t so clean.  You kill and like it.  You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”

He shoots Putty Nose in the back years after Putty Nose left him behind to be caught by the cops on his first job.

And most famously, when his girlfriend gets on his nerves, he smashes a grapefruit in her face.  The look he gives her before he walks away is one of pure contempt.

(Poor Mae Clark—after a forty year career that spanned into the 1960s and featured dozens of leading roles in the pictures, and even a stint on General Hospital, she will forever be remembered as the girl who took a grapefruit to the face)

More even than the public enemy, Tom is his own worst enemy.

He has partners not friends, sex not love, greed not mercy, pride not duty.

Tom couldn’t change even if he wanted to, and comes to a bad end when his enemies leave his disfigured body on his mother’s doorstep.

There is a through line that runs from these early Warner Brothers films to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), right up to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Oscar nominated film The Irishman.

As time passes the films get bloodier, alcohol shifts to cocaine, and the f-word litters every page of the script, but at their core, these films are about broken men who find power only in the way of the gun.