Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

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There is arguably no director who is, in retrospect, more important to the film movement that became classified as film noir than German emigre Robert Siodmak. His name isn’t quite as well known as the Billy Wilders or Fritz Langs necessarily but one can contend his influence on this style is without equal.

While not his greatest achievement, The File on Thelma Jordon is yet another example of the man’s proclivities for deliciously shadowy melodrama which, while not always plausible, is more often than not incessantly intriguing.

In this particular case, we are involved with a local district attorney (Wendell Corey). He is a man who loves his wife while not being too fond of her overbearing father. In fact, Cleve conveniently stays away from home whenever the in-laws are around. It’s certainly complicated his marital relationship as of late.

One such night he stays at the office to knock a few back only to cross paths with a Ms. Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck) who mistakes him for someone else as she recently inquired about protection for her paranoid aunt — a woman fearful of burglars. On the verge of a real bender, he invites her for a drink and they spend some time together. She’s just what he’s been looking for to fill the void in his life.

Meanwhile, his wife is going away with the kids for a summer at the beach house and he hates to see them leave; he really does. Maybe he knows deep down they are slowly drifting apart and his urges to see the other woman are all but insurmountable. He can’t fight it much longer. There used to be someone — an estranged one-time husband named Tony — but he’s purportedly no longer around. Cleve brushes him off and they keep seeing each other whenever possible.

But their relationship hits a dramatic turn one evening. She calls him up in the thick of night and he comes at her beck and call. They slink in the shadows as she breaks the news to him. Her aunt has been killed by an intruder; the old woman’s worst fears coming to fruition with priceless jewels being stolen from the safe.

The situation is complicated by a frantic Thelma who panicked by altering the crime scene and failing to call the police. Now the man across the road has his interest piqued and comes over to investigate. In the heat of the moment, they must hastily cover everything up as Cleve rushes out of the window and Thelma feigns sleep. It’s all part of an intense interlude coursing through the middle of the picture making the collective heart of the audience pulse with anxiety.

What follows is a murder inquest and then a trial with Ms. Jordon standing as the defendant. She’s got herself a stone-cold and exacting lawyer who could care less about her guilt or innocence. In his mind’s eye, she is innocent and that’s how he plans to win her case regardless.

Meanwhile, Cleve gets put in a very sticky and uncomfortable situation as he finds himself made the prosecuting attorney on the case. As the two sides try to legally sway the jury, the identity of a mysterious Mr. X still swirls around the case, and Cleve tries everything to throw the case in the most indirect ways possible. It’s a perilous balancing act where he will lose something regardless. Siodmak milks it for all its tension as the frenzied proceedings press on with the media jumping on it like ravenous wolves. Someone’s got to be a fall guy. Stay the course and you might be surprised in how the case resolves itself.

Wendell Corey could always be called on for steady and at times wry support but that being so, it’s refreshing to see him in a substantial leading role playing opposite a true professional. They work capably together as the story relies mostly on their two performances.

Barbara Stanwyck is great when she’s bad. Phyllis Dietrichson is the epitome of this fact, remaining one of the crowning achievements of her career. Though a lesser-known incarnation, Thelma Jordon is worthy of some notoriety in her own right.

However, the sublimeness of Stanwyck here is how she never really feels slimy or full of guile, even in the stages when the books are all but closed on her case and we get a fuller picture of who she is. The whole time we are kept constantly guessing and fluttering this way and that in indecision. More than once she surprises us.

The trick to a femme fatale like herself is never consciously deciding to be destructive. She’s doing what she personally believes to be right even if it’s due to a lapse in judgment or an impending sense of fear. I’m sure there was some greed in there too but we all harbor a little bit deep in our hearts somewhere.

So though it ends with a malaise that can only be film noir, there is some sense of rightness in the way everything goes down. It’s not to say there’s not a bite to the picture. When the file closes on Thelma Jordon two lives have been deeply affected forever with far-reaching repercussions. There’s no changing that.

3.5/5 Stars

No Man of Her Own (1950)

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Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is slighted by her slimy boyfriend who ditches her for a blonde and the only thing he offers her in return is a train ticket out of town. What can she do but take it dejectedly with barely any money, 8-months pregnant, without any future at all? She’s in a lowly state. That is until she is befriended by the perky Patrice Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter) and her genial husband (Richard Denning), who quickly lift her spirits through their continual ebullience.

The first sign of melodrama comes with a horrible train crash that leaving both Harknesses dead but Helen survives waking up in a hospital to find that her baby was saved. Except there’s a catch and, mind you, it’s the pivot point on which the weight of the whole story balances. In the commotion-filled aftermath of the crash, Helen is mistaken for Patrice, the young wife her purported in-laws have never met before. Now she is in their home to be taken care of.

Of course, at first, Helen is scared. She has nowhere to turn and so she goes along with it as her baby for the moment has a roof over his head. As time progresses, she comes to grow deeply affectionate of Mr. and Mrs. Harkness. The kindly matriarch (Jane Cowl) is so taken with her new daughter-in-law it all but consoles her in the loss of her son. Meanwhile, her other boy Bill (John Lund) takes a deep liking for his sister-in-law and does everything to make her feel welcome in the foreign environment. You can tell he genuinely cares about her. It’s no act.

However, the film also explores themes that Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on The Train (1951) would traverse only a year later with strains of blackmail and the specters out of her past coming to ruin the life Helen has created for herself.

Her no-good ex is interested in what she has landed in and what he can get out of it. First, it’s money to keep her secret, then it’s marriage so that he can get in on her cut of the Harkness fortune if ever it comes her way. He’s a filthy parasite and she knows there’s only one conceivable way to be rid of him. You know if already: murder!

But far from getting tossed out by the Harknesses or being completely undone by Morley, Helen, Patrice, whatever you wish to call her, is able to salvage a life for herself because of compassionate folks who are willing to accept her no matter her background. They even get knee deep into her plight, even die for her. The extent of their kindness leaves her forever grateful and hopeful that some form of human love still remains possible for her. Even the prospects of a murder rap seem surmountable.

The ending has one of those final cherry-on-the-top-of-the-sundae resolutions allowing everything to tie together in a nice bow. Some people might find it silly but I rather liked it. It gives the storyline one ironic twist of fate perfectly suited for this turbulent strain of drama. The police are satisfied. Crime didn’t pay. Our romantic leads get to stay together. All is right with the world. After such bleak beginnings, it’s almost laughable.

Despite being an utterly preposterous conceit, Barbara Stanwyck rides it out with her usual measured commitment to her craft both sympathetic and to the degree possible, believable. In the latter half, she’s an absolutely pasty mess personifying a woman terrified about being found out in her lie and subsequently rejected by the ones she’s worked so hard to love.

Director Mitchell Leisen, though given his penchant for finely wrought romantic comedies and an eye for costumes and interiors, shows he is no less capable in this woman’s picture, keeping it afloat even as it cycles through all sorts of implausibilities. I was generally fond of John Lund in The Mating Season (1951) as well, though it’s true he’s all but overshadowed by his female costars in both movies. However, when the people in question are the caliber of Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, and Thelma Ritter it’s quite understandable.

3/5 Stars

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

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“In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives…It is the servant of our common needs — the confidante of our inmost secrets…life and happiness wait upon its ring…and horror…and loneliness…and…death!!!” ~ Opening Prologue

Sorry, Wrong Number is a fairly unique adaptation in that it came into being from a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, successfully realized for audiences as essentially a one-woman production by Agnes Morehead — a fine actress in her own right. Director Anatole Litvak does an extraordinary job of making this film version tense and certainly cinematic, as it cannot function in the same ways as a radio show if it is to be similarly effective.

Like Rear Window (1954) or Wait Until Dark (1967), the suspense in the film comes with being constrained in a space with no way of escape from an impending intruder. It’s little surprise Barbara Stanwyck is divine offering her typically captivating performance even if, given her usual predispositions, she hardly fits the helpless wife archetype. Being the professional that she is, there’s no doubting the ferocity of emotion within her. To use a hopelessly corny pun, she hardly phones in her role as Mrs. Stevenson, the bedridden wife of a husband who just cannot seem to be located.

Though still young, Burt Lancaster brings the screen presence that made him a mainstay of early film noir. Still, he and Stanwyck somehow seem ill-paired as husband and wife. One could contend that works nicely into the plot as their marriage is essentially one-way, becoming increasingly loveless as more of the picture is revealed. She wants him and her daddy has the money to make the world spin. It’s not romance. It’s a business transaction.

So although Harry Stevenson (Lancaster) is initially going with another gal (Ann Richards), soon enough Leona’s got him. They get married and he gets a job working under the father-in-law but he feels his hands are tied with no real prospects of making anything of himself. He’s not content with this kind of lifestyle. He has ambitions of his own.

One might suspect he’s finally had enough and left his wife for good. Of course, part of the fun is that the story is pieced together through different characters recounting events, done through voiceover fragments. It becomes a kind of compulsory game we must play along with.

First, it’s Mr. Stevenson’s secretary who recounts the woman who came to his office with something urgent to talk about and it piques Mrs. Stevenson’s suspicions. Then, she gets in contact with the old flame named Sally Hunt Lord who is now happily married to a District Attorney. Nevertheless, she was worried that Henry might have been mixed in something awful, even tailing her husband and trying to get at her old beau to uncover what might be the matter. It’s all very mysterious.

Next Leona breaks up her Doctor’s (Wendell Corey) dinner engagement only to hear more of the story and how her husband kept the doctor’s prognosis from her. By this point, we’ve gotten in so deep that we have layered flashbacks. Only in noir, and we still have yet to stitch the entire convoluted mess together.

The last crucial figure is a specter of a caller named Waldo Evans who actually turns out to be a kindly old man caught up in the racket that Stevenson’s been promoting. The script doesn’t give us much to go on based on the restrictions of the production code but it has to do drug trafficking. That much is almost certain.

By this juncture, we’ve almost forgotten William Conrad was in the picture but he shows up right where you would expect him in the thick of something big. As she’s put through the ringer of psychological duress, trapped in her ominously vacant home, Stanwyck’s absolutely maxed out on the intensity.

Admittedly it does feel like two pictures told in tandem and spliced together. Stanwyck headlines what we might term the “woman’s drama” while her husband is embroiled in a shifty noir replete with the murky shadings of a criminal underworld. Of course, Lancaster is remembered for his early pictures like The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and Criss Cross (1949) which share some nominal similarities.

Sorry, Wrong Number showcases an icy ending that was nearly unexpected for not only how abrupt it is but also how very unsentimental. To say more would give it away outright. Flaws readily acknowledged, Sorry, Wrong Number is a noir worth making time for as it builds tension to a fever pitch and obscures its hand behind minute after minute of methodical voiceover. When we’ve finally caught up with the events rumbling forward in real time, it’s too late to do anything and before we know it, everything’s already come to fruition. One might call that an adequate success in the storytelling department.

Due to its histrionics, the picture was ripe for parody. In fact, Barbara Stanwyck was featured on a segment of The Jack Benny Program in 1948 using extensive recordings from the film only to have Benny wind up in much the same mess. And of course, there’s Carl Reiner’s noir sendup/clip show starring Steve Martin, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). It’s all in good fun.

3.5/5 Stars

Golden Boy (1939)

Golden Boy (1939)

“See you in 1960. Maybe you’ll be someone by then. ” ~ Barbara Stanwyck 

At the Academy Awards in 1978, Bill Holden took a momentary aside to thank his co-presenter, Barbara Stanwyck, for her encouragement and support in helping to forge his career in its nascent stages. That picture they starred in together was, of course, Golden Boy.

By the late 30s, she was already a veteran actress in such saucy pre-code pictures as Baby Face (1933) and searing tearjerkers like Stella Dallas (1937). In an instance where fiction overlaps with reality, Holden played the scrawny newcomer. He could have just as easily been “baby face” in this film as a 21-year-old unknown bit player.

His Joe Bonaparte, a green kid and a newly-minted voice, has yet to mature into the smoky standard the moviegoing public would come to know as a handsome first-class flirt and sardonic wit.  Still, Stanwyck fought for him to stay and he did.

The film itself is thinly wrought and certainly has aged poorly with the passage of time. The simplistic dichotomy at its center begins with a young man who has an artistic gift as a violinist and his dear father (Lee J. Cobb) wants him to cultivate the talent. However, the boy has realized he has the tenacity to be a fighter and he gets a promoter (Adolph Menjou) to take him on so he can start making some dough. After all, it’s a practical means to give his family what they have always wanted.

What it teases out is the age-old dilemma between the allure of materialism and what will actually give you a far more contented life, in this case, love and the cultivation of talents which lend beauty to the world. Initially, Joe buys into the hype backed by a gangster (Joseph Calleia) but seeing another man die in the ring straightens out his priorities for good. Many boxing dramas are fatal. Thankfully for contemporary audiences, his is allowed a palatable happy ending.

Although this would happen to him more than once, because he’s rather good at it, Lee J. Cobb is nevertheless cast way out of his age range as an ethnic Italian father-type. It’s true that this one is an overtly stagy adaption from Clifford Odet’s famed play. His presence even inadvertently reflects the overlapping nature of theater and film of the period as he would precede the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge who would all see their works made into movies.

Director Rouben Marmoulian himself had an extensive background in the theater and while the initial fight sequences fly by as montage blips throughout, the culmination in the final fight in Madison Square Garden has the atmospherics down like all the foremost boxing movies. He undoubtedly gets that right and this picture effectively precedes the frenzied reaction shots of the audience mesmerized by violence in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) by almost 10 years.

Stanwyck carries her scenes with that passionate, winning verve of hers and she propels Holden along with her taking the inexperienced, no-name actor and helping him get by. He’s no star at this point, except one day he would be. She had enough guts to fight for him and thanks in part to her, we were given one of the most remembered Hollywood stars, “Golden Holden.”

What most people wouldn’t give to have Barbara Stanwyck in their corner. It could be unsubstantiated hearsay but the story goes Holden was forever grateful, sending his costar a bouquet of flowers every year to commemorate Golden Boy and what it meant to his career. He knew it more than anyone.

But the story did not end there. In 1982 Barbara Stanwyck was bestowed with an honorary Oscar as the Academy had never found time to give her an award for her plethora of quality performances. Shame on them. That’s not the main point, however.

Her dear friend William Holden had just recently passed away months before and so while thanking the many people behind the camera who helped her in her career from directors to stunt personnel and electricians, she also said a final word for her friend. Her Golden Boy had always wanted for her to win an award and fittingly she finally did. She raised it up, teary-eyed, in his honor, before walking off. It’s human stories such as this that transcend Film. We are better for them.

3/5 Stars

The Furies (1950)

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Frenzied opening strings from a score by Franz Waxman assist in introducing a film that positions itself as another textured portrait of the West boasting a pair of grandiose performances from Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. This particular ride down the well-trodden paths takes place in New Mexico where cattle barons ruled the land like feudal lords. At its core is a warring clan and this is their tale of belligerent family drama that sprawls across the plains with a vengeance.

In fact, T.C. Jeffers (Walter Huston) is a man ruling his acreage known as “The Furies” with an equally-suited ferocity. He’s a larger-than-life figure who knows how to throw around his weight; the territory is scattered with his I.O.U.s christened T.C.s.

But his daughter Vance (Stanwyck) is no less imposing, knowing precisely what she wants — his empire — and chasing after it with the full intention of sinking her claws into it someday. When she finds the right man of course. We can liken them to Rockefellers of the West, ruthless while also being fiercely loyal and even generous to their friends. But they are not squeamish about going after their own.

The ensuing melodrama is laced with arsenic braced by Anthony Mann’s usual choices that ratchet the tension. While the scale has grown, his aptitude for projecting a certain raw volatility on the western frontier is no less apparent.

When rugged Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) ambles into the Jeffers’ home during a lively gathering, Vance immediately tries to win him. It starts with a dance and goes from there.  Far more than a mere pretty face, Wendell Corey holds a grudge that really leaves an impression. He has long felt slighted by Jeffers for ending up with the land he long thought was his own and he gladly gets back at the man through his daughter. Except Vance feels betrayed when Rip takes $50,000 in bribe money never to see her again. That’s the termination of their relationship for good.

But it turns out that T.C. also seeks out companionship of his own and his chosen mate, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) proves to be a golddigger who hardly hides her intentions. She receives only Vance’s ire and Ms. Jeffords is not about to let this woman finagle her way into the family business even resorting to violence if necessary.

It’s yet another riff in this power struggle that reverberates again and again. Because this is an unrestrained showcase of opportunistic human beings who glory in their own avarice and pursuit of wealth. People pushing others around and undermining them with little regard for their well-being.

It ends up reaching its absolute zenith with a bloody shootout to push the Hererra Family led by brother Juan (Gilbert Roland) off the Furies once and for all.The skirmish results with one man at the end of a rope and Vance never about to let her father forget what he has done to one of her closest childhood friends.

But it doesn’t stop there because it never can. Not with people such as this. Daughter goes out across the frontier on a vendetta that will pay heavy dividends. She even reconnects with the other man she never wanted to see again. Together they scheme T.C.’s ultimate downfall but as he gets on in years the old warhorse is faltering a bit. His glory days are setting so maybe it’s for the best. One could say that T.C. got his comeuppance but by all accounts, he died a legend. The same cannot be said for many of his adversaries.

I can’t help but juxtapose Devil’s Doorway and The Furies. An interesting reference point is that Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck were still husband and wife at the time but in both pictures, they try mightily to tame the West and hold onto to be what they believe is rightfully theirs. They have varying degrees of success.

The film also exhibits a racial element much like Devil’s Doorway because though it is rarely talked about, much of the mythology of the West is tied up in the white pioneer’s story. The marginalized folks like Native Americans, Hispanics, and certainly Asians are pushed to the edges of the frame. This film showcases the Herrera family.

Further still, there are an array of strikingly powerful women who exert their control in different ways. Though Beulah Bondi has a relatively small part you quickly realize that women such as her are important figures. Because they carry such crucial sway in the business of their husbands as the voices whispering advice into their ears.

Meanwhile, Judith Anderson while a bit of a tramp nevertheless is forthright and transparent about her intentions. She’s not a complete pushover and that makes a slight tussle with Stanwyck entirely credible.

Obviously, Barbara Stanwyck is phenomenal — one of the few performers who could have pulled off this role much like the matriarch in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). It needs someone who is that assured and strong, who carries an unmistakable presence anchored by undeniable beauty. She was blessed with both.

Walter Huston would pass away the same year in 1950 but The Furies compiled his innumerable talents in one last monumental showing that’s a worthy swan song in a veteran career. What a way to go as T.C. Jeffords.

4/5 Stars

 

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

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The Bitter Tea of General Yen is no doubt a perplexing film to come at today but, in some respects, that makes the experience all the more gratifying. There’s still something within it 80 years on that will simultaneously rub up against our contemporary perspective while also surprising us with a certain adroitness. So many issues are stacked up one on top of another, it’s a weighty task to begin trying to unpack them all.

Certainly, we have the strains of colonialism driven by western missionaries looking to share the Christian faith with the outer reaches of the world. In fact, we can probably derive some similar themes from films such as Keys to the Kingdom (1944) and Silence (2016) which provide a myriad of questions in their own right. Are these missionaries really making a difference? Is their Gospel even being comprehended? Should they be so bold as to force their beliefs on other people groups? All of these are up for valid consideration.

Racism must also be tackled whether it is shown to prove a point or is simply a casualty of a previous generation’s approach to Asian portrayals. We hear the words of one elderly lady who in one moment is going on about how lovely a wedding is going to be and then the next she shares her true sentiments about the Chinese.

“They’re all tricky and immoral. I can’t tell any of them apart. They’re all Chinamen to me.”
It’s this kind of narrow thinking, this blatantly obvious cultural insensitivity, laid right out in front of us. Thus, it seems likely the film’s main thesis might be to prove the exact opposite. That in itself seems monumental.

We have the casting of a Scandinavian in Nils Asther for the role of the Chinese general to contend with as well. And while it’s easy to get stuck on this or go the complete opposite end of the spectrum and take it for granted given the cultural moment it came out of, I hope to arrive at another conclusion. “Yellowface” always perturbs me and yet I also realize we have to understand the intentions and so I’m apt to read this picture much as I would Broken Blossoms (1919).

Whereas Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan work in stereotypes and the Fu Manchu archetype is the demonizing of a race, you do not quite get the same sense here. Even with the problems inherent in the characterization, what comes through emotionally is resonant. Then, further still is the landmark consideration of interracial romance, no doubt a turn off for many contemporary viewers — or at the very least taboo.

The whole narrative is really about the steadily evolving relationship between an American woman (Stanwyck) and this Chinese General (Asther) who keeps her in his domain on the pretense that it is for her own safety with the civil war still raging at large.

Megan is one of those naive yet well-meaning individuals who comes to a foreign land to do good. This is the imperative of “The Great Commission” and bless her soul, she takes her faith seriously, coming to join her soon-to-be husband wherever he may go.

But soon she is struck with a reality check. Her fiancee and she try and rescue some orphans caught in the middle of the hellish war zone, but the pass they’ve been provided is no good. In the ongoing turmoil, Megan finds herself brought to the palace of General Yen for safekeeping, her husband lost in the chaos.

What follows is an exercise not so much in polarizing romance, which would be the easier road to traverse, but instead cultural understanding through candid dialogue. He criticizes what he sees as a flaw in her man, that he will betray her every time for his God. Meanwhile, the idea all humanity is one flesh and blood is almost laughable to him.

And yet, again and again, he is drawn not only to her exquisite appearance but the undeniable sincerity that guides her every action. She, in turn, recognizes something of a hidden sensitivity welled up inside his soul. As he notes, “There has never been a people more purely artist, and therefore, more purely lover, than the Chinese.”

The most straining circumstance involves the General’s lowly concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mia) who has all but disobeyed him. Megan chides him to forgive her even in her insolence (“I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited”) and for the greater offense of passing secrets which gives him the grounds to have her killed. You can either say he softens or finally lets down his guard. It’s semantics really.

This might very well be the Capra picture people don’t expect because it flies in the face of all the criticisms usually leveled against him. Specifically, that he always made overly sentimentalized films without a shred of hard reality. I’ve tried to push back against this presupposition countless times and I think The Bitter Tea General Yen is another fine counterargument. Look no further than the excruciatingly frank depictions of military executions, soldiers decimated by Gatling guns,  betrayal, suicide, and near surrealistic dreams that invade a woman’s consciousness.

However, it’s difficult not to begin comparing it most obviously to Shanghai Express (1932), a picture that reveled in its atmosphere and featured Josef von Sternberg’s visual infatuation with Marlene Dietrich. Frank Capra does Stanwyck justice in his own right because there’s no doubt she’s vibrant and alluring throughout. It’s brought into sharp relief through numerous stunning close-ups that capture the softness of her features. Not to mention the tears. Something that makes her different and more vulnerable than her German contemporary.

But we must ask the question. Is it a type of Stockholm Syndrome? Is it a true romance or simply an affection for a man who had more beauty, more artistry, than she would have initially given him credit for? I’m not sure we know and the ingeniousness, I realized retrospectively, of the film’s ending, is that we never hear Barbara Stanwyck’s thoughts on the matter.

Walter Connolly just won’t shut up and he’s supposing all these different things. Recalling what a great guy the General was, considering what Megan will do next, and summing up the General’s spiritual proclivities. Maybe he’ll come back in some new incarnation. But the lady says next to nothing and there is a cryptic power in this. Because The Bitter Tea of General Yen allows us to ruminate over the material and draw out conclusions of our own.

3.5/5 Stars

Baby Face (1933)

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Even in its opening moments, Baby Face made my heart heavy. I look at Lily, this young woman played by Barbara Stanwyck and sadness wells up within me. Because her environment is so oppressive. Getting constantly pawed at and manhandled with a father who has no conception of love. Then, she opens the window to get away from the asphyxiating haze of cigarette smoke only to be met with more smoke from the steam engines outside. This isn’t a life that anyone should be subjected to and it’s brought into sharp relief because she is surrounded by so many filthy men: Mangy scuzzballs, if you want to get scientific.

But the picture, even in this opening moment, before it gets to the nitty-gritty at hand, grieves me because it still has increasing pertinence in the present world we find ourselves in. Isn’t that strange? But I am met with this fact time and time again. You would think I would be less surprised there is still nothing new under the sun. In such an environment, Lily is essentially perceived to be worthless and the men around her keep her down.

However, there’s one man in particular who rallies her to get off the trash heap. In fact, Bragg is a man who broadens her perspective and helps her to realize her own worth.  The only unfortunate part is that he bequeaths her the philosophy of Nietzsche. And I say unfortunate very purposefully because the language he provides her is like so.

“You must be a master, not a slave. It’s about exploitation using men and being strong to get the things you want.” It’s laid out as overtly as you could possibly expect. This remains only the root of a wider problem that is exasperated because, of course, this is exactly what Lily ends up doing.

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She goes to New York with her constant companion Chico (Theresa Harris) and subsequently charms her way into a job, slowly moving up the ranks due to her ambitions and calculated manipulation. There’s no other way to put it. She’s systematically sleeping her way to the top.

The funniest anachronism of them all is seeing John Wayne, young and handsome, behind a desk in a corporation. He is one of Baby Face’s early conquests. But believe me, there will be more. No sooner has one top employee lost his job due to Baby Face then another man has become seduced by her inviting eyes and soft touch. There’s one particular mirror shot from the ladies’ room that says it all. The man is saying one thing and when he sees her his whole demeanor changes. Like putty in her hands.

But there’s another running gag easily understood with a little inference. A close up on the exterior of the mortgage department with a soft pan to the accounting department or wherever else ambition takes her, the score playing “St. Louis Blues” saucily to say all that needs to be said. And you get the sense that it’s for these very interludes that the film was marketed.

It pushed the boundaries of the censor’s board at the time and many have supposed, rightfully so, that Baby Face was one of the pictures which actually led to greater enforcement of the production codes in 1934. Certainly, all this is true.

But more than anything, the most troubling thing for me is her Nietzschean code of conduct continually dictating her worldview. He is the man who most famously said “God is Dead,” not as a derisive proclamation but more so a disillusioned fact. There is no hope or grace found in such a point of view. But of course, Lily never received any of those things in her formative years so how is she to know? She just keeps plodding on using her attributes the best she knows how to make a comfortable life for herself.

To quote Proverbs, “her lips drip honey and yet her feet go down to the grave.” She’s nothing but trouble and yet I would never hold it against her. She makes us so conflicted because there is so much manipulation there — even vindictiveness — while she still nurses wounds from youth that we cannot even begin to understand.

Stanwyck never ceases to amaze me with her incredible range of performances and the deep truth she seems to mine in each and everyone to make them charming, funny, or heartbreaking — whatever the tone calls for. She always seems to have it in ready supply. It’s little different in Baby Face.

As far as the film itself, what we have here is the epitome of efficient Hollywood filmmaking that somehow is still laced with a potency of emotion, at times heartbreaking and at others verging on the salacious. Still, it’s a picture that leaves you with something. There’s no way that any of the Barbara Stanwyck faithful would forget her, but this picture gives another reason to stand up and take notice.

It’s a striking image as the phonograph turns and all the men in her life flash by. In such a short time there’s been so many and yet some passed by like a blip we almost forget they were there. George Brent is the most substantial and even he comes into the storyline far later. That’s purely a testament to the picture’s ability to really fill out the entire scenario with surprising depth.

However, it’s crucial for the film to end on a realistic and deadly note because anything else would be untrue to the life that Lily has lived thus far. It was never pretty. The denouement cheats a little bit by leaving events open-ended but all that’s left to say is Stanwyck is devastating. She just might bowl you over.

4/5 Stars

 

Miracle Woman (1931)

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“Beware of False Prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing” – Mat. 8:15

The Miracle Woman is offered as a rebuke to anyone who, under the cloak of Religion, seeks to sell for gold, God’s choicest gift to Humanity —- FAITH. 

There are title cards that open up Miracle Woman to make it crystal clear what its intentions are. Though pointed, they hardly seem necessary given the motion picture we are about to witness. The images speak for themselves.

Inside an old-fashioned church building, we hear the opening throes of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Most every contemporary audience knew that standard hymn well — cherishing its heavenly imagery. But when Barbara Stanwyck steps into the pulpit to pass along her father’s final words as pastor she breaks into the reverie and brings the house down. If there’s ever been a stirring depiction of righteous indignance she is most certainly it.

Like Jesus clearing out the temple of all those peddling their goods, Stanwyck empties out the entire building condemning the pews of hypocrites and lukewarm believers who sit before her. They willfully tossed her father aside for a younger man once they had no use to him. He died of a broken heart and Florence feels affronted.

A few voices chime in on her behalf but she’s all but left to wallow in her sorrows alone. One man stays behind and he’s important for this story. Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) was just passing through town and stopped by the church but was impressed by Fallon’s knowledge of scripture and charisma up in the pulpit. With his streetwise business acumen and her stage presence, he thinks they can really make something for themselves.

They soon resurrect a “Temple of Happiness” from a converted barn and it has the words Florence Fallon, Evangelist, and FAITH boldly emblazoned on its front for all to see. The main thing that has changed in 85 years is that the Christian faith has become less widely practiced compared to back then. But this narrative puts a voice to issues that have long plagued the organization of the church in the United States.

Namely, people make a near sideshow attraction out of the whole thing with brass bands and showmanship while simultaneously promoting selfish gain over any kind of advancement of the pronounced commandment to “love God and love thy neighbor.” I am grieved to say those root issues look very much the same all these years later.

We watch as Florence is slowly persuaded into getting back at the fickle people who sold her father out and she’s very good at it, even sincere, while Hornsby runs everything else from hauling in donations to dreaming up the next gimmick.

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However, whether she meant to or not, Florence’s voice on the radio convinces a blind man (David Manners) to not give up on his life though he is struggling mightily. For that he is grateful but it becomes even more personal when he gets up on stage with her and then after that meets her face to face. There’s something inside of him that’s so genuine and attractive to a woman who is used to working with shifty characters.

The boy shows her a good time with some parlor tricks including a music box, cards, and his roommate a very forthright dummy named Al. In many ways, it’s this wooden doll who speaks for him from the depths of his heart. The things he doesn’t know how to say outright start spewing out of the little man.

While Florence finds herself falling for John, her partner who was so warm and genial that first day they met has started to get more demonstrative — even aggressive. Because Florence means a lot him, not only as a companion but also his current livelihood. She’s fighting against him but it looks like he’s got her where he wants. She will have one final swan song and then has no choice but to go off with Bob, never to return.

However, John looks to manufacture his own miracle for her but unlike her other man, it’s not to sell tickets or pull the wool over the eyes of the public. It’s purely an act of love. He takes it a step further my fearlessly saving her life in the face of a hellish conflagration.

Capra never struck me as a terribly religious person but there’s no doubt he believed in humanity and he had faith in their capacity for good and their ability to love others. I think that perhaps this is the core of the whole “Capracorn” slogan. Because Capra as a director ultimately dwells on what he perceives to be the inherent good in people. That is not to say the conniving, corrupted, licentious side isn’t given any screen time. No place is that more clear than in Miracle Woman.

And yet the final image is of Barbara Stanwyck parading with a Salvation Army band singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” True, she gave up a lucrative career worth more money than she could imagine but she gained something worth exponentially more — her soul. She has learned how to love again and how to trust a man who in turn loves her deeply. That’s enough of a miracle.

One does have to question where her belief in God stands or if she deems the romantic love of her life to be enough. Regardless Stanwyck gives a stirring ever-impassioned performance that put her on track for continued success. She was a wellspring of talent even at this early juncture in her career.

4/5 Stars

“What God? Who’s God? Yours? This isn’t a House of God. This is a meeting place for hypocrites!”

Night Nurse (1931)

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We’re introduced to the day-to-day in a hospital ward with mothers giving birth, delinquents under police custody, and bootleggers coming in on the lamb with mysterious ailments. Barbara Stanwyck arrives in the office inquiring about a position as a nurse and she is flatly rejected for her references and lack of a full high school education.

Reluctantly she exits only to make a connection in the revolving door with a white-haired genial doctor (Charles Winninger) who pulls some strings and lands her a spot as a trainee. Her roommate and guide to this new existence is the lively Maloney (Joan Blondell). The male interns send her a warm welcome too. Namely a skeleton in her bed which gets her in particular trouble during a late night bed check from the head nurse who rules the nurses quarters with an iron fist.

This is all only a setup of the films main concerns which have roots in sordid drama and soap opera-like thrills. The melodrama comes into full view as we are introduced to none other than a mustache-less macho Clark Gable who upon being asked who he is, replies “Nick the Chauffeur” only to be captured in closeup while eliciting a gasp from a night nurse.

It’s textbook stuff and then he proceeds to wallop her as she tries to use the telephone. But a smidgen of context is in order. Lora starts her first shift as a night nurse looking after two darling little girls. But from what she can tell they are systematically being starved and their perpetually tipsy mother, Mrs. Ritchie, seems to have very little input. Meanwhile, the doctor who took over the case when Dr. Bell was deposed is shady at best. All the while, Nick leers and strong arms his way around, making sure that Lora doesn’t do anything against the doctor’s orders. Conveniently that means no nourishment.

But “Little Miss Iodine” doesn’t go down without a fight. With the girls slowly wasting away upstairs and needless extravagant parties being held continually downstairs with booze freely flowing, Lora lays down the law. She smacks the girls’ mother around a little for her parental negligence. Also, it turns out that Lora’s new boyfriend comes in handy when he’s not bootlegging. They make a swell couple.

On the whole, this picture of emaciation is slightly disjointed and hyperbolic in its own right. There’s also probably too liberal an amount of undressing on camera. Because it’s only purpose is to be provocative.

I’m not quite sure if I ever figured out the mechanics of it all but there is an undeniable fury to it and William Wellman directs it as such through every beat from comedy to romance to mystery thriller. So with stalwart performances by Stanwyck and a no-good Clark Gable on the rise, matched by a certain enigmatic potency, there is enough meat here to make it a mildly diverting Pre-Code effort.

3/5 Stars