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

Clash By Night (1952)

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Clash By Night comes from a stage play by Clifford Odetts and, in one sense, it’s extremely evident. However, being blessed by a still capable director in Fritz Lang and bolstered by quality talent does wonders for this squallish RKO drama. The portentous symbolism of Lang is on full display from crashing waves to billowing clouds in the skies up above.

We spy circling seagulls and seals perking up, creatures obviously hungry for something — in this case the fish being harvested on the trawler right nearby. Here we have our environment, a cannery that sustains an entire community with work. One of the seamen is Jerry (Paul Douglas) a teddy bear of a man who works on a fishing boat as his father did before him. He now supports his senile father along with his idle good-for-nothing uncle.

When Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) comes back to her family home after being away well nigh a decade, the summation of her activities is terse, “Big dreams, small results.” She’s very dismissive and aloof in every interaction; she’s not about to give herself to anyone or fall in love. But when the good-natured Jerry comes to call on her she actually accepts. Maybe she can learn to like a nice guy and have a home and a family. They try on all accounts and get married. Every attempt is made to convince herself that this is what a normal woman is supposed to aspire to.

However, Jerry’s buddy, the local projectionist at the movie theater, the outgoing, slightly patronizing stiff Earl (Robert Ryan) offers an inkling of something else. He has raw even carnal energy and a cynic’s outlook on love. Mae despises his personality type probably because it’s too close to home — too akin to how she sees the world. But his raffishness can easily get contorted into something volcanic, flaming with an attraction that draws in a wife desiring something more.

What’s staged thenceforward is a showing that hits the throttle on several occasions to heated extremes. It’s the utter epitome of ’50s hothouse drama that can feel overwrought and stagy; the emotions at times become heightened to an unbelievable degree. Sweat and manic attacks of rage that lead to blows ensue. Not to mention countless mentions of the rise in temperature.

Even the early dialogue at times feels too cute, manufactured to be read off and yet to their credit the stars come with fury at times heartless and tender and full of self-loathing. Stanwyck is a mess of tortured dissonance subjecting herself to emotional whiplash, never truly contented. However, feeling completely sorry for her proves difficult.

Though Marilyn Monroe received her first prominent billing, she comes off as more of a side note than an integral part of the picture at least in front of the camera. There’s little doubt she was causing her usual media frenzy behind the camera and headaches for her director due to her often temperamental ways. Those would hardly change but superstardom would only continue to descend upon her.

Always the consummate professional, Stanwyck was in the middle of divorce proceedings with Robert Taylor and as art often mirrors life you get the impression that just possibly she might be channeling some of that emotion into her performance. If she is, it’s nearly impossible to tell as she carries herself with the same self-assured composure in every scene, touching every note, regardless, with her accustomary ease.

Even for a black and white piece filmed by Nicolas Musuraca, Clash By Night is not necessarily a typical Lang exhibition in expressionistic, noirish tones but the expression comes boiling up from within his actors. That is enough. The picture could have done well to smolder until the end. Instead, it chooses a more forgiving road. Jerry relents saying, “You gotta trust somebody. There ain’t no other way.” He’s taking a beating and yet his heart is still large. There’s no word on whether it will be torn out again.

3.5/5 Stars

All I Desire (1953)

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Douglas Sirk films almost by design seem to always revolve around the most uncomfortable thematic ideas that you can think of. Whether that is Sirk’s own wry sense of irony or more so the material that was provided him, there’s always something to be gleaned from what he does.

With every story, there must be a hook that reels us in and an event to establish the premise. Has-been actress and glorified showgirl Naomi Murdoch (Barbara Stanwyck) is sitting in the dressing room after one of her middling shows only to receive a letter from her teenage daughter. It catches her off guard because you see, she left home many years ago abandoning her husband and their three children. She had her reasons certainly but she was hardly expecting this.

But in a moment she decides to get dressed up and make her triumphant return to Riverdale, Wisconsin. What draws her there is the letter from Lily (Lori Nelson) entreating her to see her role on the high school stage. She just can’t resist the opportunity and as advertised she thoroughly enjoys her daughter’s performance. It captivates her beyond words.

Naomi unwittingly makes the play a major attraction in the small town not so much for the content of the production but due to her own attendance. They want to see the beautiful scandal maker returning to the scene of the crime after so many years. Among them is the local shop owner Dutch (Lyle Bettger) who once had a thing for Naomi that’s still steadily burning.

It’s true that she throws her former husband (Richard Carlson) for a shock and her disapproving eldest daughter (Marcia Henderson) still resents their mother for leaving them — rightfully so I might add. And yet Naomi didn’t come back to humiliate them. On the contrary, she’s ready to leave on the midnight train and she’s well aware of the need to make a good impression and consider what others will think around town. She hardly cares and yet she does care for the sake of her family. That’s part of the reason she stayed away for so long. People can be ruthless; it’s true.

Still, Lily in her winning way begs her mother to stay for the festivities and conveniently aids in her missing the outbound train. As the housekeeper Lena (Lotte Stein) puts it, Naomi is a woman with “sense enough to enjoy a party when there’s a party.” And everyone loves her for it, not because she’s a sideshow attraction but a truly genial personality.

First, it’s Joyce’s beau Russ Underwood (Richard Long) who asks her for a dance. Another highlight involves the future Yale boy summing up the courage to ask Ms. Naomi to dance and she takes him up on it without hesitation. Above all, it is her impassioned interpretation of Elizabeth Barret Browning that leaves the whole house mesmerized. It’s true that in only her few hours in town she’s already left a new indelible impression on the younger generations.

The entire town, her former husband, even her daughters and son all must grapple with their feelings toward her now. Henry is slowly realizing he is still in love with her and Joyce still harbors a bit of anger toward her mother when they go out riding with Russ.

But the character of Dutch seemingly transforms into an animal for the sake of creating a repeated scandal which looks like little more than fodder for the plotline. However, that’s not the true scandal or at least the true embarrassment. It replays itself in a different way this time. That cannot destroy someone as resilient as Naomi. She fights against it.

Barbara Stanwyck wins me over in every film I see her in each time anew because when words come off her lips they cease to be dialogue torn from a script but actually develop a life of their own as living breathing emotions coming out of her. She gives every performance an authenticity and charisma that’s forever disarming and the same goes for this picture. If any other actor might be flat or uninteresting there’s little else to do but let her command the scene and enjoy it.

There are so many moments we could note where she draws us in. One that spoke to me is during a tearful goodbye to her son (Billy Gray) who is hurt by what she did and she, in turn, tells him in all sincerity that people do bad things and they hurt people that they never meant to. Continuing to hate only leads to more hurt.

A darker Sirkian ending as he was set to made would have been more realistic but no matter. How can we hate All I Desire? Barbara Stanwyck and Douglas Sirk do wonders with it and they would do it again a few years later with There’s Always Tomorrow (1956).

3.5/5 Stars

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

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The film begins with that old storytelling standard, Once upon a time in sunny California…and it’s raining outside. Not a minute has gone by and the tone of the picture has already been set with this opening taste of irony. It unravels on a smaller, less grandiose scale than other Sirk pictures but it’s no less potent.

It brings to mind one of the other great masters of such films in Billy Wilder also from Germany and yet you would never get either of their pictures confused because how they go about it so so vastly different. This is, of course, another Double Indemnity (1944) reunion (a film directed by Wilder) bringing Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray back together.

I did some digging and besides the underrated Christmas classic Remember the Night (1940), the memorable screen couple appeared in a  minor western called The Moonlighter (1953). This would be their last pairing.

But back to Wilder and Sirk. The way this film looks and the subject matter strikes no exact resemblance to the former’s more caustic work and there’s also the fact that Wilder wrote all his material. While Sirk had often cohesive themes running through his stories, I’m fairly certain he could not claim script credit on any.

The true connection point and the aspect of these two emigre filmmakers that is so crucial to appreciate what they are doing is how they both managed to critique their adopted country through both comedy and drama and they do it in such inventive ways.

Here Fred MacMurray is the owner of a toy shop and a stockroom full of hobby horses and pinafores as they look to roll out their latest pride and joy Rex the Walkie-Talkie Robot. Meanwhile, after a hard day at work, he comes home to ungrateful and preoccupied kids who constantly tie up the phone lines with girlfriends and take up their mother’s time with their numerous extracurriculars.

It’s akin to All That Heaven Allows (1955) in that it places a camera to the mores of Middle-Class America. While that film was about a mother and her children’s reactions to her romantic life, this is a picture about a father and what he does with what he deems to be an unfulfilling life. He has a similar outcome. This is by no means a My Three Sons episode.

He’s feeling that age-old suffocation of suburban life, work, kids, wife, and no satisfaction with any of the things that are supposed to be the pinnacles of the American Dream. What do you do with said disillusionment? You look for an outlet.

Two tickets to the theater just about look as if they’ll be wasted when rather fortuitously an old friend shows up on his doorstep or more correctly an old flame. And on a whim, they make an outing out of it to the theater. Leaving early they end up touring the toy shop and dancing together to “Blue Moon,” a song that conjures up reminiscences and nostalgia and subsequently can be heard in refrain after refrain from that point forward.

The following weekend it happens again when Mr. Groves is looking forward to a weekend getaway with his wife although he must admittedly mix business with pleasure. In the end, his wife stays behind with their histrionic daughter and the work meetings fall through. But coincidentally he runs into Norma again and they have a lovely time talking, horseback riding, and the like.

But the wrinkle we come to expect is a surprise visit by his eldest son who takes a detour from Los Angeles to Palm Beach. It’s so very cringe-worthy and aggravated by the fact that he overhears his father and Ms. Vale talking but proceeds to leave the tourist trap without even a word to his father. He’s too vexed.

Still, MacMurray comes back from the invigorating weekend refreshed and explains everything to everyone all perfectly innocent and this works against our preconceived notions of what might happen.

The film goes further by folding over yet another layer. His son when hearing his explanation far from confirming his faith in his dad, only causes him to sink deeper into distrust. In one sense, it’s absolutely absurd (he quotes An American Tragedy for goodness sakes) and yet it’s a perfect development. Here we have the planting of seeds of resentment and doubt even in things that aren’t the truth.

Stacked upon this is the final irony that it’s the so-called “other woman” who talks MacMurray’s character out of an affair that ironically he slowly evolves into wanting. That’s a new one but also a very honest outcome.

And being the strong individual that she is, Stanwyck not only weathers the difficult conversations with her old beau with dignity but she’s equally strong when it comes to scolding his children for their treatment of him. She is the one who points out the error in their ways. Again, it’s yet another ironic development.

So yes, this is no doubt a weepie; it’s a contrived set-up with a wife who is conveniently busy and children who seem so quick to turn on the man they’ve known all their lives, but putting those preoccupations aside for a moment, what we do have is a beloved pair of stars and a director who made a living off of such fare. If you ask me that’s a quality combination and though it’s a less heralded film, There’s Always Tomorrow is still very much a worthwhile affair.

4/5 Stars

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

Stella Dallas (1937)

stella-dallas-37Early on, when she is growing up, it seems very easy to read Stella (Barbara Stanwyck). She is a young woman born into a humble background with a family that could at best be called earthy. Still, Stella wants to know what it feels like to live in the lap of luxury. She wants a more refined life and it’s easy for all the cynics to assume she’s making eyes at the handsome mill executive Stephen Dallas (John Boles) for what he can give her.

And such a presumption would not be entirely untrue. She wants to become more like him. She wants to improve herself and gain access to the world that he has known all his life before his father tragically died. But there’s an earnestness about her. She’s not simply an opportunist. She is ready to pursue this life alongside Stephen and an emblem of that very fact is the subsequent birth of their daughter, Laurel. And this is where the film begins to progress towards its main objective.

As it turns out, Stella truly is a wonderful mother. Loving her daughter in every way and giving her all the affection she possibly can. Meanwhile, although still devoted to his daughter, Stephen is away most of the time occupied with work, so in many ways, Stella raises her child single-handedly. Her only company is the housekeeper, the fun but less than desirable Ed Munn (Alan Hale), and, of course, Laurel who soon grows up to be a young woman right before our eyes (Anne Shirley).

In a modern world of celebrity scandal and bitterness, two people such as this would probably have a divorce as soon as possible but there’s a civility between Stephen and Stella. Perhaps they don’t love each other and they hardly spend any time with each other anymore, but they both are devoted to their daughter and by transference, they still care about the other’s well-being.

But as “Lollie” begins to grow up into a sweet, effervescent beauty, the inevitable begins to happen. The upbringing and status of her mother are at odds with the rest of the company that Stephen keeps as well as most of Laurel’s peers. A lesser film would have allowed the chafing between mother and daughter be the undoing of their relationship. But that is a far too easy place to find drama. Stella Dallas is a more audacious film because Laurel could never bare to leave her mother’s side. No matter what her friends might say in passing, she is unswervingly faithful to the end. But it’s the fact, that Stella realizes, in a sense, that she is holding Laurel back (at least in her own estimation). And in the most sacrificial way she knows, she does everything she can to set Laurel up with the best future.

Ultimately, this life means moving back with her father, Stella divorcing Stephen so that Laurel might have a proper mother (Barbara O’Neil) to fit her upbringing, and finally driving her beloved daughter away so that she might truly find happiness. Stella Dallas gives so much of herself and as a viewer, it’s easy to question the validity of her actions. But I can only imagine, that as a parent you are willing to give up so much for the happiness of your children without even blinking an eye. So it is in this film.

Barbara Stanwyck is phenomenal, undoubtedly giving one of the greatest dramatic performances of her illustrious career. You would think for a woman so young and vibrant she couldn’t possibly pull off the role of a maternal figure convincingly but Stella Dallas repeatedly proves any doubters wrong. It’s an excruciatingly painful picture for the very fact that it is full of such an overwhelming amount of love — love of the highest order — the sacrificial love of a parent. And it turns on this axle so beautifully. We initially view Stella Dallas in one light and by the end of the story, our entire perspective has evolved. I cannot recall another scene in recent memory that has moved me so much as watching this mother observe from a distance as her daughter is wed.

It’s a searing portrait and Stanwyck and the equally sympathetic Shirley lend so much credence to the dynamic. We believe them because there is an obvious sincerity — an inherent honesty — in their word and deed.  To simply label King Vidor’s film a “Weepie” is a major disservice to the entire cast involved. This is a heart-wrencher with an overwhelming ability to move. There is little shame in tearing up. They don’t come much more poignant than this.

4/5 Stars

Remember the Night (1940)

remember_the_night_posterI find that many of the best Christmas movies aren’t really about Christmas at all — at least not in the conventional sense that we’re so used to. Not trees or presents or lights or even holiday sentiment although those might all be there.

The films that start to tease out the true meaning and impact of the Christmas season start by looking at people and their relationships with one another. Because, truth be told, we so often get distracted by the bright colors and shiny objects that get in our way.

That’s actually part of what Remember the Night is about. Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman who has a penchant for stealing jewelry. She’s not a kleptomaniac or wrong in the head, she’s just a poor, unspectacular woman with nothing to show for in life. She lives in a hotel. And so the minute she’s apprehended and prosecuted in the courtroom you would assume that it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Except this is a romantic film starring the likes of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck working from a script from Preston Sturges and under the guidance of Mitchel Leisen. So obviously that tips us off that love is in the air. Especially during the Christmas season, love is all around us — peace on earth and goodwill towards men.

Except when Lee’s trial is postponed by the astute district attorney on the other side of the table, it looks like she’s in for an abysmal holiday. She has no money, no place to go, and she’ll be spending her time behind bars (with a Christmas dinner of course). But John Sargent goes through a change of heart and his heart is fairly big when you get to know him. He ends up getting Lee out of jail for Christmas dinner as recompense and goes a step further still by inviting to take her back to her family home. They both hail from rural Indiana.

In this leg of the film, on the road, they begin to warm to each other. A certain amount of empathy sets in as they must flee pell-mell from some small town law enforcement after unlawfully milking a cow on private property. However, John also stands by his new companion when she returns to her childhood home — a place she ran away from at an early age — she’s not welcomed back.

And while it doesn’t tell the story of Christmas overtly, it’s at this point that Remeber the Night begins to make sense. Hence the title. At least in my mind. Because what night would you remember? The logical progression of thought would be the first Christmas — the moment where the biblical narrative notes that there was no room for the child in the inn and so he was forced to be housed in a lowly manger on that silent night.

If you look at John’s mother and aunt played so lovingly and nurturing by Beulah Bondi and Elizabeth Patterson, you get the sense that they were probably aware of that event. However, how they act is also a natural outpouring of their hospitable natures. They welcome Lee into their home, they welcome her like family, they go so far out of their way to make her comfortable. Certainly, this is only a backdrop for the broader more sentimental focal point of the film which we were expecting. The accused and the prosecutor begin falling in love, but they still have to return to the courtroom when their holiday is over.

But that’s what wonderful films do. They work above and beyond their plotline being displayed at face value. Sturges was always a spectacular screenwriter even before becoming a director and here he develops a tale that comes off less frenetic than many of his later works, but it’s also imbued with a great amount of feeling. But credit also goes to Leisen for tailoring the script to his leads.

And as it’s set during the holidays, that makes it into a timely movie for the Christmas season (and New Years). Because the bottom line is that it’s about love, but not just in the romantic sense. Love of family. Love of your fellow man (and woman). Love of other people so much so that you are willing to sacrifice and take on the penalty for your actions, deserved or not. If we strip down the impact of Christmas to its core elements that’s essentially what it is about as well. So remember this movie during the holidays and remember that night if you’re so inclined.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

4/5 Stars

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

strangelove1“I don’t like anybody pushing me around. I don’t like anybody pushing you around. I don’t like anybody getting pushed around.”  Van Heflin as Sam Masterson

Lewis Milestone never quite eclipsed the heights of All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is brimming with some engaging performances. Although it is, at times, more of a  melodrama than noir, there is still merit in Robert Rossen’s script. When it does not falter with didacticism, the film has a certain twisted, deep-seated emotion that runs through it. Barbara Stanwyck is the one at the center of it all, as the title suggests.

The film begins in 1928 with three children. The assumption is that these three individuals will become of greater importance later on. After that fateful evening, one would be left without any family, one would leave for good, and one would be left in the perfect position to rise up the ranks. These opening moments boasts spiraling staircases, thunder, the pounding orchestration of Miklos Rozsa, and a complete gothic set-up.

strangelove317 or 18  years later a full-grown Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) decides to return to his old stomping grounds, Iverstown, on a whim. He’s surprised to learn that the “little scared boy on Sycamore street” is now District Attorney (Kirk Douglas). And he’s now married to Martha Ivers (Stanwyck). She and Sam had something going long ago, but he’s all but forgotten it by now. He’s made a living as a gambler who has a pretty handy dandy coin trick, but really Heflin’s character could be anything.

He meets a sultry, smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott with the pouting face. For those unfamiliar, I would liken her to a Lauren Bacall-type, although she was less well-known and ultimately got typecast in noir roles. Here Scott’s “Toni” Marachek is an often despondent woman who just got out on probation.

strangelove2We don’t actually see Barbara Stanwyck’s face until 30 minutes into the film, but it doesn’t matter. She as well as Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut), leave an impression right off the bat. They are a married couple alright, but she seems to hold the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. All her power is propping him up as he makes his political rise. Perhaps there’s more going on here, however.

strangelove4From its outset, Martha Ivers looks to be a tale with two threads that slowly begin to intertwine, bringing together some old pals and acquainting some new ones. When Sam wanders into the lives of Martha and Walter O’Neil, it’s putting it lightly that they’re taken aback. The district attorney is good at putting on a face for an old boyhood chum. His wife, on the other hand, is not about to hide her excitement in seeing her old flame.

However, they both think he has an agenda, misreading the twinkle in his eye as intent to blackmail, for a payoff after what he saw all those years ago. But that’s just it. Only we know that he didn’t see anything. Martha Ivers slips up, caught between love, hate, and a suffocating life. She has so much power and yet so little. So much affection and yet so much bitterness.

strangelove5Honestly, although Stanwyck is our leading lady, it’s quite difficult to decide whose film this really is. Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are at its core, but then again, Scott and Douglas do a fine job trying to upstage them. There’s a polarity in the main players, meaning Stanwyck and Heflin have the power, and the other two are the subservient man and woman respectively. However, the film really becomes a constant tug-of-war. Douglas is not just a spineless alcoholic. There’s an edge to him. Scott seems like a softy and yet there’s an incongruity between her persona and that prison rap that hangs over her. Heflin seems like the one relatively straight arrow because as we find out, Stanwyck is fairly disturbed. She’s no Phyllis Dietrichson and that becomes evident in yet another climatic conflict involving a gun. But she’s still demented, just in a different way.

3.5/5 Stars