Posts tagged “Barbara Stanwyck

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)


A little over a week ago I caught The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Barbara Stanwyck playing the standard femme fatale role, which wasn’t nearly as effective as Double Indemnity (1944). I was a little disappointed, having her play opposite Wendell Corey who is not a natural lead actor. Leaving her to go into overdrive to make this slow burner of a film noir even begin to simmer. It never really comes to the boil. Tonight’s film however was a very different story, a massive improvement on the leading man with Burt Lancaster and a complete role reversal for Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), leaving me glued to the screen.

It’s great to see a screen veteran in Stanwyck able to play the damsel in distress still, even after 20 years on the screen, opposite up and coming Lancaster who is full of confidence clearly enjoying the chance to play opposite her. Even though characters are restricted by phone conversations and flashbacks that construct the film. Beginning with a stray connection, allowing bed-ridden socialite Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) who only wants to talk to her husband who left the office hours ago. We have little idea how strong a role the telephone will play in Sorry, Wrong Number. A mumbled conversation about a murder plot is over heard on a cross-wire –  this isn’t even a shared line like the one found in Pillow Talk (1959), there’s no time for innuendo here. Wanting to do the right thing she’s back onto the operator to try and track down what is essentially an accidental connection.

She wants to reports the crime to the police, but has very little to go on, the time of a train, a New York street, not enough even for a detective to come out to her. Instead the station that took the call is more preoccupied with a baby. Law enforcement has been domesticated whilst shes crippled by an as yet unrevealed condition. We are left wondering how is she going solve this potential crime herself. It’s not like she’s living in a time when murders can be precisely predicted and prevented as in Minority Report (2002). Her only weapon is her phone. Watching this in a time where phones are now so much more than the basic communication device that connects one voice to another anywhere in the country, or even a distant part of the world. She has to rely on notes, memory and the accounts of those she calls. Building up a picture of what has happened, hopefully leading to a happy conclusion. Now we can use social media to broaden our reach, an audience less personal but able to make a bigger impact, then the killer might be stopped before times up.

I wanted to see both Lancaster and Stanwyck on-screen together, we only see this in flashback, understanding how they met and married. Using her position and money to attract Henry J. Stevenson (Lancaster) to marry her. Stanwyck plays a different of Femme fatale, not relying so much on her body and sex appeal, the lure of dangerous encounters. Her position and status are all that small town boy Henry needs, and someone being ignored to ensure they marry. A daddy’s girl who gets what she wants through her condition. A weak heart that could flare up at any minute to control the one she loves. We’ve moved away from simple marital manipulation to calm a situation down like Beulah Bondi in Vivacious Lady (1938) using an “a weak heart” for a simpler life. The wife in both situations is in control, stopping the husband in his tracks.

The flashbacks are the main way of building up the plot. We need to understand the garbled conversation. Who could be behind it. It takes an amateur bed-ridden detective with a phone racking up a massive phone bill to get to the bottom of this crime. One phone call her husbands secretary leads her in the direction of an old love rival Sally Ann Hunt (Ann Richards) who as we see plays detective, spying on her own husband, no-one can be trusted in this film. Wives can’t trust husband who don’t tell the truth or hold things back. It takes another conversation with her doctor Dr Phillip Alexander (Corey) who reveals her condition to be purely psychological, given the film a Freudian overtone, the mother from beyond the grave having a hold over her son-in-law.

All the conversations start to come together as we meet one of her fathers employees Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) who adds the final piece of the puzzle that we have been trying to solve. It becomes even more complicated as a man trapped by marriage, wealth and all the trappings of his position, using them to plan his escape, calculated and cold until cracks begin to show. Leaving his wife alone in there home where she slowly looses her mind over the course of the film. A woman who once had all the control has lost everything, her independence, the care of the nurses, her husband and ultimately her life. A climax that leaves you wondering if she will be saved at the last minute, after all those calls, building up a case of confessions and evidence. If only she took the time to write it all down, its all if-only’s now. Left one one hell of a cliff-hanger.

Sorry, Wrong Number has been a film worth waiting for, the structure allows a plot to be told via technology rather than traveling around, the lead character visiting everyone as they carryout a physical investigation. Based instead entirely on her emotions, feelings running wild as she holds a phone receiver to her face. Ultimately it’s Stanwyck owns the film, bringing it into melodrama at times without loosing the darkness of the plot, a murder will be committed somewhere tonight, the only question is – whose the victim? She asks all these questions from the confines of her bedroom, slowly going mad with the help of some interesting crane and mirror shots, we really don’t know if she’s coming or going, it’s a real roller-coaster ride from start to finish.

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A Song is Born (1948)


As soon as I saw the description for A Song is Born (1948) I knew it sounded very familiar, so familiar that I saw the original only a few months ago – Ball of Fire (1941). Both directed by Howard Hawks and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. I saw the original more for the smart writing than the direction. However I needed to see A Song is Born purely for comparison, what else I get is a massive bonus from a winning formula. I know that Hawks later remade Red River (1948) a few times as Rio Bravo (1959), El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970) of course after the first two the returns on entertainment were diminishing, but that’s a different conversation to be had. I considered talking about Ball of Fire back in June however, the writing, the comedy and the chance to see two of the golden ages finest on-screen together Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper; both versatile actors having fun.

My feeling on remakes or reboots is very mixed, first its not original to go back to the same plot and simply re-produce it with different actors. However it was just not long after the war and audience taste had changed, new actors were entertaining them. Could an old favorite be dusted off for a new audience to enjoy? That’s a risk that Hawks was willing to make. Ball of Fire one of the latter Screwball comedies, everything thrown at you, high-concept ideas and fast gags. Ball of Fire sure fits the bill, with out-of-touch professors who have lived together for too long now. Writing an encyclopedia, the professors each taking a few specialist subjects – Prof. Bertram Potts (Cooper) the linguist specialists and the youngest of the men, who were all born in the 19th century. It’s only when he hears slang that is fresh to his ears is is mind opened to a new world that he had ignored up until now. Going into the outside world for research, handing out his card to those he ear-wigs on, new words and phrases that he wants to understand more about – inviting them for group research. Its really quaint when you look at it now. All this before he ends his day at the nightclub where he discovered club singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Stanwyck) who delivers line after line of slang that makes little sense, but livens up the whole film from just being a ‘got to save the day’ film to something far more exciting. I’ll leave the synopsis there for now.

Now turning to the remake A Song is Born in more detail, you have a tried and tested duo in Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo much like Cooper and Stanwyck, both couples having chemistry. The similarities between the two films are quite striking from the beginning. I could list them all but that would be tiresome. Instead I’ll focus on a few. The first being the setting of the research institution is the same in terms of the set-design a quick recycle and change of plaque on the front before the daughter Miss Toten (Mary Field) who played the same role in both films. Now does this show clever thinking or laziness in not recasting and refreshing the role. The re-use of the set is easily explained as cost-cutting, unless we are seeing into Hawks thinking, is he trying to perfect a film the film that is in his head, based on “From A to Z”. The threat of funding being withdrawn is exactly the same too, leading to Toten being charmed by Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) who she’s secretly attracted to, but exploited here so much. I’m starting to see the differences, the book they are working on, has a greater focus on music, an encyclopedia of all knowledge which only as out of touch as those writing it. Both groups of men are so wrapped up in the past they have forgotten the world outside.

Music is a stronger focus for the characters than just EVERYTHING, still very niche and rich, it allows the Kaye return to a world he is very much associated with, the musical. All courtesy of musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Tommy Dorsey. Of all of the musicians I’ve only heard of Armstrong, all of who though assume the roles of working club musicians, playing Jazz, swing, doo-wop etc, all exciting Frisbee, inviting them back to the institution, not for a Q & A but a performative exploration of music. Taking away the old blackboard and chalk and replacing them with a recording system.

All this before I’ve reached Virginia Mayo’s role of the club singer and gangsters girlfriend. On reflection I feel she was mis-cast in the role that is too dark for her. She does her best by playing up the comedy and musical numbers to compensate. More there as part of a package deal, you want Kaye, you get Mayo, it’s a partnership that’s proven, so why change it? What really lets her and Kaye down though is the recycling of script that is hardly altered really. On the surface it may sound different yet it leads to the same conclusions and jokes. There is a wonderful breakfast scene when Kaye comes down stairs to completely mess up his meal, unaware of what he’s doing, wrapped up in his new experience of love.

The film has it’s positives but I feel it’s weighed down by deja-vu to really be an original and fresh film. I feel that Hawks was either trying to work out a bad part of a film, ironing out the faults to deliver something better. Is that just for his ego though, or was he told by those higher up, your making a film with these two, think of something fast. And here’s the result. A film that has a good formula, with plenty of jokes, I did actually laugh and in the right places. However I was constantly comparing it with whats ultimately a far superior film which sparkles and crackles. An interesting early Wilder picture, who had to wait until 1942 to direct. His original script is merely re-used and reworked, which shows how fast the remake was put into production.

Like I wrote earlier I could go into detail on every scene but that would serve little purpose and I wouldn’t enjoy doing it, finding fault in a minor film that forms a body of work in a director – Hawks who could produce some classic films that stand the test of time, lets call this a mis-fire and move on.


Arizona (1940)


Arizona (1940)About a week ago I tried to watch a very early film with William Holden and Glenn Ford Texas (1941) which I just could sit through, it hadn’t aged well at all. You could see in-experienced actors trying their best to work of each other. Just stumbling around, I left it alone after 10 minutes, yes I’m brutal (or unfair) with some films. However a film from the same period – Arizona (1940) with the same production values, caught my attention and very early on. Even with my suspicions of Jean Arthur in the lead role of a Western, a brave move indeed, which actually paid off. An actress who was actually no stranger to the genre, having previously played Calamity Jane in The Plainsman (1936) opposite Gary Cooper who were a great screen pairing. Not only that having a rare female lead role in a Western as early as 1940 is something I never thought would have happened. I am still learning about this genre, even a few years in my exploration. It wouldn’t really be until the 1950’s with Rancho Notorious and Johnny Guitar (1952 and 1954) and not forgetting the gigantic Forty Guns and The Furies (1957 and 1950) with Barbara StanwyckWas it too soon for a female lead to own a western for audience, having to wait another decade for the psychological side to come oozing out.

From the first time we see Phoebe Titus (Arthur) on-screen she is wearing the clothe’s of a man, she is not defined by her sex, instead defined by the surrounding she chooses to live in. Even though she was the only American woman in the town or even territory, probably to spice up the film and sexual tension that her position might create. She runs an open bakery but is not a push over, even to the self-proclaimed judge Judge Bogardus (Edgar Buchanan) who has to wait at least an hour for his pie. She fills some of the criteria for a frontiers woman, yet is able stand alongside the men in her character. To be honest she has to as the film progress.

Another surprise is that Arthur was around 40 when the film was released, which shows that her screen image was more powerful than her own age. Paired opposite Peter Muncie (Holden) 18 years her junior. You just can’t the difference in age if you judge her by this film and not her long career in film already. She leads the film, even as much as it’s a vehicle to push Holden, they are still holding back with him. When they share the screen age looses all meaning, both appearing to be in their 20’s. It’s the power of youth being portrayed on-screen.

Moving onto look at what the film is really about, which took sometime. history is very much being played fast and loose with here as a territory in 1860 that apparently aligns itself with the Confederate states of America, which made no sense as it’s on the other side of the country and it wasn’t really involved in the Civil War (at least on-screen). After doing a little research it was in fact a divided state that supplied troops to both sides. It did indeed request protection from confederate troops from Apache’s. More historical than I first thought, yet still not going in to detail, ultimately this is a film and not a documentary, fact is only used as a backdrop for the birth of the state and a romance to be place upon. Arizona is not really mentioned in the more classic films that depict the War, instead focusing on the really Southern states.

So onto the plot which took sometime over this lengthy film that looks really at self-preservation from the Apache’s. Wanting protection of the Union who they were yet to join. The army moves out leaving them vulnerable to attacks. Now this is 1940, another world war has just begun and America is in a state of isolation. Pearl harbor is over a year away too, so they are not exactly ready to take up arms. However Hollywood was making films subtly that talked about the War, where they should stand, away from their allies or alongside them. Now this is just a theory as the people of Arizona want protection from the other, who could be Nazi Germany who are only an ocean away.

There are always a few who take advantage of the situation when Titus and Solomon Warner (Paul Harvey) join up to form a wagon train that delivers goods comes under attack by Apache’s who are working with Jefferson Carteret (Warren William) and Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall) who want control over the market. Could these be seen as a metaphor for the unknown German enemy who is working to support the Nazi as American ships travel the Atlantic. Move that to the wagon train route on Arizona and you have a Western. Its pretty clever and very simple too. Allowing for the romance to playing on the back-burner for a while as Muncie joins up with the Union army (not sure when he does) coming back to marry Titus and live the American dream that they found is under threat by two men.

A pleasant surprise for a very much forgotten Western that for a while tries to do away with the woman playing the weaker role, being more dominant. She is still taken advantage of but not for long. Even wearing the odd dress, its however all on her terms which makes this all the more interesting. Maybe it took a maturer actress to take on the role that requires more confidence in not just her clothes but the performance that you really believe in. Here Holden is playing the lesser role which we rarely see in the genre, which makes for an oddity in a genre dominated by men.


Forty Guns (1957) Revisited


Forty Guns (1957)

Ever since I saw Forty Guns (1957) a few years ago I have not been able to shake that opening sequence of sheer madness and cinematic magic as the Bonnell brothers are stopped in their tracks by a stamped of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) and her men as they ride on by them, inviting you into a world that is anything but normal. Raising the dirt from the ground, leaving these three men in bewilderment at this spectacle that is only to continue as we enter into the cattle barons town.

It’s one of the few westerns that really made for the wide-screen, making full use of the format and pushing the visual boundaries of what you can do. Samuel Fuller is giving us a different brand of film-making, one that is all out there, taking your on a journey from different points of view and throwing in anything that comes into his head. You could say this is a movie that should only be shown on the big screen, no widescreen TV can really do it justice.

Forty Guns has nothing to do with the myth of conquest as such. It’s a myth within the myth where anything can happen. As we saw in the opening titles to the first showdown with cuts back and forth to elder brother Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) who makes his mark after the marshall has been shot dead. You can see strong influences for Sergio Leone with the closeups that fill the screen, looking on at the audience, he’s coming for us, no, he’s coming for Jessica’s brother Brockie Drummond (John Ericson), and without a shot he’s down. There’s a new form of law in town, independent from that imposed by Drummond and her puppet Sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger). These are the Earp’s or the of the town, complete with their own history, bringing law with them. A dying breed of man who everyone knows will be gone soon. Even Griff himself who follows in a long tradition of gunfighters who cannot stand still in a town for long.

Even thought Stanwyck was no stranger to the genre she is particularly strong in this masculine role. The men are referred to as guns not men, tools that she uses at work, those who she gives orders to on her ranch. It takes a really strong man to stand up to her, which we find in Sullivan. Also the rifle-makers daughter (Sandy Wirth) is a match for middle brother (Robert Dix), it’s a masculine position that makes her more attractive, not just at home or in the dancehall, working the gambling tables. Our view of her on the screen is still very masculine even looking down the barrel of a gun, a target that has to be caught and married. When he visits her one time, he is measured for a gun, much like a suit, a gun is still seen as an essential part of being a man. A made to measure tool for the man, by the woman, allowing him to get closer to her, or more the other way around. Acting as the secondary romance to that between Griff and Jessica which does come out of the blue, both strong characters who brought together by chance. 

Thats chance encounter being a tornado, a real personal touch by the director, another of those moments of spontaneity which bring these two characters together. Well forced I should say by the elements. You could say nothing make sense in this film, that was my original conclusion as it goes against tradition and the language of the genre to deliver a thrill-ride of a film. Throwing in these motifs in part to engage a declining audience and to make the genre fresh again. Acting as an antidote to the darker Anthony Mann westerns of the decade, with all the hallmarks of New-wave cinema, combining classical imagery with unconventional cinematography.

With the crooked sheriff, with have a cowardly lion who’s roar is soon quietened, living in the pocket of Jessica, before living in fear of her after the arrest of one of her men/guns. We see a loyalty to the landowner destroy him as the film progresses. There’s a lot going on for a film that has only an 80 minute running time, so much happens and you can’t really process it. This was a welcome and much anticipated revisit that has given me so much more. A powerful female figure in the west was factually rare, and on cinema even rarer. Stanwyck’s presence on-screen is softer, able able to retain that far better. She never loses authority of her, it’s just over what she has authority of than changes.


Titanic (1953)


Titanic (1953)After watching The Perverts Guide to Ideology (2012) in which  Slavoj Zizek touched on the more recent version (1997) of the sinking of The Titanic in 1912, centring around a couple both from different classes, which Zizek theorised was about a upper-class woman Kate Winslet making use of a third class passenger Leonardo DiCaprio in order to feel alive once more. That’s just a theory so you can take it or leave it. For me I enjoy finding the deeper meaning in films, going onto to watch straight after the earlier Titanic 1953 take on the disaster that saw so many lives lost in the Atlantic ocean.

There was indeed a romance onboard between two people from different classes. However the idea if class was dealt with more head-on for a time when a mother Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) leaves with her children to start a new life in America, away from all the pomp and etiquette of the upper-class that has  begun to transform her children into something she would hate to see. It appears to late for daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton) who looks down at an eager Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner) who wants to court the young lady. Trapped in her upper class ways of life. Whilst her mother and father Richard Ward Sturges (Clifton Webb) fight during the voyage.

The far shorter film also looks at the lives of others onboard the doomed ocean-liner, such as drunken reverend Richard Basehart who is returning home. Whilst we catch very little of Thelma Ritter‘s character, a down to earth wealthy woman who loves a good game of cards. Also in the background is the action of the captain (Brian Aherne) and crew as they set-out full of hope on the ships maiden voyage. All the while I am waiting for the inevitable to occur, as I do with all films based on major events, wondering how they will be played out. Receiving word of an iceberg that has been spotted by other passing ships.

You could blame the sinking on a number of factors; the lack of binoculars amongst the men to watch out for obstacles such as icebergs, to the speed of communication between ships and receiving the messages. To the captain believing that the ship was indestructible, a mind-set of the complacency and pride to ignore any possible dangers, even with a new system that would shut off areas of the ship that became flooded. This way of thinking would washed away (pardon the pun) after WWI.

Overall it’s a good film that delivers what it sets out to do, depict the sinking of the Titanic, but along the way the Sturges family who are the centre of it all change in places, the father’s attitude to his family, their past and future. If he had survived he may well have changed his way, a man trapped in his class up until the very end. Family is at the heart of this now dated film that isn’t all about special effects, the ship doesn’t tear in two before sinking, it’s more straight forward than that. The end is shocking as we see the women and children leave in the lifeboats, leaving the brave men to die. Comparing it to James Cameron‘s monster of a film seems futile in places, they are two different beasts, one a run of the mill drama, whilst another is a blockbuster romance set in a disaster. The acting is what saves this film from being forgotten,  what makes it worth a look at least.

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Meet John Doe (1941)


Meet John Doe (1941)It’s been a while since I’ve seen a cockle warmer by Frank Capra and to be honest I could have waited a lot longer after seeing Meet John Doe (1941) which sees Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the first time. I think all of Capra’s work will always be held up to his most successful picture It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), of course it was It Happened One Night (1934) which won all the Oscars, but it’s the James Stewart classic which sums up Capra as great director which every-time brings so much warmth into your heart it hurts when you cry just that little at the end.

Yet going over the films of his I have seen, comparing them full of warmth and values of a period in time and film history. I feel by the time of John Doe‘s release Europe is very much at war and America is watching from a safe distance, and the public is wondering when they will be drawn into the bloodshed that was WWII.

The set-up of journalist Ann Mitchell (Stanwyck) who will types out her last piece for a newspaper that has made her redundant, sparks a national outcry when a fictional letter of a man on the edge of life, fed up with the state of America and life declares that he was going to commit suicide on Christmas eve. This single letter sparks a reaction in the nation that wants this life to be saved, to speak out for  the values that are in decline. Most importantly to raise circulation for the paper. Ensuring Mitchell’s job security and that of another man to become the face of this campaign. They pick John Willoughby, now known as John Doe (Cooper) who is accompanied with the suspicious ‘Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) who always brings Willoughby to account, to remind him of his hobo roots, to understand what money can do to a man if he lets it go to his head.

It takes a while for the campaign of John Doe to really settle in the mind of a would be pro baseball player, now giving his all to a cause that encourages the average joe of America to reach out and help their neighbour. These are very Christian values that underpin the film. Whilst in the background the owner D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) of the paper is using the campaign to engineer a third political party to go against those in Washington.

There are moments of schmaltz that are synonymous with Capra which are immediately forgive, yet the tone of the film is too political, even in the wake of Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). When the power of the downtrodden man is brought across. However they are not half as emotive as past efforts such as You Can’t Take it With You (1938) where everything about those scenes is just right. I feel by the time of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) everything that made a Capra film came together and sparkled, once more with his best leading man, began to crumble with his next film State of the Union (1948) which was extremely political and sadly outdated, even with one of Hollywood’s greatest on-screen partnerships.

For me all of those thoughts and ideas overlook heavily what could be a much greater film, there are moments but very few that see both Cooper and Stanwyck sparkle on screen in films to follow. John Doe will never harm Capra’s legacy which will be one of happy feel good films that touch the audience in a special place and speak of traditional values from a bygone era that to today’s audiences is a gateway to another time.