Barbara Stanwyck

Pre-Code Essentials: Night Nurse (1931)

Barbara Stanwyck Night Nurse

Plot

When Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) lands a job as a probationary nurse at a hospital, she quickly learns the ropes with help from Maloney (Joan Blondell). One lesson she learns is that sometimes the patients she helps will be eager to show their gratitude. For Lora, that patient ends up being Mortie (Ben Lyon), a bootlegger she takes care of after he’s shot. She breaks from protocol by not reporting his gunshot wounds to the authorities, keeping Mortie out of hot water.

After becoming a full-fleged nurse, Lora becomes a night nurse for the two young children of socialite Mrs. Ritchey (Charlotte Merriam). One of her children has already died and Lora immediately recognizes that the two surviving children are starving to death, but Mrs. Ritchey can’t pull herself away from the booze to care. She’s deeply concerned about the treatment the children’s doctor is prescribing and about how much authority their chauffeur Nick (Clark Gable) has over the family. Lora does everything she can to get help, but has a hard time getting anybody to listen to her. When she finally gets help from a doctor she trusts, he advises her to stay and gather evidence.

As one of the Ritchey children is on the brink of death, a housekeeper tips Lora off about how she thinks Nick and the children’s doctor are plotting to murder the children as a way to get their trust fund. But the only person who can help Lora save the children is Mortie.


My Thoughts

Whether you’re a big fan of Barbara Stanwyck or of pre-codes in general, you’ll love Night Nurse. This is one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best tough talking dame roles; she is an absolute boss in this movie. Watching her fight with people for the sake of protecting the children is truly a thing of beauty. I also loved seeing Stanwyck teamed with Joan Blondell. I really wish Blondell and Stanwyck had done more movies together. They are two of my favorite actresses from the pre-code era, so I wish I could see more movies where they play best friends who go around being sassy together.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

Gratuitous undressing galore.

The fact that a bootlegger ends up being one of the heroes.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Sure, Night Nurse has plentiful innuendo and gratuitous undressing scenes, but the ending is very distinctly pre-code. Not only does a criminal end up being one of the heroes, the movie ends with him casually alluding to the fact that he just had Nick bumped off, then happily driving off with Lora as Nick’s body is delivered to the morgue. Not that anybody is sorry to see Nick go, but it’s a much darker type of happy ending than a lot of people typically think of old movies as having.

Pre-Code Essentials: Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Ladies They Talk About 1933Plot

Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is part of a gang of bank robbers and when she gets arrested after a robbery, she turns to her childhood friend David Slade (Preston Foster) for help. David is now a famous preacher who rallies for tougher punishments for criminals. She leads him to believe she is innocent, hoping having his approval would help get her off. But when she confesses the truth, David pulls his support and sends Nan up the river.

Nan adjusts pretty well to prison life, but makes an enemy of Susie (Dorothy Burgess), who adores David and is jealous of Nan’s connection to him. Even though Nan is still furious at David for what he’s done to her, he still writes to her regularly. It isn’t long before she finds out that some of her former partners in crime are now in the same prison and one of them is plotting an escape. The only way she can help is if she agrees to talk to David again, and Nan agrees. But when their plan is foiled, Nan ends up spending more time in prison, growing angrier and angrier at David, thinking he’s ratted her out again, not realizing that he was innocent. When she gets released, she wants nothing more than to find David and make him pay for betraying him.


My Thoughts

Ladies They Talk About isn’t a particularly great movie. The story is pretty convoluted and far fetched and there’s an odd scene where Lillian Roth serenades a picture of Joe E. Brown. This is definitely the kind of movie you watch just for the pre-codeness of it all because it’s a pretty mediocre movie in every other respect.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

As fellow inmate Linda shows Nan around the prison, she points out one inmate, a butch looking woman, and says, “Watch out for her, she likes to wrestle.”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Ladies They Talk About may not be a particularly great movie, but at least it delivers big time on the pre-code material. The prison scenes are full of gratuitous shots of women in their stockings and garters, plus the aforementioned lesbian inmate. Not to mention that the whole movie is about a criminal who ends up with a happy ending. It even starts with the exact same version of “St. Louis Blues” that was so famously used in Barbara Stanwyck’s other pre-code triumph Baby Face. If I were to pick a theme song for the pre-code era, it would definitely be that particular version of “St. Louis Blues.”

Cry Wolf (1947)

Cry Wolf 1947 Poster

When Sandra Marshall (Barbara Stanwyck) gets word that Jim, her husband of five months, has passed away, she does what any good wife would do and goes to see his family. But Sandra and Jim’s marriage wasn’t exactly conventional. Their marriage was a secret and they had an arrangement to stay married for six months so he could collect money from his trust fund. Sandra visits Jim’s scientist uncle Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn), who is naturally surprised, yet skeptical, to hear his brother had a wife. But until her claims can be proven, she stays at the family home.

The more time Sandra spends with Jim’s family, the more strange behavior she sees.  First of all, Jim’s funeral was closed casket, which is odd considering he allegedly died of pneumonia. When Sandra visit’s Jim’s room, she finds all his sport clothes and pipes are missing. Mark is also disturbingly controlling of Jim’s younger sister, Julie (Geraldine Brooks). He has the family’s servants constantly monitoring Julie, he reads her mail, and he refuses to let her leave the estate. Sandra and Julie quickly become friends and when Julie hears screams coming from Mark’s laboratory, Sandra goes with her to investigate. Although Mark later tries to dismiss Julie’s claims of hearing screams as nothing more than her imagination, Sandra heard the screams too and suspects it may have been Jim’s screams they heard.

For the most part, I liked Cry Wolf. I like movies that keep me guessing and Cry Wolf did just that. It also did a good job of not letting me quite pinpoint Mark’s motives up until the very end. But unfortunately, since I couldn’t fully figure out what type of person Mark was, it made it a little hard for me to be satisfied with the ending. However, I did enjoy seeing Errol Flynn in a role different from the usual swashbuckler/adventure type movies I”m used to seeing him in. He was good, as was Barbara Stanwyck. However, the script isn’t quite strong enough to elevate Cry Wolf from being a good movie to a great movie.

What’s on TCM: July 2014

Maureen O'HaraHappy July, everyone!  With summer now in full swing, TCM has plenty of great movies to watch on hot summer nights.  Maureen O’Hara is July’s Star of the Month and will be featured every Tuesday night this month.  TCM will also be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I every Friday by showing some of the best WWI movies, including The Big ParadeSergeant YorkGrand Illusion, and All Quiet on the Western Front, just to name a few.

The night I am most looking forward to this month is July 10th.  TCM will be featuring six classic documentaries such as Salesman, Harlan County USA, and Sans Soleil. I really like documentaries and that night’s movies is a nice mix of things I’m looking forward to re-watching and ones I’ve been wanting to see.

Now, on to the rest of the schedule…

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A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940

Barbara Stanwyck Steel True Victoria WilsonIf you’ve ever had any questions about the life of Barbara Stanwyck, Victoria Wilson’s “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940″ is bound to have the answers.

At over 800 pages long, “Steel True” is the very definition of an extensive biography.  (Keep in mind this book only covers Barbara’s life up until 1940.  The other fifty years will be covered in future volumes.)  In fact, this may very well be the most extensive movie star biography I will ever read.  In “Steel True,” Wilson doesn’t simply offer a look at Barbara Stanwyck’s life, she immerses the reader in Stanwyck’s world.  Barring any advances in the field of time travel, “Steel True” is the closest thing to actually being there with her.   You don’t just learn what Stanwyck was doing, you learn about her friends, family, and co-workers, what they were doing,  and what was happening in the world at the time.

Whether or not I would recommend “Steel True” solely depends on what type of biography you’re looking for.  Even though I really appreciated Wilson’s in-depth approach, I can see how it might not be what other people are looking for.  Perhaps you’ve just seen a Barbara Stanwyck movie for the first time and you want to learn a bit more about her.  In that case, “Steel True” may be a bit overwhelming.  However, if you’re already a big Barbara Stanwyck fan and want to know about her life in greater detail, this is absolutely the book you want.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.

Ten Cents a Dance (1931)

Ten Cents a Dance 1931Barbara O’Neill (Barbara Stanwyck) is one of the best dancers in the dime dance joint she works in.  But lately, her personal life has been distracting her at work.  She’s fallen in love with her friend Eddie Miller (Monroe Owsley), but she’s also being pursued by the wealthy Bradley Carlton (Ricardo Cortez).  Barbara does her best to keep from getting too close to Bradley, but she convinces him to give Eddie a job working at his company.  She keeps Eddie in the dark about what her real job is, but eventually he finds out and when he does, he declares that he wants to marry her and wants her to quit her job.

Eddie and Barbara are married and money is tight for them.  Things get even worse when Eddie runs into some old friends and goes to play cards with them.  He winds up losing $240 and tries to keep it a secret from Barbara.  Barbara secretly goes back to working at the dime dance joint and although Eddie often claims to be working, he’s actually off cavorting with his old friends and getting even deeper into debt.  When their lights are turned off because they can’t pay the bill, Eddie resorts to stealing $5,000 from Bradley.

Eddie admits what he’s done to Barbara and plans to leave town, but she gets him to stay by going to Bradley and borrowing the $5,000 from him, even though he was the one who was robbed in the first place.  But when Eddie finds out where she got the money, he gets extremely jealous and Barbara walks out on him and heads right into the arms of Bradley.

Ten Cents a Dance is far from being one of Barbara Stanwyck’s better pre-codes.  Even though 1931 was still very early in Stanwyck’s film career, she was already capable of giving some great performances.  After all, 1931 was the same year she made Illicit, Night Nurse, and The Miracle Woman.  But what movies like The Miracle Woman and Illicit have that Ten Cents a Dance lacks is interesting material.  Those were roles that Stanwyck could really sink her teeth into and there just isn’t a whole lot of meat to Ten Cents a Dance.  It’s not a terrible movie, just underwhelming compared to some of Stanwyck’s other work from the same year.

The Miracle Woman (1931)

The Miracle Woman 1931Florence Fallon’s (Barbara Stanwyck) father dedicated his life to being a minister.  After spending twenty years giving his all to his congregation, he is forced out by his church and it’s too much for him to bear.  He dies the morning he was to give his final sermon, leaving Florence heartbroken and furious at the congregation for the way they treated him.  When she gets up to deliver what would have been his final sermon, she tells the congregation exactly what she thinks of them.  The congregation does not appreciate Florence’s brutal honesty and leaves, but she catches the attention of Hornsby (Sam Hardy), a promoter who wants to turn her into a popular, albeit phony, evangelist.

Florence goes along with his plan and makes it big. When John Carson (David Manners), a former aviator who has gone blind, hears one of her sermons over the radio, it changes his life.  He goes to see one of her shows and waits to meet her afterwards.  After they meet, Florence goes back to John’s apartment and they have a wonderful evening together. When Florence realizes how genuinely touched he was by her sermon, she feels extremely guilty about the shady nature of her business and wants to get out of it. But Hornsby has been harboring secret feelings about her and refuses to let her go.  Florence continues to see John and falls madly in love with him, but Hornsby blackmails her into going on a romantic trip to Monte Carlo.  As she says goodbye to John, she admits to being a phony, but even that isn’t enough to make him stop loving her.

Just before Florence is to go on stage for her last show before her trip, John comes backstage and tries to convince her that he has been miraculously cured.  He isn’t very convincing, but the effort inspires Florence to go out and tell her followers the truth.  Hornsby tries to stop her by turning off the lights, which accidentally causes a fire to break out.  Every0ne escapes and John rescues Florence.  After that incident, Florence leaves everything behind to join the Salvation Army.  One day, she gets a telegram from John letting her know that he may be able to get his vision back and still wants to marry her.

I’ve seen most of the movies Barbara Stanwyck made in the first few years of her career and The Miracle Woman ranks as one of my favorites from that era.  Any movie that opens with Barbara Stanwyck telling off a whole crowd of people is my kind of movie.  Her performance is wonderful throughout the movie, but the way she mixes vulnerability, sadness, and anger in that first scene is incredible and a powerful way to start the movie off.  It’s one of my favorite scenes Stanwyck has ever done.

Another thing I adored about The Miracle Woman was Frank Capra’s direction.  When John comes to see Florence’s show for the first time, she delivers her sermon standing in a cage with lions.  (Yes, The Miracle Woman opens with Stanwyck telling people off, then later she does a scene in a cage with lions. How awesome is that?)  The way Capra filmed this scene really stayed with me after the movie was over.  Florence wears a robe that isn’t particularly ornate, but it does have a sheer overlay with long sleeves.  As she moves her arms, the light hits those sheer sleeves and it makes her look almost angelic, like there’s an aura surrounding her.  Given the way Florence’s followers view her, I thought that making her look as heavenly — literally– as possible was a such a perfect choice for that scene.