Barbara Stanwyck

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Ladies They Talk About 1933 Barbara StanwyckNan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) is arrested after helping some friends rob a bank, but before her trial, she meets with David Slade (Preston Foster), a former classmate.  David is now a well-known preacher and very vocal about wanting harsher punishments for criminals.  When he sees Nan again, she tells him that she’s innocent and because he’s very attracted to her, he starts declaring her innocent to all of his followers.  But just as she’s about to be granted parole, she confesses the truth to David and she is sent to San Quentin instead.

Nan adjusts pretty well to prison life.  Even though she doesn’t get along with Susie (Dorothy Burgess), who is a big fan of David’s and very jealous of her connection to him, she’s generally well liked by the other prisoners and finds a good friend in Linda (Lillian Roth).  David writes to Nan, begging her to let him come visit her, but she just ignores all his letters.  One day, she gets a visit from her old friend Lefty (Harold Huber), who was part of that bank robbery, and finds out that their other cohorts Don and Dutch are in prison now, too.  Lefty is working on a plan to break them out of there, but needs Nan’s help.  She agrees to help, but she also finally agrees to see David again.

When David comes to see her, she gives David a letter to mail for her, and not thinking anything of it, he does.  The letter was to Lefty, which contained important information about the escape plan, and it ends up in the hands of the police and the whole plan is foiled.  Nan is furious with David because she thinks he deliberately ratted her out and now she has to stay in prison for another year.  When she finally does get out, she’s out for revenge.

Even though Ladies They Talk About is one of the more well-known pre-codes, I really wouldn’t call it a great movie.  The story is rather muddled and sometimes is just plain odd.  There’s one scene where Lillian Roth sings a song to a picture of Joe E. Brown.  When I recorded this, there was a cable interruption in the middle of it, so I missed about two minutes of the movie, but when it came back on, all of a sudden, there was Lillian Roth singing to Joe E. Brown and I was very confused. I have absolutely no idea why that happened so if someone could please fill me in on that, I’d appreciate it.

I’m no expert on prison escapes, but I’m pretty sure the escape attempt seen in this movie is one of the worst ones of all time.  Mostly because so much of it involves making a lot of noise late at night when it’s supposed to be dead quiet.  First, the guy knocks along the wall to find Nan’s cell.  Nobody else heard a lot of strange knocking coming from the wall?  Then, to drown out the noise of him trying to break through the wall, Nan starts playing music.  For some reason, no guard finds it at all suspicious that one of the inmates is suddenly playing loud music late at night. One way Nan helps with the escape plan is to make an imprint of an important key in a bar of soap, traces the outline, and sends it to Lefty.  I don’t know how the lady didn’t notice that one of her keys was suddenly very soapy.  Actually, you know what? I take back what I said about this escape plan being terrible.  It’s not so stupid if the prison staff is this completely oblivious.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

On the night they were to be married, American missionaries Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Dr. Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) have to put their wedding on hold to rescue some children from an orphanage stuck in the middle of a war zone. In order to get through safely, Dr. Strike asks the feared General Yen (Nils Asther) for a pass to get to the orphanage safely. But General Yen doesn’t think very highly of Dr. Strike and sends him on his way with a worthless piece of paper. Dr. Strike and Megan manage to make their way to the orphanage, but when they get them to the train station, they find themselves caught in the melee and are separated.

Megan is knocked unconscious and when she comes to, finds herself on General Yen’s private train being cared for by Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s mistress. She isn’t clear-headed enough to realize who he is, but she figures it out pretty quickly when she wakes up in his summer palace. Yen terrifies her, but he’s quite smitten with her. She wants to leave immediately, but he refuses to let her leave, telling her it isn’t safe. She tries to get letters to Dr. Strike, but Mah-Li never sends them. Yen repeatedly asks her to join him for dinner, but she keeps refusing.

But one night, Megan has a dream about Yen that reveals her true feelings toward him: deep down inside, she’s in love with him. Finally, she stops resisting his advances and joins him for dinner. But while Megan is getting closer to Yen, Mah-Li is betraying his trust. Mah-Li is actually a spy who has been feeding information about Yen to his enemies. When Yen catches her, Megan begs him not to kill her and offers to personally keep an eye on her.  If anything happens again, he could kill Megan. Yen agrees, but when Mah-Li once again gives information to the enemies, information that leads to Yen’s downfall, Yen would rather take his own life than take Megan’s.

I really wanted to be able to like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but I couldn’t really get into it. I’m just not a fan of movies that involve a woman being held against her will and she eventually falls in love with her captor. They’re just creepy to me. However, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is far less off-putting than, say, The Barbarian. Frank Capra was General Yen‘s director, so it’s safe to expect some very high production values from it. It has some very beautiful cinematography, Stanwyck and Asther had great chemistry together, and I loved Megan’s perfectly surreal dream sequence. Even though it was far from being one of my favorite movies, it was worth seeing at least once anyway.

East Side, West Side (1949)

Brandon (James Mason) and Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) are a very happily married couple and part of Manhattan’s elite.  Things weren’t always so happy for them, though.  Brandon has a history of infidelity, but Jessie is the only woman he loves and he’s determined to leave the past behind.  All is going well for them until one night, he visits a nightclub and finds out Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), his former girlfriend, is back in town.  She wants to pick things up with him again and Brandon fights hard to resist her advances.

While at the club, Brandon ends up getting into a fight with Isabel’s date for the night.  Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) witnesses the fight and tries to help Brandon since she respects Jessie and doesn’t want to see the incident splashed across the society page.  Sure enough, though, the story makes the paper and some of Jessie’s friends are worried about what Isabel’s return could mean for their marriage.  Jessie goes to meet Rosa to thank her for helping Brandon and gives her a ride to the airport so she can pick up her boyfriend Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin).

It just so happens that Mark is the guest of honor at a party being thrown by some of Jessie and Brandon’s friends.  But just before the party, Isabel convinces Brandon to come see her at her apartment.  Although he has every intention of ending things with her once and for all, he ends up staying so long that Jessie has to go to the party alone.  But while at the party, she gets to know Mark some more and he begins to fall in love with her.

The next day, Jessie gets a call from Isabel and goes to her apartment to confront her.  Isabel swears up and down that she’s the one he really wants, and Jessie begins to worry she might be right, but then she gets a call from Brandon telling her that Isabel has been murdered.  Naturally, Brandon gets brought in for questioning, and even though he’s cleared in the matter, the incident forces Jessie to make up her mind whether or not she wants to stay with Brandon.

I was surprised that East Side, West Side got pretty mediocre reviews on my cable guide and the TCM website, because I really enjoyed it.  If it had been made with a lesser cast, I don’t think I would have been nearly as good, but everybody was completely on point here it absolutely made the movie.  I loved Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin together.  Ava Gardner was one deliciously conniving other woman; she truly revels in making you hate Isabel.  Even Cyd Charisse was good, which might be surprising to a lot of people since this isn’t a musical.

My only complaint was that I was getting bored during the scenes where Van Heflin puts on his detective hat to figure out who killed Isabel.  Those scenes didn’t seem to fit in very well with the rest of the movie.  It was almost like they came out of some other movie.  First it was a drama about marriage, then all of a sudden it turned into a murder mystery, and then it went right back to being a drama again.

But that issue aside, I was very surprised by just how good East Side, West Side was.  Definitely keep an eye out for this one, I don’t think it really gets the credit it deserves.

What’s on TCM: July 2012

Happy July, everyone!  Hard to believe that it’s already almost time for Summer Under the Stars, but TCM has lots of fun stuff going on in July to keep us busy until then.  Leslie Howard is the Star of the Month and his movies will be on every Tuesday night this month.  Every Monday in July will be dedicated to showing 24 hours of adventure movies.  Spike Lee is this month’s guest programmer and has chosen some excellent movies for the night of July 5th.  There are a lot of good things to mention, so let’s get to it:

(more…)

What’s on TCM: May 2012

Happy May, everyone!  It certainly looks like it’s going to be a busy month on TCM.  Joel McCrea is the star of the month, which is something I know a lot of people have been wanting to see for quite some time.  He’ll be featured every Wednesday night this month.  Every Thursday night will be all about movies based on true crime stories.  Plus there’s the annual 48-hour war movie marathon for Memorial day will run from May 27-28.  So without further ado, let’s get to the schedule:

(more…)

So Big! (1932)

As a young girl, it looks like Selina Peake (Barbara Stawnyck) has got the life.  Her father is well off and he sends her to one of the best finishing schools in Chicago.  That all changes when her father suddenly dies and leaves her with no money to support herself.  With some help from her friends’ father, she gets a job as a school teacher in a small farming community outside of Chicago.  She moves in with the Pooles, a family of farmers.  Their son Roelf Pool (Dick Winslow as a child, George Brent as an adult) is too busy working on the farm to attend school, so Selina tutors him when he has time.  Roelf develops a bit of a crush on Selina and becomes very jealous when she falls in love with Pervus De Jong, another farmer, and marries him.

Selina and Pervus soon have a son, Dirk (Dickie Moore as a child, George Brent as an adult).  Selina wants Dirk to grow up to be able to do all the things she wasn’t able to.  When her husband dies, she continues to work hard on the farm to make that happen and she does it all alone.  Death also pays a visit to the Pool family and Roelf’s mother also dies, prompting him to leave home.  The years fly by and Roelf has become the talk of the art world as a sculptor in Europe and Dirk has recently graduated from college with a degree in architecture.  But Dirk isn’t especially fond of being an architect, and when he begins seeing a married woman who offers to get him a job as a bond salesman for her husband’s company, he takes her up on the offer.

Even though Dirk quickly works his way up to assistant manager and is making much more money than he was as an architect, Selina can’t help but be a little disappointed that her son doesn’t have the job she always dreamed he would have.  One day, he meets artist Dallas O’Mara (Bette Davis) and instantly falls in love with her.  Although Dallas also likes Dirk, but she won’t marry him because she prefers people who look rugged, like they’ve really lived and worked and suffered.  Eventually, Roelf makes a triumphant return to America and to Dirk’s surprise, finds out that Roelf and Dallas know each other and that she is planning to bring him to see his mother.  A big reason Roelf wanted to come home was to thank Selina for helping him become the person he now is.

So Big! isn’t one of my favorites.  A lot of the shifts in time were pretty abrupt and jarring, but I liked it well enough and it’s quite interesting in some respects.  Considering that Stella Dallas went on to become one of Barbara Stanwyck’s most definitive movies, it’s interesting to look at this as something of an early precursor to Stella Dallas.  Only it’s kind of like Stella Dallas in reverse.  Instead of a lower class girl aspiring to be part of the upper class and sacrifices everything for her child, it’s an upper class girl who becomes a farmer’s wife and works hard to give her child everything.  It’s also interesting to see a young Barbara Stanwyck crossing paths with a young Bette Davis.  Unfortunately, their characters don’t actually interact with each other, which is too bad, but it’s exciting just to get to see the two of them in the same movie together.

Illicit (1931)

While many young ladies are chomping at the bit to get married, especially to a rich man, Anne Vincent (Barbara Stanwyck) isn’t one of them.  She loves Dick Ives, II (James Rennie) dearly, but really does not want to get married.  He’s repeatedly asked her to marry him, but she’s afraid getting married would ruin their relationship.  She’s seen how some of her friends’ marriages have ended up and she doesn’t want to wind up like them.  Living together out of wedlock is just fine and dandy by her.  But Dick’s family is much more conventional than she is and when word gets out about their illicit relationship, she gives into the pressure to get married.

All is going well before the wedding until Anne gets a telegram from her ex-boyfriend Price Baines (Ricardo Cortez) announcing that he’s coming to see her.  Dick doesn’t like the idea of her seeing him before the wedding, but she insists on it.  Naturally, Price is shocked to hear that she of all people is getting married and tries to talk her out of it and be with him instead.  She sticks to her guns and marries Dick.  At first, their marriage is great, but after about a year, things start to go downhill.  They never get to spend any time alone, Dick spends a lot of time traveling for work, and finally, Anne finds out Dick is having an affair with his ex-girlfriend Margie (Natalie Moorhead).

When Anne finally confronts Dick about his affair, she realizes that marriage has made her into the person she was afraid of becoming.  She decides to move back to her old apartment so they can have their freedoms again and maybe recapture the thrill of their early relationship.  They continue to see each other and it seems the plan has worked.  But one day, Price drops in on Anne unexpectedly and tries once again to win her over.  Even though she turns him down, Dick also comes over unannounced and catches them together.  He is furious and declares that he’s going to see other people, too.  He gets back together with Margie and even plans to take a to take a trip with her.  Anne is heartbroken, but just when she thinks he has left her for good, Dick surprises her.

Illicit is one of the most completely pre-code movie titles you can possibly have, and it certainly lives up to its name.  Living together out of wedlock, questioning marriage, adultery, plenty of innuendo, it doesn’t get much more pre-code than that.  Even though the idea of living together out of wedlock is not shocking at all anymore, this movie still packs a punch.  I loved Barbara Stanwyck in it, but I wish they had featured Joan Blondell more.  Joan had a small part as one of Anne’s friends, but I like seeing her with Stanwyck.  I liked them together in Night Nurse and since they’re both actresses who thrived in the pre-code era, it would have been fun if they had been teamed up more often.

Stella Dallas (1937)

Barbara Stanwyck plays Stella Martin, a working class girl who has a thing for factory executive Stephen Dallas (John Boles).  The class difference would pose a problem, but Stephen’s family isn’t as wealthy as they once were, which had just resulted in Stephen having to end his engagement to another woman.  After running into Stella one day,  the two of them begin seeing each other and they soon are married.  Things are great at first, but eventually Stella gets bored with her new life and starts reverting to some of her old low-class behaviors, which Stephen doesn’t like at all.  Even though they’ve recently had a baby girl, Laurel (Anne Shirley), Stephen begins spending more and more time away on business.  When they do officially separate, he lets Stella have custody of Laurel because even though he could offer Laurel a better life, Stella loves her more than anything.  And it’s true  that Stella can’t give Laurel everything that Stephen can, but she does what she can to give her the best and builds an excellent relationship with her daughter as she grows up.

But despite Stella’s best efforts, the class differences between her and Stephen become more and more apparent as Laurel gets older.  After Laurel goes to visit his father, she gets a taste of the high life and likes it.  When Stella finds out that Stephen wants a divorce so he can remarry, she refuses and demands more money from him so she can keep Laurel happy.  One of the things Stella does for Laurel is take her to a very upscale resort.  Unfortunately, Stella is ill during part of their stay and stays in her room, but Laurel has a great time and makes lots of friends.  When Stella finally does make her grand appearance, she wants to look her best, so she goes all out for the occasion.  Only she goes a little too far and ends up looking horribly tacky and winds up being the talk of the resort for all the wrong reasons.  Laurel had never been embarrassed by her mother before, but she can’t take listening to everyone talk about her mother like that.  After Stella overhears some of the things being said about her, she realizes the only way to give Laurel the best in life is for her to step out of it.

Even though I wouldn’t call Stella Dallas one of my favorite Barbara Stanwyck movies (it’s awfully hard to beat Double Indemnity, Baby Face, and The Lady Eve in my book), it is one of my favorite performances of hers.  I can’t think of any other actress from that era who could have played that part as well as she did.  Even though Ruth Chatterton was the original choice for the role (and she wouldn’t have been a bad choice), Barbara Stanwyck was the queen of playing women who were rough around the edges.  She delivered a perfect mix of that lack of refinement and her signature toughness, but also brought a lot of softness and sentimentality.  Not only that, I loved her chemistry with Anne Shirley.  All in all, it’s a very enjoyable movie.  Just beware that the ending is a total tearjerker.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

After spending 18 days floating on a raft after a submarine attack and six weeks in a hospital recovering, the only thing Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) can think about is a good meal.  While he’s in the hospital, he starts flirting with his nurse Mary (Joyce Compton) in hopes of getting that good meal, but Mary ends up falling in love with him and wants to get marry him.  When Jefferson says he doesn’t want to get married, Mary assumes it’s because he’s never had a proper home.  Determined to give Jefferson the best traditional, down home Christmas ever, she writes to Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) and asks if he could spend Christmas with her.  Elizabeth writes a magazine column about living on her farm in Connecticut with her husband, baby, and all of her delectable recipes and is the envy of housewives all across the country.  What America doesn’t realize is that Elizabeth really lives in Manhattan, isn’t married, has no children, and can’t cook to save her life.  She tries to get out of it, but her publisher Mr. Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) realizes this event would make a spectacular publicity stunt and makes her go through with it.  And to top it all off, Mr. Yardley invites himself along to this event!

Elizabeth and her boyfriend John Sloan (Reginald Gardner) frantically rush to create the life that she’s talked about in her articles.  They get the Connecticut farm, borrow a baby, bring along Felix (who actually creates all of Elizabeth’s recipes), and even arrange to finally get married.  As for the wedding, they arrange for a judge to come by the farm before Jefferson is supposed to arrive, but Jefferson arrives earlier than expected, so the wedding has to wait.  With Jefferson around, Elizabeth realizes she’s completely incompetent at actually living up to her image.  She can’t bathe the baby, change its diaper, or flip pancakes, but she’s able to fake it enough to make Jefferson start to fall in love with her.  Elizabeth also falls in love with Jefferson and gladly accepts all the events that delay her marriage to John.  The only person who knows how she feels about Jefferson is Felix, who helps create some of those wedding delays.

Jefferson really does have the perfect Norman Rockwell Christmas, but the charade becomes harder and harder to keep up.  First, they weren’t able to use the same baby for both days and the two babies look nothing alike.  Mr. Yardley starts talking to John and tells him he wants Elizabeth to have another baby because it’d be good for his magazine sales.  When everyone is invited to a community dance, Jefferson and Elizabeth sneak away from the festivities and sit in a horse-drawn sleigh, but much to their surprise, the horse starts taking them for a ride.  They flirt during their impromptu sleigh ride, but then the police find them and accuse them of stealing the sleigh and bring them to jail for the rest of the night.  Meanwhile, back at the farm, the mother of the borrowed baby comes to pick up her baby.  When she finds everyone asleep, she just takes her baby and leaves, but Yardley sees her and thinks she’s kidnapping Elizabeth’s baby.  Elizabeth and Yardley come home the next morning to a bunch of reporters who don’t understand why she’s not more concerned about her kidnapped baby.  Realizing her goose is cooked, she tells Mr. Yardley the truth and is fired, then she breaks up with John.  As she’s packing to go home, Mary drops by unexpectedly and announces that she’s married Jefferson’s shipmate instead.  Felix makes one last attempt to push Jefferson and Elizabeth together and succeeds.  They decide to get married, because Jefferson loves her even if she can’t really cook.

Christmas in Connecticut is absolutely essential viewing for me every year at Christmas time.  It’s so funny and thoroughly charming.  If it weren’t for the fact that it’s a Christmas movie, it’s one of those movies I’d probably watch frequently year-round.  The cast is perfect.  When I saw this for the first time, I’d already seen movies like Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, so I already knew Barbara Stanwyck could do very well with comedy, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by how delightful she was here.  I also thought it was interesting to see Sydney Greenstreet in a comedy because when I think of Sydney Greenstreet, I think of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, not exactly lighthearted stuff.  Dennis Morgan was very charming and S. Z. Skall as Felix brought lots of comedy.  Truly a wonderful movie.

Baby Face (1933)

Baby Face 1933 Barbara Stanwyck

To say that Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) had a lousy upbringing is a huge understatement.  Her mother died when she was very young, leaving her to be raised by her father Nick, the owner of a speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania.  He makes her work in the speakeasy and has even been pimping her out to his customers since she was fourteen years old.  She does have two friends in Chico (Theresa Harris), her co-worker, and Adolf,  a cobbler who is a big fan of Nietzsche.  Lily has had just about enough of her life and is ready to leave, but just as she gets into a huge fight with her father about it, a still explodes and he’s killed in the fire.  Not knowing where else to turn, she turns to Adolf, who advises her to go to a big city and use men to get whatever she wants.  So she and Chico sneak onto the next train, where Lily seduces a worker on the train so he won’t throw them off the train.

When they arrive in New York City, Lily sets her heart on getting a job at the Gotham Trust.  She’s never worked in an office before, but once again, she seduces her way into the job.  She continues to use men left and right to move up within the company.  Even a young John Wayne is no match for Barbara Stanwyck’s wiles.  She works her way up to executive Ned Stevens (Donald Cook).  Ned’s happily engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), but Lily likes the challenge.  She even specifically arranges it so that Ann will find her together with Ned!  Ann tries to get her father J.R. Carter, the vice president of the company, to make Lily back off, but Lily wins him over in her usual style.  Not only does Lily get herself a new boyfriend, he gets her a stylish new apartment and a job for Chico as her maid.  What Lily doesn’t count on is Ned flying into a jealous rage and shooting J.R. before shooting himself.

The only man who seems able to resist Lily is Courtland Trenholm (George Brent).  After he’s elected president of the company, Lily’s first order of business is to try to get $15,000 from the company to stop her from handing over her personal diary to the press.  Instead, Courtland gives her a job in their Paris office to get her out of the way.  Lily accepts, and in Paris, she works her way up to being the head of the travel bureau.  When Courtland stops by the Paris office, he’s quite surprised to see that she wasn’t just another gold digger and finally succumbs to Lily’s charms.  Like J.R. before him, Courtland buys Lily lots of expensive gifts.  Unfortunately, Courtland finds himself in hot water after the bank fails.  He turns to Lily and asks her to sell her expensive jewelery so he can afford to defend himself, but she refuses.  Rather than face ruin, he shoots himself.  But Lily realizes that no amount of money can buy true love and changes her mind.  She finds Courtland in time and she’s able to save his life.

You didn’t think I was going to spend thirty days talking about pre-codes and not mention Baby Face, did you?  There were some pretty scandalous movies made in the pre-code era, but I think Baby Face is most definitely the most sordid of all the pre-codes.  There is absolutely nothing even remotely safe about Baby Face.  It takes elements that would be controversial enough on their own, but then adds a twist to them that makes them even more shocking.  Not only was Lily a prostitute, she was pimped out at a very young age by her own father.  And not only does she use men to get ahead in life, she’s actually encouraged to do so and she doesn’t blink an eye at her own behavior.  Baby Face is Barbara Stanwyck at her toughest and she is amazing to watch.  If you’ve never seen this movie before, just watch this clip:

It’s always great to watch Barbara Stanwyck telling somebody off and the scene where Lily yells at her father is my favorite instance of that.  And I love her tough girl attitude in that scene.  Who else could break a bottle over a man’s head and go back to her drink like it was nothing more than hitting a fly with a flyswatter?  This is one of those movies that truly must be seen to be believed.