Joan Leslie

The Hard Way (1943)

The Hard Way PosterAfter the death of their mother, Helen Chernen (Ida Lupino) does her best to raise her younger sister Katie (Joan Leslie). They live in the dismal industrial town of Greenhill, which doesn’t offer many prospects for a bright future. Helen never made it out of Greenhill, but she’s bound and determined for Katie to have a better life. When Katie catches a performance by Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan) and Albert Runkel (Jack Carson) at a vaudeville show, it inspires her to become to go into showbiz herself. Later that night, Katie announces her new ambition to her friends and acts out part of Runkel and Collins’ act, which happens to be witnessed by Runkel and Collins themselves. They’re impressed with her talent and invite her to join the act. Albert is immediately smitten with Katie and they are soon married.

With Katie on the road with Runkel and Collins, Helen tags along to manage Katie’s career and constantly tries to get Katie more time in the act. Eventually, Helen gets Katie her a gig of her own. It’s just a small role initially, but Helen makes sure she gets a promotion by sabotaging the rehearsal of experienced actress Lily Emery (Gladys George). Opening night is a smashing success and opportunities abound for Katie, but when Albert calls to congratulate her, Helen starts trying to drive them apart. It isn’t long before Katie becomes more famous than Albert and when Albert realizes that he can no longer get work on his own without using Katie’s name, he kills himself, sending Katie into an alcohol-fueled downward spiral.

When Katie’s behavior causes a theater producer to find a replacement for her in his show, Helen insists on producing the show herself. One night, Katie runs into Paul, who has moved onto a career as a bandleader. They start seeing each other and Katie is the happiest she has been in years. When they decide to get married, Katie is ultimately left to choose between Paul or Helen.

Not one of the all-time-greats, but The Hard Way is a really strong drama that deserves a bit more recognition. The entire cast absolutely hits it out of the park. Ida Lupino was absolutely glorious as the cold, steely, ruthless Helen.  Joan Leslie is likable and fresh, Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan were great, and Gladys George totally owned her brief role. This is exactly the sort of material director Vincent Sherman excelled at working with. Definitely keep an eye out for The Hard Way; it’s well worth your time.

The Male Animal (1942)

The Male Animal PosterIt’s homecoming weekend at Midwestern University and while almost everyone on campus is excited about the big football game, English professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) has more important things to worry about.  Dean Frederick Damon (Ivan F. Simpson) has just read an inflammatory editorial written by Michael Barnes (Herbert Anderson), the boyfriend of his wife Ellen’s (Olivia de Havilland) sister Patricia (Joan Leslie).  In the editorial, Michael states that Tommy plans to read a letter written by a controversial figure to his class.  Tommy does indeed plan to read the letter in class, but the Dean wants Tommy to change his mind to avoid upsetting some of the university’s trustees.

Not only is Tommy’s job suddenly on the line, he’s got marital problems to worry about, too.  Ellen’s birthday is coming up and Tommy has forgotten all about it.  But one person who hasn’t forgotten Ellen’s birthday is her ex-boyfriend Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson).  He’s in town for the big homecoming game and is also newly divorced.  Tommy begins to worry that Ellen and Joe are still in love with each other and on the day of the big football game, decides to drive Ellen away from their marriage because he thinks that’s what she wants.  While Ellen and Joe are at the game together, Tommy stays home and drinks with Michael.  By the time Ellen and Joe come back, Tommy is completely drunk and he starts a fight with Joe, who knocks him out until Monday.

Tommy finally comes to just in time to go to class and read that letter.  But by then, everyone has read the editorial and is clamoring to visit his class to see what happens.  Michael has been expelled over his editorial and one of the trustees threatens to fire Tommy if he reads that letter.  On top of that, Ellen is about ready to leave town with Joe, but before leaving, they stop by Tommy’s class.  He defiantly reads the letter and makes an impassioned statement on the importance of freedom of speech.  Everyone, including Ellen, is deeply moved by Tommy’s class and rallies in support of him and Ellen changes her mind about leaving Tommy.

The Male Animal is a really fun little movie.  It’s the very definition of an underrated comedy.  I liked getting to see Henry Fonda use both his comedic and dramatic talents in the same movie  We all know Fonda was amazing at giving heartfelt speeches and his speech about freedom of speech is a signature Henry Fonda moment.  But he also does some fantastic comedic work in this, particularly in the scene where Tommy gets drunk and tries to pick a fight with Joe.  Speaking of Joe, Jack Carson was a perfect foil for Henry Fonda to play against.  My biggest complaint about The Male Animal is that Joan Leslie is woefully underused.  The scenes of her character dealing with a girl named “Hot Garters” Gardner trying to steal her boyfriend had me in stitches.