After 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.