Barbara Stanwyck must have liked working

Without intending to, I’ve found myself watching a lot of Barbara Stanwyck movies lately, including Double Indemnity (of which I’d like to scribble something one of these days). I believe IMDb shows she appeared in 101 movies and TV shows in her career. She really must have liked working.

I realized I have 18 Stanwyck movies on DVD (only a small number relative to her output). Of those, I’ve watched 15. There are three I’ve yet to see (but plan to): To Please a Lady, Jeopardy and Stella Dallas. Of the 15 watched, I’ve only written about a few, such as this one below. I watched it just last week.

My Reputation (1946)

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt

It seems a strange thing to say but My Reputation suffers from an actor’s performance that is too good.

Barbara Stanwyck portrays Jessica Drummond so well, you almost fume with frustration with her in the movie’s first half.

That’s not actually the case, however.

The problem is the movie and using its first third to create a portrait of a conflicted woman – it’s really a lot of exposition. As the Variety review from 1945 points out, the movie’s other star, George Brent, doesn’t make an appearance for about a half hour or so.

My Reputation is a romantic melodrama and, once the first third is over and certain things are established, entertaining in an average kind of way. Actually, thanks to Stanwyck’s performance, it’s above average. While a romance, it is also about psychological conflict and it’s that element where Stanwyck really excels.

Jessica Drummond is a recent widow who suffers from a domineering mother and friends who are superficial at best. She wants to assert herself as an individual, having been lost for years as secondary to others, but she can’t bring herself to do so. She makes a number of false starts.

This is what I mean about frustration: Stanwyck portrays the conflict so well that, if you are me, while sympathetic you want to tear your hair out because she is so mousy. However, once a new love shows up in the form of George Brent as Major Scott Landis the movie picks up as Stanwyck’s character becomes increasingly stronger.

It’s true the movie is dated, as some have pointed out, but I didn’t find that a particularly difficult barrier to get past, no more so than a historical film or book would be. It’s not a movie for everyone – despite the psychological aspect, it’s essentially a love story, a romantic fantasy.

If you don’t like romances, you probably won’t like this movie. On the other hand, if you want to see yet another brilliant Barbara Stanwyck performance, you really shouldn’t miss this one.

Blogathon Update:

  • Self-Styled Siren has an update on the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon, including a specifically for the blogathon. Get ready! It begins Valentine’s Day (February 14) and runs through till February 21. Oddles of bloggers talking about film noir and film preservation.

Christmas in Connecticut almost great

Some movies leave you scratching your head, like Christmas in Connecticut. You like it yet it bugs you. Why is that?

This is another one of those movies I saw years ago as a kid watching TV in the basement. The DVD came out in 2005 and I recall watching it then but feeling ambivalent about it. I suppose I still do, though I liked it much more when I watched it last night. But that opening …

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Directed by Peter Godfrey

This movie is an odd duck. It’s a good, quick paced Christmas movie of the old Hollywood variety, as in circa the 1940s (which is when it was made). Christmas in Connecticut has all the appearance of what we usually mean by a holiday classic. But it has some peculiarities and they are probably the reason it doesn’t quite achieve that status – though it comes close.

The first and most pronounced peculiarity is its opening. The first twenty or thirty minutes of the film are completely unnecessary and also suggest a different movie than the one we end up seeing. The movie is also a lot more interesting once that opening is over.

For some reason, perhaps length or a script change elsewhere in the film, the opening appears to be tacked on to what seems like a finished movie. Jefferson Jones, played by Dennis Morgan, is a war veteran in a hospital having survived being adrift at sea. He’s absolutely obsessed with food. This sort of sets up the movie that follows, except once that movie starts his food obsession seems to mysteriously vanish.

Food is at the heart of this romantic-comedy in the sense that it is one of the defining characteristics of Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Elizabeth Lee. She’s a kind of war time Martha Stewart, a famous master of country kitchens and homes, known as the world’s best cook. She writes for a magazine about her beautiful country home and describes the fabulous foods she prepares.

Except she’s a city apartment dweller and doesn’t know the first thing about cooking. The complication comes when her publisher, Sydney Greenstreet as Alexander Yardley, decides to invite himself and the war hero to Christmas at her home.

Chaos follows. There are also numerous complications, not the least of which is the need to have a husband and baby because Elizabeth Lee writes about them all the time.

It’s also quite funny, especially when Greenstreet’s Yardley sees one baby on one day and another on the next and can’t understand why it looks different, has a gender change, suddenly has teeth and can talk. “Most peculiar,” he says.

The romantic aspect is with Stanwyck’s character agreeing to marry her insistent fiancé (whom she doesn’t love) in return for providing her with a Connecticut country home to use to fool Yardley. The romance comes in when she falls in love with Jefferson, the war hero.

I also found some of the characterizations in the movie a bit peculiar, though not necessarily in a bad way. They just seemed odd. As mentioned, there is a food obsessed war hero who seems to forget his obsession once the real movie starts. Then there is Stanwyck’s Elizabeth Lee who appears to be completely self-centred and indulgent – yet we like her.

Despite the quibbles, I really did like this movie, especially once that opening was over. It certainly has the look and feel of a Hollywood holiday classic. It’s also funny and, in its Hollywood way, romantic. It gets great supporting performances, particularly those of Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall (as the real food master) and Una O’Connor with her thick Irish accent and wonderful reactions.

For me, this movie played well – quick, engaging and almost, but not quite, satisfying. Had a bit of time been taken editing the opening, I would say it would be up there with the great holiday movies.

And I’m darned curious about how that opening came about.

On Amazon:

The used becomes the user: Baby Face

I noticed today that IMDb has had something of a facelift. I haven’t explored it to any great extent but it does seem an improvement. At least visually it seems a bit more contemporary. But that’s a very superficial impression. I simply haven’t used it enough to judge.

I caught the new design when I was looking up Baby Face (1933), which I watched on the weekend. It’s part of Forbidden Hollywood, a set I picked up quite a while ago. However I’ve only now gotten around to watching the movies (there are three – four if you count both versions of Baby Face).

I hope to toss some thoughts together on Baby Face soon. It’s certainly interesting given its history: a 76 minute film in pre-release chopped down to 71 minutes when it was finally released, and only seen in the 71 minute version until this recent restoration.

Why were five minutes taken out? Sexual content. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face is about a young women who climbs the social ladder by sleeping with any guy who can move her up a few rungs. While there are no real sex scenes in the film, the sex is heavily implied … and some of that was removed in the theatrical version. (I watched the restored, 76 minute version, so I’m unsure which scenes were removed.)

It may be the film is more interesting historically and culturally than as a film. I found it was about average as a piece of cinema, though Barbara Stanwyck really does stand out. The bones of the story are also good – presentation, maybe not so much (beyond the lurid sexual aspect).

Stanwyck’s character, Lily (Baby Face), is horribly used as a young woman at home. Her father prostitutes her; men around her treat her shabbily and as if she exists for their sexual convenience. Finally, she breaks away and goes out into the world where, thanks to her background, she takes an attitude that she will do whatever it takes to get ahead. Rather than being used by men, she will use them – sex being her tool. The film is about her rise to the top and what happens once she gets there. (I think you can make a good guess.)
But I’ve rambled on more than I intended for a quick post. Baby Face is an interesting story, has a fascinating history, but is kind of an average, or slightly above average, film.

And I don’t know why the name Baby Face is in the film, much less the title, other than that they seemed to want to use the song Baby Face in the film. Go figure.

(By the way … a very young John Waynes makes an appearance in the film too. And he’s rather good in his brief moment.)