Barbara Stanwyck Spotlight: The File on Thelma Jordan

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This week 2016 comes to an end, as well as my spotlight on the wonderful Barbara Stanwyck. I hope this mont you’ve found some new films of hers to watch or found new things to look for in films of hers you have seen before. For the last week of her spotlight, I’m going back to her strong body of work in film noir. This week I bring you my write-up on the 1950 noir classic The File on Thelma Jordan.

The film’s story is one of crime, romance, and betrayal. All of those things are staples of noir plots. Here’s a brief summary to get you up to speed:

Thelma Jordon (Barbara Stanwyck), late one night, shows up in the office of married Assistant DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey). Before Cleve can stop himself, he and Thelma are involved in an illicit affair. But Thelma is a mysterious woman, and Cleve can’t help wondering if she is hiding something. Thelma has a plan up her sleeve that will ruin Corey if his love for her and his own weakness win out. Thelma has a heart and a conscience. She comes to love Cleve, and has concern for his life and his future. Despite her wish that her life could be different, she realizes that she belongs in a lawless world.–IMDB

The plot sounds like something straight out of a weekly crime show. But the cast and direction make it worth seeing. While Stanwyck played femme fatales in other noir films (most notably Double Indemnity), her character in The File on Thelma Jordan is more complex. We get to say her play both sinister and vulnerable. Not many actors can play both sides of that coin, especially in the same movie. But Stanwyck was an actress in a class by herself, as is evidenced by the wide range of roles she played in her career. She’s a villain, yes. But as viewer, I always find myself watching this film hoping that she’ll turn things around and go on the straight and narrow. Of course it’s film noir, so you know there’s probably not going to be a happy ending. Stanwyck has chemistry with Wendell Corey almost as well as she had with Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. That’s a testament to Corey’s acting chops. They’re an engaging team to watch.

I also want to mention the director on this film, because he’s one of my favorites: Robert Siodmak. Siodmak made some great noir films in his career. Among them are: The Killers, Phantom Lady, and the very underrated The Spiral Staircase. As a director he really establishes mood well. The Killers is one of the best looking noir films ever made. The File on Thelma Jordan isn’t quite as showy. But it’s very effective. It was photographed by George Barnes, known largely for musicals (Footlight Parade and  Gold Diggers of 1935). But he also did the camera work on Hitchcock’s Rebecca. His work on The File on Thelma Jordan is another very solid effort from the veteran cinematographer.

The File on Thelma Jordan is a great showcase for its cast, led my Stanwyck, and its talented director Robert Siodmak. It’s equally effective as a crime story and a romance. If you’re looking to get into film noir, this one is a good place to start.

That’s a wrap for Barbara Stanwyck month! See you for more film writings in 2017.

Barbara Stanwyck Spotlight: The Lady Eve

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Greetings, readers! I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday season. And I hope part of your holiday season includes watching classic films. All month I’ve been writing about the amazing Barbara Stanwyck. I’ve covered her work in film noir, drama, and even a film with some drama and comedy (Remember the Night). This week I’m writing about one of the best screwball comedies ever made: The Lady Eve. It stars Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, and boasts a supporting cast of some of the best character actors of the studio system era. It was also directed and co-written by Preston Sturges, one of the greatest comedic writers of the golden age of Hollywood. It’s a hoot from beginning to end.

Let’s get the plot out of the way so I can discuss why this is such a brilliant comedy. Here’s a primer for the uninitiated:

After one year in Amazon researching snakes, the naive ophiologist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) returns to the United States in a transatlantic. Charles is the son of the Connecticut’s brewery millionaire Mr. Pike (Eugene Pallette) and disputed by gold diggers. The swindlers Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) and their friend Gerald (Melville Cooper) plan a confidence trick on Charles, but unexpectedly Jean falls in love with Charles and she calls off the scheme. However Charles’s bodyguard Muggsy (WIlliam Demarest) discovers that Jean is a con-artist and the disappointed Charles leaves Jean. Sometime later, in New York, the trio of con-artists meets their friend “Sir” Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore) in the horse races and they learn that “Sir” Alfred belonged to the high-society of Connecticut based on the reputation he had built. Jean sees the opportunity to take revenge at Charles, and she travels to the house of her “aunt” pretending to be the British noble Lady Eve. Mr. Pike promotes a party for Lady Eve and she seduces Charles that proposes her. But her intention is to get even with Charles.–IMDB

The Lady Eve is one of the best examples of screwball comedies ever made. The genre had a bit of the heyday in the 1940s. Some of the best were written/or directed by Sturges: The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, The Great McGinty, etc. The Lady Eve has one of the sharpest comedic scripts ever filmed. The dialogue is rapid-fire, a trademark of Sturges comedies. It’s not only a funny film to look at (I’ll discuss that later), it’s a very fun film to listen too. They don’t write comedies like this anymore.

Writing comedies is hard enough. Get actors who can pull off physical comedy? That’s a task in and of itself. There are some great moments of physical comedy film. One of the things that really surprised me about The Lady Eve was what a natural at physical comedy Henry Fonda was. I think of him as more of a dramatic actor. But he has some moments in this film that had me howling. There are multiple occasions where he has food spilled all over him on that boat. One of my favorite moments is where he goes under a table to get something and getting up he hits his head on a tray of food, making a huge mess. It’s not just the things that happen to Fonda that are funny. His facial reactions throughout the film are absolutely priceless. Consider the scene where Stanwyck is seducing him while stroking his hair. Watching the two of them in that scene is an absolute joy. They play off each other just perfectly.

And how about the reason I picked this film: Barbara Stanwyck? The Lady Eve shows that she’s just as capable of doing comedy as drama. Stanwyck is equal to the task of keeping up with the script. Pulling off the mile a minute comic dialogue of a Sturges film is no small feat. Stanwyck makes it look easy. And that’s the sign of a great actress. The Lady Eve showcases Stanwyck’s comedic talents in a way that is absolutely superb. Stanwyck got to do comedy in other films, particularly Christmas in Connecticut. But The Lady Eve shows her ability to do comedy on a very high level.

But The Lady Eve isn’t just great because of Stanwyck. She has a great cast around her. There’s the always wonderful Henry Fonda as well. But the supporting cast is brilliant as well. My favorite supporting actors in this film are Charles Coburn and Eric Blore. Coburn is someone you may recognize from two other classic comedies: The More the Merrier and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He shines here just as he does in those two films. And what more can be said about Eric Blore? He’s a welcome addition to any cast of a classic film. I particularly liked him in two Astaire/Rogers films: Swing Time and Top Hat.

Aside from the brilliant writing and directing by Sturges, I want to mention the wonderful costumes in The Lady Eve. They were designed by legendary costume designer Edith Head. By the end I wanted all of Stanywyck’s outfits. They’re just stunning! The Lady Eve is smart, funny, and yet another reason I love Barbara Stanywyck. If you need a good belly laugh, this is the film for you.

Barbara Stanwyck Spotlight: Clash By Night

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It’s week three of my spotlight on Barbara Stanwyck. This week I want to focus on one of the many great noir films she made. Most people think of Double Indemnity when they think of Stanwyck and film noir, and for good reason. It’s one of the greatest in the genre. But I want to shine a light on one of her lesser known noir films: Clash By Night.

Clash By Night boasts a great cast that includes Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, and Marilyn Monroe. Adding to the film’s pedigree is that it was directed by Fritz Lang, one of the great noir directors. The story is a classic noir tale of love and betrayal. Here’s a plot summary to get you started:

The bitter and cynical Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to the fishing village where she was raised after deceptive loves and life in New York. She meets her brother, the fisherman Joe Doyle (Keith Andes), and he lodges her in his home. Mae is courted by Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), a good and naive man who owns the boat where Joe works, and he introduces his brutal friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), who works as a theater’s protectionist and is cheated by his wife. She does not like Earl and his jokes, but Jerry considers him his friend and they frequently see each other. Mae decides to accept the proposal of Jerry and they get married and one year later they have a baby girl. When the wife of Earl leaves him, he becomes depressed and Mae, who is bored with her loveless marriage, has an affair with him.–IMDB

From that plot description it sounds like a formulaic soap opera. But it’s not by any stretch of the imagination. That’s a credit to screenwriter Alfred Hayes (working from a play by Clifford Odets), the talented cast, and Lang’s skilled direction. When Stanwyck’s affair comes to light, it’s dealt with in a very adult way. The character’s don’t just scream at each other and overact, even though the temptation is there with this type of material. You really feel like their reactions and emotions are genuine. It feels like a real-life situation. Another strength of Clash By Night is that it deals so well with disillusionment, a hallmark of film noir. Stanwyck’s character is left disillusioned from her big city life. But when she gets a change of scenery, she doesn’t just mope around as you’d expect. With Stanwyck you real believe everything is happening to her. The marriage to Jerry just never seems like it’s going to work out. Stanwyck’s relationship with Douglas feels like it comes from convenience more than love. He’s a stable guy and she’s trying to straighten her life out, so there they are. It’s not exactly shocking that she ends up gravitating towards bad boy Robert Ryan. Both characters are damaged by failed marriages and their solace manifests itself in their affair. Again, the characters act in a way that is very believable. We can see this sort of thing happening in the real world.

Stanwyck here shows her penchant for playing femme fatales. That’s one reason she was perfect for the noir genre. Some of her other noir credits include The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry,Wrong Number, Double Indemnity, and The File on Thelma Jordan. She has the right amount of dramatic chops and can exude female heat. You could make the case that she was the First Lady of film noir. And the rest of the cast is solid as well, especially Robert Ryan. He’s underrated as an actor too, but that’s another blog entry for somewhere further down the road.

Fritz Lang, like Stanwyck, excelled at noir. His credits in the genre are some of the best ever made: M, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, and The Big Heat. Lang of course also made the landmark science fiction film Metropolis. He was a master filmmaker. Lang and his cast together create a very effective noir tale. While the plot is conventional on the surface, the plot twists and characters are not. Clash bu nigh is a solid entertainment. It’s worth checking out for fans of Barbara Stanwyck, Fritz Lang, film noir, or just about anyone who appreciates a good classic movie.

Barbara Stanwyck Spotlight: Remember the Night

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Greetings, readers! This is week two of my spotlight on actress Barbara Stanwyck. Last week I wrote about her breakthrough role in the pre-code classic Baby Face. This week I have chosen a film that’s perfect for the holiday season. It’s Remember the Night from 1940. It features Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a film together years before they would co-star in the film noir classic Double Indemnity. Equal parts drama and comedy, Remember the Night is a classic that should be part of your Christmas viewing.

In the film, Stanwyck plays a woman arrested for shoplifting shortly before Christmas.

Just before Christmas, Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck)  is caught shoplifting. It is her third offense. She is prosecuted by John Sargent (Fred MacMurray). He postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. But he feels sorry for her and arranges for her bail, and ends up taking her home to his mother (Beulah Bondi) for Christmas. Surrounded by a loving family (in stark contrast to Lee’s own family background) they fall in love. This creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial?–IMDB

What really makes the film work is not just the chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray, although that’s certainly a major reason for the film’s success. It’s the way the film shows what a difference the people you surround yourself with makes. In the scene where we see Stanwyck’s family we understand why she’s ended up on the wrong path in life. Her family is not exactly close-knit and loving. That’s the complete opposite of MacMurray’s family. They’re down to earth and feel almost like they popped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. That isn’t to say they feel like caricatured characters. All of them are charming and delightful in their own way. Beulah Bondi as the mother in particular is a gem. In the scenes where MacMurray take Stanwyck home to meet his family, we see Stanwyck’s character start to come out of her shell. It really makes you wonder if she had been raised in a more nurturing environment if she would not have ended up a criminal.

If Remember the Night‘s screenplay is fun to listen to, it’s partly the delivery of the actors, but also because it was written by Preston Sturges. Sturges’ other writing credits include The Lady Eve (also starring Stanwyck), Sullivan’s Travels, and The Palm Beach Story. He was one of the greatest comedy writers in the history of cinema. My favorite bit of dialogue is this one:

Lee Leander: I suppose you do this with all the lady prisoners?

John Sargent: Oh my, yes. My life is just one long round of whoopee.

But back to the reason I picked this film as one to discuss during my spotlight on Barbara Stanwyck. Remember the Night shows her ability to do drama and comedy equally well. You really feel for her when you learn about her difficult life and can’t help but be happy to see her finally surrounded by family that brings out the best in her. Stanwyck really gets to show off her range as her character evolves. While Remember the Night isn’t a particularly showy film, Stanwyck stands out because she’s able to display versatility so subtly. Stanwyck hits all the right notes. And MacMurray is a perfect fit as her love interest. Together they make Remember the Night a compelling slice of life tale that’s the perfect type of heartwarming entertainment for the holidays. It belongs on your Christmas viewing list with classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Carol.

Barbara Stanwyck Spotlight: Baby Face

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This month for my spotlight, I’d like to talk about Barbara Stanwyck. She was one of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood history. Yet I still don’t think she gotten the credit she deserves for her acting chops. Whether she’s doing screwball comedy such as The Lady Eve, strutting her stuff as the queen of film noir in Double Indemnity, or showing her skills on television (she was on the classic western The Big Valley), Stanwyck was the type of talent that came along once in a lifetime. To start things off, I’d like to discuss the pre-code film of pre-code films: Baby Face. It was racy in 1933 and it’s still pretty racy in 2016. Stanwyck’s performance is part of the reason the film left quite an impression on audiences.

Baby Face tackles really hot-button issues like prostitution. The main character is pimped out by her father at a young age and uses her sexuality to get ahead. Here’s a more detailed plot description so you know what you’re getting into:

Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) has led a difficult life working in her loutish father’s speakeasy in Erie, Pennsylvania, he who coerced her into prostitution since she was 14. When she is given a chance to start a new life, she is advised by Adolf Cragg (Alphonse Ethier), her friend and a follower of the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche, to use her power over men to get want she wants. Moving to New York City with her friend and conspirator Chico (Theresa Harris), Lily does exactly that. She decides to sleep her way up the corporate ladder at Gotham Trust, using men the way they have used her in the past. In her quest, she not only uses those men, but ruins them in the process. Her main goal is to find the man who can best afford to provide her a carefree lifestyle. Things for Lily and for Gotham Trust itself change when the bank’s board appoints a new company president, playboy Courtland Trenholm.–IMDB

The pre-code era produced some really daring films. This was the time when prohibition gangster films like Little Caesar, Scarface, and The Public Enemy came out. Filmmakers were pushing the envelope when it came to violence and taboo topics. Prostitution had been dealt with before in film, but this was one of the first films to address it in such an open and adult way. It’s no surprise that it was banned in some US cities due to its controversial subject matter. In fact,it wasn’t until 2004 (70 years after it was made) that the original version was seen. It was screened at the London Film Festival after a “dupe negative” of the uncensored version was located at the Library of Congress.

But enough of the history lesson. While its place in film history is important to understand, Baby Face is also worth studying because it was a breakthrough role for Stanwyck. Her performance is so raw and real that you believe everything is happening to her. The anger and pain of her character comes through right from the word go. The early scene where she tells her father off for getting her into prostitution to begin with is just as powerful today as it was in 1933.

Nick Powers: You little tramp, you!

Lily Powers: Yeah, I’m a tramp, and who’s to blame? My Father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what’s it been? Nothing but men! Dirty rotten men! And you’re lower than any of them. I’ll hate you as long as I live!

Baby Face goes right for the jugular with dialogue like that. Stanwyck in that scene shows raw emotion in a way not many actors can pull off without going over the top. She strikes just the right chord.When Lily Powers decides at the suggestion of her friend to use men the way they’ve used her, it really challenges the viewer to consider their beliefs about a subject rarely explored so openly in film history, especially at that time. It’s a wonder the film was even released in a censored version. The film’s power comes not just from its groundbreaking story line. The film comes alive because of its talented cast, led by Stanwyck. Stanwyck isn’t just able to portray rage, as in the early scene with her father. She projects female heat in a way that would serve her well in film noir (see: Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers just to name a few). It was a performance that turned heads and gave viewers a taste of what this talented actress was capable of.

It’s also worth noting that the rest of the cast is quite good, especially Theresa Harris as Lilly’s friend Chico. Harris and Stanwyck are an engaging screen team and make the sordid tale of Baby Face compelling from beginning to end. And it wouldn’t be right to not acknowledge director Alfred E. Greene as well as screenwriters Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola. All the talents working on this groundbreaking film deserve recognition. Baby Face was a great showcase for Barbara Stanwyck. It’s one of many reasons she’s one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the silver screen.