Tag Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

The Purchase Price (1932, William A. Wellman)

For most of its seventy-ish minute run time, The Purchase Price does really well with the way it does summary. It does so well it never even seems possible the film’s just going to welch on everything in the third act… but rather unfortunately, it does.

The big problem is how the film–specifically Robert Lord’s script–is eager to slut shame star Barbara Stanwyck for exploitative purposes. The only scenes Lord can figure out scenes for Stanwyck and mortified husband George Brent involve him disapproving of her, first for being–apparently (but not exactly)–a cold fish (she refused his violent urges on their wedding night)–and then for being too warm of a fish. But, again, not exactly. Lord avoids resolving any of the issues, not just with Brent’s multiple hangups but also outstanding story issues like Stanwyck’s former beau, gangster Lyle Talbot, and Brent’s own farming foe, David Landau.

And Price can get away with a lot because director Wellman and star Stanwyck are on it. They make the too abbreviated summary work. Because the film’s not a fish out of water story, it’s what ought to be an unbelievable story about night club singer Stanwyck losing her chance at a dream marriage to jackass blue blood Hardie Albright because of her previous relationship with Talbot (who’s a lovable bootlegging adulterer–one wonders if Lord remembered Talbot’s supposed to have a wife somewhere when he’s going cross country to pursue Stanwyck) and how she ships herself out as a mail-order bride to escape Talbot. She thinks she’s going out to a standard North Dakota wheat farm, full of affable drunken neighbors and, eventually, babies. Instead, Brent’s this oddball agricultural college boy who cares more about the miracle wheat he’s spent eleven years cultivating, doesn’t get along with his neighbors, and has secret money troubles.

Brent wasn’t expecting beautiful, cultured, smart Stanwyck (she paid off her maid, Leila Bennett, to take over as mail-order bride–which worked out fine since Bennett had sent along Stanwyck’s photo in communications with Brent, who–for his part–lied about his farm and didn’t send a photo in return). After their whirlwind wedding ceremony–uncredited Clarence Wilson is a perfect creep as the justice of the peace–they’re off to the farm. But not before both Brent and the film itself have mocked the simple prairie folk. Though the film mocks them more than Brent does, which is unfinished subplot–though Brent’s character development and basic establishment isn’t really any of Price’s concern. It’s like they knew he wouldn’t be able to appropriately slut shame Stanwyck in the third act if they explored him being a dick. Sure, Landau’s a bad guy and a creep, but Brent’s a dick.

He also tries to rape Stanwyck on their wedding night, which she immediately forgets because, well, he’s a man, but apparently sets Brent on a self-loathing kick. But it’s all off-screen and Lord’s characterization of Brent in the script doesn’t do enough for it either. He’s a jerk, but for unclear reasons. And since the film’s already established him as a dick, a jerk isn’t a long walk.

In a string of barely connected vignettes–Stanwyck getting to be a better farm homemaker, though she basically throws herself into it right off and is awesome at it–time progresses, winter arrives, Stanwyck becomes the community member Brent never did, so on and so forth. Finally Brent and Stanwyck have it out and then, through a very strange euphemism device (given how far the film’s willing to go–pre-code and all–in the first act and third, it’s weird how uncomfortable it gets for an implied big romance development), get on the same page.

Only then Talbot finally tracks down Stanwyck, coming simultaneous to Landau making a big move on Brent’s property, and it’s high drama time.

And it’s all bad high drama with Stanwyck working against the script to retain character and Brent just… giving up? What’s strangest about Brent’s performance is he actually starts as a good old egg. He’s a little weird, sheltered, but cute. That character disappears once he attacks Stanwyck. Then Brent acts like he’s in this “It’s a Husband’s Right” movie while Stanwyck and Wellman are making a “It’s not a Husband’s Right but She’ll Give Him a Second Chance” movie, while Lord’s script is setting up the slut shaming third act.

It’s weird. Because what Stanwyck and Wellman are doing works. Stanwyck makes the role work. Even with so little help from Brent, who’s not terrible he just has a godawful role. Meanwhile Talbot’s great and runs with the character. The idea of the New York society gangster fitting in at North Dakota bar? It’s a hoot. For the five or ten seconds the film lets Talbot do anything with it.

There’s some great direction from Wellman (along with some very weird direction), all of it with Sidney Hickox’s amazing cinematography. Even when Wellman makes a bad composition choice, Hickox’s photography makes it a good shot. When Wellman’s on, however, they’re all phenomenal shots. The desolate exterior shots are amazing (and way too brief) but so are the desolate exterior sound stage shots. Wellman gives Purchase Price a scale the script doesn’t deserve.

So it’s a ninety percent great role for Stanwyck, who’s fantastic and implies all the character development Lord skips over. It’s a ten percent great role for Brent, who’s tiresome by the time he’s pissed off about Talbot, which is way too early for him to be tiresome. Also, given he’s supposed to be sympathetic he should never get too tiresome. Brent’s character is the problem with Purchase Price. It’s not on him, not where Lord takes things.

Talbot’s great one hundred percent of the time.

Landau’s good as the lecherous farming rival, Murray Kinnell’s the effectively slimy henchman. He’s not in it much, then he gets important fast in the third act. Purchase Price needed another fifteen minutes. And a good script doctor.

Anyway. The rest of the supporting cast is fine. Anne Shirley almost stands out as a scared teenager Stanwyck bonds with. Victor Potel unfortunately does stand out as an in-bred yokal who gets way too much plotting relevance. The film’s take on the community changes, but then calls back Potel after it has. It’s really weird and bad choice. Though Lord makes so many of them, they blur.

The third act spills are a big disappointment, because the film was all set to pull it off. Then deus ex machina is practically a non sequitur and the film collapses. It’s a bummer. Stanwyck and Wellman did much better work than Price deserves.

And Talbot. And even Brent, who never got a chance.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Lord, based on a story by Arthur Stringer; director of photography, Sidney Hickox; edited by William Holmes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Barbara Stanwyck (Joan Gordon), George Brent (Jim Gilson), Lyle Talbot (Eddie Fields), David Landau (Bull McDowell), Murray Kinnell (Forgan), Hardie Albright (Don Leslie), Victor Potel (Clyde), Leila Bennett (Emily), Anne Shirley (Sarah Tipton – the Daughter), Adele Watson (Mrs. Sarah Tipton), Clarence Wilson and (Elmer, the Justice of the Peace).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SECOND REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD AND MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Double Indemnity is mostly a character study. There’s the noir framing device–wounded insurance salesman Fred MacMurray stumbling into his office and recording his confession on a dictaphone. Turns out he met a woman and things didn’t work out.

MacMurray narrates the entire film. Occasionally the action returns to him sitting in the office, bleeding out. He’s always present. And he’s the only one always present. His confession is for Edward G. Robinson, who plays the insurance company claims manager and the closest thing MacMurray has to a friend. Both Robinson and MacMurray stay with it for the puzzles. Robinson in catching fraudulent claims, MacMurray in idling his time. He’s a character in stasis. Until he meets Barbara Stanwyck.

The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray has waves. Their demeanor develops in real time. With director Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler’s double entendre barbs tangoing and Doane Harrison getting just the right cut. And Miklós Rózsa’s ostentatious yet perfectly so score coming in. The scenes between Stanwyck and MacMurray, especially the first couple, radiate.

But the film isn’t about Stanwyck’s fed-up wife and boyfriend MacMurray plotting to kill her husband (Tom Powers). For a while it seems like it might be–with MacMurray’s narration implying it too. But it’s not. Not the plotting, anyway. The plotting is all done offscreen while MacMurray’s dealing with work stuff. Powers is barely in the movie. Wilder’s ability to get good impressions from the supporting cast is outstanding; it’s also essential to Double Indemnity’s success. MacMurray’s narrating so he always gets the focus. Making sure the supporting cast is familiar when they have to return is big deal. Wilder (and Harrison) do some awesome character establishing in this film.

After the murder, there are complications. Sometimes there are resolutions, sometimes not. The connotations of each play out on MacMurray’s sometimes strained, sometimes ashen (presumably) face. Robinson and Stanwyck get the film’s flashier roles, but MacMurray’s the one who has to sell it. Not just in his performance but, for the film to work, in how his narration jibes with his own onscreen action.

And Double Indemnity does it. The filmmaking is impeccable.

The flashback takes place over a considerable amount of time–a few months–but the present action of the film is the hundred minutes of the runtime. MacMurray’s narration has an urgency to it. He skims the boring parts, or the parts it turns out he doesn’t want to examine, which is where the character study comes in. Both for Stanwyck, which is expected, and MacMurray, the film has some third act revelations. Double Indemnity being great, some of these revelations come out in scene so Stanwyck and MacMurray get to do their reactions. Others are in MacMurray’s narration. And those revelations are coming while the tension–both in the present and flashback–is getting more and more taut.

It’s awesome.

Double Indemnity is awesome.

Wilder has the three stars–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–and he’s always trying to figure out how to place them. The characters talk like they’re fencing–even when it’s pals MacMurray and Robinson. The physical movements are important. Especially when they’re moving during the talking heads. Robinson’s got this nervous energy as he works out schemes, making his behavior itself agitating to MacMurray.

Then there are are the silent facial expressions. They’re real important. Stanywck’s got one particularly great one. And Wilder makes them do some heavy character development lifting too. It’s great.

All three leads are great. Again, Stanwyck and–especially–Robinson get to be flashy. MacMurray has to keep it cool. Even so, Robinson’s probably the best. Then Stanwyck. The flashy is excellent flashy and the actors nail it.

Porter Hall’s got a fun scene, Richard Gaines has an awesome scene–most of the supporting cast just show up for a single scene. Established then out. Until they might need to come back, like Jean Heather as Stanwyck’s step-daughter. She shows up, implies one arc, comes back with something completely different. And far more important than originally implied.

Double Indemnity is a fast, busy film; Wilder and the crew–John F. Seitz’s photography, Harrison’s editing, the score, Edith Head’s costumes–make it graceful fast and busy. Like I said, it’s impeccable, masterful, awesome. Double Indemnity’s great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Billy Wilder; screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by James M. Cain; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Doane Harrison; music by Miklós Rózsa; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fred MacMurray (Walter Neff), Barbara Stanwyck (Phyllis Dietrichson), Edward G. Robinson (Barton Keyes), Jean Heather (Lola Dietrichson), Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson), Byron Barr (Nino Zachetti), Porter Hall (Mr. Jackson), and Richard Gaines (Edward S. Norton, Jr.).


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Meet John Doe (1941, Frank Capra)

There’s something off with Meet John Doe. Director Capra can’t find a tone for the film, but he also can’t find a pace for it. He tries to find the tone, over and over, usually with excellently directed sequences, but he just throws up his hands as far as finding the pace. If Robert Riskin’s script didn’t have strong moments for background characters, it would just be a bunch of great monologues for the actors. But Capra wants to step too far back from it all–John Doe has a wonderful cast and all Capra wants to do is rant about the Illuminati.

At its start, John Doe is simple. Barbara Stanwyck is a reporter. She loses her job. Angry–because John Doe takes place in a time when it seems like the Great Depression isn’t actually going to end, a forlorn attitude permeating throughout the film–she fakes a letter from someone fed up with the state of the world and promising to kill himself. Turns out the letter’s a hit, so Stanywck has to turn up the writer. She hires Gary Cooper. It’s Gary Cooper after all.

There’s a little humor with Cooper and sidekick Walter Brennan getting into a posh hotel and doing nothing. Riskin’s really good at these scenes. Well, then something happens and Cooper quits for a bit then he joins back up for a bit then it turns out the Illuminati have plans for him so he has to make a big decision. Along the way, he falls in love with Stanwyck (it’s Barbara Stanwyck after all), losing Brennan, and falls under the spell of Edward Arnold, the evil Mr. Big running this nameless city’s Illuminati chapter.

The nameless city should’ve been a bigger giveaway for the film’s problems. Capra doesn’t want anything to have personality except the concept.

Only, Riskin’s script has those amazing monologues I mentioned. James Gleason, who plays Stanwyck’s editor and Arnold’s reluctant stooge, gets at least two great scenes. His second one, where he gets wasted and talks about the Great War, is phenomenal. Gleason’s great and all, but that scene is phenomenal. Riskin’s dialogue is great, Capra’s patience is great, everything’s great. It just doesn’t belong in the movie. John Doe’s so lost, having every actor (except Cooper) directly address the camera when talking to Cooper’s character might work better. First person for the audience. Why? Because, while Capra’s interested in shooting the film well, having fantastic performances from his cast, he’s not actually interested in the film. It’s like he’s avoiding the lack of story.

Unfortunately, the rocky pace means no one gives an overall great performance. Brennan disappears, then comes back with nothing to do. He’s good, often really good, but the film doesn’t give him enough time later on. It never establishes who’s supposed to get the most time–even Cooper and Stanwyck manage to disappear from the story. The present action’s a mess. The film goes on for months and months and doesn’t let the characters grow.

It’s too much story. There are a half dozen points throughout the two hour runtime where Riskin and Capra could’ve focused for a far better experience.

Capra’s direction is outstanding. Riskin’s monologues are great. Cooper, Stanwyck, Gleason, Brennan, all great. Arnold’s not, but it’s hard to fault him. He’s got no part. He’s not even a caricature. He’s just “rich bad guy.”

Dimitri Tiomkin’s music has a few missteps, but it’s generally okay. It tends to stumble through the parts where everything else stumbles. Except maybe George Barnes’s photography and Daniel Mandell’s editing, their work is always strong.

Meet John Doe doesn’t work out. I wish it had, but it’s still one heck of a swing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell Sr.; director of photography, George Barnes; edited by Daniel Mandell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gary Cooper (John Doe), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), James Gleason (Henry), Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell), Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon), Irving Bacon (Beany) and Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett).


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THIS POST IS PART OF THE REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)

Preston Sturges has a great structure to The Lady Eve. The first part of the film–the majority of the runtime–has wealthy oddball Henry Fonda returning home on a ship and falling in love with Barbara Stanwyck. Makes sense, as she’s wonderful, only she (and her father, Charles Coburn) are card sharps out to fleece rich passengers. This part of Eve is the most luxurious in terms of the storytelling–Fonda and Stanwyck have great chemistry and, in addition to Coburn providing support, there’s also William Demarest as Fonda’s comically rough valet.

With a subplot or two and a happy ending, Sturges could’ve just told the entire story on the ship. Instead, he jumps ahead. It’s kind of hard to talk about Lady Eve without including a spoiler or two; I’ll tread carefully.

The jump ahead changes up the dynamics of the relationship between Stanwyck and Fonda, with Fonda assuming the rube role he never took in the first part of the picture. And Sturges, while giving Stanwyck excellent material and the most screen time, also changes the tone of the film. There’s slapstick; the previously established characters, contained in that first section, are looser. Sturges doesn’t play the comedy for the viewer (except some of Demarest and Eugene Pallette–wonderful as Fonda’s father). It’s for the characters. So Lady Eve can be loud and lovely.

Fantastic performances and character moments throughout. Eric Blore and Melville Cooper have nice smaller parts.

Sturges, Fonda, and Stanwyck–especially Stanwyck–make magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Preston Sturges; screenplay by Sturges, based on a story by Moncton Hoffe; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Stuart Gilmore; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Barbara Stanwyck (Jean), Henry Fonda (Charles), Charles Coburn (Colonel Harrington), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Pike), William Demarest (Muggsy), Eric Blore (Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith), Melville Cooper (Gerald), Martha O’Driscoll (Martha), Robert Greig (Burrows) and Janet Beecher (Mrs. Pike).


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