I haven’t had much time for blogging lately, even for the shorter postings I keep vaguely promising – but here are a few thoughts on another Capra pre-Code melodrama, again starring Barbara Stanwyck as a fish out of water. This is said to be the movie which made her a star. Here she is working-class “party girl” Kay Arnold (though it is made fairly explicit that this is a euphemism, like “escort”) who is impulsively picked up by artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) to use as a model. She soon falls in love with him, but it seems as if it is impossible to get away from her past or bridge the huge social divide between them.
Stanwyck gives a warm, vulnerable performance, as she does in other pre-Codes, and is compelling to watch. I especially enjoyed her scenes with her character’s best friend, fellow escort Dot, played by silent film star Marie Prevost. The two have a humorous relationship but definitely care about each other – and Prevost has a great scene late in the film where she runs up several flights of stairs to try to save the day for her friend. Graves is somewhat outshone by these two, plus a scene-stealing Lowell Sherman as his drunken best friend, but he does have a fair amount of chemistry with Stanwyck. (Sherman is a comic drunk in this, just a couple of years before his devastating role as a tragic drunk in What Price Hollywood?)
Actress Barbara Stanwyck is probably best-known for her roles in films noir like Double Indemnity, where she plays a cold-hearted femme fatale. But, great as she undoubtedly is in this kind of part, I tend to prefer her earlier films when she plays characters with more warmth – as she does in The Miracle Woman, one of Capra’s great pre-Codes. Her character, young bogus evangelist Sister Florence Fallon, must be the sweetest conwoman ever. Indeed, she casts her spell over the audience just as she does over her swooning congregations within the movie.
This early Capra movie is one of many of his works centring on a charismatic figure who is taken up by cynical business interests and used to manipulate the public. Capra and his regular writer Robert Riskin, who adapted this film from his own play Bless You Sister, were not the only film-makers in the 1930s to be interested in this kind of story. (A similar scam is also the theme of William A Wellman’s Nothing Sacred, a film I wrote about here recently and which John Greco has just written a great review of at his blog.) But it does seem to be a Depression-era theme that had a particular appeal for Capra, an idea that he returned to time and again.
After thoroughly enjoying William Wellman’s pre-Code comedy-drama The Purchase Price, I was delighted to get the chance to watch So Big!, another film he made the same year, just a couple of months earlier, also starring Barbara Stanwyck as a farmer’s wife. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber, this is an even bleaker portrayal of rural life than the one given in The Purchase Price, portraying a back-breaking existence which makes the people living on farms old and exhausted before their time – although there is still a lot of humour mixed up with the melodramatic elements. This book was filmed three times, first as a silent with Colleen Moore and then again in the 1950s starring Jane Wyman, but this middle version is the only one I’ve seen.
I enjoyed this film, but, at just 81 minutes, it is very short for the large span of time it tries to cover, and there are some abrupt jumps. It looks from the list of characters at the imdb, which includes several who are not in the finished film, as if some of the story must have been deleted – I’d love to see the sections which were cut out before release and find out if they would have made the film flow any better.
Stanwyck has a luminous, indomitable quality in this film, just as she does in The Purchase Price and the other films she made with Wellman – he seemed to like casting her as someone who can’t be defeated, however dire her situation might seem, but carries on working tirelessly and hoping against hope. She also has another self-sacrificing role in this film, as in The Great Man’s Lady, a later film she made with Wellman, which I hope to write about here soon (I have a terrible backlog of films I’ve watched but haven’t written about!)
In interviews with William Wellman included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 box set, he suggests that he sometimes had problems working with actresses, recalling arguments with some of his leading ladies when he refused to let them look glamorous. (To be fair, he also mentions falling out with male actors for similar reasons – he always wanted people to look as real as possible, rather than being smothered in make-up, and he didn’t go in for his stars wearing designer gowns and smart suits in unlikely contexts, as happens in some other directors’ movies!)
However, from the early movies of his I’ve watched so far, one of the main things that strikes me is what strong lead roles he had for women – from Clara Bow as an ambulance driver in Wings and Louise Brooks as a teenage runaway in Beggars of Life through to Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell as nurses in Night Nurse. The Purchase Price, made the year after Night Nurse, has another strong role for Stanwyck, this time as a torch singer who decides to get away from it all by taking a friend’s place as a mail order bride.
Adapted from the story The Mud Lark by Arthur Stringer, with a screenplay by Robert Lord, this is is a lighter film than the others by Wellman I’ve written about here so far. There are many comic scenes, though there is some melodrama too. Also the whole film has an early Warner grittiness to it, though set in the country rather than the city. I’m amused by how misleading the sexy advertising poster with Stanwyck and George Brent is – the words are just about true, I suppose, but give a completely false idea of the film, especially when combined with the glamorous picture. You’d never think from this poster that most of the movie is set on a freezing cold farm in the wilds of North Dakota, with Brent in an overall and Stanwyck in an apron!
It’s often said that William Wellman’s pre-code melodrama Night Nurse takes a long time to get going – and that there is too much about heroine Barbara Stanwyck’s training as a nurse before she gets involved in the film’s main plot. I’d have to say I think just the opposite. For me, much of the film’s fascination lies in the opening half hour or so, with its gritty, wisecracking portrayal of life for staff working in a large hospital. I enjoyed the whole movie, which, at just 72 minutes, crams in an awful lot of material – but I felt this opening part was far more interesting and compelling than the later sections where Stanwyck has to battle against a fiendish chauffeur, played by Clark Gable.
It seems as if quite a few movies from the 1930s and 40s follow a pattern of establishing a realistic working background in the opening section, then lurching into melodrama later – Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940), starring George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, fits this description, looking at the lives of long distance lorry drivers, as does Wellman’s own Other Men’s Women (1931), about rail workers, which I’ve just reviewed on this blog. Although I love melodrama from this period, I tend to be even more fascinated by the sections focusing more on the characters’ working lives.