This is my contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon being organised by Girl with a White Parasol, which features a great range of postings going right through her career.
Sacrificial mother love was a persistent theme in 1930s melodramas – and Barbara Stanwyck played several roles of this kind, most famously in the classic Stella Dallas (1937). The following year she was cast as a mother suffering for her child once again in Always Goodbye (1938), which isn’t one of her best-known pictures, but does feature another great performance. Did she ever give anything less? Another plus is that it casts Stanwyck opposite Herbert Marshall, whose voice adds so much to the power of every role he plays.
Always Goodbye was a remake of a pre-Code film starring Ann Harding, Gallant Lady (1933). I would like to see that one too, especially as it was directed by Gregory La Cava. Like the Stanwyck film, it isn’t available in the UK , but has had DVD releases in the US and elsewhere, so I may be tempted to buy it on import. If you’ve seen the La Cava version, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on how the two compare.
At the start, Always Goodbye does feel like a pre-Code drama, with an emotionally frank and powerful opening half hour. It also has the same feeling of intense sympathy for the “fallen” woman – who is nevertheless punished for her “sin” by the plot – as in many pre-Codes.
Margot Weston (Stanwyck) is standing outside the register office waiting for her fiancé, Don, to arrive for their wedding – but he is seriously injured in a car crash as he arrives at the scene. A desperate Margot rushes to the hospital, but the staff bar the way and won’t let her into the dying man’s room, asking: “Are you a relative?” She replies in a dull, deadened voice: “No… no, I’m not.” On the face of it, this seems like a strange reply – wouldn’t it be far more realistic for her to explain that this was supposed to be their wedding day, and be treated with sympathy?
But Stanwyck is so great as she speaks that line that she makes it believable… and, of course, many unmarried partners have found themselves brushed aside in just such a way after a tragedy, so the emotion here does ring true. The next moment a horrifically matter-of-fact member of hospital staff arrives to tell a colleague that Don is dead. It is briefly mentioned that he was a Harvard medical student, a throwaway line possibly suggesting a class divide between him and Margot and a reason why she can’t turn to his family. She later says she can’t turn to her own.
A desperate Margot walks out of the hospital as if in a dream, and lands up at the docks, where she is about to jump into the water when she is spotted by Jim Howard (Marshall), who is lounging in a corner and smoking. He steps in to rescue her, and takes her back to his apartment. When he realises that she is pregnant, he tells her “Apart from anything else, I used to be a pretty good surgeon”, and takes charge, organising her hospital treatment and even arranging for her baby son to be adopted by a couple he knows. As in so many 1930s films (and as for so many mothers in real life), the baby is handed over almost immediately after the birth.
But Jim hasn’t finished helping Margot yet. He goes on to find her work in an exclusive fashion boutique with his old friend (or old flame? it is never spelt out) Harriet Martin (Binnie Barnes), before he himself disappears on a long sea voyage, as a doctor aboard a cattle boat. The two women are soon firm friends and Margot builds a successful career, becoming Harriet’s fashion buyer and heading off to Paris to see the latest collections. This middle part of the film feels much lighter than the opening and has a lot of comic touches (director Sidney Lanfield made a number of comedies), as Margot enjoys her new lease of life. I especially liked the scenes showing the friendship she shares with Harriet.
Marshall’s character, Jim, is something of a man of mystery – we never learn why he stopped working as a hospital doctor and started travelling the world aboard cattle ships, or why he is such a lonely and disappointed figure. In Gallant Lady, the corresponding character was an alcoholic doctor who had been struck off after a patient’s death and served time in prison – but there is no such tragic back story for Jim, just brief suggestions that he is rootless and has failed in his career and relationships. I think this vagueness actually works very well, as the audience is forced to fill in the gaps in Jim’s character.
Unfortunately, once Jim disappears for a large chunk of the film, I do feel it goes off the boil. A lot of time is wasted on a comic Parisian flirtation for Margot with Count Gino Carini, a “funny foreigner” role played by Cesar Romero. He and Stanwyck do have an easy chemistry together which makes their scenes more enjoyable than they have any right to be in terms of the script, but it is pretty thin stuff all the same.
Next, Margot by chance runs into her son, Roddy Marshall, whose adoptive mother has now died. She befriends him on the boat back to the US (Gino tags along too for more comic relief), and there are scenes which should be poignant and bitter-sweet, but don’t work all that well, because of the limited acting ability of the young boy playing Roddy, Johnny Russell. He is always looking sweetly at the camera and never convinces.
Unfortunately, Roddy features in a lot of scenes, not only aboard the boat, but also when Margot gets to know his adoptive father, Phil (Ian Hunter), and starts trying to break up his romance with heartless socialite Jessica Reid (Lynn Bari), who seems likely to prove a wicked stepmother. Bari does her best with the character but she is really a stereotyped gold-digger. The scenes where she and Margot spar over fashions look forward to The Women (1939). It’s easy to see where all this is going, as Margot finds herself offered the chance to marry Phil and become her own son’s stepmother… just as she realises that Jim is the man she really loves.
Stanwyck gets the chance to wear a lot of stunning outfits and the combination of comedy and drama works well at times, but, enjoyable as it is, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its early scenes until the emotion is piled up again towards the end. Perhaps the main problem is that Herbert Marshall doesn’t get enough screen time. Whenever he and Stanwyck are together, the film really takes off again. They have a couple of heartbreaking moments and share a wonderful emotional and comic rapport, for instance in scenes where he cooks her a disastrous meal, while at the same time the actors quietly suggest how the couple are falling in love.
The more I see of Stanwyck, the more I’m impressed by her range. I especially love her pre-Codes, but later 1930s films like this one are great to watch too, and she is also compelling in her noirs. After enjoying this blogathon, I’m definitely hoping to catch up with more of her titles that I haven’t seen yet.