Always Goodbye (Sidney Lanfield, 1938)

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.

Barbara Stanwyck and Johnny Russell

Barbara Stanwyck and Johnny Russell

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.

Always Goodbye 1At 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. 

Stanwyck and Marshall

Stanwyck and Marshall

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.

Binnie Barnes with Marshall and Stanwyck

Binnie Barnes with Marshall and Stanwyck

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.

 

Stanwyck and Cesar Romero

Stanwyck and Cesar Romero

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.

 

Ian Hunter and Lynne Bari

Ian Hunter and Lynn Bari

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. 

Always Goodbye 4Stanwyck 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.

A tender moment for Marshall and Stanwyck

A tender moment for Marshall and Stanwyck

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18 thoughts on “Always Goodbye (Sidney Lanfield, 1938)

  1. I’m going to keep an eye out for this film, as uneven as it may be, because who can turn down fab 1930s fashion?

    I love the last photo you’ve posted of Stanwyck and Marshall; it’s too bad they didn’t have more screen time together. Were they paired in any other movies?

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    • I love that photo too, Ruth. They had also starred together the previous year in the romantic comedy ‘Breakfast for Two’, but I haven’t managed to see that one yet – it sounds worth seeing, though. I do think they make a good combination, and I enjoyed this film even if it is uneven. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. “After enjoying this blogathon, I’m definitely hoping to catch up with more of her titles that I haven’t seen yet.”
    You’re not kidding, and now I can add this title to the pile. Thanks!

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  3. I liked the movie better the second time I saw it. Perhaps because I knew what to expect. While I thought Romero’s character was a bit annoying the first time, he really grew on me at the 2nd viewing. Johnny Russell seems fine to me, cute but not too cloying. Herbert Marshall is a favorite of mine and he probably should have more screen time in this film, just so I could figure out what he’s on about. The actions of his character seem a puzzle that’s never solved. If he loves her, way is he always running away, pushing her away? Why is it Always Goodbye?

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    • Lisa, it’s interesting that you liked it more second time around -I found the same. I wonder if some scenes were cut out that explained more about Herbert Marshall’s character – must agree with you that some of his actions are “a puzzle that’s never solved”, although that could be what makes him so intriguing. He’s becoming a favourite of mine too. Thanks for the interesting comment.

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  4. Oops,Judy. This doesn’t sound at all appealing to me,maybe because I’m not a Herbert Marshall fan and the plot doesn’t sound too good. But I am sure Barbara won’t disappoint.

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    • Not to worry, Vienna, we can’t always have the same tastes – I’m sure you would like Stanwyck’s performance anyway, even if you don’t share my growing love for Marshall.

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  5. Whenever I see photos of Stanwyck from around this time, especially in comic moments, I think she had the same sort of ethereal beauty and charm of Garbo in her light films. The first shot you included above, of Stanwyck with Marshall in his apron — that one, especially, made me think of Ninotchka.

    Liked the review a lot. Thank you!

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    • Thanks very much, John – an interesting comparison with Garbo. I saw ‘Ninotchka’ fairly recently and can see why the photo reminded you of it although I’d never previously made a comparison between the two actresses.

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  6. I’ve seen a lot of Missy’s films, her earliest films are where I have the most catching up to do and I’ve seen all her others from the period this was made but this has always proved elusive. It sounds like something that would be a terrific view, hopefully TCM will run it soon.

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    • I hope it does turn up on TCM for you in the US – it’s on Youtube at the moment if you are able to watch there, Joel, though with French subtitles. Thanks for the comment and I hope you track down those elusive titles!

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  7. I find this film to be such a weird mashup of 30s genres. The beginning feels dark and deeply emotional. Then we shift gears into glamorous fantasy territory with Stanwyck’s instant success in fashion. The shipboard stuff plays like hijinks from an Astaire and Rogers flick. And then we zip right into Stella Dallas territory, except with Stanwyck having to sacrifice a relationship with Marshall to keep the child. As you explain so well, some of these tonal shifts really don’t work. Too much time is spent on Romero and on the kid, not enough on Marshall. How many scenes do we really need of Stanwyck indulgently smiling as the kid chatters on? And yet, I do feel like this movie has a strange, daffy charm about it. Partly because Marshall and Stanwyck do their best to fill in the blanks of their characters and are still quite touching. Partly because if you like 30s films, this movie is a grab bag of their best and worst cliches. It’s like a buffet and you can’t help but indulge. Thanks so much for a great review and a very winning blogathon entry.

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    • Aubyn, that’s a great way of putting it about the film’s uneven tone – I like the idea of it being a mashup of genres, and totally agree there are too many scenes with the little boy and yet that the film has “a strange, daffy charm”. I do love 1930s films and so respond to all the separate parts, or most of them, even though they don’t all fit together. Thanks very much for your great comment and for organising the blogathon, which has been very interesting and shed a lot of light on Stanwyck’s varied career.

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  8. I truly like this movie, one of the best she did in the late 30s. Of course the ending is a bit forced, but I adore her interaction with the kid. Not a big fan of Herbert Marshall, but I do prefer him in this movie than in Breakfast for Two. Thanks for the post!

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    • Marcia, I need to catch up with more of Stanwyck’s late 1930s movies – haven’t seen ‘Breakfast for Two’ as yet but hoping to do so. Thanks for the comment!

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