Apr 25 2010

Barbara Stanwyck at Universal

The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)

Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Barbara Stanwyck on the streets

Barbara Stanwyck on the mean streets of depression-era cinema

There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.

Joel McCrea is perfectly engaging and convincing as the working class guy made good as a rising surgical talent yet still at home in tough-guy bars and the rough-and-tumble world of working class folks and colorful crooks. He’s earnest and he has moxie, but it’s clear the story belongs to Stanwyck, whose desperation and maternal drive trumps her heart. The script gives most of the big plot-moving action to Kildaire but Stanwyck manages to be the engine of the film, or at the very least the furnace. It’s far less sensationalistic than the great pre-code films Stanwyck made for Warner and it lacks that rat-a-tat momentum and snappy energy, but it’s a brisk film with the same urban hard-times sensibility, that great contrast between the affluence in the skyscrapers and the folks scraping by on the streets, and the Runyan-esque codes of honor among the goodfellas on the streets who pull together in the face of the corrupt bigwig. Plus nuns!

Stanwyck and McCrea reteam for the historical drama The Great Man’s Lady (1942), with Stanwyck narrating her life story (and her romantic sacrifice) for the sake of a nation-building hero from behind old-age make-up decades before Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man. Directed by William Wellman, it’s a film where Stanwyck is in charge from the moment her character, hundred-year-old Hannah Sempler, steps on screen, the flinty matriarch putting the a roomful of reporters in their place before taking pity on a woman biographer and giving her the true story of the legendary Ethan Hoyt (Joel McCrea) and her place behind the Great Man. Unfortunately the film is kind of a stiff, a rambling melodrama of hardship and sacrifice in the settling of the west and the explosion of California while Stanwyck does what it takes to make her man succeed, even keep their marriage a secret after he leaves her and remarries into money and political power (without bothering with a divorce in the interim). Brian Donlevy is the “other man” who will do anything for Hannah, a smiling gambler who never lies when he unveils his games of chance (“You can’t win,” he promises) and sticks by her. Wellman puts the story through its paces without giving it any life or sense of anything at stake, and he fails to bring any emotions out of McCrea, leaving Stanwyck to carry all the melodrama. It’s kind of a stiff, but Stanwyck gets to play the gamut onscreen: giddy rich-girl idealist, rough and ready frontier wife (including a hysterical hillbilly act for the sake of a railroad man), aristocratic gambling hall hostess and, of course, ancient matron with just as much moxie as ever.

The gems of the set are her two films with Douglas Sirk. The dark corners in Sirk’s America are first explored in All I Desire (1953), a turn-of-the-century small town melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck as an actress in a seedy traveling company who returns to the family she abandoned and finds a hostile reception. The innocence of previous small town snapshots has become a smothering little world poisoned by gossip, social prejudice and double standards, and Sirk found its visual equivalent in the claustrophobic set of her once happy home. The picture stretches for an unconvincingly pat happy ending, but as Stanwyck fights her reputation, the attentions of an old lover, and the wagging tongues of a judgmental town, Sirk suggests that the final fade-out is only the beginning of her struggle. Even better is the contemporary There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) with Fred MacMurray as a toy inventor who put his ambitions on hold long ago for his family and Stanwyck as the adventurous woman from his past who flies back into his life (literally, as jet airliners setting off for other places and other challenges is a central and evocative image in the film) reminds him what he’s given up. It’s as suffocating a portrait of suburban middle class life as the you’ll find in fifties cinema and Stanwyck is the flame that casts everything else into shadow. Unfortunately, as Dave Kehr points out, the latter film is a full screen/open matte presentation of a 1.85 film, and a soft master at that. He compares frames from the film’s most famous scene, one from this full-screen transfer and one from a letterboxed European import, to make his point that framing matters at his blog here.

The set is filled out by the comedy The Bride Wore Boots (1946) with Robert Cummings and the shadowy drama The Lady Gambles (1949) with Robert Preston, neither of which I made the time to watch. Three discs in a fold-out digipak with no supplements. Dave Kehr’s New York Time review of the set is here.

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