Friday, July 4, 2014

Barbara Stanwyck at the Stanford Theater

The Stanford Theater had a Barbara Stanwyck retrospective from March 21 to May 18.  The calendar for the series was one of the thickest I've seen at the Stanford.  Richard von Busack wrote an essay and provided plot synopses for all 36 films in the series.  Only 35 of the films featured Stanwyck.  For some reason, the paired Casablanca with Double Indemnity.  I had previously seen about a dozen of the films in the series.

I only saw six Stanwyck films.

The Lady Eve starring Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck; directed by Preston Sturges; (1941)
Lady of Burlesque starring Barbara Stanwyck; directed by William Wellman; (1943)
The File on Thelma Jordan starring Wendell Corey & Barbara Stanwyck; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1950)
East Side, West Side starring James Mason, Van Heflin & Barbara Stanwyck; with Cyd Charisse & Ava Gardner; directed by Mervyn LeRoy; (1949)
Titanic starring Clifton Webb & Barbara Stanwyck; directed by Jean Negulesco; (1953)
Executive Suite starring William Holden, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas & Barbara Stanwyck; directed by Robert Wise; (1954)


The Lady Eve screened at the Stanford in November/December 2013 as part of their Preston Sturges series.  I didn't see the film during the Sturges series.  There was a double bill featuring another Fonda/Stanwyck pairing which interested me more than The Lady Eve.  I wanted to see The Mad Miss Manton (with Fonda) and Red Salute (with Robert Young) on April 9 or 10 but couldn't get down to Palo Alto on a weekday.

Jean (Stanwyck), her father "Colonel" Harrington (the always memorable Charles Coburn) and his partner Gerald (Melville Cooper), are three con artist hunting for a mark on a cruise ship.  They set their sights on Charles Pike (Fonda), a herpetologist by training but also the heir to Pike's Ale fortune.  Jean reels him in using her feminine wiles while the card sharp Colonel plays some friendly, high-stakes gin rummy.  As is wont to happen in Sturges' films, Jean falls in love with Pike...and the fact that he is wealthy has nothing to do with it.  She protect hims as best she can from her father but ultimately Pike discovers their true identity and breaks off the relationship with Jean whom he was madly in love with.

Seeking revenge, Jean enlists the aid of another con man and poses as the Lady Eve Sidwich.  Not disguising her appearance, Lady Eve is introduced high society in Connecticut...including the Pikes.  Obviously suspicious, Pike can't believe his eyes but the audacity of Jean's plan blinds him to Lady Eve's true identity.  Pike falls in love with Lady Eve and marries her.  On their honeymoon, Lady Eve begins to recount past romances (she was quite a roundheel).  Pike abandons Lady Eve after the revelations.  Jean's revenge is complete.  She has broken Pike's heart, embarrassed him and is in line to get a fat divorce settlement.

Rather than go in for the kill, Jean follows Pike to another cruise ship where she accidentally meets him, this time posing as herself.  Pike quickly realizes his love for Jean, if not the fact he is already married to her.

The Lady Eve is a solid comedy, but not nearly to the level of Sturges' The Great McGinty or Sullivan's Travels but few films are.


Lady of Burlesque was on a double bill with The Lady Eve.  I had not heard of the film before.   The film was based on a novel titled G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee.  Although made during WWII, the film feels like something from the 1930s...even pre-Code.  The film must have pressed against the boundaries imposed by the Hays Office.  Stanwyck sings a song with the provocative title Take It Off the E-String, Put It On the G-String (lyrics by Sammy Cahn).

Lady of Burlesque is set in a New York burlesque theatre and involves not one but two backstage murders.  Stanwyck is sassy Dixie Daisy, the new girl in the show.  The murders start happening soon after her arrival.  Dixie verbally spars with the police detective investigating the murders, goes back and forth the comic who is romancing her and gets catty with one of the other dancers.

Honestly, I can't remember whodunit.  I remember Stanwyck wore some tight skirts that slit up the side to her hips.  As they said back in the day, she had some nice gams.  However, the most amazing scene involved Stanwyck dancing like I have never seen her dance before.  She drops into a leg split twice, does some Cosack dancing and finishes with a cartwheel!  I had no idea she could dance like and at age 35.  Actually, Stanwyck looks like she is having a ball throughout the film which makes it that much more fun to watch.

Lady of Burlesque came out in 1943; the next year Double Indemnity was released.  I think it is amazing that the same actress could have made both film within 18 months of each other.


I had heard of The File on Thelma Jordan but had never had the opportunity to see it.  Starring the ever reliable Wendell Corey, Thelma Jordan is a lesser-known noir overshadowed by Double Indemnity and their earlier collaboration Sorry, Wrong Number.

Cleve Marshall (Corey) is an Asst. D.A. who drinks too much because he is bored with his marriage and resentful of his in-laws.  Late one night, Thelma Jordan (Stanwyck) shows up at the office to file a report about some suspicious man lurking around her wealthy aunt's house.  They immediately hit it off and begin an affair which they must keep secret due to his marital status.  Actually, it turns out Thelma is married also but separated from her husband Tony Laredo (Richard Rober).

One evening, Thelma calls Cleve in a panic.  Her aunt has been shot by a burglar.  When Cleve arrives, he makes a fateful decision to tamper with the evidence in order to make Thelma innocence more believable.  That's a tall order because I was unconvinced from the start as secrets, lies and half-truths become revealed, Thelma's complicity or outright guilt becomes highly likely.

Cleve goes on to manipulate the situation so that he becomes the prosecuting lawyer.  Meanwhile, suspicions are growing in every sense.  Cleve's wife is suspicious and the authorities are suspicious of Thelma's statement which eventually implicate a secret Mr. X who is Cleve.  Eventually, Thelma is acquitted but reveals that she and Tony are indeed the killers (which one actually shot the aunt is left unsaid) and that Cleve was the patsy.  His silence is guaranteed given his evidence tampering, prosecutorial misconduct and conflict of interest.

I won't reveal the ending but will say that Thelma Jordan is similar to Lady Eve.  What started as false affection in order to commit a crime leads to Stanwyck's character actually falling in love with her mark.

I left Thelma Jordan thinking it was an above average noir but now that I've had six weeks to ponder it, I think Thelma Jordan is a minor masterpiece.  Thelma Jordan was released in 1950 which is arguably the high water mark for US film noir.  Sunset Boulevard, D.O.A., The Asphalt Jungle, Night and the City and In A Lonely Place were all released in 1950.  It's easy to see why Thelma Jordan would get overlooked.  I could nitpick such as  the fact that Cleve's easy slide into criminality is never really explained.  Once again Stanwyck's versatility carries the film.  Corey, whom I have now seen holding his own on-screen against Joan Crawford (Harriet Craig) and Evelyn Keyes (Hell's Half Acre), proves to be Stanwyck's equal in Thelma Jordan.


East Side, West Side (paired on a double bill with The File on Thelma Jordan) is one of these post-WWII melodramas about sophisticated and wealthy New Yorkers.  Jessie (Stanwyck) and Brandon Bourne (James Mason) live in a Manhattan penthouse.  I cannot recall Brandon's occupation.  I believe he was a lawyer but regardless he had a lot free time to pursue his leisure activities which mainly consist of adultery.  Bourne's ex-mistress Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner looking stunning even by Ava Gardner standards) is back in the Big Apple and wants to take up with Bourne again.  Understandably, Lorrison's return causes Jessie great consternation about the future of her marriage.

Meanwhile, dress model Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) becomes friendly with the Bournes.  She looks after Brandon after Lorrison's new boyfriend punches him and she becomes friendly with Jessie who shops at the boutique where she models.  Rosa's boyfriend Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin) is back from Army service in Europe.  An ex-NYPD cop and US Army intelligence officer, Dwyer is shopping around his book for publication.  Giving Rosa a ride to the airport to me Dwyer, Jessie finds Dwyer attractive and Dwyer feels likewise. 

The pieces are set for a melodrama - Bourne can't resist Lorrison and the spurned Jessie is quickly finding herself spending more time with Dwyer.  Only poor Rosa is left out and Dwyer rationalizes this by saying Rosa is too young for him and would be better off getting a guy closer to her age.  Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows...

East Side, West Side veers toward the absurd when Lorrison turns up murdered and Brandon Bourne is the prime suspect.  Dwyer investigates the crime independently...and discovers the statuesque Beverly Michaels is the killer!

It was fun to see Stanwyck play the victim (although I like it better when her character is bitchy) and I was certainly paying attention when Ava Gardner was on screen.  Otherwise, I didn't think Stanwyck had much chemistry with either Mason or Heflin.  Mason & Heflin both have great, distinctive speaking voices.


I was not aware that there was a 1953 film about the Titanic.  Unlike the 1997 Titanic, the 1953 version spreads its focus around to a few subplots.  The main plot involved the Sturges family - Richard (Webb) and Julia (Stanwyck) and their children, Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter).  The Sturges family are very wealthy and travel Europe extensively.  Julia is concerned about the effect this lifestyle will have on their children and books passage on the Titanic so that she can raise them with more down-to-earth values.  Richard had to hurry and buy someone else's ticket in order to get on board.

Other passengers include Richard Basehart as a defrocked Catholic priest, Robert Wagner as college tennis player who is attracted to Annette and Thelma Ritter as a thinly disguised Molly Brown.

The film didn't make much of an impression on me.  I recall that Julia reveals to Richard that Norman was not his son.  Von Busack's film notes mention that Stanwyck and Wagner were dating at the time of production.  That came as a surprise to me given their 20+ year age difference.

Any Titanic film will rise and fall based on the depiction of the sinking and the last few minutes.  By that standard, the film ended on a "high" note.  For a director of the caliber of Jean Negulesco, it would have been impossible not to extract the tension and drama of the situation.


If my estimation of Thelma Jordan went up in the intervening period, my opinion of Executive Suite went down.

Avery Bullard is the president of Tredway Corporation, a furniture manufacturing company.  After meeting with his bankers, he sends a telegram from New York City to the company headquarters in Pennsylvania.  He is calling an executive meeting that evening.  Then he promptly drops dead on the sidewalk and his wallet is stolen in a New York minute.  That means his body is not immediately identified.

The various vice presidents of Tredway gather while wondering what the last-minute meeting will be about.  Many suspect Bullard will name his successor at the meeting.  The most ambitious of VP is the Controller Shaw (Fredric March) who is the most cost conscious.  Bullard's long-time right-hand man and Treasurer Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) is too close to retirement to want the job.  Similarly, VP of Manufacturing Grimm (Dean Jagger) has already decided to retire but has not announced his decision. Dudley (Paul Douglas) is VP of Sales and is weak willed sort who is having a not-so-secret affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).  Rounding out the executive team is Walling (William Holden), the idealistic VP of R&D.   Tredway Board Member and investment banker George Caswell (Louis Calhern) saw Bullard die from his office window and shorted Tredway's stock but Bullard's lack of identification has delayed news of his death and the subsequent stock price drop.

Caswell tips off the police as to dead man's identity but unfortunately, it is Friday night and stock markets are closed.  Once news of Bullard's death reaches Tredway Corp., there is a furious positioning by Shaw to succeed Bullard with Alderson & Walling leading an ABS (Anyone But Shaw) campaign.  A Board meeting is called for Sunday afternoon so that they can elect a new CEO and hopefully stem any stock decline.

All the VPs plus Caswell are on the Board.  I guess rules about independent Board members didn't exist back then.  The final board member is Julia Tredway (Stanwyck), the daughter of the company founder and Bullard's former mistress.  Nina Foch was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Bullard's secretary.

I won't go into the details but there are numerous manipulations, hidden agendas, secret resentments, extortions and shifting loyalties before the Board elects the next Tredway CEO.  During the film, it was quite interesting but now it seems trivial.  I will note that Walling's commitment to quality vs. Shaw's commitment to cost containment is still relevant 60 years later.  In Executive Suite, Walling gets the CEO job but the attitude of modern business management favors Shaw's attitude in my opinion.

Crisply paced and an ensemble piece which gives most of the principle cast one or two meaty scenes, Executive Suite is nice find for me.  I had never heard of the film before.  I left the theater thinking I had a seen a film which was eerily prescient of modern businesses.  However, after some contemplation, I realize the issues and themes in Executive Suite are quite old (if not timeless) and global (if not universal).  It doesn't make the issues any less important or compelling but it reduces some of my initial excitement from the viewing.


I've long admired Barbara Stanwyck so this series really didn't increase my appreciation of her.  I'll just say it substantiated my opinion of her acting.  There were several films in the series which I am unfamiliar with.  There are many films I have not seen from Stanwyck's filmography.

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