Monday, July 22, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, Final Day

We've come to the end of our road, folks. I can hardly believe it. I never dreamed, when I started planning this blogathon several months ago, that I would get the incredible response that I did. Each and every one of you has done phenomenal work here and I feel humbled that I got to be a part of it. I still need to finish up commenting on everyone's entries and I will follow up here with a proper congratulations and thank you to you all, but I want you to know now, that I appreciate you guys beyond measure and that you've made this an incredible blogathon.

Ladies of Leisure (The Girl with the White Parasol)

Ladies They Talk About (The Man on the Flying Trapeze)

The Mad Miss Manton (Close Ups and Long Shots)

Double Indemnity (Classic Movie Hub)

The Purchase Price (The Nitrate Diva)

Jeopardy (Pensamientos Filmicos)

Walk on the Wild Side (The Last Drive In)

Barbara Stanwyck: A Lady or a Liar? (The Great Katharine Hepburn)

Baby Face (Classic Movies)

Movie Review: Ladies of Leisure

Ladies of Leisure (1930)
directed by Frank Capra, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Graves

Even if you were born rich, you can still reach for the stars. Aspiring artist Jerry Strong (Ralph Graves) dreams of painting something that will capture the spirit of hope and longing. But inspiration is pretty thin on the ground when your whole life is made up of social engagements and obligations. His drunken friend Bill Standish (Lowell Sherman) wants him to give up ambition and settle down to a life of partying. His parents (George Fawcett and Nance O'Neil) and his snooty fiancee (Juliette Compton) just want him to settle down. 

Jerry's inspiration finally arrives in the unlikely form of Kay Arnold, a self-described "party girl" (Barbara Stanwyck). She isn't Jerry's type at all. She's blunt, sarcastic, and flirtatious, totally uninterested in grand ideas or great art. Yet Jerry sees something in her that makes him believe she could be the perfect model to represent hope. Kay accepts his strictly business offer, incredulous that this guy only wants her for some nutty experiment. His friends and family are aghast that he would spend time with someone so coarse. Jerry paints Kay over and over but becomes frustrated at her inability to understand what he's driving at.

Gradually, as Kay begins to see Jerry's sincerity and ideals, she falls haltingly and painfully in love with him. It's a love she knows will bring her nothing but misery. Because even if a guy could fall in love with her for real, how could a cheap, common girl like her ever make him happy?

The most popular image of Barbara Stanwyck is of a tough, independent gal that takes no prisoners. The kind of woman that can plot murder or sex with equal authority. But that's an ideal that had to be built up over time, over decades of slinky femme fatales and gritty Western heroines. Much like her friend Joan Crawford, Stanwyck became immortalized as the polished, mature, indomitable creature she played in the 40s and 50s. But look back into her early 30s work and a softer, more vulnerable image emerges. She was typed as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, hungry for wealth and security, but almost masochistically eager to risk everything for love. The Stanwyck of the 30s was always having to sacrifice something. Whether it was giving up her child (Stella Dallas, Forbidden), her ideals (Internes Can't Take Money, The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen), or her love (Always Goodbye, Ladies of Leisure), Stanwyck did it without flinching. 

Ladies of Leisure is one film where the style is so great, it creates the substance. The plot is no different from a half-dozen other tearjerkers Stanwyck would go on to make through the decade. Bad girl trying to make good, callow love interest that can't know the truth of her past, and the society snobs that threaten to destroy everything. What sets it apart first and foremost is the remarkably romantic and assured direction by Frank Capra. His focus, for most of the movie's 99 minute running length is the couple and the dreamy, almost hermetic world they create for themselves apart from society. As Barbara Stanwyck's character is gradually drawn to the high-flown idealism of Ralph Graves' artist, he in turn is touched by the depth of her feelings. While they try to bring Graves' imagined masterpiece to life, Capra isolates them, bringing in other characters only when raucous distraction is required. It's an unusual approach for a 1930 film; most melodramas of the time were shorter, snappier, and more eventful. But here, you can see Capra putting into practice an idea he would perfect in The Bitter Tea of General Yen and It Happened One Night. Let the couple alone and watch what happens. The drama is in the characters, not what happens around them.

Capra wouldn't be able to accomplish this without the incredible help of Joseph Walker, his cinematographer. Walker collaborated with Capra on eighteen films; his camera work was the perfect match for the director's lofty ambitions. To capture Barbara Stanwyck's unusual beauty, Walker keeps her backlit for closeups, letting the light linger in the curls of her hair and around the contours of her body. But the effect wasn't just for Hollywood glamor. Capra pointedly has a scene where Ralph Graves, acting as Capra's surrogate, strips off Stanwyck's makeup, ordering her into simpler clothes, snapping, "Be yourself!" To which Stanwyck answers testily, "Then what the devil are you trying to change me for?" Graves tells her, "I'm not trying to change you, I'm trying to paint you." Capra and Walker draw the same distinction with their actress, worshiping her face while still trying to let that direct, honest Stanwyck spirit shine through.

Stanwyck's performance here is especially fascinating because it's evident that Stanwyck was learning herself through this film, deciding what techniques to keep and what to discard. She throws in lots of little tricks and mannerisms in Ladies of Leisure that she would never use again. For example, in a scene where Graves forcefully pulls off a fake eyelash, Stanwyck gives a drawn-out sigh that sounds like nothing in nature. It's halfway between a girlish squeal and an accordion. Later, as she argues with Graves, she snaps, "Goody goody goody, let's fight," complete with cute little fist smacking. None of these quirks hurt the performance and for this long-term Stanwyck fan, it's a lot of fun to see Stanwyck before she became such a superb, controlled technician. She's so loose and unpredictable here and both she and her character feel as if they're rushing heedlessly into something they barely understand.

Kay Arnold is a character whose wisecracks are only a flimsy protection against hurt. When she does fall in love, it's an emotion that registers more as great pain than great joy. In a lacerating scene, Kay makes breakfast for an ungrateful Jerry. At first, she watches in adoring silence as he silently reads the paper. Then a tear rolls down her cheek. She pushes a vase with a single flower closer to him, like an acolyte making an offering. Jerry doesn't see it and knocks the thing over. When he finally looks up, he irritably shoves the vase aside. Kay almost breaks down. When Jerry glances at her, she tries to cover by tossing food in the air and catching it in her mouth."Can you do that?" she asks him, nearly sobbing even while she's laughing. Now stripped of her defenses, she's helpless in the face of love, mocking herself even as she angles for the slightest scrap of affection.

This is the movie that made Barbara Stanwyck a star. Her actual first film, The Locked Door, was like an object lesson in every way a melodrama can go wrong. A contrived plot, bizarre performances (by actors struggling with the technical constraints of the early talkies), and misguided attempts to be titillating, including a scene with Stanwyck in an artfully torn dress, holding a gun. Ladies of Leisure shows how the genre can be given real emotion and complexity, allowing time for character and feeling. And Stanwyck shows what she can really do. In his Stanwyck biography, The Miracle Woman, Dan Callahan awards her an alternate Oscar for Best Actress of 1930. Looking at her performance here, I'd have to agree.

Ralph Graves falls somewhere in the low-mid range of Stanwyck's leading men. He's too stiff and dour for the role of idealistic artist Jerry Strong and as an actor, he hasn't a prayer of coming within Stanwyck's league. It's like taking your eyes off a great dancer to stare at the polished hardwood floor under their feet. You imagine someone like Lew Ayres playing the conflict between Jerry's dreams and his guilty desire to escape back into upper-class ease and Ladies of Leisure falls into place as one of the best romances in Stanwyck's career. 

However, Graves' cold immobility kind of works for the first half of the movie. It's very hard to sense what he really feels for Kay and makes Stanwyck's tentative love for him all the more fragile. In a scene where he stands over Stanwyck's bed and she pretends to sleep, there's a split second where it almost looks like Graves intends to rape her. The immediate revelation that no, he just wanted to tuck a blanket around her is a moment of pure grace and relief. That said, when Jerry does admit his love for Kay, the transition feels too abrupt to be real. It's as if we spent most of the movie with a grumpy, petulant Mr. Hyde and now we're confronted with a grinning, blindly romantic Dr. Jekyll.

Ladies of Leisure keeps such an intense focus on the relationship between Kay and Jerry that the supporting cast function solely as satellites. Marie Prevost makes the strongest impression as Kay's ditzy, loyal friend Dot Lamar. Dot's really the only ally Kay has in the film (Jerry may love her but boy does he make her pay for it) and her kindness keeps the movie from tilting too far into maudlin misery. There's a lot of cracks about Dot's weight but Prevost thankfully plays her as someone happy and confident in her attractiveness. You wish it could have gone that way in real life for Prevost. Lowell Sherman's also a joy as the perpetually drunk layabout Bill, Jerry's dishonorable friend. He may be a sleazy guy trying to put the moves on Kay ("Take a good look, it's free," Stanwyck snaps at him), but Sherman's comic timing is so good, I still kind of wanted him to find not-so-true love with Dot. 

Juliette Compton, as Jerry's fiancee Claire, is breathtakingly snobbish, ordering Stanwyck to turn around for her so that she can get a good look at Jerry's new model. Stanwyck raises her eyebrows but does a slow turn, her humiliation obvious. The Stanwyck of later films would have told her to stick it where the sun don't shine. For some reason, Claire disappears halfway through the film, never to be mentioned again. Jerry doesn't even have to dump her, she just vanishes. But then, Jo Swerling did say he wrote the script for Ladies of Leisure in a breathless five-day writing binge, "interrupting the writing only long enough for black coffee, sandwiches and brief snatches of sleep."

The real weak link of the cast is acclaimed stage actress Nance O'Neil, as Jerry's mother. In a scene that could be cut and pasted to a dozen different 30s melodramas, she goes to Kay and begs her to give Jerry up. But of course, she has to pretend not to love him or he'll never accept it. This Camille-lite garbage really drags down the film's climax since there's no plausible reason why Stanwyck's character should be swayed by O'Neil's cliched speeches. And O'Neil's acting is pure Victorian theater training, hopelessly outdated. All tragic nobility, hands-clasped sentiment, and low, "thrilling" voice.

But Stanwyck manages to save the scene with a single line. After O'Neil has made her case, choking back a sob and saying, "I must fight for him. That's what mothers are for," Stanwyck simply answers, "I wish I had one to fight for me."

Ladies of Leisure isn't a perfect film but for this Stanwyck fan, it's just like Austen's Emma, "faultless in spite of all (its) faults." It's romantic, it's strange, it's lovely, and it has a compelling lead performance by a woman that would go on to become one of the greatest stars in cinematic history. No Stanwyck library is complete without this one.

Favorite Quote:

"Do I look like a small cup of coffee?"

Favorite Scene:

The scene where Jerry goes to cover Kay with a blanket. Capra keeps the rhythm of the scene achingly slow, with Stanwyck trying to sleep and the rain beating gently against the windows. Capra always said he found rain romantic and uses the image of it here to effectively seal the lovers off in a private world of their own. Walker takes advantage of the rain to cast a flickering play of light and shadow on Stanwyck's expressive face, as if her thoughts are changing with every raindrop. Kay hears Jerry's footsteps at the door and you can see the realization dawn on her face that the man she cares for is just coming to use her, like every other man she's known. She closes her eyes, pretending to sleep. Then she feels, Jerry drawing the blanket over her and Capra cuts to a simple shot of his feet, walking away. Cut back to Kay, radiant with delight. In a gesture she would find again for Stella Dallas, Stanwyck bites the blanket with her teeth and stares up at the ceiling, smiling (in an earlier scene she had mocked Jerry for making her stare raptly at a ceiling). It's a blissfully sweet and sensual scene that captures the moment when a cynical, broken woman gives herself over completely to love.

Final Six Words:

Stargazing romance with transcendent Stanwyck performance

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, Day 6

 Barbara's friends have all turned up to wish her a very happy Blogathon!

Day 6 of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon is shaping up to be gloriously offbeat. Seriously, I can't think of a single unifying theme for this group of films other than "Barbara Stanwyck is awesome." We've got William Castle horror, Frank Capra melodrama, Robert Taylor romance. None of these films rank among Stanwyck's most famous or celebrated but taken as a whole, they reveal her incredible gift for creating strong-willed, engaging heroines, whether they're supporting a square-jawed hero or fighting for their own place on center stage.

This is My Affair (Crítica Retrô)

Banjo on My Knee (True Classics)

Clash by Night (Silver Scenes)

Forbidden (Shadows and Satin)

The Night Walker (WeirdFlix)

Meet John Doe (The Joy and Agony of Movies)

"Babs in the Boardroom" (Second Sight)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, Day 5

"I'm a tough old broad from Brooklyn. I intend to go on acting until I'm ninety and they won't need to paste my face with make-up."
Some great performers can get very miserly with their talent, hoarding it up like gold and only spending it on Oscar-worthy films. Some lose their courage and stop trying new things. Some becomes caricatures of themselves. One of the wonders of being a Stanwyck fan is that even through eighty-plus movies, there's never a period where you have to avert your eyes and mumble excuses for her. Stanwyck stayed true to herself all the way from the sentimental fantasies of Always Goodbye to the homely Western comforts of The Big Valley. Today runs the full gamut of Barbara Stanwyck's career. Enjoy!

My Reputation (Portraits by Jenni)

Ball of Fire (Old Movies Nostalgia)

Union Pacific (The Kitty Packard Pictorial)

A Taste of Evil (3B Theater: Micro-Brewed Reviews)

The Big Valley (Hamlette's Soliloquy)

Always Goodbye (Movie Classics)

Crime of Passion (Running After My Hat)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, Day 4

Time to take a cool plunge into the pool with Barbara Stanwyck. Today belongs to the "ladies." That is, those gambling, card-sharping ladies your mother warned you about. We take an exciting side trip into the lands of film noir, with an added dose of wife murder to keep things interesting, and complete the journey with a look at Stanwyck's fascinating and underrated collaboration with Douglas Sirk. Jump in, guys!
The Lady Eve (Classic Movie Hub)

Gambling Lady (Immortal Ephemera)

These Wilder Years (Citizen Screen)

The File on Thelma Jordon (Krell Laboratories)

Trooper Hook (Vienna's Classic Hollywood)

All I Desire/There's Always Tomorrow (Pensamientos Filmicos)

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (The Last Drive In)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, Day 3

I have to admit, the Stanwyck-Taylors looked incredibly cute in photos

It's Day Three, folks, and the fans show no signs of slowing down! Today looks to be pretty eventful, with a generous helping of film noir to start us off. From there, we move on to Willa Cather adaptations and TV shows, to sharpshooters and troubled violinists. And that's still only the beginning, we've got four more days of Stanwyck to enjoy!

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Silver Screenings)

Witness to Murder (Who Can Turn The World Off With Her Smile?)

A Lost Lady (Tinseltown Royalty)

The Barbara Stanwyck Show (Caftan Woman)

Annie Oakley (Silver Scenes)

Golden Boy (Hollywoodland This N That)

Blonde Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (Film Noir Blonde)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, Day 2

The second day of Barbara blogging is set to be an exciting one. First, we're treated to a little holiday cheer (in July) with Christmas in Connecticut. Then Ivan hauls us onto the dusty plains along with Forty Guns, we make a side-trip into the wilds of TV soap opera, and we end up shivering on the decks of the Titanic. Fittingly, the day ends with a look at the partnership that launched Stanwyck's career, the teaming of Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck. Without Frank Capra, there might not have been any Stanwyck film career. That's a thought more terrifying than the image of Stanwyck brandishing a gun in Crime of Passion.

Christmas in Connecticut (A Person in the Dark)

Forty Guns (Lerner International Enterprises)

Stanwyck and Dynasty (Wide Screen World)

Titanic (Noir and Chick Flicks)

Capra and Stanwyck (The Motion Pictures)

ETA: By the way, I've been informed that there's a new website in town, completely devoted to Barbara Stanwyck! It's called Barbara Stanwyck the Queen. You can find it here. I haven't had much of a chance to explore the site yet, but you can bet I'll soon be a regular visitor. The site's got forums, a blog, gifs, a complete Stanwyck filmography, magazine articles, quotes, photo galleries, basically everything a Stanwyck fan needs to be in utter heaven. Check them out!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, Day 1

And we're off to the races! The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon has officially begun. It's off to a fantastic start too, with a slew of great writers tackling everything from Stanwyck's sparkling costumes to her status as femme fatale supreme. There's a lot to enjoy here so let's get started. Barbara and the puppy want you to click these links! And leave comments for these immensely talented bloggers. Have fun, all.

July 16

No Man of Her Own (Vienna's Classic Hollywood)

Remember the Night (A Thousand Words)

Sorry, Wrong Number (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear)

The Miracle Woman (

Lady of Burlesque (3B Theater: Micro-Brewed Reviews)

Stanwyck the femme fatale (The Scarlett Olive)

Barbara Stanwyck: an appreciation (The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog)

Stanwyck's costumes in Ball of Fire (Stardust)

The ageless Barbara Stanwyck (A Shroud of Thoughts)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon Schedule is Posted!

Wonder why Barbara's smiling? Well, she's got good reason. A whopping 49 film bloggers have signed up for the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon this summer!

While I can't speak for the lady herself, I have a pretty good idea that she would be truly touched and honored to see how much the people love her, over twenty years after her passing. Barbara Stanwyck was not the kind of actress that campaigns for praise or glories in adulation. She wasn't America's sweetheart, she wasn't a sex symbol, and she wasn't a great lady of the theater. She was a woman that went to work every day and gave it her all and if Stanwyck knew she was a genius (as I'm sure she did) she never let it get in her way. She was brilliant right up to the end. And from July 16 to July 22 this year, we're going to give her one hell of a celebration.

For those of you who've been wondering about my long silence this past month, rest assured that I haven't just been sitting around munching chips and reading The Lone Ranger reviews. Aside from real-world stuff, I've been gearing up for the blogathon by brushing up on my Stanwyck knowledge. That means reading the Stanwyck biographies. That means fighting my way through Stanwyck's formidable filmography of 85 movies. Not to mention her TV shows and guest appearances. I haven't gotten through all of it and I probably won't by the time of the blogathon. I may love Stanwyck beyond all reason, but I do have to pay rent. Still, it's been an incredible joy to spend quality time with her this summer and I've emerged from the experience, an even more devoted fan.

The big news today is that I've posted the schedule for the blogathon. Bear in mind that it is a preliminary schedule, that's all. For those of you that have requested a specific date, you have it. For everybody else, I've tried to arrange the dates so that every day has a good mix of movie genres and topics. I hope I've come up with something workable for everybody.

That said, you can still request a date. Just comment here or email me if you'd like to change to another day and I'll move you around.

For those of you that requested more than one movie, I've tried to arrange the schedule so that each movie gets its own post. If you're down for two movies, than I've put you down for two separate dates. Please go through the list and see where your blog is posted. I chose to do this on the assumption that it would be more difficult to post multiple movie reviews on the same day. If however, that is what you were planning to do and you'd prefer to just do one big post, let me know and I'll change your entry date. No worries.

Before I show you the schedule, let me try to answer some standard blogathon questions.

I don't want to write about this topic any more. Can I switch?

Course you can. No problem. Drop me a line and I'll change it for you.

Things have changed and I've just been so busy this summer and I won't be able to write for the blogathon after all. Is that okay?

Don't worry, I won't go all Phyllis Dietrichson on you. All of us have to deal with a world outside of blogging and there's no shame in having different priorities. Just let me know and I'll take you off the list. 

I still don't know my topic! But I still really want to write for the blogathon!

Then take your time. The only reason I collect blogathon topics ahead of time is so that we get a good mix of movies. You've still got from now until the blogathon to decide.

I haven't signed up for the blogathon but I want to! Are you still accepting entries?

Sure. Again, just let me know in the comments section or by email and I'll add you to the list.

The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon Schedule

July 16

July 17

July 18

July 19

July 20

July 21

July 22

Stay tuned for more updates, guys!

ETA: For those of you that need to talk to me about post topics/scheduling/anything else blogathon-related, you can always reach me by email at