Monday, December 19, 2011

My Reputation - 1946

This week we have A Barbara Stanwyck Christmas with “My Reputation” (1946) and “Remember the Night” (1940). When you count in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), which we previously covered here, it seems Miss Stanwyck became one of the leaders in the Christmas movie genre.

A young relative of mine, 10 years old to be exact, in between mouthfuls of chocolate cake, informed me quite solemnly that new Christmas movies were not as good as “classic movies”. She was so firm in her opinion I could not help but agree (she doesn’t know anything about this blog), pleased with the flourish in her use of the word “classic.” She is as familiar with “It’s a Wonderful Life” as any old movie buff.

She could not, however, precisely tell me why old Christmas movies are better, though in time she will likely come up with several reasons. She’s a rather analytical type of person. Don’t know where she gets it.

For my part, I think one of the chief reasons “classic” Christmas movies are so powerful is that, ironically, they are not all about Christmas. Christmas is only the backdrop to a collage of story lines, subplots, and images, sometimes only a scene or two in a movie that otherwise deals with non-holiday drama.

To be sure, Christmas comes with its own drama, which is why many people are stressed out this time of year. It is a checklist of tasks we must accomplish. It is a recurring nightmare of family feuds. Annually, we seem to fail to measure up to a goal of spiritual, and temporal completeness.

I think modern Christmas movies, TV-movies, etc. are less powerful and satisfying than classic films because they tend to put this holiday frenzy as the crux of the story, instead of allowing it to be the backdrop. As every classic film fan can tell you, we notice the backdrops. We study them. They are important just where they are. Bedford Falls is the backdrop; James Stewart and his stupendous meltdown and the reasons for it are the story. But through the telling, we know all about Bedford Falls, and it becomes a character in the movie. The Christmas climax is fitting because Christmas is not the nightmare; it’s just the time the nightmare occurs.

Another way to look at it: let’s say Christmas is the painted backdrop of a stage set. The actors perform in front of it. However, if you make Christmas the focus of the story, i.e., it’s like moving the backdrop downstage closer to the audience.  The actors are now performing behind it and we never see them.

By keeping Christmas in the background, the classic Christmas movie becomes so much more meaningful than the trite “finding the true meaning of Christmas” or having “the best Christmas ever” stories we have today. The classic Christmas film is about life and death, prison and sickness, lies and deceit, and never getting what you really want. Then the Christmas scene -- like the thunderous ringing of church bells or the clash of symbols that accompany it, makes us feel triumphant in a colossal way, because we have discovered again we are human and survived being human, and have forgiven others for being human.

Christmas movies made during the early 1940s have a special tension to them. World War II was, shall we say, a rather bigger impediment to holiday serenity than standing in a long checkout line. We know, just as the characters know, this may be their last Christmas together. Ever. Or, maybe not. Depending on the role of the dice. There is no way for us to replicate that dramatic tension today.

I guess it’s about time I got to the movie.

“My Reputation” deals with a woman’s adjustment to widowhood and then opening herself up to a new romantic relationship. Christmas slides in at the end of the movie like a runner rounding third base and stealing home.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a new widow with two sons, ages 12 and 14, played by Scotty Beckett with his customary easy charm, and Billy Cooper. Cooper made only a handful of films, but his portrayal of the sensitive older son is quite nice. The boys have little idea of the horrors of their father’s longtime illness or their mother’s devoted care giving. They will be equally ignorant of how lonely she is, and how lost she is now that her social position seems to have changed with her husband’s passing.

Her mother hammers this home to her. Played with her usual frank, thoroughness of character, Lucile Watson is the dragon lady, Miss Stanwyck’s upper crust mother to whom duty and honor are substitutes for joy and happiness. She has been a professional widow for 25 years, and has worn black every day like a uniform. She expects Barbara to do the same now.

Note the hanky Miss Watson sniffles into. Even that is edged in black.

Miss Watson gets a wry, comic scene where she describes a friend’s fight with the local ration board about getting a larger gasoline allotment because her luxury car only gets 9 miles to the gallon. Her indignant friend, another woman from “good society” complains, “They’re just doing everything they can to break our spirits. It’s pure class prejudice.”

Ah, the rich resenting calls for equity put on them by a democratic society in wartime, calling it class prejudice. Sound familiar?

“Stick to your rights,” Lucille Watson tells her, “This is still America.” Yes, but whose?

Another footnote to the war is the scene where Stanwyck shops at the local market with her ration book. In this post last year about “Love Letters” (1945), we noted that not a lot of wartime movies showed the omnipresent ration books, but here we get to see Stanwyck flipping through hers. $1.38 for a pound of bologna, plus 24 points. You could have all the money in the world, but if you didn’t have 24 points, either in the form of stamps or little round fiber-celluloid tokens (like game pieces, red for meat and fats, blue for processed foods), you went home empty.  (Note, this movie was made during the war, but not released until 1946.)

Stanwyck shrinks from the horror of her bossy mother’s code of behavior. With her sons about to leave for boarding school, she suffers from the anxiety of being nobody’s wife, nobody’s mother, with her only role left of being her mother’s dutiful, and dutifully spiritless, daughter.

Barbara Stanwyck plays, or rather underplays, this woman with impressive sensitivity. Her long career showcased the enormous range of her talent, but strong women became her forte. When she had to, she could chew scenery with the best of them. This role required a different tone, and she demonstrates her intelligent reading of a character, her tasteful delineation of what is appropriate.

She gently plays a gentle woman, and hits all the right notes. A scene early in the film where she reads a letter written to her by her deceased husband is particularly moving. She exhibits a lot of control in her shaky voice, as well as through the movie when she has moments of nearly breaking down. It is never forced, it is always genuine.

Luckily for her, Eve Arden is her pal. She tries to buck her up and encourages her to stand up to her mother, but it’s a long, slow learning curve for the emotionally brittle Stanwyck. Miss Arden provides her customary sensible support, but there’s not a lot of wisecracking for her in the film.

Jerome Cowan, however, who we saw in “Beloved Enemy” here, leaps off the screen in a small role as the husband of a friend who makes passes at Stanwyck. He’s the smarmy fellow who can’t keep his hands off her when his wife isn’t looking, and when he offers to drive her home, we can foresee better than Stanwyck does that he means her no good. A brief tussle in the front seat, she gets away from him, but there’s no comeuppance for this creep. Cowan plays him with the right sort of grinning lust and self confidence.

Thoroughly shaken, Miss Stanwyck is more upset by the prospect of being alone than being assaulted by a friend because she is now “a woman on the loose.” Soon, she will have a new worry: how to be open to a new love when he shows up.

This turns out to be George Brent, who meets her on the ski slope. Eve Arden and her husband have taken Stanwyck to Lake Tahoe. The foursome get along swell, but the twosome is harder to evolve. Stanwyck is reticent to take up so soon with another man, despite her loneliness, and Brent is too much of a free-spirited bachelor to want to be tied to anyone, especially a woman who requires such deft wooing. Wooing is not Mr. Brent’s forte. He comes from the grab-them-and-plant-a-forceful-kiss school of romance. And if she is so insulting as to struggle, ridicule her for her childishness.

Some have criticized Brent for being wooden, not just in this role but period. I can’t really fault him for this performance, though, because we don’t get too much of his side of the story of this relationship. The movie isn’t really about them, it’s about her. At the end of the film, when Brent decides he wants to make a commitment, he’s not really believable. It seems too sudden a transformation. I don’t think Brent can be entirely blamed for a script that doesn’t let us see his struggle.

One scene between them doesn’t work at all. They have known each other for a while, and she comes to visit him in the apartment he is using while a friend is away. They sit on the couch and he attempts to seduce her with an unwanted martini and Jerome Cowan’s patented pawing technique. This does nothing for Brent’s role as the designated hero in this film.

Contrast it with the famous and astounding erotic scene between Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur in “The More the Merrier”, discussed here. He has his hands all over her, but she is not unwilling as Stanwyck is in this scene; rather she is only awkward. She is a reserved and prudish woman awakening to the wonderful world of sexual arousal, and McCrea’s perseverance is softened by the comedy accompanying the wooing. In the scene between Brent and Stanwyck, we have none of that, and it’s a shame, because Stanwyck had a similar quality to Miss Arthur’s ability to play both drama and comedy at the very same time.

A funny note about Eve Arden’s relationship with her husband, however -- I think this is the only time I can remember seeing a man and woman lying prone in bed together in a film of this era. Granted, she’s bundled up because of the freezing cold of their mountain cabin, and he is reading and giving her only minimal attention. Also, he calls her “my pet”, which is about as romantic a term of endearment as calling her “you pinhead”, in my book. Still, there are four legs in that bed, not one of them on the floor. Chalk that up to some kind of record.

The climax of the movie comes at Christmastime, when our everyday lives become suddenly more intense due to the enormity of tradition, and the ties that bind.

Stanwyck invites Brent to her home to meet her boys and share in the festivities, which features Eve Arden and her husband, the sassy housekeeper played by Esther Dale, the family friend and attorney played by Warner Anderson -- who is barracking to be the new man in Stanwyck’s life, and her disapproving mother.

When they gather around the piano to sing carols, George Brent is the odd man out, watching them and not even trying to fit in. More could be done with this scene, but we get the point.

Stanwyck gets serious that whirlwind week between Christmas and New Year’s, but when the boys, home from school, hear gossip about their mother at a party, we see that Lucille Watson’s warnings about her reputation have come back to haunt her.  She has a nice scene where she confronts her so-called friends.

Janis Wilson and Ann Todd play friends of the boys. Young Miss Wilson only made a handful of films, but she was terrific in her debut film “Now Voyager”. Young Miss Todd had a longer career, and we saw her in “Roughly Speaking” here. The inevitable Bess Flowers also plays one of the society friends at the party, but then she always shows up everywhere. I think we’ve mentioned before she has the biggest “walk-on” career of just about anybody.

I think I ran into her at the grocery store the other day.

At their own New Year’s Eve party, Stanwyck and Brent get the paper streamer treatment, the conga line, and the champagne, and when he drops the bad news that’s he’s being sent overseas, she wants to follow him to his point of embarkation, New York City, to spend all the time she can with him. Her mother, in a sensible and reconciling gesture, takes responsibility for her sons when they run away because their mother is a floozy, and Stanwyck comes down to earth, content to wave to Brent on the train platform and not go with him.

A nice touch to the end is when the train pulls out and a group of sailors hanging out the train windows whistle at her. It may do more for her morale about getting back in circulation than anything Brent has done the entire movie. She gives them a shy salute. Her sense of humor, and her sense of control, are back now.

Have a look here at Laura’s recent take on this movie at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings. Come back Thursday for Barbara Stanwyck’s turn as a crook about to be reformed by Fred MacMurray one Christmas week in “Remember the Night.”


Anonymous said...

Hi Jacqueline,

I watched "My Reputation" for the first time just last night. so seeing this post appear is perfect timing! Barbara Stanwyck was so great in the movie. Her character's struggle to move on after her husband's death felt very real and truthful. The concept of a reputation that can be tarnished by merely dating someone seems old-fashioned, but the story of a woman who has spent her whole life defined as someone's wife, daughter, or mother trying to break free and have an identity of her own is still relevant to many.

To me the only weak point in the movie was George Brent, but like you mentioned, it's not really about him. His character is just a catalyst for the journey of self-discovery Stanwyck's character embarks upon, and in that he's serviceable enough. Still, it would've been nice to have someone a little less bland in the role.

Love your comparison of the scene on the couch with the stoop scene in "The More the Merrier." One of the best things about the latter scene is how Joel McCrea's advances are never icky or off-putting, in spite of Jean Arthur's (half-hearted!) rebuffs. On the contrary, in fact. It's too bad this movie didn't have a little more of that delightful sexual tension. Brent's pawing was definitely more "ick" than "ooh la la." ;-)

Thanks for the great review! Barbara Stanwyck and Christmas were already so entwined in my mind because of "Remember the Night" (my favorite holiday movie ever - can't wait for your review of that one) and "Christmas in Connecticut." Now I have another Stanwyck film to add to my annual Christmas movie viewing.


Caftan Woman said...

I think I hear a stampede of folks running to watch this movie after reading your article.

Your remarks about what makes the older "Christmas" movies stand up so well are right on the money. I find there is a respect for the audience as well. They don't have to hit us over the head with "Christmas" - it is there, and we all know what it means.

I read somewhere that Jessica Drummond was one of Stanwyck's favourite roles. However, since that was also the name of her character in "Forty Rifles" I can't say for certain she meant this Jessica, but my heart tells me it is.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you Melissa. I agree that George Brent was wooden, but I also think the script doesn't really let him be much else. How nice that "Remember the Night" is your favorite holiday movie. I'll try not to botch it.

CW, I forgot that she had the same name in "Forty Rifles". That's funny. I'm glad you mentioned it. We mustn't let the important trivia get away from us.

Laura said...

Very much enjoyed your post, Jacqueline, especially after having rewatched this so recently. (Thank you very much for the link!!) You're right on about that scene on the sofa -- it was what led me to mention in my own post that there's a "touch of a heel" in Brent in the early scenes. It didn't seem to quite match up with the rest of his character -- otherwise I liked him in this very much.

You know, the day after I watched this film it suddenly hit me, in a delayed fashion -- hey, wait a minute, Arden and Ridgely were in bed together! LOL. So I cracked up when I saw your comments. I wondered if it was OK with the censors because she was so cold she was wearing her bathrobe in bed?

And I got the biggest laugh out of you seeing Bess Flowers at the grocery store! I'm never surprised when she turns up at parties or in nightclub scenes, but I *was* a bit surprised when she popped up in the crazy fairytale village of Disney's BABES IN TOYLAND -- I don't know why, I just didn't expect to see her in a color Disney movie or something. Maybe she seems to belong to B&W movies?

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Laura. Dear Bess Flowers aside, and the married couple in bed, there's really a lot to look at in this movie. One thing I didn't mention, and I'd love someone's take on it because I haven't quite decided how I feel about it -- is the sort of noir-ish use of low camera angles looking up. There are several scenes, that look quite imposing, of people standing above us on staircases. They loom down on us and it doesn't look friendly (even when the boys are perched this way it looks somehow sinister). The movie we'll tackle on Thursday, "Remember the Night", has such "cozy" camera shots to it, such a contrast to the the darker tone of "My Reputation". Does anyone know why it was held from release until after the war?

Caftan Woman said...

In addition to "Remember the Night", "Christmas in Connecticut" and "My Reputation", would you consider adding "Meet John Doe" to the Stanwyck Christmas canon?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Oh, my, yes. Good point. You know, I was thinking about the scene this morning where she and Gary Cooper are on the rooftop and you see the condensation of their breath in the cold. One thing that bothered me about "Remember the Night" -- and I'm going to bring this up on Thursday -- is the way they travel across the snow-covered countryside in a car with the windows rolled down. No frost, no sensation of cold. I missed that nice touch of the frosty breath from "Meet John Doe".

Of course, there's a story to that. I believe they put the actors in an isolated room or chamber of some sort to drop the temperature and film the scene with some sense of realism. I think Stanwyck got pneumonia or some such illness from it. I also dimly recall a story about a first attempt to shoot this scene with dry ice that proved toxic.

But, good job adding "Meet John Doe" to the canon.

Laura said...

Hi Jacqueline,

I've read conflicting info on why the release was held back. While a page at TCM suggested that Warner Bros. thought audiences would be more receptive to it after the war, I've also read that Warner Bros. had too many (hard to believe!) films ready for release during the war years. There are at least a couple other films they held back from release, including DEVOTION (1942) which was filmed around the same time as MY REPUTATION. Maybe Warners wanted to give the release edge to war films or lighter fare? Don't know the answer. Apparently MY REPUTATION was screened for the troops during the war, even though it didn't receive a domestic release till later.

You're so right about how much there is to look at in the film -- I'll have to pay attention to compare the camera angles next time I see this and REMEMBER THE NIGHT.

When I watched this movie I thought of you and especially your post on the movies and gas rationing!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much for the update, Laura. I didn't know "Devotion" was also held back. The way they used to churn them out back in the day, I'm surprised they thought it was necessary to hold any of them. You suggestion of pushing the lighter fare sounds reasonable.

As for the gas rationing, I also wondered how many gallons those big cars would hold? Getting 9 miles to the gallon is funny, but 8cylinders and all, and the size of those things, and all metal. I suppose it's not unheard of. But I wonder how many gallons they took?

shenandoah bed and breakfast said...

Thanks for sharing this post. No doubt she was the leader in Christmas movie genre. In modern movies things are presented in a different way. I love classic movies.

Kevin Deany said...

I've had this one in the "to watch" pile for eons, and didn't know it was a holiday movie. I'll try to watch it between now and the end of the year.

It sounds like a typical George Brent performance, and believe me, I do not mean that as a putdown. He always offered good support to his leading ladies and never outshone them> No wonder the ladies liked to work with him.

"My Reputation" also boasts one of my favorite Max Steiner scores, another reason I'm eager to re-acquaint myself with it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kevin. You're right about Brent supporting, but never outshining the ladies. I hope you can catch the movie soon. Since it ends at New Year's, it's good one to hold for the end of the year.

Sally said...

Great post! I've never watched "My Reputation" before but I watched "Christmas in Connecticut" for the first time a few years ago and "Remember the Night" for the first time a few days ago... so I think it's time to add to this new holiday tradition of watching new Stanwyck movies!

I was wondering, would you mind if I linked to this post in my 12 Days of Christmas blogathon? I'm compiling a list tomorrow night and I'd love to use your review!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you Sally. Please feel free to link to your 12 Days of Christmas Blogathon. Good luck with your terrific blog, "Flying Down to Hollywood".

Anonymous said...

Glamour and strength, beauty and intelligence, sophistication and allure--it's so rare to find all these attributes so completely and perfectly embodied in a single actress. Barbara Stanwyck's performances simply amaze me.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well, put, Steve. She was a treasure.

barrylane said...

I think George Brent marvelous. Totally at odds with other comments and revisionist reviews.

Anonymous said...

On a quest to watch all the Stanwyck films still available, and just saw this one for the first time last night (June 2013). I found your review and others' comments all quite valid. One comment made referred to the angles used. I agree the effect seems quite intentional. "Citizen Kane" pioneered use of ceilings in films and "My Reputation" showed several. James Wong Howe was a master at deep-focus photography and this film showcased some of that. All in all, an enjoyable film which I plan to watch again.

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