Friday, April 1

Good 40s Films: The Hard Way

1943 Drama
From Warner Bros
Directed by Vincent Sherman

Ida Lupino
Joan Leslie
Dennis Morgan
Jack Carson
Gladys George
Paul Cavanagh
Faye Emerson
Leona Maricle

Well, you know I love my movies about Hollywood but that passion could just as easily be directed toward the stage, even television.  I just want the skinny on behind-the-scenes hijinks. Bring it. One movie that's certainly at the top in this regard is All About Eve. One focus of that backstage stuff that has always fascinated me is the stage mother.  Let's just tweak that a bit for The Hard Way because this is about a backstage sister but one who raised her little sister as a mother would have done.  Here is a fine old classic.

I thought Ida Lupino was one of the saddest, most depressing- looking actresses there ever was.  One day she will be the subject of her own posting and we shall investigate why that was.  In the meantime, she was a glorious choice for the role of Helen, who was indeed sad about living in a depressing steel town with a big beer-gutted husband who shows her no affection.  Helen would like to get out but how?

Helen finds the way when her kid sister, Katie (Leslie), attracts the attention of one member of a traveling vaudeville song and dance team. Albert (Carson) and Paul (Morgan) think Katie has some musical talent when they watch her sing and dance at a malt shop after she catches their performance.  Albert, a bit of an innocent like Katie, is immediately smitten with her and begins talking about how successful she could be on the stage. 

Helen starts scheming by insinuating Katie into the boys' act. Paul is initially not for it but Helen determines she will take care of Paul. Soon she orchestrates a marriage between her sister and Albert and off the four of them go to New York City.  In time Helen breaks up the boys, telling all that the act would work better with just husband and wife.  Helen has no respect for Albert and while he is wary of her, he is sick in love with Katie.  It becomes increasingly apparent that Katie is the most talented of the couple and iron-willed Helen tells Katie that she needs to strike out on her own.  Albert is crushed but does as he's told. He leaves and takes his corny act back out on the road while the moderately-talented Katie flourishes.

In the beginning of the film the audience feels for the embittered Helen but as her drab dresses are traded in for beautiful gowns, shimmering jewelry and exotic hairstyles, one doesn't have to be hit over the head to see what a manipulative, lying, ruthless shrew she really is.  Katie is delivered to us as the heroine of the piece but in many respects she's a little nitwit who's complicit in Helen's schemes.  

Paul's character serves as a moral compass.  Helen is clearly in love with him and it seems possible he could have loved her as well but he sees her clearly for the treacherous woman she has become. She'd walk over anyone and Paul knows it.  Here's a clip of their best confrontation:

One feels certain Katie will come to her senses before the film's end.  After we have been filled up with Helen's transition from drab housewife to glamorous manager, we switch to Katie's transformation from dewy-eyed innocent to a tougher woman who learns what and whom she wants and doesn't want.  It's a fun ride.

Told completely in flashback, The Hard Way opens with a well-turned-out Helen jumping into the bay and ends with her in a hospital bed.  Both scenes were added at the insistence of studio head, Jack Warner, who wanted the film to open with Lupino looking glamorous.  This scene would be re-invented for Joan Crawford two years later for the opening of Mildred Pierce.

The Hard Way showcases Lupino in one of her three best roles... They Drive by Night (1940) and Road House (1948) are the others. While watching her dazzle on the screen, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role and yet she was not the first choice.  She often wasn't.  Even at WB she was known as the poor man's Bette Davis, an unkind reference to the fact that many of Lupino's roles were ones that Davis turned down.  It's been said that writer Irving Shaw used Ginger Rogers and her punishing stage mother, Lela, as the inspirations for this story.  Once the screenplay was completed with sisters at the forefront and after Davis declined, the Helen part was offered to Rogers who also declined.  Interestingly, she is mentioned in the film. 

It was not an easy shoot for Lupino for several reasons.  Her beloved father died during production, she was sick most of the time and perhaps as a result she quarrelled often with director Sherman. Watching the rushes she thought she was terrible in the part although one assumes she changed her mind when she won the New York Film Critics award for best actress over such contenders as Claudette Colbert, Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine.  How gross to consider she wasn't even nominated for an Oscar.

Leslie, while only 17 at the time, was already a veteran at WB with roles as Gary Cooper's wife in Sergeant York, Jimmy Cagney's spouse in Yankee Doodle Dandy and as Bogart's crippled friend in High Sierra (also starring Lupino).  She had just finished dancing alongside Fred Astaire in The Sky's the Limit.  One needed to be a pro to dance with him and yet her musical scenes in The Hard Way may be the weakest part of the film.  She has said how much she liked the film because her character was allowed to grow and change.

Ignoring for a moment his outstanding comedic turn in the Barbara Stanwyck gem, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), it's not difficult to find this as one of Morgan's best roles.  He stopped making films after leaving WB but while he was there he was one of their most reliable go-to actors.  His strong baritone voice made him ideal for musicals and his good looks put him opposite most of WB's top female stars.  He and Carson made 10 films together... they certainly deserve inclusion as one of Hollywood's great screen teams.

There's little doubt that this was one of Carson's best films as well. He had played the soft-hearted boob before and would again, often in comedies, but his outing here as a man who sees his life falling apart added a great deal of prestige to his career.  

Ace cinematographer James Wong Howe beautifully captured the images of the poverty-stricken sisters' grimy hometown and the posh settings of their later environs.  The costumes, especially Lupino's, from designing wizard Orry-Kelly, are a classic example of why films of the 1940s and the actresses who starred in them are held in such high esteem, even today.  The Hard Way may be regarded by some as a woman's picture and while I am way okay with that, I also admired its frequent noirish overtones.  It is a dark piece with excellent acting and well-written characters and I could hardly ask for more.  Thanks Vincent Sherman.

Here is a film that could sorely use a remake.  I would have such fun recasting it.

Next posting:
The Lady Was a Tramp

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post very much. As always the 'behind the scenes' informations you give are very often more interesting than the film itself. In this case it expains the reason why after having seen a movie with Lupino I oftens said to myself: Bette Davis would have played this role much better.Bravo.