Friday, November 25

Good 40s Films: East Side, West Side

1949 Drama
From MGM
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Barbara Stanwyck
James Mason
Van Heflin
Ava Gardner
Cyd Charisse
Nancy Davis
Gale Sondergaard
William Conrad
Beverly Michaels
Douglas Kennedy
William Frawley

It's not a great movie but it more than qualifies to be called a good 40s film.  It is sprinkled with some sparkling dialogue, is deftly directed by an old Hollywood pro and c'mon now, did you check out that cast? I wouldn't have cared if they had divided up sections of a newspaper and read them, these actors, particularly the top four, have long held a special spot in my movie star memories.  I have written mini bios about each of them earlier.

This is a story of adultery.  Stanwyck and Mason live in Gramercy Park on New York's posh east side.  The title ... used wonderfully in the song The Sidewalks of New York... should read more like East Side, West Side for all the attention showered on one over the other.  Who wants to see poor people suffer?  It's so much more fun watching the rich twisting their pearls.

The couple seems terribly in love.  She is clearly more devoted and more deeply enamored of her husband... and more forgiving.  For a year now, she has put her best foot forward in forgiving him for a past indiscretion with sultry Ava Gardner.  For a year Gardner has been away from New York but has now returned with the threat of more clamor than King Kong caused.

Gardner and Mason meet, by chance, at a nightclub, one of their old haunts and she tries all her smoothest moves to get him to succumb despite the fact that she not only has a new and jealous beau (Kennedy) but he is in attendance.  Mason tells her over and over that he loves his wife deeply, has not cheated on her any other time and has no interest in revivals.  But the sex-starved Ava, who clearly put the fatale in femme fatale, is having none of it.  Maybe it wasn't love, she purrs. Maybe it was only chemistry or the right combination or a miracle but most people drag through their whole lives without finding it.  He's still having none of it but he got something else when the beau spots them together and punches Mason in the face.

Mason lies to Stanwyck when he returns home in the wee hours of the morning.  He is honest in telling her that after getting decked, he is taken to the home of Cyd Charisse who saw him at the club and she has tended to his wounds.  He does tells Stanwyck about Charisse because the latter knows the former from those haughty fashion shows where women sit around in hats and gloves, legs crossed at the ankles and Pomeranian dogs in their laps.  

The ruckus makes the front page of the newspaper (must have been a quiet night in The Big Apple) and a friend (Nancy Davis) calls on Stanwyck to see how things are going in the marriage.  What are friends for? Of course she also has a copy of the newspaper.  They do engage in a thoughtful dialogue about female friendship and why it's so difficult for women to pull off.  Much is also discussed about infidelity and why some women choose forgiveness and others prepare the walking papers and also how difficult it is for one's personal tragedies to be aired in public.   I found the sequence pretty insightful for 1949, frankly, and as fresh today as it was then.

Stanwyck goes to meet Charisse to see what more might be found out.  The two women end up going to the airport together to pick up Charisse's friend, Van Heflin, the film's obvious breath of fresh air. He is a former cop who has been working as a foreign correspondent and is only in town for a few days.  He immediately falls for Stanwyck and while at first unaware of her marital woes makes every effort to respect that she is a married woman.

Heflin comforts her more after Gardner phones Stanwyck and informs her the affair is back on.  Stanwyck is quite distressed and through some clever plot points ends up going to Gardner's apartment to size things up for herself.  I adored this scene because of the delicious bitchiness, particularly from Gardner.  More on this scene shortly.

Interesting to note that while Mason says no, no no, why does he have to go to Gardner's apartment to say it?  She asks the same, all the while trying to break down his icy reserve.  (Could any actor do icy reserve better than James Mason?)  Finally she stretches out on her sofa as seductively as it can be done and still be dressed.  Aren't you being a little obvious, he snaps.  I always was, she whispers. It's what you liked.  

As much as attention swirls around adultery, the focus of the screenplay pretty much centers on the developing relationship between Stanwyck and Heflin, which never turns physical.  Both would like it to but she doesn't want to grovel in the same scrap heap as her husband and, as said, Heflin's determined to respect her wishes.  I loved the writing of this rather interesting male-female relationship.

By the way, the screenplay was adapted by Isobel Lennart.  I don't know her any better than you do but I do know I've seen her name on the credits of many a film that I enjoyed, such as Love Me or Leave Me, This Could Be the Night, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Sundowners and Funny Girl.

The film takes a bit of a turn about three-quarters in when Gardner's character is murdered.  We don't know who did it although suspicions quickly turn to both Stanwyck and Mason. Heflin's character now takes center stage as he couples his cop background with his fondness for Stanwyck and his belief that she isn't a murderess.

And you know I can't tell you.  It's not fitting. But you could bring up the film on You Tube and see for yourself.  And you should. But I will tell you some other stuff.

This was MGM through and through... except for its leading lady. Stanwyck made a few films there but by and large she was never attached to any studio.  While Heflin, Charisse, Mason and Gardner were all MGM employees, Stanwyck got the leading role over all those MGM actresses because Mervyn LeRoy insisted on her.

Stanwyck liked LeRoy and she was equally eager to work with Mason who was making his first American film this same year. That film, Madame Bovary, also costarred Heflin. Heflin was the other reason Stanwyck had signed on because she and Heflin adored one another from their previous pairings, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and B.F. Daughter.

Believe me when I say that Stanwyck has never been showcased more lovingly and sweetly.  There is a total softness about her here and let's face it, fond as I've always been of the lady, softness is not what comes immediately to mind when thinking of this legendary actress.  But soft she is... her demeanor, her hair is softer, her countenance is light, her words are measured.  I love the other Stanwyck but there is no doubt this is one of her most likable performances.  Additionally, I doubt that she has ever been more charmingly paired with a man as she is with Van Heflin. Their expertise acting opposite one another is so apparent.

What Stanwyck did not know when she signed on is that Ava Gardner would be joining in, too, and when that information became available, instead of Stanwyck becoming fiery, she seemed to draw within. Everyone apparently noticed.  And why was this? A year or so earlier, Gardner had been involved in a fairly-publicized affair with Stanwyck's husband, MGM darling, Robert Taylor. Though their marriage was largely a sham, the perception of it being beyond reproach was important to Stanwyck.  She had never met Gardner and never wanted to.

So not only are they making a film together, but their one scene concerns a woman confronting her husband's mistress.  If that weren't bad enough, Gardner's character basically has the upper hand.  Those on the set said Stanwyck was nervous about the scene and I think it shows.  Ah, Hollywood...

In real life, Gardner and Heflin were well-acquainted because
his wife, Frances, was Gardner's bff.  The actress and Mason coupled well, I think. She was a different type of character when she worked with earthy actors like Bogart, Lancaster and Mitchum. But with more urbane, gentleman types like Mason, she displayed another type, more the aggressor, more controlling.  Whatever their chemistry, they would display it again, immediately, in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) and years later in Mayerling (1968).

I think the film's main shortcoming is the short shrift that is given to Mason.   Other characters claim his character is ruthless, vain and self-centered and while that's true, he's simply not given enough screen time to show it to us.  Like some cars, he stayed in the same gear for the entire trip.  His character needed more dimension.  Mason was billed over Heflin while the latter had the meatier role.  Mason became a peripheral character though it was his actions that propelled the story to a large degree.

It was on this film, her second of 11, that Nancy Davis was introduced to her future husband, Ronald Reagan by LeRoy. Her name appeared on a blacklist and Reagan, as head of the Screen Actor's Guild, was called upon to help prove her innocence (it was another Nancy Davis... I am so relieved).  Her couple of scenes were brief and while she was good, she was nearly paralyzed working with Stanwyck. They would later become good chums.

Gale Sondergaard is a little-known Oscar-winning actress who played Stanwyck's actress-mother.  Her two scenes were effective, particularly the one at the end.  In real-life she was 50 and justy eight years older than Stanwyck.  In the film she says she is 55, which would make Stanwyck what...?!?!  That was bad.

And for your amusement in those nightclub scenes, who is the bartender but the Ricardos' friend, Fred Mertz... I mean William Frawley?

Overall it was a sincere depiction of cafe society types.  There is thoughtful commentary on several worthwhile subjects and although the entire affair and the wife's friendship ultimately turns into a murder mystery, it still worked for me.  And did I mention the cast?  I just loved this cast.

Here's our first look at our femme fatale:

Next posting:
Movie review

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