Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Between Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut, it just wouldn’t be Christmas for me anymore without Barbara Stanwyck.

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She’s at her most gorgeous in Christmas in Connecticut, playing an unmarried career woman who poses as a married expert on domesticity, gloriously bedecked in mid-’40s finery designed by Edith Head. (Head was borrowed from Paramount to dress Stanwyck; the other costumes were by Warner’s Milo Anderson.)

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Dennis Morgan was handsome and dreamy in his uniform, plus he had the most beautiful singing voice. I would’ve fallen for him like a ton of bricks, too.

 

Stanwyck’s attempts at homemaker perfection are hilarious. You could probably discuss this movie in terms of the end of the war, women being forced out of the working world as men returned from overseas, and the coming feminine housewife ideal of the 1950s, if you were so inclined.

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I’m not so inclined at the moment, however, since Christmas in Connecticut is silly and romantic, and features S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall frequently slapping his chubby cheeks and saying things are “hunky dunky.”

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I highly recommend seeing the movie if you haven’t already. It streams for free on Amazon Prime and will air on TCM this Friday night.

This morning I also watched a fluffy but entertaining 1946 comedy of remarriage set mostly at Christmastime, Never Say Goodbye, starring Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker. (And S.Z. Sakall! He was in so many movies.)

Errol Flynn was beautiful. How is it that men were dashing with thin mustaches then — Gable, Flynn, Niven, Powell — but would look bizarre with them today? And why oh why did we let dressing up, supper clubs, and dancing cheek-to-cheek disappear? There’s no romance in the world anymore.

 

I don’t see any upcoming airings of Never Say Goodbye on the TCM schedule, but the movie is available from the Warner Archive.

Fred MacMurray Friday

It’s hard to believe it’s already the last week of February!  But it is, which means that this is the final installment of Fred MacMurray Friday.  I’ve had such a good time focusing on MacMurray and his films this month.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it too, and that you’ve been inspired to watch some of his many wonderful movies.

Today we’ll skip ahead about a decade from last week’s dark comedy, Murder, He Says and shift gears entirely.  This film is no comedy, though it certainly has the “dark” part covered.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

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It’s not often that classic movie melodramas focus on the emotional crises of men.  Normally it’s a neglected wife and mother yearning for passion, excitement and appreciation, not a neglected husband and father. There’s a reason they labeled them “women’s pictures,” after all.  But Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow gives us a sympathetic portrait of a man in crisis, showing us that the rigid post-war gender roles and societal expectations so suffocating for women could be just as stultifying and difficult for men.

Fred MacMurray is Clifford Boles, a California toy manufacturer and family man trapped in a life of routine and responsibility.  He’s taken for granted by his family, who brush him aside in their rush of daily activities.  Cliff’s wife, Marion, played by Joan Bennett, focuses all her attention on their three children – a college-age son, a teenage daughter, and another, younger daughter.  She’s so busy taking care of them that Cliff can’t even take her out to dinner and a show on her birthday.  She rebuffs all Cliff’s attempts to spend time with her or rekindle their marriage.  She loves him, but she’s complacent, and completely devoted to her children to the exclusion of her husband.

When Norma Vale, a former colleague who now works in New York as a fashion designer, unexpectedly comes back into his life, Cliff isn’t looking for escape or romance.  But of course that’s the turn things take.  Norma (Barbara Stanwyck, still gorgeous and  with an enviably sexy figure at age 49) was in love with Cliff twenty years before, and though she doesn’t reconnect with him in order to have an affair, she still carries a torch.

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She’s having a crisis of her own, questioning her life as a career woman.  She has a failed marriage behind her and, as Marion points out to Cliff after Norma has dinner with the family, has missed out on the things all women want – a home and children.  Oh yeah, and a husband, too.  (Did I mention that Marion takes Cliff for granted?  He’s always an afterthought.)

One of the interesting things about this movie is that it doesn’t turn into a typical triangle, with the wife discovering the affair and fighting to keep her husband.  In fact, Marion seems unaware of Cliff’s growing feelings for Norma.  She doesn’t even blink when he tells her that he and Norma ran into each other at a Palm Valley resort during a business trip, and spent the entire weekend together.  She seems to trust him implicitly, or else simply not think of him as someone who would ever have an affair or attract a woman in that way.

Instead it’s the Boles’ children who provide the roadblock to Cliff and Norma’s romance.  Cliff’s son, Vinnie, sees Cliff and Norma together in Palm Valley, and though their relationship was nothing but friendship at that point, he assumes the worst.  He and his teenage sister, Ellen, confront Norma, who soon realizes there’s no way the story can end other than her going back to her life in New York and Cliff going back to his family.

“Love is a very reckless thing,” she tells Vinnie and Ellen.  “Maybe it isn’t even a good thing. When you’re young and in love, nothing matters except your own satisfaction. The tragic thing about growing older is that you can’t be quite as reckless anymore.”

Both MacMurray and Stanwyck give sensitive, honest performances as two middle-aged people who briefly find passion and love before being thrust back into the gilded cages of their lives sadder, but supposedly wiser.  This was the final of four movies in which they co-starred, and they’re so comfortable together that you feel right from the start that Cliff and Norma are kindred spirits, both searching for something missing in their lives.

The movie is beautifully photographed and full of classic Sirkian symbolism.  Cliff secretly telephones Norma at night, from the home that has become a prison to him.

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Mirrors and reflections abound, giving the audience a glimpse at the duality of characters, and the facades they put on for the world.

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A robot in Cliff’s toy design workshop is in the foreground when Norma tells him their relationship has to end, depriving him of his brief escape from the soulless existence he endures at work and at home.

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It’s not subtle, but it’s effective.  This article from Cineaste.com delves into the deeper meanings behind what we see in the movie.  There’s Always Tomorrow doesn’t seem to be as well known as other Sirk masterpieces, like All that Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, but it’s just as powerful an example of the director’s visual and emotional style.

I was heartbroken for Cliff and Norma by the end of the movie, especially for Cliff, whose growing anguish, brief moment of respite and hope, and return to the depressing bosom of his family was beautifully portrayed by Fred MacMurray.  Cliff’s return to his family is ostensibly the movie’s happy ending, but it left me feeling rather hopeless and bereft for this sad man.

I’m sure that was Sirk’s intention.  After all, the movie starts out with the words “Once upon a time in sunny California…” projected over a scene of gloom and rain outside Cliff’s toy factory.  Irony is the name of the game here.

I think the thing I’ve come to love and appreciate most about Fred MacMurray’s performances, whether in romantic comedy, silly slapstick, or tragic melodrama, is how perfectly he depicts the average, everyday man.  He’s the boy next door in his macmurrayyounger days and the suburban husband and father in middle age.  He’s the insurance salesman who meets a dangerous woman and gets in over his head, the sleazy executive having affairs in his underling’s apartment, the decent man trapped in a suburban prison.

He’s just a guy.  Handsome, but not ridiculously so.  Someone you might run into at the office or dropping the kids off at school.  An everyman.  He played those kinds of roles over and over again in different incarnations, from the comic to the tragic.  He brought his “regular Joes” realism, depth, darkness, light, humor, and pathos.

MacMurray was a very versatile, talented actor, something  I’ve come to realize more fully over this month of focusing on his movies.  Although Fred MacMurray Fridays are done for now, I’m sure he’ll keep popping up around here as I continue to discover and enjoy his work.

Miss Barbara Stanwyck

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I’m sorry to confess that until relatively recently I knew Barbara Stanwyck mostly from her brilliant Emmy-winning performance as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds and from her role as Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley, which I used to watch with my mom as a child.  Oh, I’d seen Double Indemnity, but otherwise I was pretty ignorant of her movies from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  Not sure why, I just never sought them out. 

Then last Christmas TCM aired Remember the Night, a 1940 film co-starring Fred MacMurray, and ever since then I’ve been madly in love with Miss Barbara Stanwyck (as she was grandly billed on The Big Valley).  She is amazing in everything I’ve seen so far, with such vulnerability beneath the tough exteriors of the women she portrays.  She’s drop dead gorgeous, has the greatest husky voice, is absolutely hilarious, and can break your heart into a million pieces, too.  Her acting has such subtlety and truthfulness, even in the silliest of movies, like The Lady Eve.

(Discovering her and Jean Arthur within the same year has been an amazing, joyous revelation.  I keep slapping myself on the forehead and asking myself how I could’ve been blind to these ladies for so many years, while blithely calling myself a classic movie fan.)

Just look at her!  Such movie star glamour.  She was absolutely beautiful.

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There are still many, many Stanwyck movies left for me to see, but here’s a bit about a few I’ve watched lately.

Remember the Night (1940)

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This movie is a treasure, and I have no idea why it isn’t a better known Christmas classic.  Remember the Night was written by Preston Sturges (someone I’m really starting to believe was the greatest screenwriter ever…well, aside from Ben Hecht) and directed by Mitchell Leisen, so it’s a classy, quality affair.  Stanwyck plays cynical, brassy shoplifter, Lee Leander.  MacMurray is John Sargent, the District Attorney prosecuting her.  The trial, which is taking place just before Christmas, is postponed until after the holiday, which means Lee will spend it in jail.  John begins to feel sorry for her and one thing leads to another until he’s finally bailing her out and taking her home to Indiana to spend the holiday with his family.

There are some funny, screwball moments, like when the two end up crashing their car, spending the night in a field, milking a cow, and being arrested for trespassing.  Also funny are the courtroom scenes that open the film.  (Lee’s attorney’s defense of her shoplifting, and John’s reaction to it, are a stitch.)

At heart, though, the movie is a sweet, sentimental one of love and redemption.  Lee’s own family is truly awful (the scene in which she visits them is heartbreaking, and John’s graceful extrication of her from the situation is one of the sweetest moments imaginable), so to see her with John’s kindhearted family, who takes her in like one of their own, is lovely.  The marvelous Beulah Bondi plays Mrs. Sargent, John’s mother, Elizabeth Patterson plays his darling Aunt Emma, and Sterling Holloway is their funny (and occasionally yodeling) farmhand.

This is one of the most truly romantic movies I’ve ever seen.  Stanwyck and MacMurray have wonderful chemistry.  I appreciate stories where the characters have time to get to know one another and you can believe that they really have fallen in love.  So many movies have people meet and fall immediately and based on pretty much nothing. 

In Remember the Night  John begins to see that beneath her hard shell, Lee is a kind, decent girl who has had a difficult life.  Lee sees where John came from, how he worked his way up from a poor but loving home to be a success, and how it’s possible to be part of a happy family.  That makes it sound so schmaltzy, but it’s really not.  It’s sentimental, but in a genuine, heartfelt way.  Anyway, if you can’t have some honest sentiment at Christmastime, when can you?

This movie isn’t out on DVD, which is a terrible shame, but it appears on TCM now and then.  It’s well worth checking out.

The Lady Eve (1941)

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Another one written by Preston Sturges, who also directed it.  This movie is hilarious!  Fall-on-the-floor, laugh-out-loud crazy.  Just look at the expression on Henry Fonda’s face!  Stanwyck is so funny and sexy in that scene.  She drives poor Henry Fonda right out of his mind with lust.  It’s fantastic, and rightfully one of the most famous scenes in screwball comedy history.

Fonda plays Charles Pike, a brewery heir, ophiologist, and bumbling geek in spite of all his wealth and good looks.  Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, a cardsharp and con artist who works with her father, my dear old Charles Coburn.  The relationship between Coburn and Stanwyck is one of the best things in the movie.  They’re both cynical and crooked, but there’s love there, too.  Charles Coburn was the best.

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They meet on board a ship heading from South America to New York.  Jean sets out to seduce Charles and trick him out of a fortune, but of course she winds up truly falling in love with him.  He finds out who she really is just before their ship docks, and in spite of her attempts to explain he is terribly hurt and dumps her.  That’s when the really crazy stuff begins.

The premise of this movie is so insane (Jean poses as an English aristocrat, “Lady Eve,” at a party at Charles Pike’s father’s mansion, and without changing her appearance at all manages to dupe Charles into thinking she’s really someone else), but somehow it works.  I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t seen it, but the way it all works out is truly nuts.  Funny, but nuts.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

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This movie, also co-starring Stanwyck with Henry Fonda, is fairly entertaining, though a far cry from the perfection created with their pairing in The Lady Eve a few years later.  Stanwyck plays a dizzy socialite, Melsa Manton, who discovers a dead body which inconveniently disappears right after she calls the police.  Miss Manton has a reputation for pranks and getting into trouble, and the cops think this is just another of the silly stunts she and her rich, idle friends pull.

Also skeptical is Fonda as a newspaperman named Peter Ames.  He eventually comes to believe Melsa, however.  And of course he falls in love with her.  He and Melsa, along with her society friends, eventually solve the crime.

Not the greatest movie, but it’s a lighthearted, fun screwball/murder mystery.  This movie plays on TCM now and then, and was also recently released through the Warner Archives.

Golden Boy (1939)

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Based on a Clifford Odets play, this is the story of a gifted violinist, Joe Bonaparte, who comes from a loving, immigrant family.  To his father’s dismay and in spite of his own doubts about what the right thing is, Joe gives up the violin in order to gain wealth and fame as a prize fighter.

William Holden plays Joe Bonaparte, in his first movie role.  He had basically no credits at all when he was cast in this film, and he turns in a really moving, passionate performance.  He was only 21 years old!  Remarkable.  I love Bill Holden.

Stanwyck plays the girlfriend of Joe’s manager (Adolph Menjou), who at first uses her feminine wiles to get Joe to keep fighting when he wants to give it up and return to music, and who later truly falls in love with him and begins to hate what all the money and fighting are turning him into.  Once again she’s a tough on the outside, tender on the inside gal, and she’s wonderful.

Partway through production Columbia Pictures got cold feet about having a newcomer in such a big role, and Stanwyck stood up for Holden and fought for him to stay.  She believed in him and he was always grateful for that.  For the rest of his life, Bill Holden sent Barbara Stanwyck flowers on the anniversary of their first day of shooting Golden Boy.

Stanwyck seemed to inspire that kind of love and loyalty.  Just think of how discreet and gentlemanly Robert Wagner was about their love affair for decades, only revealing it in his memoir last year.  In the caption of a photograph of the two of them in the book he says simply My love, Barbara Stanwyck.  (Excuse me while I swoon a little.)

Miss Barbara Stanwyck.  A great lady and a great talent, as I am happily discovering these days.