Barbara Stanwyck at Universal and Criterion’s Southern Revivals – DVDs of the Week

The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (Universal Backlot Series) (Universal)

Barbara Stanwyck, that powerhouse actress of the sound era of Hollywood cinema, is gifted with a style and sensibility that has arguably aged more convincingly and compellingly into the 21st century than her contemporaries. While you can’t really say her performance elevates every one of her films into classic status, her presence lifts average material, drives good movies and stokes the fire of great films. She played most roles as if she fought her way up from the street to become who she is and wasn’t about to back down from any challenge to her position. “There is a not a more credible portrait in the cinema of a worldly, attractive, and independent woman in a man’s worlds than Stanwyck’s career revealed,” wrote David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film.

Barbara Stanwyck on the streets
Barbara Stanwyck on the mean streets of depression-era cinema

There’s little in common between these six films in this set of Universal films apart from Stanwyck, a tough cookie of a movie star who consistently dominated her male co-stars when it came to sheer screen presence, and the fact that they are apparently that last Stanwyck films in Universal’s catalogue that had not been released to DVD. That’s enough, I suppose, especially for a set that opens with such a revelation as Internes Can’t Take Money (1937), a snappy little depression-era crime drama based on a Max Brand story that also happens to be the film that introduced the character of Dr. Kildaire to the screen. He’s incarnated by Joel McCrea here as a passionate and dedicated young surgical intern who works in a New York hospital that is the epitome of Art Deco modernism, with elegantly spacious rooms, curving hallways, walls of glass and spotless white dividers and ceilings. (If Fred and Ginger ever made a hospital film, they could have danced their way through this set and convinced us all it was really a ballroom.) Into this gleaming utopia comes working class Stanwyck and immediately takes charge of the story. She’s a hard-luck girl with a complicated backstory, spending her meager salary to track down her daughter, a little girl lost in a system of orphans and foster kids without a bureaucracy. So she turns to the underworld of hustlers and tipsters for a lead and, wouldn’t you know, young Dr. Kildaire fits right into this world, knocking back beers as at a gangster bar and (because he favors the Hippocratic oath over hospital regulations) befriend a gambling racket boss (Lloyd Nolan) who turns out to be a right joe.

Joel McCrea is perfectly engaging and convincing as the working class guy made good as a rising surgical talent yet still at home in tough-guy bars and the rough-and-tumble world of working class folks and colorful crooks. He’s earnest and he has moxie, but it’s clear the story belongs to Stanwyck, whose desperation and maternal drive trumps her heart. The script gives most of the big plot-moving action to Kildaire but Stanwyck manages to be the engine of the film, or at the very least the furnace. It’s far less sensationalistic than the great pre-code films Stanwyck made for Warner and it lacks that rat-a-tat momentum and snappy energy, but it’s a brisk film with the same urban hard-times sensibility, that great contrast between the affluence in the skyscrapers and the folks scraping by on the streets, and the Runyan-esque codes of honor among the goodfellas on the streets who pull together in the face of the corrupt bigwig. Plus nuns!

Stanwyck and McCrea reteam for the historical drama The Great Man’s Lady (1942), with Stanwyck narrating her life story (and her romantic sacrifice) for the sake of a nation-building hero from behind old-age make-up decades before Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man. Directed by William Wellman, it’s a film where Stanwyck is in charge from the moment her character, hundred-year-old Hannah Sempler, steps on screen, the flinty matriarch putting the a roomful of reporters in their place before taking pity on a woman biographer and giving her the true story of the legendary Ethan Hoyt (Joel McCrea) and her place behind the Great Man. Unfortunately the film is kind of a stiff, a rambling melodrama of hardship and sacrifice in the settling of the west and the explosion of California while Stanwyck does what it takes to make her man succeed, even keep their marriage a secret after he leaves her and remarries into money and political power (without bothering with a divorce in the interim). Brian Donlevy is the “other man” who will do anything for Hannah, a smiling gambler who never lies when he unveils his games of chance (“You can’t win,” he promises) and sticks by her. Wellman puts the story through its paces without giving it any life or sense of anything at stake, and he fails to bring any emotions out of McCrea, leaving Stanwyck to carry all the melodrama. It’s kind of a stiff, but Stanwyck gets to play the gamut onscreen: giddy rich-girl idealist, rough and ready frontier wife (including a hysterical hillbilly act for the sake of a railroad man), aristocratic gambling hall hostess and, of course, ancient matron with just as much moxie as ever.

The gems of the set are her two films with Douglas Sirk. The dark corners in Sirk’s America are first explored in All I Desire (1953), a turn-of-the-century small town melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck as an actress in a seedy traveling company who returns to the family she abandoned and finds a hostile reception. The innocence of previous small town snapshots has become a smothering little world poisoned by gossip, social prejudice and double standards, and Sirk found its visual equivalent in the claustrophobic set of her once happy home. The picture stretches for an unconvincingly pat happy ending, but as Stanwyck fights her reputation, the attentions of an old lover, and the wagging tongues of a judgmental town, Sirk suggests that the final fade-out is only the beginning of her struggle. Even better is the contemporary There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) with Fred MacMurray as a toy inventor who put his ambitions on hold long ago for his family and Stanwyck as the adventurous woman from his past who flies back into his life (literally, as jet airliners setting off for other places and other challenges is a central and evocative image in the film) reminds him what he’s given up. It’s as suffocating a portrait of suburban middle class life as the you’ll find in fifties cinema and Stanwyck is the flame that casts everything else into shadow. Unfortunately, as Dave Kehr points out, the latter film is a full screen/open matte presentation of a 1.85 film, and a soft master at that. He compares frames from the film’s most famous scene, one from this full-screen transfer and one from a letterboxed European import, to make his point that framing matters at his blog here.

The set is filled out by the comedy The Bride Wore Boots (1946) with Robert Cummings and the shadowy drama The Lady Gambles (1949) with Robert Preston, neither of which I made the time to watch. Three discs in a fold-out digipak with no supplements. Dave Kehr’s New York Time review of the set is here.

Ride With The Devil (Director’s Cut) (Criterion)

Ang Lee and James Schamus reconstruct their preferred cut of their 1999 Civil War drama, which they cut to under two hours and fifteen minutes to meet their contractually obligated running time for its theatrical release. This newly-prepared cut runs about 14 minutes longer. I hadn’t seen the film since its theatrical release so I can’t pass judgment on a preferred version (let alone explicate the differences), but I was gripped by the film in this reviewing in ways I did not expect. Based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell and adapted by longtime Lee collaborator and producer James Schamus, the film is set in the divided state of Missouri, where neighbor really did fight neighbor and sides were chosen more out of social identity than political allegiance. Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) consider themselves Southern men and, when the “war of Northern aggression” hits the Jack Bull farm and becomes personal, they join the Bushwhackers and joins a brutal guerilla war between private militias conducting a war of terrorism, a fight that, in this film, culminates with the Lawrence Massacre, one of the great atrocities of the Civil War.

Riding with Jewel and Skeet Ulrich

Bucolic scenes of men at rest in beautiful wild landscapes and families gathered over meals in manors and homesteads are shattered by battles fought with a brutality driven by something close to vengeance: it becomes personal to every man with a family touched by the war. There’s no romanticizing the fight or the values on the line here, and even those men who proclaim that it’s not about slavery but states rights aren’t about to let those damned abolitionists tell them that they can’t have slaves. But behind the rallying cries is a portrait of young men in war facing the reality of battle and seeing the brutality of their kind of war, fought outside the bounds of the army and driven by various levels of anger, vengeance or (in the case of the sneering son of the South played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) pure sadism. At the risk of sounding as if I’m reducing the complex portrait to a cliché, it is a coming of age film of sorts, but for Jake it’s not just becoming a man, a husband and a father. It’s about bonding with freed slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) and, trusting him with his life in ways he could never have predicted, seeing him as a human being with everything at stake in the war. That Daniel fights on the side of the South is one of the great contradictions that complicates and enriches the portrait. Identity and loyalty are ultimately defined by personal connections rather than social assumptions, political belief or even national status, and personal experience is the forge that shapes the evolution of Jake’s identity through the war.

“It’s a pleasure to see it again, in its integral version,” remarks Schamus in a commentary track he shares with Lee, though they were recorded separately and edited together into a seamless presentation, and he points out the first scene restored to the film: a scene in the wedding celebration where politics threatens to break out into violence and we get our first glimpse of Mark Ruffalo. It’s a small thing and Ruffalo never even speaks, but it gives greater power to the later scene when Jack and Jack Bull meet him again as a prisoner of war, and it gives the aftermath of their act of kindness a more powerful resonance. But the restored scenes are also, in Lee’s words, “the scenes you actually get to live with the people” and they give the odyssey of these young men a greater texture.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray editions feature two commentary tracks (the second features director of photography Frederick Elmes, sound designer Drew Kunin and production designer Mark Friedberg, who bounce comments off one another in the same recording session), plus a new video interview with actor Jeffrey Wright and a booklet with new essays on the film (by critic Godfrey Cheshire) and the historical background on the events presented in the film.

The Fugitive Kind (Criterion)

Anna Magnani, Marlon Brando and snakeskin jacket

Previously available in a movie-only DVD edition from MGM, Criterion gives the deluxe treatment to The Fugitive Kind (Criterion), Sidney Lumet’s film of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, scripted by Williams and starring Marlon Brando in perhaps the definitive Method performance of the era. Brando’s Valentine Xavier is a sensitive loner and eternal victim who breaks down in a Southern backwater, a purely Williams world of drunks and grudges and emotionally crippled impotents taking out their fury by finding victims to make even more miserable under their control. It wasn’t only Brando’s second screen engagement with Williams’ material. The part of Lady Torrance, the miserable Italian immigrant wife of the bedridden tyrant (Victor Jory), was written for Anna Magnani, who passed on the stage production but agreed to bring it to the screen (her second Williams adaptation, after The Rose Tattoo).

Highly theatrical and dripping with gothic atmosphere, it’s hardly realistic and the love story never convinces, but it is mesmerizing, thanks to all the “Acting” with a capital A. It’s like watching Brando do James Dean (who was, of course, doing Brando), under an orchestrated symphony of ticks and mumbles and heavy pauses and a snakeskin jacket as defining (if not as evocative) as Dean’s red jacket, and still finding a fragile soul under it all. Next to the heavy hush and measured atmosphere of Brando, Magnani is all street diva, using her big, earthy performance to separate herself from the cast: powerhouses who wander in from different movies. Joanne Woodward is more in Brando’s as a slumming socialite who turns every emotion and impulse into a grand statement and Maureen Stapleton (who originated the role of Lady Torrance on stage) is heartbreaking as a fragile and generous local artist. The Criterion DVD features the archival 1958 TV presentation Three Plays by Tennessee Williams, an hour-long production directed by Lumet and featuring Ben Gazzara and Lee Grant, plus a substantial new 28-minute video interview with Lumet, an original documentary on Williams’ work in Hollywood and the development of The Fugitive Kind and a booklet with an essay by film critic David Thomson.

Cross-published with seanax.com.