Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck in No Man of Her Own and Ball of Fire

Cornell Woolrich, of Rear Window fame, wrote a novel called Fright in which a marriage is cursed by a crime. No Man of Her Own (1950), the Mitchell Leisen film that recently played as part of the Barbara  Stanwyck festival at Film Forum, was also based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, I Married a Dead Man. In the film adaptation a couple are haunted by a crime they never committed. At the beginning of the film Bill Harkness (John Lund) and his wife Patrice (Stanwyck) are living in a state of luxurious torpor, a life in death that’s that’s no Wagnerian Liebestod. In a series of flashbacks, we learn just what’s drained the passion (though not the love) from them. There’s a train wreck which results in a switch of identities, with the down and out Helen Ferguson mistaken for Patrice Harkness, the wife of the scion of a wealthy Midwestern family. Neuroanalytic folks would have a heyday since those who suspect her could be conceived of as suffering from a disorder called Capgras Syndrome in which a familiar person seems to be inhabited by an imposter. In this case the Patrice/Helen character is just that and the guilt, aggravated by a blackmailer named Stephen Morley (Lyle Bettger), just about undoes her. But unlike in Fright the curse is magically lifted. No Man of Her Own is a cumbersome Stanwyck vehicle replete with interior monologues and redundant railway leitmotifs which include whistles and plumes of white smoke, but it shows the enormous range of emotion that Stanwyck was able to muster as part of her dramatic palette. She was able to don so many guises, guileless victim, devoted daughter in law, would be murderer, that you wonder if the Patrice/Helen character she’s playing is suffering from another ailment, multiple personality disorder. There is one scene in the movie that's particularly haunting in the light of the recent Metro North disaster. An elderly woman is taking her fine time in the women’s room. Patrice Harkness is banging on the door impatiently. Finally she and Helen get in and seconds later the two are thrown across the bathroom by the force of the crash. Patrice is dead and Helen finds herself waking up, reinvented, in a hospital bed. In Ball of Fire (1941) which played the next night Stanwyck is a gangster's moll named Sugarpuss O’Shea. Sugarpuss finds her Henry Higgins in Gary Cooper  (Professor Potts) who is studying slang and for whom split infinitives are a pet peeve. It also Snow White, with her Seven Dwarfs as pedants writing an encyclopedia. Howard Hawks directed the Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett script and the dialogue moves as fast as the drumsticks of Gene Krupa whose band makes a cameo appearance. The role is the reverse of No Man of Her Own. Stanwyck’s playing Lola Lola to Professor Rath, though in this case she’s a seductress with a heart of gold. The repartee is brilliant. “I had a zipper during one of my acts. I couldn’t take anything off. It was so embarrassing,” Stanwyck explains breezily. Stanwyck demonstrates her musical comedy acumen in many scenes and one in particular with Krupa in which she applies her “Screw, scram, scraws” (“the complete conjugation,” as Potts says) as Krupa foregoes his drumsticks for wooden matchsticks which he beats on a matchbox. This is the kind of movie that you’re likely to leave saying, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

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