Sunday, 31 January 2016

Picture of the Week

Hedy Lamarr and her mother, Getrude Keisler, reunite after five years of separation (1942)

Friday, 29 January 2016

Film Friday: "You Only Live Once" (1937)

When I saw this film a couple of days ago, I found out that it was released on January 29, 1937. So naturally, this week on "Film Friday" I had to tell you a little bit about it.

Original release poster
Directed by Fritz Lang, You Only Live Once (1937) concerns Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a three-time convict who has just received an early release due to the influence of public defender Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane) and the prison chaplain, Father Dolan (William Gargan). Eddie then marries his longtime sweetheart Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney), Whitney's secretary, and vows to go straight and work hard. His aspirations at normal life are soon thwarted, however, when he and Joan are asked to leave their honeymoon room after the proprietors, Ethan (Charles "Chic" Sale) and Hester (Margaret Hamilton), learn that Eddie is an ex-con. Eddie gets a job at a truck company, but his boss, Mr. Williams (William Pawley), fires him for being late after he meets Jo to show her a house they plan to buy.

Sometime later, Monk Mendall (Walter de Palma), a member of the gang to which Eddie formerly belonged, stages a bank robbery and frames Eddie for the crime. He leaves behind Eddie's hat, which Monk had stolen from him, and which has Eddie's initials stamped on it. When Monk is killed after his getaway truck skids off the road and into a gorge, Eddie is convicted of both the robbery and the murder of a guard on circumstantial evidence and given the death penalty. On the eve of his execution, a gun smuggled into the isolation ward enables Eddie to escape. As he makes his way to the truck gate of the prison, Father Dolan comes forward to tell him that Monk's corpse and getaway vehicle with the stolen money have just been found at the bottom of a gorge, meaning that Eddie has been pardoned. Eddie does not believe Dolan and, in his confused state of mind, accidentally kills the chaplain. Eddie and the now pregnant Joan go on the lam and are blamed for every robbery throughout the country. After the baby is born, Joan leaves the child with Whitney and her sister Bonnie (Jean Dixon) and then heads for Canada with Eddie. As they are about to cross the border, Eddie and Joan are ambushed by state troopers, who wound both of them. They drive off the road and Eddie carries Joan toward the border. After she dies in his arms, Eddie is fatally shot. He kisses Joan and then hears Father Dolan say, "You're free, Eddie; the gates are open," before he dies.

Eddie Taylor: Go ahead! Take a good look, you monkeys! Have a good time! Get a big kick out of me! It's fun to see an innocent man die, isn't it? If you think I'm going to the chair, you're crazy! They're never gonna kill me for a job I didn't do!

After being discharged from the military in 1918, Vienna-born Fritz Lang moved to Berlin to work as a director at the German film studio UFA and later at Nero-Film. Combining popular genres with emerging Expressionist techniques, Lang directed some of the most iconic European pictures of the time, including the epic science-fiction drama Metropolis (1927) and the disturbing thriller M (1931), considered by many film scholars to be his masterpiece. When Adolf Hitler rose to power in early 1933, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels banned Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) due to its underlying paralells between its title character and the Nazi leader. Worried about the advent of Nazism, partly because of his Jewish heritage, Lang fled Germany and moved to Paris, where he filmed Liliom (1934) with Charles Boyer. A few months later, he went to Hollywood under contract to MGM to direct his first American feature, Fury (1936), a grim tale of lynch law starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney. 

Meanwhile, in mid-1936, Sidney attended a dinner with independent producer Walter Wanger and autor Theodore Dreiser, who had written the novel on which the actress's An American Tragedy (1931) was based. In discussing ideas for Sidney's next picture, Dreiser suggested she and Wanger do a story on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the notorious Texas bank robbers who cut a swathe through six states before dying under machine guns in a Louisiana field two years earlier. Wanger liked the idea and immediately hired Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker to develop a treatment. Known as "two of the most colorful screenwriters in Hollywood," Towne and Baker had previously worked for Wanger in Shangai (1935) and Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935), which starred Sidney. By mid-August, they had turned out a first rough draft entitled "Three Times Loser," the story of an ex-con and a receptionist who dream of home and happiness, but end up running for their lives. Soon afterwards, on Sidney's recommendation, Wanger assigned Fritz Lang to the director's chair and agreed to let him have control over the final cut of the film, a privilege that he was not granted at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda
Although a screenplay already existed when Lang was hired, he began to influence the project as soon as he arrived. Working with Towne and Baker, Lang "tried to get into [the story] what he called social implications that were ultimately overruled, showing how the boy drifted into crime because of bad influences and unfortunate environment instead the picture opens as the boy emerges from the prison, a stranger to the audience." Once the script was the way he wanted, Lang refused to allow the writers to alter it further. A generally favourable response from the Hays Office led to a full screenplay being produced in September, along with a title change to You Only Live Once.

As the script evolved, Lang made sure You Only Live Once would be devoid of "convential Hollywood moralizing." For instance, he eliminated the depiction of Bonnie as a failed career woman and reduced the romance between Joan and Whitney, so as to not detract from her love for Eddie. Eddie's initial appearance as a bad-tempered, arrogant inmate who refuses to shake the governor's hand when he is released from prison was also altered to make him a more sympathetic character. The most important change from the earlier screenplay, however, was the ending. Instead of having Eddie offer a negative assessement of his worth, the eventual resolution provides a greater sense of affirmation between the couple, "bestow[ing] on the pair an endorsement of their tragedy." The "mystical summons" of Father Dolan reinforced the sense of despair and offered "a jaded commentary on the hopelessness of their lives in the material world."

Henry Fonda in a publicity still
Filming of You Only Live Once was accomplished between late September and mid-November 1936, with additional scenes and inserts shot in early January 1937. An enterprising producer, Wanger obtained the services of film editor Daniel Mandell and composer Alfred Newman, who also collaborated on the Best Picture nominee Dead End (1937), as did Sidney. The cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, had done extensive work on documentaries in the early 1930s, the sort of experience that would enable him to give a social protest film like You Only Live Once a natural look, "a fidelity to reality."

According to Sidney, Fonda "cordially hated" Lang, who used to deliberately manipulate the actor to get the desired results in terms of performance. Said Sidney, "What [Lang] would do was take me across the set where Fonda was sitting, and would whisper in my ear. He had a thermos with homemade soup in it and he would pour some for me, all the time speaking softly. Well, Fonda knew that Fritz and I had worked together before, and he assumed that Fritz was giving me preferential treatment; giving me extra coaching, you know, that sort of thing. Well, Fonda would fume and mutter, 'That son of a bitch' [...] while all Fritz was doing was telling me how he had made the soup. And Fonda sort of said, 'The hell with him. I'll show him,' and he gave one hell of a performance." Despite Fonda's dislike for Lang, the two worked together again in The Return of Frank James (1940). In sharp contrast, Sidney loved working with Lang "because I loved the fact that he was so meticulous. He knew more about [the] camera, he knew more about cutting, and when he said he wanted just a close-up, [it was] very much like Hitchcock, it's what we used to call cutting in the camera." Later, she would boast about being the only actor to survive three of Lang's films, the third being You and Me (1938).

Distributed by United Artists, You Only Live Once opened at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on January 29, 1937 to generally positive reviews from critics. Although Frank Nugent of The New York Times felt that You Only Live Once was not as "dynamic and powerful" as Fury, he did praise Lang's direction, which he described as "his usual brilliant compound of suspense and swift action, heightened always by his complete command of lights and cameras in pointing and counterpointing his scenes. The dismal rain at the bank holdup, the swirling fog during the prison break, the black-and-white contrast of the death-house, the photographic crescendo of Taylor's flight — these are ready and perfect illustrations of directorial imagination." The reviewer for Newsweek called the film "the finest of its type since [The] Public Enemy [1931]", adding: "Given a stirring screen play by Gene Towne and Graham Baker, [Lang] directs it with the power and realism that characterized his work in M and Fury." Similarly, TIME magazine said that "You Only Live Once sets a pace which 1937 cops-&-robbers sagas may find hard to beat." 

Despite the enthusiastic response from the press, You Only Live Once was not a box-office success during its initial run. One reviewer summed up the difficulty of finding an audience for it in Depression-torn America: "To those who enjoy having their emotions wracked with the sufferings of a man in the toils of a merciless tale the picture will have deeply moving appeal." The film's reputation has since grown, however, most film experts agree that it one of the best films of Fonda's earlier career, as well as one of the finest pictures directed by Lang.

A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigré Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948 by Nick Smedley (2011) | Gangsters and G-Men on Screen: Crime Cinema Then and Now by Gene D. Phillips (2014) | Henry Fonda: A Bio-Bibliography by Kevin Sweeney (1992) | The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda by Devin McKinney (2012) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Picture of the Week

Patricia Neal and Ronald Reagan at the Royal Command Film Performance of Scott of the Antarctic at the Empire Theatre in London on November 20, 1948

Friday, 22 January 2016

Film Friday: "An Affair to Remember" (1957)

This week on "Film Friday," I am celebrating Cary Grant's 112th birthday (which was on Monday) by telling you about one of my absolute favorites of his films. It has also been considered one of the most romantic films of all time by the American Film Institute.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Leo McCarey, An Affair to Remember (1957) tells the story of failed artist Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) and nightclub singer Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), who meet aboard a luxury liner headed for New York from Italy. They are instantly attracted to one another, even though they are both already engaged Nickie to socialite Lois Clark (Neva Patterson) and Terry to Kenneth Bradley (Richard Denning). They kindle their attraction by spending a romantic afternoon in Villefranche with Nickie's grandmother, Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt), who seems to think that Terry is the "right" woman for her grandson. Upon their return to the ship, the couple decide to leave their respective partners, start new careers and meet each other atop the Empire State Building in six months to marry.

On the day of their rendezvous, Terry, in her haste to reach the Empire State Building, is hit by a car while crossing the street. She is immediately rushed to the hospital, where she later learns that she is paralyzed from the waist and may never walk again. Nickie, however, does not know that Terry has been in an accident and believes that she has rejected him. Wanting to conceal her disability, Terry refuses to contact Nickie after the accident and instead finds work as a music teacher. For his part, Nickie pursues his talent as a painter and has his works displayed by an art dealer named Courbet (Fortunio Bonanova). Months later, after running into Terry at the ballet, Nickie finds her address and makes a surprise visit to her on Christmas Eve. Although he steers the conversation to make her explain her actions, Terry merely avoids the subject, never leaving the couch on which she sits. As he is departing, Nickie mentions a painting that he had been working on when they first met. He says that Courbet told him that a young, crippled woman admired the painting with such fervor that he instructed the art dealer to give it to her. Finally comprehending that Terry was that woman, Nickie walks into her bedroom and, seeing the painting, is confronted with the painful truth of her condition. Now knowing that she did not purposedly stood him up, Nickie tearfully embraces Terry, as they both realize that their love for each other still endures after all this time.

Terry McKay: Oh, it was nobody's fault but my own! I was looking up... It was the closest thing to heaven! You were there... Oh, darling! Don't, don't worry, darling. If you can paint, I can walk. Anything can happen, don't you think?

In his prime, comedy mastermind Leo McCarey teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, guided the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933) and won his first Academy Award directing Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in the screwball classic The Awful Truth (1937). By 1938, however, the public was losing interest in screwball comedy and McCarey saw himself facing a dilemma in coming up with an idea for his next picture. His wife Stella suggested they take a European vacation so he could "recharge his creative batteries," but the trip was not successful. Returning to America by ocean liner, he was inspired by a film idea just as their ship approached the Statue of Liberty. Turning to Stella, McCarey said: "Suppose you and I were talking to each other when the boat sailed from England and we got to know each other on the trip. We felt ourselves inseparable. By the time the trip was over, we were madly in love with each other, but by the time the boat docked we have found out that each other is obliged to somebody else."

Back in Hollywood, McCarey developed the story with popular writer Mildred Cram, before handing the screenplay over to Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart, who then turned out what become Love Affair (1939). With McCarey's hit track record, several prominent actresses of the time, including Greta Garbo and Helen Hayes, expressed interest in playing the female lead, Terry McKay. The director, however, opted for his favorite actress, Dunne, a choice strongly supported by his wife, also a major Irene fan. The male lead, named Michel Marnet, was offered to Charles Boyer, "one of early sound cinema's great European lovers." The final result was a massive commercial and critical hit, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Story, Best Art Direction, Best Song, Best Actress for Dunne and Best Supporting Actress for Maria Ouspenskaya, cast as Boyer's grandmother.

Grant and Kerr as Nickie and Terry
After enjoying over two decades as one of Hollywood's top directors, McCarey's career stalled in the mid-1950s following the box-office failure of his anti-Communist thriller My Son John (1952), starring Robert Walker, Helen Hayes and Van Heflin. In addition, a serious car accident had left him in poor health, addicted to pain killers and alcohol. Struck by the number of people who had called Love Affair "the best love story they have ever seen," McCarey decided to attempt a comeback with a remake of his romance classic. This was also an opportunity for him to confirm if he was still as good a writer and director as he had been in earlier years.

McCarey recruted the original Love Affair writers, Daves and Stewart, to help him pen the script for the newly titled An Affair to Remember. Stewart, however, was not credited in the final film, as he had been a member of the Hollywood Ten and was still backlisted following the HUAC hearings. Independent producer Jerry Wald offered McCarey financial backing to remake his own picture, modernized by color and widescreen cinematography, on the condition that he sign Cary Grant to play the male lead, whose name was changed to Nickie Ferrante. This was the first of a two-movie deal Grant had made with Wald that was in turn part of the producer's new multipicture deal with 20th Century Fox. Grant, who was an old and loyal friend of McCarey, immediately accepted the part, though he was initally slightly apprehensive about playing a role that had been originated by Boyer.

Nickie and Terry during their stop in Villefranche-sur-Mer
Wald hoped to reteam Grant with Ingrid Bergman, attempting to capture some of the on-screen sizzle that had rocketed Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) to the top of the box-office. Bergman, however, was living in Europe at the time and refused the offer. Wald and McCarey then considered Doris Day, before ultimately deciding on Deborah Kerr, Grant's co-star in Sidney Sheldon's Dream Wife (1953) and later in Stanley Donen's The Grass Is Greener (1960). By 1957, the Scottish-born Kerr was one of the most in-demand and admired leading ladies in Hollywood. In fact, she was awarded a Gold Medal by Photoplay as the most famous actress of the year based on a poll by readers of several popular movie magazine of the time. An Affair to Remember marked the second film in which Kerr took over a role previously played by Irene Dunne; the first was The King and I (1956), the musical version of Dunne's Anna and the King of Siam (1946).

To recreate the role originated by Maria Ouspenskaya, that of grandmother Janou, McCarey selected Cathleen Nesbitt, whose first Hollywood film was Jean Negulesco's Best Picture nominee Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). Although Nesbitt was playing Grant's grandmother, she was actually only 15 years older than the actor. Kerr and Nesbitt had briefly worked together in the late 1940s in a London production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and had not seen each other in almost 20 years. The two enjoyed a long friendship after appearing in An Affair to Remember and reunited on the screen the following year in Delbert Mann's critically acclaimed drama Separate Tables (1958). Richard Denning, better known for his work in a series of second-rate science fiction films in the late 1940s and 1950s, was cast as Kenneth Bradley, while Neva Patterson, whose screen credits include The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and Desk Set (1957), appeared as Lois Clark.

Grant and Kerr on the set
Once the cast was complete, McCarey seemed enthusiastic for the prospect of his new production to be filmed in CinemaScope, Fox's widescreen process. But not long before shooting started in mid-February 1957, McCarey's optimism was challenged when Grant began complaining about the project. He was furious when he learned that budget cuts had forced the film to be entirely shot on a Fox soundstage and that McCarey had made a few changes to the script (the director later agreed to reinstate the original material). Grant also objected to the buttons on the cabin boy's uniforms, saying that they were wrong for the Queen Mary, and refused to resume his work until they were corrected.

Grant, who was then married to actress Betsy Drake, was going through a tough time after Sophia Loren, his co-star in Stanley Kramer's The Pride and the Passion (1957), had reportedly turned down his marriage proposal. He was often nervous and continued making trouble throughout the filming of An Affair to Remember. The only person who seemed to be able to calm him down was Kerr. The two stars got along so well that they even found a way to improvise bits of comedy in their scenes together, something that McCarey eagerly encouraged. Kerr called Grant "master of the throwaway line," adding, "It was our most successful work together. Cary was not only the king of the 'double take,' but a superb ad-libber as well. He and I ad-libbed a lot on the film and Leo McCarey kept them on the finished film [...] It was also on this movie that I saw how Cary had an eye for details in every aspect of the movie being made."

Grant and Kerr on a break from filming
During production on An Affair to Remember, one of the cameraman shooting a close-up of Grant noticed a lump on his forehead. Grant said it was a permanent bruise he had acquired during his USO tours, when he had to wear a steel helmet that did not fit right, but he had been habitually rubbing it for years, causing it to swell. The studio insisted he have it looked at and after a battery of tests, it was diagnosed as a benign tumor. He arranged to have it removed upon completion of production and before the start of his next film, another Wald project, Donen's Kiss Them For Me (1957). 

Although An Affair to Remember was not a musical, Kerr's role as a nightclub singer required her to perform four songs. Taking into consideration the beautiful results achieved on The King and I, a representative from Fox hired soprano Marni Nixon to dub Kerr's voice in the film. This time, however, Kerr decided not to take part in the song rehearsal process; she simply adopted Nixon's vocal acting and made it her own on screen. The outcome was so perfect that it was announced that Kerr and Grant would record a full duet version of Harry Warren's title song. Although an official soundtrack album was in fact released by Philips Records, no duet by the stars was included; Vic Damone instead sang the number that topped the charts in 1957 and has since become a jazz standard. Kerr's own singing voice can only be heard in "The Tiny Scout," which she performed with a children's choir.

An Affair to Remember received generally positive reviews from critics upon its premiere at the Roxy Theatre in New York on July 19, 1957. Approving of the use of "comedy lines, music, color and CinemaScope," Variety called An Affair to Remember "a winning film that is alternately funny and tenderly sentimental" and praised the on-screen chemistry between Grant and Kerr. The notoriously stuffy Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, on the other hand, was not as enthusiastic. Although he considered that this reworking of Love Affair "provides plenty of humorous conversation that is handled crisply in the early reels by Mr. Grant and Miss Kerr," he also thought that the second half of the film was absurd and hard to believe. In addition, Crowther deemed the film overly long compared to its predecessor and described McCarey's direction as "unpropitiously and unaccountably slow."

At the 30th Academy Awards held at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in March 1958, An Affair to Remember received nominations for Best Song, Best Cinematography, Best Score and Best Costume Design. Deborah Kerr was also a nominee that night, but for John Huston's World War II drama Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). In 2002, the AFI named An Affair to Remember the fifth greatest love story in American film history, behind only Casablanca (1942), Gone with the Wind (1939), West Side Story (1960) and Roman Holiday (1953). In contrast, Love Affair, although chosen as one of 400 nominees, failed to make it into the top 100 of the same list.

Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2009) | Deborah Kerr: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2010) | Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood by Wes D. Gehring (2006) | IMDb | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: "Stella Dallas" (1937)

Original release poster
Directed by King Vidor, Stella Dallas (1937) tells the story of Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of a mill worker in a factory town in 1919 Massachusetts, who is determined to better herself. She sets her sights on Stephen Dallas (John Boles), a minor executive at the factory whose family was once wealthy, and catches him at an emotionally vulnerable time. Stephen has broken his engagement to long-time sweetheart Helen (Barbara O'Neil), fearing that his present lack of money and social position would hinder her. He planned to marry Helen once he was financially able to support her, but, as he reaches his goal, he learns that she is to wed another man. As a result, Stephen decides to marry Stella instead.

After their daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley) is born, Stella becomes bored with her life and begins to exhibit social behavior that Stephen finds unsuitable. He also strongly disapproves of her continuing friendship with the vulgar Ed Munn (Alan Hale). Meanwhile, Stephen is transferred to a better position in New York, but agrees to let Stella stay in Massachusetts with Laurel. Years later, Stephen runs into the widowed Helen and the two rekindle their romance. He asks Stella for a divorce, but she refuses, fearing that he and Helen want to take Laurel away from her. She then travels with her daughter to an expensive resort, where Laurel falls in love with the wealthy Richard Grosvenor III (Tim Holt). When Stella makes her first appearance after recovering from a illness, she is ridiculed for her vulgarity and Laurel insists they leave at once without explaining why. However, Stella overhears the cruel comments about her on the train and finally agrees to give Stephen a divorce. She also asks Laurel to go live with Stephen and Helen, pretending that she wants her off her hands so she can travel with Ed. Some years later, the newspapers announce Laurel's forthcoming marriage to Richard. As the ceremony takes place, Stella watches them exchange their vows from the city street through a window (whose curtains have been opened at Helen's orders). Now confident of Laurel's happiness, Stella smiles and walks away in the rain.

Stella Dallas: I feel that I've done all I can for her, so I thought that you being so crazy about her father and she taking after him so much that... Well, if you and Stephen got married, Lollie could come and live with you. Your name being Mrs. Dallas, you see, everybody would naturally think she was your little girl. Then when you went places, you see, well... You see, you're the kind of a mother that any girl would be proud of.

At a dinner party in Boston in the early 1920s, novelist/poet Olive Higgins Prouty overheard a conversation about an aristocratic man who "married someone beyond the pale socially when he was very young" and had a daughter by her. According to the person telling the story, "They have been separated ever since the child was born a girl of twelve or thirteen now, quite lovely in spite of her mother really terrible ordinary. The child lives with her mother in a dreary little apartment out in the suburbs somewhere but spends a month every summer with her father." The next day, Prouty was inspired to write about these three people. For her, the novel was never about "mother love"; it was about "the paths of the sensitive child of separated parents of different backgrounds with the resulting conflict." Entitled Stella Dallas, the book was serialized in the fall of 1922 in The American Magazine and published in April 1923 by Houghton Mifflin Company to immediate acclaim. The New York Herald Tribune, for instance, described it as "a novel of absolutely first rate importance."

In early 1924, Stella Dallas was adapted into a stage play by Harry Wagstaff Gribble and Getrude Purcell, with 67-year-old Mrs. Leslie Carter playing the title role and a young Edward G. Robinson appearing as Ed Munn, her occasional lover and later husband. The show, however, was a huge failure and closed after two months of touring Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Boston, never reaching Broadway. The following year, independent producer Samuel Goldwyn purchased the rights both to the novel and the stage version of Stella Dallas, hiring Frances Marion to write the scenario and Henry King to direct. Out of the 73 actresses tested for the role of Stella, Goldwyn selected 34-year-old Belle Bennett, a supporting player in two of the producer's earlier pictures. Burgeoning matinee idol Ronald Colman was cast as her husband Stephen Dallas; Lois Moran as their daughter Laurel; Jean Hersholt as the uncouth Ed Munn; Alice Joyce as Stephen's socialite second wife, Helen; and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Laurel's upper-class boyfriend, Richard Grosvenor III, in his first adult role. Upon its premiere at the Apollo Theatre in New York, Stella Dallas (1925) was a massive critical success and eventually became Goldwyn's biggest silent moneymaker.

Barbara Stanwyck in a publicity still
Having proved successful adding sound to The Dark Angel (1925) in 1935, Goldwyn figured a talking Stella Dallas woud be a lucrative venture as well. He hired William Wyler, his top director, to helm the picture and the writing duo of Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason to develop the script. When Wyler was loaned out to Warner Bros. to direct Bette Davis in the costume drama Jezebel (1938), however, Goldwyn had to replace him with King Vidor, who had received Academy Award nominations for The Crowd (1928), Hallelujah! (1929) and The Champ (1931).

Goldwyn and Vidor immediately clashed on the title role. Barbara Stanwyck, a former nightclub dancer who had starred in 30 films since 1929, had been Vidor's first choice from the start, but Goldwyn refused to hear of it. He considered such lesser stars as Ruth Chatterton, who had just appeared in Goldwyn's Best Picture nominee Dodsworth (1936), and Gladys George, testing several other actresses with even less drawing power. Stanwyck had read Prouty's novel and desperately wanted the role. "She wasn't me, that woman," she said of Stella Dallas. "But she was a woman I understood completely. She was good; cheap but good. And I could play her." Although some of her friends discouraged her from going for the part, Stanwyck was determined: "I would give up everything I own to make Stella Dallas." 

Zeppo Marx, who had left his brothers' act after Duck Soup (1933) to become a talent agent representing, among others, Stanwyck, thought it smarter to have her close friend Joel McCrea join Vidor in pulling for her. McCrea had been under contract to Goldwyn for five years and was the producer's "golden boy" at the time, making successful films for him and also earning a small fortune on loan-outs to other studios. When McCrea selflessly made his pitch for his Gambling Lady (1934), Banjo on My Knee (1936) and Internes Can't Take Money (1937) co-star, Goldwyn objected, "She's just got no sex appeal." At that point, McCrea cleverly pointed out that Robert Taylor, one of Hollywood's hottest new leading men who had been Stanwyck's steady date for a year, was "nuts about her, and he thinks she has sex appeal." Finally, Goldwyn gave in to considering Stanwyck, but only if she would test for the part.

Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley
However much she wanted to play Stella Dallas, Stanwyck refused to make a screen test. Fortunately, McCrea convinced her to do it, saying that she would "win an award for this picture." When Stanwyck went for a meeting with Goldwyn, he told her "that he didn't think she was capable of doing it," that she was "too young for the part" (she was 30 at the time) and that she "didn't have any experience with children." Although she had a five-year-old adopted son, Dion, she had to admit that she had never in fact suffered over a child. "But I can imagine how it would be," she quickly added. With that, Goldwyn finally agreed to give Stanwyck a chance at the role.

Stanwyck's screen test for Stella Dallas was done with Anne Shirley, an RKO starlet who was auditioning for the part of Laurel. Vidor reportedly spent an entire day, as opposed to the usual few hours, shooting the scene of Laurel's long-anticipated birthday party in which mother and daughter await the guests who never arrive. The parents of Laurel's classmates have been warned away by her teacher, who has deemed Stella an improper mother and her house unfit for upstanding children. As it happened, both actresses were sick on the day of the test; they both had a runny nose and Stanwyck had a temperature of 102º F (38.8º C). Still, the results were by all accounts extraordinary. After Goldwyn had 48 different tests edited into a short reeler, Stanwyck's versatility was clearly undisputed. According to Vidor, "Stanwyck's test was undeniable. She put everyone else to shame." Goldwyn told his production manager, Robert Mcintyre, who was then in New York testing more actresses, to return to Hollywood immediately; they had found their Stella Dallas at last.

John Boles and Anne Shirley
The same test also convinced Goldwyn to give the part of Laurel Dallas to Shirley, who was cast over Bonita Granville and Frances Farmer. A New York native, Shirley made her motion picture debut at the age of four, opposite William Farnum in Herbert Brenon's western Moonshine Valley (1922). Billed as Dawn O'Day, she found steady work as a child actress throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, often appearing as the young version of the leading lady, such as Janet Gaynor in 4 Devils (1928), Myrna Loy in Emma (1932) and Stanwyck in So Big! (1932). Stanwyck and Shirley also worked together in The Purchase Price (1932). When she was 15, RKO changed her name to Anne Shirley after the character she made famous in the hugely successful Anne of Green Gables (1934). She celebrated her 18th birthday on the set of Stella Dallas, receiving her first car as a gift from Goldwyn.

The remaining cast of Stella Dallas consisted of a mixture of seasoned actors and newcomers. John Boles, who had starred in some the earliest musicals made in Hollywood, including The Desert Song (1929) and Rio Rita (1929), was cast as Stephen Dallas. Stanwyck and Boles had previously worked together in George Marshall's A Message to Garcia (1936). Stage actress Barbara O'Neil appeared as Helen Morrison, a role originally intended for Mary Astor, who has passed over due to ongoing scandals in her personal life. Veteran performer Alan Hale, a supporting player in So Big! and A Message to Garcia, was given the role of the horse gambler Ed Munn. Hale would later become known for being the only actor to portray Little John in three different Robin Hood films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Up-and-comer Tim Holt, working on loan-out from Walter Wanger, was cast as Richard Grosvenor III, and Marjorie Main, who went on to win fame as the racuous Ma Kettle in a series of films produced between 1947 and 1957, appears briefly as Stella's crude mother.

The final scene in Stella Dallas
Stella Dallas began production in early 1937 at the Goldwyn Studios in Santa Monica, California. To make the picture, Vidor wanted to go back to the aesthetics of the silents and highlight the sequences that showed deep love between mother and daughter as focal points of emotion without the use of dialogue. These include, for instance, a tender moment after Laurel has become upset with her mother for getting cold cream on a treasured photograph of Helen. Stunned by her daughter's rebuke, Stella begins to touch up the dark roots of her blonde hair and Laurel, ashamed at her outburst, silently takes over the coloring stick and proceeds to gently do the job herself. An even more moving silent sequence occurs in a train berth after both of them have overheard some catty girls ridiculing Stella's appearance and Laurel crawls into bed with her mother, comforting her by curling up wordlessly beside her. The famous final scene, when Stella walks away from her daughter's wedding happy to realize that she has a good life ahead, also was filmed mostly without dialogue.

From the beginning, Stanwyck saw playing Stella as a "double challenge"; she understood that she had to portray the character "on two levels, almost making Stella two separate women." To create her own Stella Dallas, Stanwyck drew on memories from Bennett's "beautifully played" performance and her own concept of a character whose exterior crudeness masked a warm and generous heart. "On the surface," Stanwyck said, Stella "had to appear loud and flamboyant with a touch of vulgarity. Yet while showing her in all commonness, she had to be portrayed in a way that audiences would realize that beneath the surface her instincts were fine, heartwarming ad noble." The only constant in this "great woman in spite of jangling bracelets and bobbing plumes" is the love she feels for Laurel, a love that, for Stella, suplants all others.

Stella Dallas as an older woman
For Stanwyck to age 20 years as Stella, she had to wear five pairs of hose to make her ankles thick, use padding to fill out her girth and stuff her cheeks with cotton. She refused to wear a wig in the film and decided instead to bleach her hair, which she did for the first and only time in her career. She said that wigs would have prevented her for doing anything with her hands, "like running them through my hair. Furthermore, in her in her home Stella's hair was neglected, unkempt and that just can't be done realistically except with one's own hair." In addition, Goldwyn's head designer, Omar Kiam, outfitted her with some outrageously tacky costumes that reflected her character's lack of taste.

On the set of Stella Dallas, Stanwyck and Shirley were frustrated by Vidor's lack of direction; he seemed more interested in complicated camera angles than in their performances. There was little creative rapport between Vidor and Stanwyck and he reportedly never spoke to Shirley or said whether she was doing well or not. When Shirley tearfully complained to Goldwyn, the producer reassured her kindly, but as soon as she left he called Vidor. "I don't care what you tell the kid," he screamed. "Tell her she's  lousy if she's great or great if she's lousy. Tell her any damn thing you please. I just can't cope with hysterical females, and I don't want to be bothered again." Shirley found comfort in Stanwyck and the two eventually became good friends. After production closed, Stanwyck inscribed a photo to Shirley that said, "For Anne, whose loveliness helped so much during Stella Dallas. My love, always, Barbara."

For his part, Vidor's memories of filming Stella Dallas were painfully bitter. He hated working with Goldwyn and struggled to endure the producer's temperamental outbursts and sudden mood shifts. One day halfway through production, Goldwyn stormed onto the set and angrily scolded Vidor and everyone else, calling the performances bad. He was apparently so dismayed by the daily rushes that he wanted to fire Vidor and Stanwyck and close down the picture. Late that night, he called Vidor at home to apologize; he had seen the rushes again and "they looked wonderful." At the end of principal photography, Vidor wrote a note to himself which he kept in his desk drawer for 30 years. It read: "NO MORE GOLDWYN PICTURES!"

Poster for Stella Dallas
Released on August 5, 1937, Stella Dallas went on to gross more than $2 million, yielding a profit over $500,000 for Goldwyn. Reviews were equally as favorable, with Variety calling the film "chiefly a tear-jerker of A ranking." Although Frank Nugent of The New York Times deemed the Prouty drama terribly outdated for 1937, he neverthless found "Miss Stanwyck's portrayal is as courageous as it is fine. Ignoring the flattery and makeup and camera, she plays Stella as Mrs. Prouty drew her; coarse, cheap, common, given to sleazy dresses, to undulations in her walk, to fatty degeneration of the profile. And yet magnificent as a mother." Shirley also received much praise for her performance as Laurel Dallas, with critics hailing her unexpected depth in the role and insisting that she had stolen the picture. Prouty herself felt that Shirley's "interpretation of the shy sensitive Laurel was exactly as she had written her." The success of Stella Dallas gave life to a radio serial based on the characters which would run on the National Broadcast Company's network for close to 20 years, with Anne Elstner playing Stella.

Both Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley received Academy Award nominations, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Stanwyck attented the 10th Academy Awards presentation on March 10, 1938 at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel with Robert Taylor as her escort. Early in the evening, Shirley lost to Alice Brady for her performance in Henry King's In Old Chicago (1937). When it came to the Best Actress award, the winner was Luise Rainer for The Good Earth (1937). Stanwyck was crushed. "My life's blood was in that picture," she said. "I should have won." Although nominated three more times after that for Ball of Fire (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) she regretted most losing the Stella Dallas Oscar. For my part, I regretted it too.

This post is my contribution to The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries to the blogathon, click HERE.


A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (2013) | Goldwyn: A Biography by A. Scott Berg (1989) | Stanwyck by Axel Madsen (2001) | TCMDb (Articles) | Variety review