Monday, February 2, 2015

Barbara Writes a Column

To Please a Lady (1950) stars Barbara Stanwyck as columnist Regina Forbes, a powerful woman who has an influential gossip column.  She sees herself as a crusader for good, but, like all good columnists, she is looking for those items that will intrigue her readship.  When she is told about  local midget racecar driver, Mike Brannan (Clark Gable) by assistant Gregg (Adolphe Menjou), she heads out for the track.  Brannan is a pull-no-punches kinda guy, and will do what it takes to win.  He gives no quarter, and, as a result, has been blamed for the deaths of other drivers.  He shows no remorse for his competitiveness, and Regina goes after him in her column, effectively ending his ability to compete in the racing circle.  Months later, when Regina looks back into his life, she and Brannan find themselves attracted to one another.

Though titled like a romance, this film spends a lot of time on the racing scene.  The last quarter of the film is taken up with the Indianapolis Speedway race, and if you aren't a racing fan (we aren't) it can get rather tedious.  The film was later retitiled Red Hot Wheels for a 1962 re-release, which was more in keeping with the plot line.  As it happens, though Clark Gable was eager to appear in a racing film, he objected to the original title - he thought it would bring up images of his recent marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley (they would divorce in 1952).  In foreign release, To Please a Lady was titled Indianapolis.  The multiple titles hint at the main problem with the film.

A New York Times review of the film very much liked the racing scenes from the film, liked the actors, but did not like the script, which they called a "hackneyed melodrama".  It is easy to understand why they were so taken with the racing scenes - they were filmed at the Indianapolis Speedway, and showed racing filmed at actual speed.  Gable did some of the driving (primarily the scenes where a close view was required) - stunt drivers took over for the rest.  But they are correct.  The script seems to be seeking its context, making the film disjointed.

On the plus side, there are two dynamite performances by stars Gable and Stanwyck.  Stanwyck's Regina is a tough-minded career woman.  She's very good at what she does and she enjoys doing it.  She literally goes toe-to-toe with Gable; she challenges him to "knock that smile" off her face.  When he does, she merely gives him the eye (at which point, he gives her a big kiss).  As discussed in this TCM article, Gable and Stanwyck had not appeared together since Night Nurse.  As with that film, the fireworks between them are palpable.  Two scenes, with Mike and Regina conversing on the phone, are very titillating - the two exude sexual tension.  It's also fun to see a romance between two grownups, who end by respecting each other's occupations.  The film's ending makes it quite clear that Regina will not be relegated to a little haus frau, nor will Brannan give up racing.  But they will make their relationship work.

According to this AFI article, Lana Turner set was to be reunited with Gable in the part of Regina in June of 1949; by September; Stanwyck had been official signed in the role.  There was a radio version in 1951 of the teleplay on the Lux Radio Theatre, with Donna Reed and John Hodiak in the leads, and Adolphe Menjou reprising his role as Gregg.   It's a part for which Menjou is well suited.  He gives the appropriate amount of sneer to the character.  You'll want to watch for the scene where Regina tries to talk to Mike on the phone, while Gregg listens in.
Also in the cast is Will Geer as Jack Mackay, a car designer with a new engine that Brannan wants to buy.  We were, of course, all familiar with Geer from his later career in television.  He had, however, a substantial film career, primarily in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  However, by 1951, his film appearances were minimal - he had been blacklisted after refusing to testify in front of HUAC (here is a brief newspaper article  which talks about Geer's testimony). He and his wife appeared in theatre during this period, including a run with the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, CT (an avid gardener, he planted a Shakespeare Garden on the theatre grounds)  As the blacklist broke down, he again began appearing in films (including Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent) and television.  He died in of respiratory failure in 1978, during the run of the television show that made him famous - The Waltons. 

This was director Clarence Brown's 8th and final film with Clark Gable (We previously discussed Possessed and Chained). Brown had at one time been an automobile test driver, and had owned a car dealership.  His interest in his subject is apparent in this film, as is his precision in filming the race scenes.  An interesting fact - in 1930, he was nominated for the Oscar for TWO films in the same year - for Anna Christie and for Romance

One more note about Clark Gable - he found filming in Indianapolis to be quite hard, as it was the last place that Carole Lombard had been before she died in 1942.  Gable quietly visited several places in the city where his late wife had been on her ill-fated bond tour.  

In closing, we'll just say that we wish there had been interaction between Gable and Stanwyck, because when they are together they smoke.  That Gable and Stanwyck were good friends in real life shows.  We'll leave you with a trailer from the film.