Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Barbara is Strange

On a rainy night, Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman) meets Martha Smith (Janis Wilson) at the train yard in Iverstown, as they try to escape from the town and all it represents.  Orphaned Martha despises her guardian - her Aunt Ivers (Judith Anderson), the town's doyen and tyrant.  The feeling is mutual - Martha's father was a millhand in Miss Ivers mill; upon his death, Miss Ivers grudgingly adopted her sister's child, and forced her to take the name of Ivers, hoping to obliterate all evidence of his existence.  Escape, however, proves futile for Martha; with the police force on alert, Martha (and her beloved cat) are apprehended and returned to the not-so-tender mercies of her Aunt.  Undeterred, Martha attempts to escape again, but the consequences of the attempt are such that they will haunt Martha for the rest of her life.

Thus begins The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), a film noir classic starring Barbara Stanwyck as the adult Martha, Van Heflin as the grown Sam, and Kirk Douglas (Walter O'Neill), appearing in his first film role. To say that this is an odd picture is not meant as an insult.  The film is complicated and dense. As this New York Times review says, it is a film where all the characters' "sordid deeds are neatly pulled together like so many pieces in a jigsaw puzzle."

Several impressive performances contribute to the film's appeal.  Barbara Stanwyck, of course, is outstanding as Martha.  She plays a woman who wants freedom, but who has spent her entire life in one prison or another.  Does Martha really love Sam, or does she love the freedom that he represents?   Does her warped nature come from the cruelty she faced from her Aunt, or from the blackmail of Walter and his father?  And is she ultimately responsible for the two deaths in the film, or should others take the blame?  Regardless of the answers, we know that Martha has spent her life trying to atone for what she sees as her sins, by trying to make Iverstown and the factory less of the hell that it was when her Aunt was alive.
For Lizabeth Scott as Antonia 'Toni' Maracek, this was only her second film role.  Her character serves as an interesting contrast to Martha, light where she is dark, common, where Martha appears high tone, but, like Martha, she too is a prisoner.  Though Toni's prison is a real one - convicted of a crime she denies committing, she is on probation, but constantly facing the specter of jail.

Lizabeth Scott had a long and complicated life, but a relatively abbreviated career.  With 31 film and TV credits (between 1945 and 1972), she is best remembered for this film, Dead Reckoning, and Too Late for Tears, all film noir classics.  Her looks and her voice are reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, but she didn't really have the versatility of Bacall.  She started her career in the New York theatre; she was Tallulah Bankhead's understudy in the part of Sabina The Skin of Our Teeth (much to Ms. Bankhead's disgust. For more discussion on this, see the Wikipedia article on Ms. Scott)  She did eventually get to play Sabina - when Gladys George became ill.  This performance brought her to the attention of Hal Wallis, the producer of our film. Wallis wanted to bill his find with her name above the title, but Barbara Stanwyck objected (Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars by Bernard F. Dick).  It didn't help.  The virtually unknown Scott still got third billing above the title (it has been alleged that Scott and Wallis were having an affair, or at the very least that Wallis was infatuated with her). 
Scott's troubles began in the 1950s.  Confidential Magazine published an article accusing her of being lesbian.  She sued; the trial ended with a mistrial.  Add in her growing stage fright, and her career was virtually over.  She tried singing; the attempt went nowhere.  So, she segued over to televsion, where she had a relatively decent career.  She also returned to college (at USC).  She married twice - both lasted less than a year; she was linked romantically with Burt Lancaster, James Mason, Helmut Dantine, and Burt Bacharach, among others.  She died in 2015 of congestive heart failure.  She was 92.   To hear more about Ms Scott, try this interview that was done in 1996. 
Kirk Douglas is outstanding in this role, which would be an unusual one for him.  Walter is a weakling, dominated by both his father and Martha.  His guilt and feelings of hopelessness lead him into alcoholism.  In this TCM article, Douglas relays his method for creating a character like Walter:  "when you play a weak character, find a moment when he's strong, and if you're playing a strong character, find a moment when he's weak. I had a moment when I was at the desk - I stood up, grabbed Van Heflin by the shirt, and stared him in the eye. He was amazed at this sudden moment of strength, and it confused him. We shot it, and the director said, 'Very good.' Van Heflin said, 'Let's do it again.' The next time I grabbed him, he just looked down contemptuously at my hand. How smart of him - he took away the strength. Nothing wrong with that. As an actor, it was the right thing to do."  His work was not unnoticed - this AFI Catalog entry notes that Louella Parsons was particularly taken with this "wonder boy."
Several child actors appear in the beginning of the film.  We were particularly intrigued with the performance of Janis Wilson.  Ms. Wilson had a notably short career; between 1942 and 1948, she appeared in only seven films, after which she left show business.  But when you realize that those films include Watch on the Rhine and Now Voyager (along with this film), she  had an impressive resume.  She was 18 when she retired - always a difficult age for teen actors.  Interestingly, she met her future husband (they married in 1955) when she was 12 years old (on the set of Now Voyager.)  She died in 2003. 

It's not surprising that Stanwyck's dresses are spectacular.  Her favorite designer, Edith Head, created them.  Ms. Head would later say that Stanwyck's long waist usually resulted in her costumes being dowdy looking, but Head found ways to camouflage her waist.  As a result, Stanwyck would often request Head design for her (even in private life).  See this review of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940 for a brief discussion of their relationship. 

We leave you with the trailer for this fascinating film.  And we send advance birthday wishes to Kirk Douglas, who will reach 100 on December 9th:

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