Thursday, January 5, 2017

Barbara's in Red

In The Woman in Red (1935), Shelby Barrett (Barbara Stanwyck) works as a horse trainer and competitive rider. Currently in the employ of the wealthy Nico Nicholas (Genevieve Tobin), Shelby finds her life becoming complicated when she attracts the attention of Johnny Wyatt (Gene Raymond) and Eugene Fairchild (John Eldredge).  Johnny, the son of an upper class (but cash poor) family, sponges off of rich friends (like Nico) and plays polo.  Gene, on the other hand, is a self-made man who rides his own horses in competition, and gracefully loses to Shelby.  Both men are smitten with her, but ultimately, Shelby chooses the more difficult life, falling in love with Johnny.  The pair have to deal with unemployment, family ridicule, Nico's jealousy, and Gene's continuing interest in Shelby. 
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the portrayal of the lead male characters.  One expects a rivalry between Johnny and Gene, as well as resentment of the very capable Shelby.  But surprisingly, there is little of that.  Both men revel in Shelby's intelligence and independence.  And, because the film does not live up to those negative expectations, the viewer is drawn in.  The film is a constant surprise. 

The poster art (above) is notable for giving a totally wrong view of the character of Shelby.  There is no red dress like the one pictured above.  The title comes from a red COAT that Shelby wears while on a boating trip.  The poster portrays Shelby as a temptress, but that's not the way Stanwyck plays her.  Her Shelby is businesswoman, and is passionate about her chosen career and her friends. Though the film was not really all that well received (see this New York Times review), you cannot find any fault with Ms. Stanwyck's portrayal.  She never phones in her performance and is able to give any part she plays gravitas.  Given that, following a riding accident she was afraid of horses, she looks remarkably comfortable in the riding sequences (A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940).
John Eldredge plays a very different character than the one we saw in His Brother's Wife, and he is quite good and likeable.  He's not a wimp here.  He's a strong, intelligent and not easily cowed man.  

Genevieve Tobin also gets a very different role than the one she played in Snowed Under.  Quite frankly, her Nico is a piece of work - wealthy, spoiled, nasty, and vindictive.  A gossip of the first order, she is determined to undermine the relationship of Shelby and Johnny by whatever means available.  Ms. Tobin gives Nico an unattractive edge - a spoiled brat with too much money and too much time on her hands.  Genevieve Tobin made a few films during the silent era (notably as Little Eva in a short of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1910 - she was 11 years old), but primarily she was working on Broadway, appearing in 12 plays from 1912 to 1930).  With the advent of sound, she found some success, mostly as second leads.  But, in 1938, she retired, having recently married director William Keighley.  They were married until his death in 1984; Ms. Tobin died at the age of 95 in 1995.

Dorothy Tree played the pivotal role of Olga Goodyear; she has one major scene in which she is completely inebriated.  She too got her start on Broadway (she appeared in 6 plays between 1927 and 1936); her introduction in sound films was as one of Dracula's brides in the 1931 Dracula (she appeared in both the English and Spanish versions of the film). She mostly appeared in small roles (for example, Martha Rockne in Knute Rockne, All American).  She married screenwriter Michael Uris, had one child, and continued working in films until 1951, when she and her husband were blacklisted.  Using her married name, she started a new career as a speech, voice, and acting coach.  She also wrote on the topic - her last book was published in 1979.  Her husband died in 1967; Ms Tree lived to the age of 85 (she died in 1992).
The film was based on a novel, North Shore, but Jack Warner didn't like the title.  After several suggestions, The Woman in Red was selected.  It had been purchased as a starring vehicle for Bette Davis, but was turned over to Ms. Stanwyck (see this TCM article).   Both Joel McCray and Robert Young were considered for the part of Johnny, and Ricardo Cortez for the first choice for Gene (AFI Catalog).  With this film, Ms. Stanwyck ended her contract with Warner Brothers.  She would never sign another long-term contract with a studio again (perhaps the reason she never won a competitive Academy Award!).

We'll leave you with this trailer.  Perhaps it is not the best film in the Stanwyck catalog, but it is worth a look. We'll return soon.

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