Monday, January 23, 2017

Barbara's Reputation

It's 1942.  Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) has just buried her husband Paul, who died after a long illness.  He has left her financially secure - enough money to live comfortably and send their two sons, Kim (Scotty Beckett) and Keith (Bobby Cooper) to the boarding school Paul attended in his youth.  But with widowhood, Jessica finds that life in her suburban town is much different than she expected.  She is hounded by her mother, Mary Kimball (Lucile Watson) about proper behavior and finding a new husband (preferably Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) the family lawyer), is pursued by George Van Orman (Jerome Cowan), a would-be philanderer, and she finds she now that she is no longer part of a couple, she has no no real company except her maid, Anna (Esther Dale).  So, when her friends Ginna  (Eve Arden) and Cary Abbott (John Ridgely) invite her on a skiing tip, she desperately accepts.  It is there that she meets Major Scott Landis (George Brent), an officer awaiting permanent assignment abroad.  The two are quickly attracted to one another, but while Scott seems more interested in a fling, Jessica has commitment on  her mind.  Will the two be able to cross the abyss to create a lasting relationship? Thus begins My Reputation (1946).

Our entire group was very impressed with this film.  Yes, it has some of the tropes of a woman's film - the letchy married man, who thinks widows are fair game; the overbearing mother; the gossipy neighbors; the man who is "not the marrying kind" - but in many cases, the film upsets some of those tropes.  As a result, you watch with engagement.  It's not always apparent where the film is going to go next.

As always, Stanwyck is magnificent in a part that requires a lot of character growth (this TCM article is especially enthusiastic about her contributions to the film).  While it can be hard to imagine her as someone mother-pecked, she does it successfully.  Her frustration with her mother, and her initial inability to adapt to the world without her husband are not only convincing, they are spot-on.  We like her for her maternal instincts - to let her boys go away to school, as they and their father wanted.  But we ache for her loneliness, and her desire to just ask them to stay with her, if only for a little while.
The boys at first might seem a bit selfish.  But it is evident that Keith, the older of the two boys, is sensitive to the proprieties and to his mother's needs.  He tries to guide his younger brother, Kim.  But for Kim, the loss of his father has not yet hit home.  The action of the film opens the day after the funeral.  We know that Paul's death was far from sudden (we later find out he was in tremendous pain - assumedly cancer).  We can assume that not only were the boys aware that their father was dying, but that for several days, they've had to be on best behavior, and put up with adult funeral behavior (how many "I'm so sorry for your loss" can a child take?)   Though they love their mother, and want to be with her, they also want to break out.  The early desire to attend a baseball game not only allows them to become free of the funeral responsibilities, it provides a means to memorialize their father, who always took them to the game.  And Jessica understands and tries to allow them to begin the process of life over again.

There's no surprise when George is revealed to be a cad, or when or when Riette (Leona Maricle) is shown to be a harpy.  But, one is surprised when Mrs. Kimble turns out to be right about the town and the proprieties of mourning.  We want Jessica to be the one who is correct, but ultimately, it is her mother who has her finger on the pulse of the community.  A little calculation demonstrated that Jessica was a bit younger than her youngest son when Mr. Kimble died (her mother has been a widow for 25 years), and Mrs. Kimble has had to cope with life alone since then.  She wants her daughter to remarry (with her approval, of course), and she is a stickler for the conventions of mourning.  That she still wears black seems excessive; but Mrs. Kimble understands the responsibilities of being a widow raising children alone, and she wants more for her daughter.  We root for Jessica to find independence; but the film shows us that it comes with a price. 
George Brent treads a careful path with the character of Scott.  It would have been easy to make him either heroic or caddish - Brent makes sure he is neither.  As a man who never imagined himself within a family, he needs to grow and mature.  Though released in 1946, the film is carefully situated in the early years of the Second World War.  Scott is well aware that he will be going to fight.  His reluctance to take on the burden of a wife and family (that could be left alone) is understandable, as is his desire to spend time with Jessica, even if it means she will be away from her children.  But it also marks his innate selfishness, a trait that needs to change if he is to ever be a part of Jessica's life.   This was Mr. Brent's final film with Warner Brothers (AFI Catalog); the same year, he would portray Professor Warren in RKO's The Spiral Staircase.  

We wish there had been more of Eve Arden, who is a delight in everything she does.  Every moment with her is a gift - she plays Ginna as wry and amusing, but supportive to Jessica, and to her husband, with whom she has an easy-going and loving relationship.  With a career that began in 1937, and continued until 1987 (she died three years later, age 82), Ms. Arden spent much of her career playing the best friend (Mildred Pierce, for example), who knows the world WAY too well.  She segued from radio into television with Our Miss Brooks, where she got to play the lead as the smart and assertive Connie Brooks, a high-school English teacher (she also played Connie in the movie of the same name).  Married twice, with three children, Ms. Arden survived her husband of 32 years.  Her final appearance on television, in Falcon Crest, was with her dear friend, Jane Wyman.
The film features excellent performances by a number of child actors, notably Scott Beckett and Bobby Cooper, who play the Drummond brothers as good kids who are trying to cope with a new way of living. Janice Wilson, who we last saw in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers  plays Penny Boardman, a neighbor who is very attracted to Keith, and Ann E.  Todd plays Gretchen van Orman, the daughter of the rather nasty Riette and George.

Bosley Crowther, in his New York Times review, is being very cranky, we think, when he says the film is "much ado about nothing—or practically nothing."   We disagree and suggest you give it a viewing.  This trailer will give you a taste.

5 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed your review of My Reputation. I put this in the category of Barbara's Christmas pictures and I find I often think of it when the weather turns colder. Did you know that her character in Forty Guns was also named Jessica Drummond? Two more disparate characters never existed!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's really fascinating!! I've not seen "Forty Guns" yet but will definitely move it up on my list!

      Delete
  2. I think "My Reputation" is underrated and I'm not surprised by Crowther's review. What would he know about widowhood. Stanwyck thought the material was serious enough; she wanted to make this film. I also think that women during the period the film was released could relate to Jessica (just imagine how many war widows saw this film), rich or poor. And Stanwyck does a great job running through all the emotions a woman in her situation might face with he usual grace. It's worth a view for sure; it's part of the Stanwyck canon for crying out loud!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's interesting that Stanwyck is a widow during the war, but NOT a war widow. It does serve to point out how tentative life is, and by the end, we know that Jessica could end up AS a war widow. I think it's a lovely film, and anything with Stanwyck is worth seeing!

      Delete
    2. Agreed. I'm an unabashed Stanwyck fan. I'm hosting a Stanwyck film series this year. She has such a great body of work that endures to this day.

      Delete