Friday, February 17, 2017

Barbara STILL Hates Housework

The fishing town of Monterey, California is the setting of Clash by Night (1952), a film noir that features Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle.  Mae's been living in New York, the mistress of a wealthy married man.  Though they were deeply in love, he was unable to divorce, and when he died, the small settlement he left her was taken back by her lover's family.  Broke and depressed, May returns to her childhood home, now occupied by her brother Joe (Keith Andes).  Mae's beauty and strength of character attracts a gentle fisherman Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas), as well as his friend, the cynical and callous Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan).  Though frightened of marriage, Mae decides that Jerry might be her salvation, even though she is dangerously attracted to Earl.

Clash by Night  is very intense film, and as such, it is hard to actually LIKE it.  We have characters we can understand, but many of whom are terribly hard to admire.  Stanwyck's Mae Doyle is at the top of the list.  She was born in Monterey, but left because she hated it there.  Now she's back, but she still hates the place.  Why does she return? Wasn't there somewhere else she could go? And strong as she is, was it so impossible to stick it out in New York City, where it seemed she was happy?  Stanwyck, in a sense, creates a character that is a cypher.  We never really know Mae, a woman who wants to be happy, but can't seem to find real contentment.  Her marriage to Jerry seems an act of desperation. And though she loves her child, her sorrow and pain after her daughter's birth hint at the least of post-partum depression - or perhaps we are just looking for an excuse for her misery.
Jerry, as played by Paul Douglas is a sympathetic character, but also a weak, and sometimes pathetic, man.  His love for Mae is genuine.  He is a good and loving father to their daughter, Gloria, but he is manipulated by everyone. Earl, who is supposedly his friend, ridicules him.  His Uncle  Vince (J. Carrol Naish) uses him as a source of money, and as a tool for vengeance on Mae (Uncle Vince's predilection for pornographic poster art, and his constant "requests" for money put Mae in the position of asking her husband to get Vince out of the house.  You can't blame her for that). And Mae, who cares for him but has no love for him, consents to marry him - with his knowledge that there is no love - in order to have a caretaker and provider.  So, while you feel for Jerry, it's difficult to like him, he is such a patsy. 

Robert Ryan, who played the part of Joe (Mae's brother) in the original Broadway cast of the play, was the only cast member to appear in the movie (the play featured Tallulah Bankhead as Mae and Lee J. Cobb as Jerry).  Ryan, as Earl, gives us a portrait of a man who is a lost soul.  Too intelligent for his job as a movie projectionist but too unambitious to do anything else,  Earl spends his life drinking too much and ridiculing everyone and everything around him.  Mae, who is initially repulsed by Earl's negativity, finally responds both to his sexuality and to his intellect.  But in the final analysis, Earl is not someone who can even take care of himself, much less a wife and child.  Should Mae leave with him, we wondered how long it would be before he abandoned her and the child for which he has no regard or affection.
Perhaps the most attractive characters in the story are Joe and Peggy (Marilyn Monroe).  Peggy deeply loves Joe - and he loves her - but she is no victim.  Their love ultimately is one of equals, and will succeed because of their commitment to one another.  Ms. Monroe was really breaking through in this small, but pivotal role.  And while her relationship with Stanwyck was cordial, the seeds of her later problems had already begun.  According to this TCM article, director Fritz Lang was frustrated by her lateness and inability to remember her lines.  Stanwyck, however, never lost her cool, and would do repeated takes when Monroe forgot her lines.  Ultimately, Stanwyck would comment, after Monroe's death that Monroe "drove Bob Ryan, Paul Douglas, and myself out of our minds."  However, "she didn't do it viciously, and there was a sort of magic about her which we all recognized at once."

The film, not surprisingly, changed a great deal of the play (by Clifford Odets).  The setting is changed from Depression-era Staten Island, New York (which, of course, makes Mae's return far less drastic).  And the endings of the play and film are far different (no spoilers, should you want more information take a look at this article in the AFI Catalog).  Joan Crawford, Jeff Chandler, and Mala Powers were considered at one point for the parts of Mae, Earl and Peggy, all interesting choices.  Regardless, without Stanwyck's powerful and layered performance, this film would likely have fallen apart (this New York  Times review comments on the strength of the performances in a film that they don't necessarily think holds together).
As we've said before, any Stanwyck movie is worth a look, and this certainly is, not only for her, but also for strong performances from Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas.  And the opportunity to see Marilyn Monroe before she became a love goddess is a treat.  We will leave you with this clip from the film, in which Mae returns to her brother's home, and meets the woman he wants to marry. 

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