Thursday, April 6, 2017

Barbara is Bedridden

Leona Cotterell Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is alone at home; she is bedridden and cannot maneuver her home unassistedLeona cannot find her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), who was supposed to be home to care for her. The servants are off, and Leona is annoyed.  She gets on the phone, attempting to find her husband, but some wires cross; she overhears two men discussing the murder of a woman.  Leona tries to get help for this "poor woman," but she soon begins to believe that the "poor woman" is herself.

The story of how Leona and Henry became a couple in Sorry Wrong Number (1948) is told in flashback; using this technique, we learn much about the backstory of this very unhappy marriage.  Based on a popular radio play, the film expands the 27 minute radio story  by inserting this background information.  Though the radio play was wildly successful with the marvelous Agnes Moorehead in the lead role, the studio deemed her to be too much a character actress to reprise her role.

Barbara Stanwyck was justly nominated (her final competitive bid) for an Oscar for the role of Leona. She lost - again - this time to  Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda.  She did have other tough competition: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), Olivia de Havilland (The Snake Pit) and Irene Dunne (I Remember Mama), any of whom certainly deserved the award (and Ms. Dunne was another excellent actress who never won an Oscar, despite being nominated 5 times).  That being said, Leona is a character that runs the gamut - she's tough, decisive, and authoritative in the flashback scenes; whiny, carping, and domineering as she lies in her bed.  Stanwyck, craftswoman that she is, makes it all hang together - you believe the trajectory of Leona's life. 

Burt Lancaster's Henry goes through a similar metamorphosis.  A milquetoast at the beginning, he allows Leona to bulldoze him away from the woman he supposedly loves, (Sally Hunt as played by Ann Richards).  By the time we see him in the present, the roles have begun to reverse, with Henry taking the lead in the marriage and in business (though not in a good way).  In what is essentially a new part from the radio play, Lancaster crafted a character that was far different than any he had played before (TCM articles). Initially, Hal Wallis had wanted Lee Bowman for the part (who was often cast as weaker men), but Lancaster lobbied for the role and got it when Bowman proved to be unavailable.  He's excellent in the part. 

As Leona's father, James Cotterell, Ed Begley portrays a power-obsessed man, who is overly protective of his daughter and demeaning to his son-in-law.  At the same time, he's also a bit of a cad, far more interested in his latest girlfriend than in  his daughter's troubles.  In a sea of characters who are dichotomous, his is perhaps the most contradictory part in the film. Begley makes it easy to understand how Leona has been driven to hypochondria by her father's bullying nature.
We particularly liked Ann Richards in the role of Sally Hunt Lord.  She ends up being the only truly sympathetic character in the film - she loves her husband and son, but still is protective of Henry.  Despite the fact that Leona literally stole Henry from Ann, she does her best to assist Leona.  Born in Australia, Ms. Richards had a very short film career, appearing in 18 films (and one television show) between 1937 and 1960.  She's probably best remembered as Dilly Carson in Love Letters (1945).  She retired from film in 1949, to raise her three children with her husband Edmond Angelo (she would reenter the film arena to appear in Mr. Angelo's 1952 film Breakdown), and to write poetry (two volumes of her poetry were published in 1971 and 1991).  She died in 2006, at the age of 88. 
According to an article in the AFI Catalog, the film had a bit of trouble with the Production Code Administration (PCA) regarding Henry's plan to steal from his father-in-law's pharmaceutical company.  Early versions of the script made it much more obvious that Henry was stealing and selling drugs (ergo, drug trafficking, a code no-no).  The script had to be amended so that he was selling "products of all kinds," not drugs.  It's a fine point, but it made the PCA happy.

Several excellent actors make brief appearances in the film.  Wendell Corey has one scene as Dr. Alexander, the man to whom Leona goes for a "cure" to her invalidism.  Leif Erickson as Detective Fred Lord, who is husband to Sally and is also investigating Henry's nefarious activities, makes an appearance.  And as the sinister Morano, William Conrad shines in a single scene. With his imposing presence and magnificent voice, Mr. Conrad always makes an impression.
We highly recommend this film; if you've not yet seen it, you are in for a treat.  We'll leave you with a scene featuring the now panic-stricken Ms. Stanwyck as she tries to talk to Ms. Richards. 

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