Starting out from Scratch: Barbara Stanwyck in ‘My Reputation’

Original poster.

Original poster, and totally misleading: Barbara Stanwyck has been posed and painted to look like Jane Russell in ‘The Outlaw.’

Curtis Bernhardt’s “My Reputation” (Warner Bros., 1946) is one of the best Woman’s Pictures I know. (Bernhardt directed another great one, “Payment on Demand,” which I examined a few weeks ago.) Like “Payment on Demand,” it is unusually adult. Barbara Stanwyck plays Jessica “Jess” Drummond, a youngish widow with two teenage sons; she’s neither ready nor willing to be a widow for the rest of her life, but doesn’t know what she’s to do with her husband gone after a long illness and her two boys off at prep school. To complicate matters, she has a pushy, old-fashioned mother who bullies her, and she’s surrounded by a crowd of catty, gossipy friends: they’re despicable, but hardly unusual. No, they’re standard-issue Woman’s Picture upper middle class women. I’ve been looking at a lot of Woman’s Pictures lately, and with very few exceptions, they positively pullulate with idle female chatterbox parasites in hats and jewels and furs, who get tight at lunch, slander their absent friends, cheat on their husbands and ostracize any member of their set who wants to make herself useful or pursue an intellectual or artistic interest. These pampered ladies are snobs and hypocrites and busybodies — when there’s a war on, they do much of their shopping on the black market and speak scornfully of the patriotic simps who live on ration tickets and abide by the government’s austerity measures; half of them are tramps and the other half are frigid. Here’s an early scene in which we meet some of these poisonous dames at the market. There’s another type of stock villain at the scene’s end, but I’ll have something to say about him a little later on.

There have been Woman’s Pictures since the beginning, but they became a readily identifiable genre during the War Years, when Hollywood studios did what they could to cater to their idea of what women on the Home Front would want to see. The stories in this genre tend to be overwrought romances in which an attractive, sympathetic leading lady is put through tumultuous psychological wringers by antagonists who come in all shapes and sizes. Yet, with much of the adult male population fighting overseas, most of the villains in these dramas necessarily had to be other women; Woman’s Pictures, as a rule, present the vast majority of the adult female population in a harshly negative light: they’re nitwits at best and venomous reptiles at worst. Even when the screenplays were written by women (as this one was: Catherine Turney) or were based on novels written by women (as this one was: “Instruct My Heart” by Clare Jaynes — terrible title!), the pictures were produced and directed by men who worked for studios that were run by men. And of course with the Production Code in full vigor, the conclusions drawn in even the best of these pictures tend to be conservative, to say the least. The Women’s Liberation movement was still decades away.

A Message from Beyond the Grave

In this clip, which comes in the first reel of the picture, Jess reads the letter her late husband wrote for her a few days before he died.

I have great admiration for Stanwyck’s combination of intense emotion and restraint. She doesn’t hide her feelings, but she doesn’t parade them either. She sheds tears, but she doesn’t glory in them. Although “My Reputation” seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle (why isn’t it better known?), it’s one of Stanwyck’s best performances: you can start watching the picture at just about any point and within a few seconds, you’re bound to see her doing something wonderful. But I’ll give you a hint: as good as she is in the first half of the picture, she only gets better as it goes along.

The (slightly misquoted) quotation comes from a sonnet by Christina Rossetti. Jess’s husband Paul remembered the last line only slightly incorrectly, but his paraphrase throws off its rhythm. I like to think Paul got the quote wrong because he was, well, dying and didn’t have time to look it up. Besides, he closes with “your loving but unpoetic husband,” which claim his error confirms.

Remember

by Christina Rossetti
Remember me when I am gone away,
       Gone far away into the silent land;
       When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
       You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
       Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
       And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
       For if the darkness and corruption leave
       A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
       Than that you should remember and be sad.

I rather like the poem, and it’s well suited to the picture, which, like Rossetti’s work, is wet without being soppy. But I can’t help comparing it to a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets on the same subject — for instance, Sonnet 71, which begins “No longer mourn for me when I am dead/Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell/Give warning to the world that I am fled/From this vile world, with vildest* worms to dwell.” Not very comforting, I know, but more bracing and less sentimental. In my book, the dying husband who left that passage for his widow to chew on would be a much more interesting fellow and a greater loss. But this is a Woman’s Picture, and sentimentality is part of the deal. What makes “My Reputation” exceptional in many scenes is Stanwyck’s ability to play the emotions without becoming vague and sentimental. Jessica Drummond is a native of a wealthy suburb of Chicago, but Stanwyck puts a lot of Brooklyn in the woman’s backbone.
______________
* Most modern editors amend “vildest” to “vilest,” but I disapprove of this liberty: vildest has more bite.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

There are several partings in the picture, two of which are at train stations, and all of them are handled extremely well. Max Steiner’s score knocks me out: the way the main theme swells as the train pulls away strikes me as musical scoring at its best. This scene shows Jess as she puts her boys on the train to their private school back East. This is another example of how brilliantly Barbara Stanwyck expresses a complicated, deeply-felt inner life, but without telegraphing it: Stanwyck doesn’t present her emotions to you: she allows you to catch them as they fleet. It’s not only her face that registers what’s going on inside her, but look at her body language: she’s incredibly expressive. But she’s not the only one. I think the two kids in this scene are worth paying close attention to.


Bobby Cooper is the older brother, Keith; Scotty Beckett plays Kim. Bobby Cooper got out of pictures early. Of the two boys, Keith (Bobby) is the somber, soulful one; Kim’s the firecracker. And why not? Scotty Beckett was discovered at the age of three, when a casting agent overheard him singing for his ailing father, in The Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. Scotty’s natural gaiety charmed the nurses: soon he was singing for all the patients on the ward. His father died the following year. Scotty appeared as Spanky McFarland’s co-conspirator in an early season of the Our Gang shorts, and went on to play opposite the biggest stars (including Garbo) at various studios all through his childhood, often portraying the leading character as a child. The kid was talented, extremely cute and a natural show-off, as Kim is. But I consider Bobby Cooper’s Keith to be the more interesting performance: Keith’s a nice looking boy, with more than a passing resemblance to his mother (they have the same eyes and the same jawline), but a melancholic, adult shadow partially eclipses his boyishness. You can see that Keith is at least dimly conscious, as his younger brother is not, of his mother’s loneliness and anxiety. And he sees that Kim is cuter and livelier than he, and knows that he lives in his younger brother’s shadow. I think little, if any, of this is in the script, but the acting is specific enough to make these details evident, without underlining them. (These details are more noticeably on display in other scenes, but they’re also in this scene if you look for them, and I wanted to show one of the nice train station sequences.) Look at the way Stanwyck interacts with her two boys: there’s nothing vague or general about her relationship to them as distinct, uniquely loveable individuals. She’s cheerful and light with Kim; she treats Keith almost as if he were her confidant . . . and the man of the family. The scene is deeply poignant, yet the dialogue is second rate at best. It’s the acting that is first rate. There’s real emotional truth in this parting that lifts the humdrum to something quite a lot better — perhaps better than it deserves. But I’m thankful for great scenes like this, however they happen and wherever I can find them.

You can also see in this clip that Scotty Beckett is already playing all the angles. His life was soon to spiral out of control; by the mid-fifties, he had become a one man “Hollywood Babylon.” Drunken driving, drug addiction, hotel robbery, passing bad checks, attempted suicide, pistol-whipping, wife-beating, a stretch in the stoney lonesome, parole violation . . . you name it, Scotty did it. An overdose killed him at 38 years old, a washed-up has-been. Poor little bastard.

The querulous old bitch of a granny with the chalk-on-a-slate voice is that bus-and-truck Gladys Cooper known as Lucile Watson. She gave the same goddamn performance in every picture she was ever in: the Sweet Old Darling rounded by an acidic brown perimeter; she’s an inferior dessert wine turned to vinegar: simultaneously cloying and tart — sickening. I can’t bear her.

The Masher

The most common stock male villain in Woman’s Pictures is The Masher. Occasionally, he’s a moderately attractive bachelor with bad manners (e.g., Jack Carson in “Mildred Pierce”), but far more often he’s an unattractive, hard-drinking, unhappily married middle-aged man who is under the misapprehension that his boorish double entendres and fulsome compliments are catnip to the ladies, especially when he’s got a half dozen Old Overholt highballs sloshing round in his belly. He usually gets a well-deserved slap in the face, which he interprets as just another step in the timeless dance of seduction. In the War Years (“My Reputation” was shot in 1943, but not released till ’46), The Masher was a more than usually objectionable and obnoxious pest: his being stateside implied he was a coward or unfit for service or unpatriotic — and probably all three. In “My Reputation,” The Masher is played by Jerome Cowan, a reliable, but wholly unsympathetic contract player at Warners.

I confess I find the scene in the car difficult to watch: what this bastard does to our heroine amounts to attempted rape — when she repulses his advances, his reassurance that nobody “would ever suspect you, anyway” is particularly loathsome. This scene takes place just days after her husband has been buried in the cold, cold ground. Who is this son of a bitch? “No hard feelings, Jess!” Hard feelings?! I’d like to see her go all Phyllis Dietrichson (“Double Indemnity”) on his ass, but that would be a different picture. Moreover, his confidence and persistence suggest that his brutishness has actually worked in the past. In the scene, Jess says, “Women on the loose can be such a mess,” but it’s hard to imagine any woman being quite that messy. I look at this scene and my wits begin to turn: during the Production Code era, a husband and wife couldn’t be shown lying fully clothed in a bed together, unless one of them had at least one foot touching the floor, but Jerry Cowan could be shown manhandling Barbara Stanwyck and smothering her with unwanted kisses, without a murmur of protest from Joe Breen’s office. Nobody gets laid or has any fun, so it’s all right for us to see it. Anyhow, having met his odious wife at the market in an earlier scene, we know that he’ll go home to her and they’ll both make each other miserable. So it all works out.

Eve Arden to the Rescue

Here’s what happens immediately afterwards. I cannot think of a more perfect example of what Woman’s Pictures are all about: serious psychological turmoils addressed with as much seriousness as Hollywood timidity and censorship would allow. Frankly, I much prefer this sort of tame psychoanalysis to what began to show up in Woman’s Pictures of the seventies, such as “An Unmarried Woman.” I love the gorgeous cinematography, the artificial (i.e., non-improvised) dialogue and the polished (i.e., not perfectly realistic) acting. And I especially savor the total absence of underscoring during the scene (the voices are melodious enough to carry it), followed by the plush ripeness of the travel music — it’s all close enough to reality to be believable, but it’s better than mere realism. Noël Coward once said, “When I go to the theatre, I want to see extraordinary people, not a series of ordinary ones.” Amen.

In this picture, Eve Arden is, for once, more wise than wise-cracking. Her analysis of Jessica’s problem isn’t what I’d call penetrating, but she’s certainly on the right track, and I like her combination of earnestness, empathy and toughness. Arden’s diction is precise almost to a fault; her way with a line is mannered and artificial, yet she unfailingly conveys canniness and above all, a warm personality. She lets you know she’s acting, but she also clearly means what she recites. She’s unreal without being phony. I’ve always found her a sympathetic actress, but never as witty as she apparently intends to be. But this is usually because her zingers aren’t good enough.

The Worm Turns

Another standard feature of the Woman’s Picture genre (and the one I like the best) is the obligatory scene in which the beset heroine finally finds the moxie to turn on her antagonist(s) and speak her mind: I call it “The Worm Turns.” “Now, Voyager” has a few spectacular examples of this, when Bette Davis faces down her formidable old tyrant of a mother (Gladys Cooper). Joan Crawford was always camp in such scenes, because she was always itching for a fight and took too much pleasure in browbeating her co-stars. Like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck plays this sort of scene excellently: she hates conflict, she doesn’t want to lose her temper, she’s ashamed of herself for losing control, but she’s got to set things straight. I love the way she lets loose in this scene: seeing it out of context, it won’t mean as much, of course, but I believe you can still get a fair idea of how emotionally satisfying the moment is in the context of the story. Steiner’s underscoring punctuates Stanwyck’s arguments beautifully. Stanny has an even better outburst later in the picture, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Lucile Watson wears that same jeweled brooch in other scenes. It reminds me of the solitary eyeball that the Grææ, the three blind hags who guarded the Medusa’s cave, passed among themselves. I’m captivated by this idea, because it reinforces the idea of Watson as a Gorgon, which she undeniably is.

The Complicated/Doomed Love Affair

Our heroine has to fall in love, of course, and the affair needs must be complicated — perhaps even impossibly so. In “My Reputation,” Jessica is a woman who married in her late teens and has no experience of romantic love outside of her marriage. She’s in her mid-thirties, but has less sexual experience than most girls in their freshman year of college; she appears to be a woman of the world, but she’s terrified of her unexplored sexuality and is afraid of being engulfed by passions that could lead her to her ruin. She’s emotionally stifled, even crippled, by the gossipy females of her social set and by her interfering termagant mother. And she has two boys who are still too young to understand her desire for romance. All the Rules say that she is supposed to immure herself in widowhood, but she falls — against her will — desperately in love with Major Scott Landis (George Brent), who introduces her to a new world of adult sexuality, which had never even occurred to her before. It’s all very complicated and confusing to her. She’s drawn to him, but he is, in his own way, just as bullying as her social set, her adolescent (and therefore selfish) boys, and her horrible old mother. The difference is, Major Landis is trying to liberate her, while they’re all trying to hold her back. The emotional conflicts become extremely intense before the picture comes to a satisfactory end.

Mind you, I don’t mean to overpraise “My Reputation”: it’s far from great. But once again, it’s a flawed picture that I admire, in large part, for its ambition. Some of the scenes with Brent are, by today’s standards, exasperating: much of what we’re to accept as his perspicacity strikes me as merely presumptuous and insulting. This first scene of him alone with Stanwyck after nightfall offers many examples of what I mean.

“I’ve seen hundreds of people like you . . .” Oh, the dirty swine: how dare he? In a later scene, she comes to his apartment, where he pours gin down her throat while he crowds her on the sofa . . . this is love? Who wants it? (And his gin is warm.) In many of Brent’s scenes, his chauvinism and smug superiority are really infuriating. And yet . . . if you can accept these things (as I do) as a product of their time and a form of getting-it-past-the-censors shorthand for a more complicated and protracted seduction and sexual awakening, at least it makes it possible for a wartime Woman’s Picture to tell a story about an inexperienced woman who learns what sex is, what all the fuss is about, and realizes that she likes it so much that she’s willing to take great risks on its behalf and to make considerable sacrifices to keep it coming. That’s no small matter, especially in a picture from the mid-1940s.

James Wong Howe photographed it beautifully. Max Steiner’s score is lush and, in the main, perfect. I dislike the flutes and the Laurel and Hardy-style mutes on the trumpets in the courtship scenes and the way the orchestrations go all puerile and kittenish in the clinches, but I expect this is intended to downplay Jessica’s sexual excitement and terror, and to emphasize instead the comical varieties of nervousness that are a natural consequence of falling in love. Taken as a whole, “My Reputation” is not nearly as good a picture as “Casablanca,” but I find its conclusion to be as emotionally exhilarating as the last moments between Ilsa and Rick. The last shot in the picture is unforgettable.

2 thoughts on “Starting out from Scratch: Barbara Stanwyck in ‘My Reputation’

  1. Gregorio

    I like the writing in The Complicated/Doomed Love Affair section very much.
    Beautifully dissection of very profound and complicated matters.

    Reply
  2. Stephen Reginald

    Excellent post on a an excellent, and I believe, underrated picture and performance from Barbara Stanwyck. Perhaps it’s because Stanwyck seemed so naturalistic in her acting that she doesn’t always get the credit she deserves, but her acting holds up more than most of her contemporaries performances do. She has not artifice or anything false in her vocal delivery or her body language. In a word she’s just “amazing.”

    Reply

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