Ava Gardner is the best, but hardly the only, reason to see “East Side, West Side” (MGM, 1949). Her part is surprisingly small, but she dominates the entire picture. She’s intensely alive every second she’s on camera; she never looked better or more alluring. While others in the cast drown in the floods of stupid dialogue or paddle like mad to stay afloat, Ava vaults over the bum material like a gazelle. To see her in “East Side, West Side” is to understand why Frank Sinatra went out of his mind over her. Whenever I see her in this one, I think of Cary Grant’s line to Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest”: “Ever kill anyone? Because I bet you could tease a man to death without half trying.”
It’s possible that “East Side, West Side” is the lousiest picture that I genuinely enjoy. Much of the pleasure I get from it is dubious and base: I enjoy the scornful laughter it excites: the hilariously bad acting, the idiotic dialogue, the ludicrous coincidences, the absurd psychological details, the banal forays into sociology, even the hideous “high-tone” set decorations make me laugh. But I also like its energy and its ambition to be something better than just another plush, run-of-the-mill woman’s picture from stodgy old Metro in the last days of rotten old Louis B. Mayer, before his nemesis, Nicholas Schenck, gave him the heave-ho. By no reckoning is it a good picture, but it is certainly not boring. And it features one diabolically entertaining aspect that I’ll cover later, under the heading “The Main Event.”
Let me start with the writing, which is both bad and ambitious. The screenplay was written by Isobel Lennart, who began her career at Metro in the mail room and eventually was one of their most prolific writers. From 1939 to 1942, Miss Lennart was a Commie, but then repined. Some time after “East Side, West Side” was released, she was blacklisted, then hauled before HUAC in 1952, where she sang A Song of One-and-Twenty Fellow Travellers — a madrigal that saved her career. Metro reinstated her as a contract writer, where she continued to turn out screenplays until 1957. In 1964, she wrote the book for the Broadway musical, “Funny Girl.” She received a Tony nomination for her work, but lost to Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”). Her screen adaptation of “Funny Girl” (Warners, 1967) won the Writers Guild Award for that year, but it was the last screenplay she ever wrote. She was killed in an car accident in 1971.
“East Side, West Side” opens with a voice-over spoken by Barbara Stanwyck. It is consistent with the tone of the rest of the picture. The Gramercy Park locations are genuine; the rest of the picture is strictly backlot. This isn’t a complaint: I like Metro’s backlot Manhattan almost as much as I love the real thing.
Jessie (Barbara Stanwyck) is married to playboy attorney, Brandon Bourne (James Mason). A year earlier, Brandon’s affair with Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner) nearly wrecked their marriage, but then Isabel left town suddenly and Brandon returned to his wife, chastened and wiser. All is forgiven. Now Isabel (a/k/a “that Lorrison dame”) has reappeared and it looks like a whole lot of heartache and headaches are in store for the Bournes. I’ll get back to the writing in a moment, but here’s what happens when “that Lorrison dame” shows up at the Del Rio, where Brandon has stopped in for a late-night drink after a meeting with a client. The beautiful girl at Brandon’s table is Cyd Charisse — before any of the geniuses at Metro figured out the kid’s legs had a lot more talent than her head. Charisse gives the sort of earnest, terrible performance that gives me great pleasure. What I feel about her incompetence is not as evil or bitter as derision — it’s more like an alloy of gentle condescension and sympathy. Here comes “that Lorrison dame”:
Part two of the same scene. Look how beautiful and silly the Manhattan set is.
Immediately after this exchange, Brandon walks back toward the Del Rio, and straight into the fists of Isabel’s jealous boyfriend, who knocks him silly with a sucker-punch left, then cold with a roundhouse right. A photographer is on hand to snap the picture, which makes the front page of the next day’s tabloids. Brandon goes home and tells Jessie what happened: he tells her of how Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) rescued him and took him back to her grandmother’s flat till his head cleared — but neglects to mention the return of “that Lorrison dame,” and dodges Jessie’s “But what was the fight about?” with a bland “What’s a fight ever about? Nothing.”
Now here’s a sample of the sort of bad, ambitious writing that appeals to me. The following morning, Jessie’s friend Helen Lee comes to call, and delivers one of the many little sociology dilations that pop up throughout the picture. Helen Lee is played by none other than Nancy Davis (three years before she became the second Mrs Reagan). She’s quite good, though I can’t help wishing Ilka Chase had played this role. Davis has the right sort of glamour, but I think she doesn’t have enough class. I believe that she’s a society dame, but I don’t buy her as an intellectual — then again, it hardly matters: she’s only in one other scene. She’s good enough. (Notice the shadow that falls across Stanny’s chair beginning at about 1:15 — in the first half of the scene, the broad expanse of the chair to the right (her left) is in full light, but when it’s time for her important close-up (“It’s like knowing a safety-pin is holding up your petticoat”), suddenly a veil of darkness falls over everything except her face. This is a perfectly ordinary attention-focussing technique, but when it’s done this boldly and baldly, I get a kick out of it. Again, my enjoyment isn’t entirely scornful — it’s fonder than that.)
Davis delivers her lecture with authority, but the speech has no hint of spontaneity or conversational laxness in it: it’s definitely, overtly written. It’s the sort of soapbox speech that nowadays is rarely heard outside of a Tyler Perry picture, when one of his mouthpieces gets up on a high horse. The sincerity of the argument is matched only by the artificiality of its presentation; Nancy Davis complements it by being completely earnest and utterly phony.
Isobel Lennart employs a weird convention that I’ve encountered elsewhere, but never in such profusion. Time and again, she lets one character interrupt another and say, in effect: “Let me tell you what you think I want to hear” or “Here’s what you’re trying to say.” In each case, the person who interrupts is right; in each case, the person who is interrupted isn’t the least bit offended. It’s certainly not like the New York I know. I mean, if I were interrupted in mid-sentence by Van Heflin, who then proceeded to explain me to myself, I’d have to kill him. But in “East Side, West Side,” he does it repeatedly, and everyone is always grateful to him. He also takes the metaphors of politeness literally and then corrects them as if the speaker meant the metaphor literally. For example, in one scene Stanny thanks him for being so thoughtful to her when she was upset, then says she owes him the courtesy of letting him how things worked out — but he interrupts her suddenly and changes the subject. Then he concludes with: “Oh, and Jess, get one thing straight: you don’t owe me anything.” Oh, up yours, you fucking asshole.
Stanwyck has the hardest role because her lines are the most zestfully over-explanatory. You can hear in her opening narration how she rushes right along, but speed alone is not enough to save her. In her haste, she often emphasizes wrong words, which of course happens in real life, but with bum dialogue, it aggravates the phoniness of the writing.
Lennart also comes a-cropper whenever she strains to be sophisticated. Jessie’s old mother, Nora Kernan (Gale Sondergaard), is a retired, once-famous Broadway tragedienne. After dinner, she plays a game of chess with son-in-law Brandon. The dialogue scintillates this-a-way:
Nora: Dear . . . ! I don’t know if it’s possible, but I feel that you’re cheating.
Brandon: When you can prove it, I’ll be glad to discuss it with you.
Nora: Jessie looks wonderful tonight.
Brandon: She has you to thank for her looks, darling.
Nora: And you. [Dreamily] When a woman gets more beautiful after she’s married, it means her man is either making her very happy . . . or very unhappy.
Brandon: Oscar Wilde?
Nora: No . . . Belasco.
David Belasco wrote a lot of tawdry hokum, but he never wrote anything as bad as that.
And, finally, I come to:
The Main Event
There’s another, despicable reason for my liking of “East Side, West Side” — it’s the behind-the-scenes drama of Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner. In the same year this picture was made, Ava starred in a lurid stinker called “The Bribe.” Her leading man was Stanny’s husband at the time, Robert Taylor. Ava and Taylor began an affair during the location shooting, Stanny found out about it and immediately filed for divorce. And now, with “East Side, West Side,” trashy art was imitating trashy life. No fur flew on the set: Stanwyck was a pro before she was an injured wife, and she’d be goddamned if she’d give the gossip columnists the satisfaction of being their next meal. She refused to meet Gardner, but she showed up on time, said her lines, and got through it as quickly as possible. Still, it’s a juicy situation — I have such respect for Stanny’s talent and discipline, and such admiration for Ava’s beauty and frankness that I’m ashamed to get such pleasure from their distress. But it’s a cat fight, for God’s sake! So what can I do?
You know, what I find far more enjoyable and entertaining than the cat fight itself (which isn’t all that much if you leave out the actresses’ personal lives) is the wrangling over the difference in class. It’s another one of Lennart’s steamed-up sociological tracts, and I think it’s her best (by which I do not mean good). It’s not just the over-arching culture war of East Side v. West Side that comes into the argument but also the more specific clash of aesthetics: Great Lady of the Theatre v. Burlesque House and the clash of education, manners and morals: Miss Cavanaugh’s Academy v. Slinging Hash . . . ! Ava handles the material excellently — she doesn’t make any of it good, but she gives it passion, energy and insolence, which is what it needs. Good doesn’t enter into it.