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Barbara Stanwyck Collection, The (DVD Review)

10 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$49.98 three-DVD set
Not rated.

Two movies I treasure are the hallmarks of a six-title set devoted to my favorite actress of her generation, one who could be vulnerable or charming — but if the script called for it, also capable of taking your head off. And the other four selections have enough individual ammo to make them worth seeing — one of them gives us Natalie Wood at age 7 — though, in at least two cases, maybe only once.

Three of them were made at Universal and three at Paramount, whose 1929-49 library is owned by the former. Stanwyck didn’t work that much at Universal in the first place, and if you filter out her Paramounts that have been previously released either individually (such as Double Indemnity and The Lady Eve) or in other sets (such as the Westerns Union Pacific and California), the six represent close to the only titles that could be in a collection Universal is distributing.

Douglas Sirk directed the two I really like — though in black-and-white and not the emotionally expressive color that typified his work in All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. Both are weepers, or what used to be called “women’s pictures” — though what really distinguishes There’s Always Tomorrow (a 1956 remake of a 1934 same-namer that never shows) is that it’s the rare soap opera from the guy’s point of view. It is also among the least known of the great Hollywood movies.

Fred MacMurray is a toy manufacturer married to Joan Bennett, one of those suburban moms who prefers schlepping to school recitals over spending time with him — even on their anniversary. Fred’s no philanderer but hopeful of avoiding middle-aged calcification, whose temporary cure comes in the form of a visiting never-married career woman from his past (Stanwyck, reunited with her old Indemnity co-star). No lasting happiness can come from this, and the finale is a killer that proves MacMurray really was — to answer a question posed by a film historian of my youth — an actor and “not just a puzzled expression.” The movie has an arresting opening shot and never lets go visually, but Universal unforgivably botched this release by including a version with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It still plays well, though, and Sirk’s portrayal of close to grown children is nearly as acidic as in Heaven Allows.

The other personal favorite — at least until an ending producer Ross Hunter imposed on Sirk kicks in — is Sirk’s All I Desire (1953), in which Stanwyck (fabulous) plays an actress who in 1910 returns to a small-town community to visit the husband and then young children she abandoned for a career on the stage. One of her daughters has the lead in a school play (which is what sparks the visit) and wants to follow in the footsteps of this supposed star — even though community tsk-tsk-ing abounds over Stanwyck behavior that truly would have been shocking in the era and in a provincial milieu. What no one knows is that mom’s career isn’t quite as advertised, and now she’s at the age where time isn’t on her side.

The other titles are not in this class, but the hard-to-see Internes Can’t Take Money (1937) turns out to be an efficiently directed “Dr. Kildare” movie made at Paramount with Joel McCrea as the doc — before the character shortly thereafter became a staple at MGM with Lew Ayres in the part. Stanwyck is an ex-con trying to locate her very young daughter, and a saloon near the hospital (Kildare seems to like his brews) boasts some moody gangster stuff plus a dynamic performance by Lloyd Nolan as a hood whose injured arm Kildare saves.

The Great Man’s Lady (1942) is a boilerplate pioneer epic (again with McCrea) that allows Stanwyck to age past the centennial mark; its art direction, costumes and Victor Young score readily identify it as a Paramount film of the early 1940s — which is welcome because Paramounts of that eera are badly unrepresented on DVD. Somewhat better directed than written, Universal’s The Lady Gambles (1949) casts Stanwyck as a respectable married woman who ends up beaten in an alley over her gambling addiction — which forces her husband (Robert Preston) to beg for help from a disinterested doc (John Hoyt) whose characterization has to be one of the most unflattering ever of the medical profession without specifically trying to be. The movie is best at showing Vegas in the more primitive early days before Rat Pack karma took over. Look for the appearance of a then unknown Tony Curtis as a bellboy — a walk-on bit that resulted in a ga-zillion fan letters from horny teenaged girls and a quick promotion into real parts by the studio.

The Natalie Wood appearance is a key curio factor in Paramount’s The Bride Wore Boots (1946), a movie if there ever was one to be doubled-billed with Ginger Rogers’ 1951 comedy The Groom Wore Spurs. Stanwyck is a horsewoman married to an historian (Robert Cummings) who so loathes the creatures that he says he even doesn’t like horseradish. The collection’s weakest entry, it does show how good performers can elevate trivial material more than you’d ever think possible — not that it’s enough. The supporting cast includes Diana Lynn (nicely coiffed and clothed) as a kind of historian groupie who engenders further marital discord — also the famed humorist Robert Benchley in one of several movies that were in the can and released after his 1945 death.

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