By Marilyn Ferdinand
Through the years, Hollywood has given audiences a fair number of great acting teams. Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are among the duos cinephiles follow, relishing each collaboration and seeking to be completists by watching all of a team’s work. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to watch three of the four films that comprise the oeuvre of a pair of actors who were not really a team, but who left their indelible mark on movie history.
Versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, an elite among elites who won the universal admiration of costars, directors, film critics, and moviegoers alike, and lesser light Fred MacMurray, a Paramount contract actor who would go on to become one of America’s most beloved TV dads in “My Three Sons” and a Disney family film regular, put together quite a hat trick. The first film, Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a screwball comedy crossed with a women’s film in which Stanwyck plays a habitual thief whose vulnerability is unearthed by MacMurray’s honest and true prosecutor who aims to put her in prison. In a strange twist of . . . something, their next pairing saw Stanwyck and MacMurray create two of cinema’s most memorably rotten characters in arguably the most iconic film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Finally, Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) has the pair fight their longing to be together for the sake of preserving MacMurray’s marriage and family life. The progression of this pairing is a classic study in how social attitudes and directorial points of view can take the same two actors and create three very distinct films—the opposite of the predictable product audiences demand from Hollywood teams—that still remain true to the lead personalities involved.
Remember the Night is an unconventional romance whose superficial position—that people are basically good at heart and will behave decently if they are treated with kindness—is undermined by the unsettling undercurrent of economic want and the unnatural hatred of a mother for her daughter. Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander, is about to be acquitted for a crime she committed when ace prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) finds a way to get the case continued until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We are saved from a miscarriage of justice with this trick, but John can’t help being decent to his quarry and bails Lee out of jail. This isn’t exactly a kindness, however, as she is homeless. Her crime was an attempt to keep a roof over her head, something the prosecutor with enough money to have a live-in manservant couldn’t imagine when he made his grand gesture, despite his line of work. Finding out that Lee is from his home state of Indiana and hasn’t seen her mother in years, John offers to take her there for a visit as he drives home to see his family for the holidays.
The script, written by Preston Sturges, packs a lot of irresistible comedy into the film, including MacMurray trying to squeeze some milk from a cow into a thermos bottle. But then Leisen, whose homosexuality had given him more than a grazing acquaintance with psychoanalysis and the stigma of being a social outcast, brings Lee’s mother into the picture. A more cold-blooded portrayal of a rejecting mother is hard to imagine. The cure for Lee’s emotional pain is a big dose of rural warmth and nostalgia. It’s clear that John just wants an old-fashioned girl, and when Lee is corseted and costumed in a turn-of-the-century pinafore and enormous hair bow for a barn dance, she completes the process of revirgination and becomes a fit woman for John to love. After a talking-to from John’s mother (Beulah Bondi doing Ma Bailey again) about how John has worked too hard to get where he is to throw it away for love of Lee, Lee accepts her fate. She walks willingly to prison at the end of their Indiana idyll to keep his prosecutorial rectitude intact and return to him cleansed of her sin by accepting her punishment. Under Leisen’s direction, the sacrifices of love are given a shocking dignity, confounding a Sturges-style happy ending that resolves the plot without reforming the characters. Importantly, the women who surround John save him from himself, an interesting thread of male passivity running through the Stanwyck-MacMurray films.
Billy Wilder’s noir classic couldn’t be more different from Leisen’s in tone, nor Stanwyck and MacMurray’s characters more despicable. Wilder and his coscreenwriter Raymond Chandler created types with no past and no future—now is the only thing that matters to them. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson isn’t in need of money or driven compulsively to crime by some hurt in her past. She’s mean, greedy, and murderous just because. But, of course, there is a strong psychological schema to the film, just as there was with Remember the Night. MacMurray’s patsy, Walter Neff, the stereotypically unctuous insurance salesman who only wanted to renew an auto policy and ended up dead, was caught in the spider’s web of his malevolent anima. Wilder ensures from our first look at Stanwyck that there’s no doubt about her intentions—wearing nothing but a towel and a knowing smile, she slips on some clothes and clicks down the long staircase to Walter, an ID anklet hugging her leg like a link in Jacob Marley’s chains.
Walter Neff isn’t just in thrall to his negative anima. Caught in a strangely close relationship with insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, he is driven by an Oedipal urge to outsmart his “father” by plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband in a way that will pay double on an accident policy he sells to Phyllis. The audience can plainly see, however, that he hasn’t a prayer of getting away with it. Neff has no real agency of his own. He’s brash enough to lay his cards on the table with Phyllis in a scene with the clipped, crackling dialogue for which this film is justly famous, and he’s got no problem killing a man even the audience can’t like. But his essential immaturity makes it impossible for him to stand for anything. Faced with a choice to go “straight down the line” with Phyllis or follow in his “father’s” footsteps, he balks at both and ends up destroying himself.
Wilder’s view of humanity is essentially jaundiced. A fugitive from Hitler’s Germany, he had seen the irrational rise up in Europe and spent the better part of his career exposing the world to its own grotesqueness. His transformation of an actor known for his nice-guy roles into a fatuous thug is as perverse as his glorification of pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Wilder, the ultimate manipulator, takes the same psychological approach to his material as Leisen did, but sends his characters over the cliff.
Stanwyck and MacMurray’s final collaboration, There’s Always Tomorrow, is a film in which women take the strongest hand against the hapless male lead, toy manufacturer Clifford Groves. Groves has been left by the side of the road, as his wife of 20 years, played by Joan Bennett, dedicates herself completely to her home and children. It seems to Cliff that he was just a means to this end, and when a former employee—childless, divorced, fashion designer Norma Vale—comes back to town and looks him up, he’s ripe for a change.
Of course, Norma loved him in vain way back when, and like many people in midlife who aren’t where they thought they would be, she looks to the past to see if she can make the road fork in a different direction. After some hesitation, she’s reconciled to being a home wrecker, that is, until Cliff’s two older children beg her to give him up—which she does in a “mother knows best” kind of way. Cliff returns to his corner, telling his wife that she knows him better than he knows himself, an unconscious victim of the Babbitty kind of conformism the 50s demanded.
Sirk delivers another one of his meaty melodramas with an underlying heart and purpose. As is the norm with women’s films, Stanwyck is front and center, and we are meant to identify with her torment over not realizing the “right” of every woman to a home and children. Indeed, Bennett voices this sentiment as she tells Cliff that she feels sorry for Norma. When Norma is shown jetting back to her independent life, her profound sorrow is difficult to watch, and yet, isn’t this film just more 50s propaganda about a woman’s place? Women, the audience for which this film was made, were being sold the party line, and the relative powerlessness of the men in these films gave women some sense of control and authority when they were being kicked back into the kitchen following their necessary duty in the wartime workforce.
Yet Sirk doesn’t let the triumphantly traditional woman off the hook that easily. Bennett’s character is so smug that she doesn’t see, can’t even imagine, that the attractive woman her husband invites into their home for dinner could possibly be a rival. Ann (Pat Crowley), the girlfriend of Cliff’s oldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds), breaks with him because he suspects his father of having an affair. It is she who is utterly naive, buying the party line of the happy family with its upstanding patriarch who can do no wrong; and again, Vinnie starts fluffing the pillows in his move-in-ready corner by giving in to Ann’s fantasy of love, and receives her condescending compliment, “long pants at last.”
In each of these films, Stanwyck is the architect of MacMurray’s plan of action. Would it be fair to say that another actress might not have brought the authority to stand at center stage and compel her leading man in so many directions, or that MacMurray’s good-guy type lacked the authority to match her blow for blow, the way Tracy could with Hepburn? Despite the very different points of view of all three of the talented directors involved, something immutably human in the art of acting puts each of their efforts in a more realistic perspective.