Playing by Different Rules: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

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.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 12:29 am

    Well done! An excellent analysis of three un-alike films with a pair of actors great enough to make them that way. Stanwyck does have to conform to the code demands, but does so more in concert with her directors than the censors. MacMurray, a mutable actor that could morph into weak-willed or strong under the right conditions, really should be remembered for these films and a few other harder-edged ones, rather than the cardboard Disney and TV characters he ended with. Remember the Night is a Christmas staple in my house, and I watch the other two compulsively when I can.

  • Kristen spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 12:55 am

    Great write-up! I reviewed Double Indemnity for my blog as well as Remember the Night last Christmas. I think what’s great is watching these two movies alone shows the chemistry between MacMurray and Stanwyck, that they could make two completely different films and still be astounding!

  • Cheryl Stoy spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 2:44 am

    Superbly written and well devised…I vote for you to be the next “Essentials” commentator at TCM. MacMurray and Stanwyck are not a “classic team” often thought of because as you point out, they only made 3 films together but what a great, talented team who also benefited from great scripts and directing. They bring to mind Spnecer Tracy & Joan Bennent in the ” Father of the Bride’ and “Father’s Little Dividend” series…I think if they had continued we would have seen more great comedy and possibly a few key dramatic gems from them.

  • Rachel spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 5:46 am

    Wow, this was quite a treat. Stanwyck and MacMurray are such an underrated pair. You bring up Stanwyck as the active and MacMurray as the passive in each of their films. The way I think of it is that Stanwyck is always the “liberator” of MacMurray, allowing him to do what he’s secretly been wanting all along. His effect on her is a little more ambiguous. Even in a romance like Remember the Night, there’s enough room to wonder how much Stanwyck cares and for what reasons. Not exactly an equal give-and-take, but still a fascinating duo.

    I can’t blame you for skipping over The Moonlighter, which always seems to be the Stanwyck/MacMurray that nobody’s seen or cared about. But if there were some hardcore auteurist out there ready to make a case for it, I’d be curious.

  • Jacqueline T Lynch spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 6:47 am

    “… 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.”

    Very interesting point. I don’t think we usually examine the other side, or the bi-product if you will, of the 1950s domestic party line. A fine essay.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 8:01 am

    Wow, thanks everyone! I wasn’t sure this was any good. And thanks, Rachel, for making me aware of The Moonlighters, a film I didn’t know existed. Time to make a few corrections.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 9:21 am

    Rachel – I suppose you could see Stanwyck as a liberator, but she’s largely a negative force in that regard, at least in terms of society’s rules. Personally, I think MacMurray’s characters are looking for something that her characters have and take the opportunity. In that sense, he’s not really very passive.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 12:29 pm

    I’m going to speculate that you attended this past weekend’s screening of the Sirk film in Chicago and were inspired in part by this screening. If so, touche, as you take a new approach to examine one of the cinema’s most famous pairings in two excellent films and one cinematic masterpiece. DOUBLE INDEMNITY does indeed show the pair as utterly rotten, though of course there isn’t a likable character in that film at all. Stanwyck is one of the all-time greatest American actresses, and she’s paired up with others, but as you note there is something special here, a resonating spark which you nicely explore. The motivations you delineate in Stanwyck’s character in that film beckons back to similar situations in some of her pre-code work.

    Also inspired by the showing, I ordered the MoC of the film, which I erroneously thought I owned (confused it with A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE). I’m anxious to watch it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/04/2012 to 12:36 pm

    Yes, Sam, you know my viewing habits well, and my library had the other two dvds to fill in the blanks. As for the unlikability of all the characters in Double Indemnity, I have to say that I liked Robinson’s “sherlock” quite a lot. I was quietly amused to see Jean Heather, who plays Phyllis’ stepdaughter, in this film. Her very next film was the “wayward” girl who marries a soldier in the syrupy Going My Way!

  • Hilary spoke:
    2nd/05/2012 to 6:46 pm

    Marilyn, this is a very insightful comparison of the Stanwyck and MacMurray pairings. I also like Robinson’s Keyes in Double indemnity, and it is he who holds the film together for me. He’s the default heart of the piece, because he’s the only one who has one.

  • NMusick spoke:
    26th/09/2013 to 10:56 pm

    what about the Moonlighters, 1953. MacMurray and Stanwyck western.

  • David Williams spoke:
    26th/09/2013 to 11:22 pm

    Three iconic films to be sure. I find it curious there is no mention of “The Moonlighter”, a solid western . If not mistaken, both of these wonderful actors played in many a western including the lovely Ms. Stanwyck even starring in the long running TV series, “The Big Valley”. These two could and did do it all!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/09/2013 to 2:04 pm

    When I wrote this, I didn’t know of The Moonlighters’ existence. I have a copy of it now and will update. Thanks.

  • Rosemary Twomey spoke:
    24th/12/2013 to 9:02 pm

    They made Moonlighter together..
    It was terrible.

  • john h. morris spoke:
    16th/09/2014 to 11:18 am

    The Moonlighter was not quite up to the level of the other three films discussed. It is, of course, interesting to watch to see Stanwyck and MacMurray. MacMurray is the “moonlighter” – stealing cattle. Stanwyck takes it upon herself to catch him and make him honest. She tracks him down in a hiding place beyond a waterfall. After she gets him, he relents and decides to turn himself in, do his time, and then they can be happy ever after. Coming back from the hiding place, Stanwyck falls over a waterfall and he save her.

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