Judge Ben Saylor's Signature Collection would consist of crumpled credit card receipts.
Winning. Wily. Always a woman.
Is it just me, or does Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) frequently get overlooked in favor of actresses like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn? Nominated four times, Stanwyck never won a competitive Oscar (She won an honorary award in 1982). Compare that to Davis, who was nominated 11 times with two wins, or Hepburn, who was nominated 12 times with four wins. Even today, you hear much more about Davis and Hepburn than you ever do about Stanwyck. Could it be that Stanwyck acted in lesser material? Maybe, but even in less-than-great films, the versatile actress always managed to stand out. Stanwyck's range is put on full display in Warner Home Video's Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection, which has the actress appearing in roles ranging from the famous trick shooter Annie Oakley (in Annie Oakley, go figure) to a repressed widow (My Reputation).
Facts of the Case
Executive Suite: When Tredway Corporation president Avery Bullard (an uncredited Raoul Freeman) drops dead on Wall Street, it sends his board of directors into a tailspin. With no executive vice president, there is no clear line of succession. Who will take over Tredway? Cold, calculating number cruncher Loren Shaw? (Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives) The young, passionate Don Walling? (William Holden, Stalag 17) Bullard's reliable number two man Frederick Alderson? (Walter Pidgeon, Forbidden Planet) The crucial vote lies with Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck), the daughter of Bullard's business partner.
Annie Oakley: The young Annie Oakley (Stanwyck) makes money for her family by shooting quails. But when she nearly shows up New York marksman Toby Walker, (Preston Foster, I Shot Jesse James) in a shooting contest, Annie earns herself a ticket on Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Along the way, she performs across the country and in Europe, befriends Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderheart) and falls in love.
My Reputation: Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck) is reeling from the death of her husband. With her young boys away at boarding school and her imperious mother (Lucile Watson, The Emperor Waltz) dictating how she should properly mourn, the repressed Jessica is at her wit's end. Until, that is, she goes on a skiing holiday with friends and in the process meets the dashing Major Landis (George Brent, The Spiral Staircase). But as Jessica and the Major spend more time together, disapproving tongues start wagging, and soon ugly rumors about the pair's relationship begin circulating, reaching even the ears of Jessica's impressionable boys. Suddenly, Jessica finds herself torn between the demands of polite society and the urgings of her heart.
East Side, West Side: Jessie and Brandon Bourne (Stanwyck and James Mason, Lolita) are a happy, content couple, their relationship recently healed after a spell of infidelity on Brandon's part. But a year after leaving to travel abroad, Brandon's old flame Isabel (Ava Gardner, Mogambo) is back in town, with her sights again set on Mr. Bourne. Complicating things is Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin, the original 3:10 to Yuma), a gentlemanly fed with designs on Jessie. Just when things couldn't get worse for these love-wracked men and women, a murder plunges their lives further into disarray.
To Please a Lady: War hero-turned racecar driver Mike Brannan (Clark Gable) has a reputation for winning at all costs. His dangerous, reckless techniques draw the attention of popular and influential columnist Regina Forbes (Stanwyck). When a Forbes-penned attack on Brannan results in his getting kicked off the racing circuit, the pair goes their separate ways, only to fall into an on-again, off-again relationship soon after. Can Brannan curb his hard-driving ways, or will he choose racing glory over a woman's love?
Jeopardy: Helen Stilwin (Stanwyck) is all set for a sunny Mexican holiday with husband Doug (Barry Sullivan, Forty Guns) and son Bobby (Lee Aaker) when Doug gets pinned beneath wood from a rotting jetty. Unable to pry him loose with the tide rising ever higher, Helen leaves the secluded beach the family chose as a camping spot in order to find help. Instead of assistance, however, she finds Lawson (Ralph Meeker, Kiss Me Deadly), an escaped con with no sympathy for Helen's plight. Can Helen escape from Lawson's clutches in time to save the man she loves?
The titles in the Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection strongly attest to Stanwyck's versatility as an actress, and they represent a wide range in her career chronologically as well; Annie Oakley, the earliest film in the set, came out in 1935; the latest, Executive Suite, bowed nearly 20 years later in 1954. The films themselves are a mixed bag, but overall, this set provides an interesting look at a great actress.
Executive Suite has the strongest pedigree of the six films, as it was directed by Robert Wise (The Sound of Music) and scripted by Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest). Going into reviewing this set, I was excited to see it because all the press I had read about this set seemed to hype this film the most. Plus, director Oliver Stone recorded a commentary track for it. I figured it has to be something special.
Unfortunately, I wasn't entirely right in that assumption. While this film has a lot going for it, it's far from perfect. It begins with a lengthy, ill-advised first person point-of-view sequence, which, while technically proficient, is more distracting than anything else. First person POV shots almost never work, a tenet Executive Suite effectively bolsters. I like the idea of never showing the all-important character of Bullard (whose perspective we view the action through in this sequence), but this goes on too long, and Wise could have achieve his apparent goal of not showing Bullard in other ways. Thankfully, Wise does not revert to this method again after this sequence. The rest of the movie is a hit-or-miss ensemble drama that peaks when it gets into the nitty-gritty of corporate wheeling and dealing. Unfortunately, Wise and Lehman also delve into unnecessary subplots, particularly one involving board member Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) and his secretary girlfriend (Shelley Winters in what amounts to a cameo appearance).
Stanwyck's role is problematic too. First of all, she's barely in the movie, making it difficult to justify this film's inclusion in the set. Second, her character is poorly defined and vaguely written; one never knows where she's coming from. (On the commentary track, Stone seems confused as well.) Overall, though, Executive Suite is an engrossing drama featuring stellar performances from Holden (who acted with Stanwyck at the beginning of his career in Golden Boy), March, Calhern and June Allyson (The Glenn Miller Story) as Walling's wife. Nina Foch, who plays Bullard's secretary, was the only one in the cast to snag an Oscar nod; how exactly, I have no idea. Her role is small, and she doesn't have any particularly noteworthy scenes.
Annie Oakley is a decent biopic from legendary helmer George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, Giant). Stanwyck, who does not adopt any kind of accent for the role, is more than equal to the task in playing the famed sharpshooter. Preston Foster is well cast in the dandyish role of Toby Walker. The scenes between Annie and Toby are the movie's strongest; their relationship is somewhat unique both because of the dynamics of having a woman of that period be equal to (and even better than) a man at what was seen as a decidedly masculine skill, and also because they keep their feelings for each other secret in order to play up a "rivalry" to sell tickets. And after they're separated when Toby accidentally wounds Annie's hand, Stevens stages an excellent reunion scene for the pair. Oscar-winner Melvyn Douglas (Hud) turns in a strong supporting performance as Jeff Hogarth, Buffalo Bill's business partner.
Other elements of the film do not work, however; the film's treatment of Sitting Bull immediately springs to mind. In this film, the famous Native American leader is unfortunately used mostly for comic relief. In addition, in a movie that is ostensibly about one of the world's most famous sharpshooters, there's remarkably little trick shooting to be found here.
My Reputation is one of my favorites in this set, and it certainly contains Stanwyck's best performance out of the films included. (The copy on the DVD case indicates that it was one of Stanwyck's favorite roles as well). The actress is marvelous in the role of Jessica Drummond. (Strangely enough, Stanwyck played a character of the same name in Forty Guns.) It just amazes me that she could so skillfully embody the scheming femme fatale of Double Indemnity and the street-smart nightclub singer of Ball of Fire and also convincingly play a repressed, lonely widow.
The story here (adapted from the Clare Jaynes novel Instruct My Sorrows) is fairly predictable, but with Stanwyck's strong lead performance it's never less than interesting. Her co-star, George Brent, is charming enough, but this is clearly Stanwyck's picture. (If there was any doubt, she's top billed here.) Brent and Stanwyck's scenes together have strong dialogue (courtesy of writer Catherine Turney), and their relationship is presented very realistically, all the way up to (and including) the ending. Director Curtis Bernhardt (A Stolen Life) keeps things on a relatively even keel here; the most over-the-top moments come courtesy of Jessica's mother, but this more from her character as opposed to Lucile Watson's performance. Simply put, she is the mother from hell, constantly haranguing her daughter about her supposed bad behavior. It gets old pretty fast, but then maybe was the idea. Still, I think the filmmakers could have toned down her character a bit and still got the point across.
In addition to Stanwyck, Brent and Bernhardt's fine work, the film has lovely cinematography from legendary director of photography. James Wong Howe (Hud, Seconds) and a solid score from the great Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone With the Wind).
East Side, West Side, despite its big-name cast, is one of the worst films in this set. The story starts out as straight melodrama, with Stanwyck's Jessie Bourne worrying about whether she will again lose husband Brandon to the vampish Isabel. This isn't particularly interesting because it's pretty clear from the get-go that "Bran" is a cad and Jessie should chuck him; all his whining about Isabel being like a "sickness" hardly makes him sympathetic. Meanwhile, Stanwyck is left with little to do but fret. Enter Van Heflin's dashing fed to cheer Jessie up, only he's still got a little lady of his own (Cyd Charisse, Singin' in the Rain) who's hoping he's going to pop the question. This subplot merely eats up runtime, and the scene where Heflin's Mark dumps Charisse's Rosa doesn't work at all. Afterwards, Rosa disappears from the narrative completely, leaving Mark to continue his pursuit of the wishy-washy Jessie, who still hopes Bran will come to his senses and dump Isabel once and for all.
Again, this isn't very compelling, and the filmmakers must have thought so too, because they toss a murder into the story in an attempt to shake things up. Mark, despite the fact that he is no longer a member of the NYPD (I think?), is allowed to take over the investigation even though he is personally connected to the people involved. He rapidly solves the case single handedly, which isn't hard to believe only because there are several big clues with which even Inspector Clouseau probably would've figured out whodunit. I will say this, though: Given all that comes before it, the film's ending is actually pretty good, and certainly not what I was expecting.
Cast-wise, Gardner exudes tons of sex appeal as Isabel; Mason is hardly believable as a man who could be desired by both of these women and Heflin seems miscast. Stanwyck's role is probably worst of all, however. Her insecure, perpetually upset character couldn't have been easy to play, and Stanwyck seems lost here.
Despite its flaws, East Side, West Side can't hold a candle to To Please a Lady, which is hands-down the worst film in this set. Stanwyck is not a bad fit in the role of hard-nosed columnist Regina Forbes, but the story her character is placed in is trite and absurd. We're expected to believe that after Forbes has ruined Brannan's career (at least temporarily) that 1. He develops romantic feelings for Forbes, which he expresses by slapping her and then kissing her seconds later, and 2. Forbes will immediately reciprocate said love. What follows is a hilariously stupid "romance" that is derailed every time Forbes accuses Brannan of killing other drivers with his tactics. Again, while Stanwyck isn't bad, Clark Gable is about as believable as a racecar driver as I would be. (I drive four miles over the limit; that should give you an idea.) The sole redeeming quality of the film is the decent racing action. I'm no lover of NASCAR or any other organized racing, but all the dialogue scenes in this movie are so lame I found myself longing for another race sequence.
Jeopardy, at 69 minutes, is the shortest film in the set. Director John Sturges (who would go on to make The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, among other works) fashions a taut, interesting story that is hampered by a predictable and hard-to-believe conclusion. Most of the movie is pretty entertaining, though. Stanwyck is in her element as the doting wife and mother who must spring into action to save her husband. This is no demure, meek lady; Helen at one point assures her captor that she will kill him if her husband dies. She even agrees to travel with him (among other things) if he helps save her husband. Ralph Meeker is pitch-perfect as the sadistic Lawson, although his character arc is mainly what ruins the end of the film. Overall, while the premise is strong, the ending can be seen from a mile away, so a lot of the film's suspense is robbed.
All the films in the set boast very nice-looking transfers; Warner Home Video is to be commended for doing such a good job with these titles. Some look better than others; Annie Oakley, the oldest film in the set, has the worst transfer, which still looks sharp. Sound is also fine on all the titles.
In terms of extras, Executive Suite contains the only commentary in the set, from filmmaker Oliver Stone (World Trade Center). The track is pretty weird sometimes; Stone has a tendency to ramble, as well as name-check his own films. At one point he calls the film's source novel "brilliant," then says he never actually read it. There are gaps here and there, but overall, this is worth listening to if only because it's so off-the-wall. In addition, it contains a nine-minute short, "Out For Fun," a cartoon called "Billy Boy" and the film's trailer. For Annie Oakley, we get a 21-minute short called "Main Street Follies," which contains some fancy footwork by Hal Le Roy and a clever ending, as well as the cartoon "Into Your Dance." My Reputation contains two radio adaptations, one starring Stanwyck and Brent and another starring Alexis Smith and Wayne Morris. The former runs about an hour and is interesting if only because the producers decided to throw in a laugh track, which, as one might expect with a melodrama, doesn't really work. The latter is a severely truncated presentation (running about 30 minutes), and while Smith is passable as Jessica, Morris is horribly bland as the Major. In addition, there is a 10-minute short, "Jan Savitt and His Band," as well as the Daffy Duck cartoon "Daffy Doodles" and the film's trailer. East Side, West Side contains the amusing commerce-themed short "Stuff for Stuff," a cartoon called "Counterfeit Cat" and the film's trailer. To Please a Lady contains only the film's trailer, whereas Jeopardy contains a trailer as well as a radio adaptation starring Stanwyck. (Note: To Please a Lady and Jeopardy are packaged in one single-sided disc.) You may have noticed that many of these special features (namely, the shorts and cartoons) don't seem to have much relevance to the films themselves. That's because they have absolutely nothing to do with these films. Try as I might, I could not figure out the connection between Jessica Drummond's relationship dilemma and Daffy Duck's absurd obsession with painting mustaches on posters. They're all right for time-capsule value, but that's about it.
Despite the interesting variety of performances it showcases, The Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection is probably not the best choice for someone looking to get acquainted with this great actress' career; try Double Indemnity, Ball of Fire and Forty Guns instead. Stanwyck devotees will certainly appreciate the excellent transfers these films have received, but all others should approach this set with a degree of caution.
Split decision: Executive Suite, Annie Oakley, My Reputation and Jeopardy are not guilty. East Side, West Side and To Please a Lady are guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Annie Oakley
Perp Profile, Annie Oakley
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Annie Oakley
• Vintage musical short "Main Street Follies"
Scales of Justice, My Reputation
Perp Profile, My Reputation
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, My Reputation
• Short film "Jan Savitt and His Band"
Scales of Justice, East Side, West Side
Perp Profile, East Side, West Side
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, East Side, West Side
• Short film "Stuff for Stuff"
Scales of Justice, To Please A Lady
Perp Profile, To Please A Lady
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, To Please A Lady
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Jeopardy
Perp Profile, Jeopardy
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Jeopardy
• March 15, 1954 Lux Radio Theater broadcast
Scales of Justice, Executive Suite
Perp Profile, Executive Suite
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Executive Suite
• Feature commentary by Oliver Stone
• IMDb: Barbara Stanwyck
Review content copyright © 2007 Ben Saylor; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.