Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees learns that drinking and being an ambitious oil baroness don't mix—unless you're Susan Hayward.
"Oh, the misery, the exquisite tragedy, the Susan Hayward of it all!"—Rupert Everett, My Best Friend's Wedding
Although she is often remembered for her roles in weepers (as shown by the quote above), the beautiful and talented Susan Hayward brought her considerable acting ability to an impressive range of films. This DVD release from VCI Home Video doesn't display her comedic talents, but otherwise it ably shows off her versatility with two films from the late '40s: Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947), for which Hayward garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a singer who slips into alcoholism, and Tulsa (1949), a sprawling Technicolor drama about oil barons, cattle ranchers, and the fiery redheaded woman who bridges the two societies. Hayward appears at the peak of her beauty in these two films and is in full command of her acting powers. For both Hayward's followers and those who want to learn more about this fine actress's body of work, this is a good place to start—handkerchiefs optional.
Facts of the Case
Smash-Up opens on the bandaged face of Angie (Hayward), who lies injured and delirious in a hospital bed. The disaster she has recently undergone turns her thoughts backward, and we go back in time to see how her life came to this dire pass. Years ago Angie was a promising young singer, and with the help of Mike, her family friend and mentor (Charles D. Brown), she was poised for great success. Instead, Angie throws aside her own career to marry aspiring singer Ken Conway (Lee Bowman, Love Affair), giving him encouragement, sound business advice, and a baby daughter. With Angie's support and the songwriting talents of his friend Steve (Eddie Albert, Roman Holiday), Ken breaks into the big time and becomes a wealthy, popular performer.
His success, however, leaves Angie feeling tangential to his life. She also begins to worry that the lovely and efficient secretary, Martha (Marsha Hunt, The Valley of Decision), has usurped her place by Ken's side. Although loyal Steve understands Angie's fears and urges Ken to be more caring toward her, his good advice goes unheeded. As Angie's insecurities lead her to become more and more dependent on alcohol, she may end up fulfilling her own fears by driving Ken away…and losing her baby daughter as well.
In Tulsa, which takes place in the 1920s, Hayward plays the delightfully named Cherokee "Cherry" Lansing, feisty daughter of an Oklahoma cattle rancher. When an accident at the nearby Tanner oil company causes her father's death, Cherry determines to ruin Bruce Tanner (Lloyd Gough)—by competing with him in his own industry. With the financial and emotional support of her late father's overseer, Jim Redbird (Pedro Armendariz, From Russia with Love), Cherry builds an oil rig and starts drilling. When handsome young engineer Brad Brady (Robert Preston, The Music Man) arrives uninvited to criticize her operation, sparks fly between him and Cherry, and she takes him on as business partner…and, pretty soon, fiancé.
Thanks largely to Brady's advice, Cherry strikes oil, and she's soon on her way to becoming one of the wealthiest women in Oklahoma. With Brady's help, she builds an oil empire to rival Tanner's. But revenge is no longer her motive: Ambition now drives Cherry onward, even when it means collaborating with Tanner, betraying Redbird's trust, and possibly even losing Brady's love.
Apart from their leading lady, producer (Walter Wanger), and director (Stuart Heisler), these two films don't have much in common. But that actually works to the advantage of this two-film set, since the contrast in tone and story prevents overkill. Smash-Up is a sobering (no pun intended) drama that takes a serious look at alcoholism and some of its causes, whereas the big, colorful Tulsa, somewhat prefiguring George Stevenson's Giant, combines soap operatics with near-epic sweep—as well as some overt lessons about greed, conservation, and appreciating one's local oil barons. If Smash-Up, the superior of the two films, had been paired with another such heavy drama—say, I Want to Live!—the double dose might have left the viewer sunk in gloom. With this combination, the viewer can follow up the more serious film with the relatively lightweight one.
Smash-Up is a powerful portrayal of a woman's decline, remarkable not just for its understanding attitude toward alcoholism but for its subversive message about the role of wives and mothers. Angie did all the right things, according to the code of womanhood usually set forth in films: She sacrificed her career for the sake of her husband and child. But the film breaks tradition by telling us that this might not have been the right choice after all. Early in the film, Mike sorrowfully tells Angie that "you belong in the profession…I hate to see a really promising career interfered with." Mike is a credible and respected figure in the film—a father figure, in fact, for Angie—but instead of listening to him, she reiterates the party line that her marriage and her husband's career are more important. Angie does what movies to this point have told us is the proper thing, but in giving up the self-respect that her career could have brought her, she has signed on for years of heartache. We can see all the good qualities Angie still possesses, and when she needs to rise to an occasion—whether to care for her sick baby or to attempt a career comeback—she can find the strength to go without drinking. But when her insecurities are exacerbated, as they often are by the cool, poised Martha (who is herself in love with Ken), she falls back on the dangerous solace of drinking.
What's almost more astonishing for a film of this era is that her husband—prosperous, faithful, hard-working—is given much of the blame for her drinking. In a striking speech late in the film, a doctor explains to Ken where he went wrong: "With all the best intentions in the world, men like you make their wives idle, useless. You give them servants to clean their houses, nurses to take care of their children, and then you say to them: 'Now you have everything you want. Sit there and enjoy it.'" Ken, of course, was showing his love for his wife by giving her servants, nice clothes, a fancy house (decorated, however, by Martha), and the gift of being at loose ends. He, too, did all the "right" things—except for giving his wife the gift of his presence and his emotional support. Smash-Up shows the increasing prosperity of the postwar period and prefigures the domestic life of the 1950s, when more and more wives might begin to feel loneliness and ennui during the days they spent in immaculate living rooms while their prosperous husbands were out earning their keep. The film's depiction of the breakdown of their marriage is simply chilling: Ken is revolted by his wife's drunkenness and speaks cruelly toward her when he can bring himself to speak to her at all. The film movingly shows us just how deeply this hurts the already fragile Angie; Hayward's performance is so believable and so rife with pain that it's actually difficult to watch at times. The film ends up sending some surprising messages: Husbands need to provide more than financial security for their wives; devoting oneself only to being a wife and mother may be damaging to a woman's emotional health; and maybe, just maybe, some women truly need careers. These are pretty revolutionary ideas for the domestically minded postwar period.
In contrast, Tulsa reminds us of all the things that can go wrong when a woman does have a career. As Cherry becomes more ambitious and singleminded in her determination to become a big oil baroness, she and Brady invert the usual gender roles: Cherry is the career-minded partner, constantly putting off marriage with Brady for business reasons, whereas Brady is the moral center of the couple, reminding Cherry of the importance of preventing her oil industry from endangering the grassland and the livelihoods of ranchers like Jim Redbird. Cherry's drive to succeed at any cost and the gradual wearing down of the noble Redbird eventually come together in disaster, resulting in a spectacular scene depicting a massive fire among the oil rigs.
Although Hayward's role in Tulsa is less complex and moving than that in Smash-Up, the feisty Cherry is without competition as the most charismatic character in the film. Hayward is the perfect choice to bring to life Cherry's "wildcat" nature: When she lets out a wild war whoop, she puts her whole self into it. The men in her life can't help but seem bland next to the powerful force of her personality. Pedro Armendariz has fine screen presence, but he is restricted by the conventions of his "noble Indian" role. Even Preston, usually such a roguishly energetic actor in his youth, all too soon takes on the function of wet blanket. His opening scene shows him at his best, in a high-spirited fist fight with one of Cherry's employees. Chill Wills, who plays Cherry's cousin Pinky and sings the title song, also serves as narrator for the film. Strangely, his narration frames this rootin'-tootin' movie as something akin to a public service announcement. Oil barons used to be rapacious and exploitative, Pinky informs us, but thanks to good people like Brady, we now have more widely spaced oil wells! This history-lesson flavor is weirdly at odds with the colorful action and big emotions of the film itself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Consistent with other VCI releases I have seen, the audiovisual quality of the films on this disc is fair to poor. The black-and-white Smash-Up has a smeary, blurred picture, and the Technicolor Tulsa, while presenting the colors boldly, is riddled with grain and loses all detail in dark areas of the picture. Both show dirt and age-related wear. The mono audio track for both films is likewise accompanied by hiss and tinniness; the audio is often out of synch with lip movement in Tulsa. The included extras are essentially a token gesture: News footage from 1949 does nothing to illuminate the 1949 film, Tulsa, especially as it is set almost three decades earlier, and the trailer for Smash-Up is of deplorable visual quality and ends so abruptly that I suspect it to be incomplete.
A much less serious objection, but one I will mention nonetheless, is the tireless (or tiresome) repetition in Smash-Up of the same three songs. With most of the main characters involved in the business of making music, there are naturally going to be a great many musical scenes, but three songs that represent pivotal moments in Angie's life are repeated to an almost laughable extent, which undermines the dramatic intensity of the story.
Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is a must-see for fans of Hayward or of Eddie Albert, who turns in a strong supporting performance. (Albert's character is so much more appealing than Bowman's that I wished for the film to buck convention and allow the heroine to dump her stiff of a husband and hook up with his sympathetic best friend.) Its depiction of alcoholism is remarkably insightful for its day, and all the more powerful because of the paucity of treatment options it reveals for the time. Overall, despite some little dips into melodramatic excess, it's a riveting drama. On the other hand, I wouldn't call Tulsa compulsive viewing, but it will have great appeal for those who enjoy the spectacle and scope of golden-age Technicolor dramas. Due to the weak audiovisual transfer, though, its value as a spectacle is greatly diminished, which viewers should keep in mind when considering a purchase.
Susan Hayward has suffered enough and is free to go. VCI Home Video is sentenced to probation for their substandard presentation of these films.
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Scales of Justice, Smash-Up: The Story Of A Woman
Perp Profile, Smash-Up: The Story Of A Woman
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, Smash-Up: The Story Of A Woman
• Smash-Up Trailer
Scales of Justice, Tulsa
Perp Profile, Tulsa
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, Tulsa
• "News Parade of the Year 1949"
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