Stella Dallas 1937 Based on the Olive Higgins Prouty novel. Directed by King Vidor. A factory town in Massachusetts Post WWI. Determined to move from the wrong side of the tracks, Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) sets her sights on a former mill owner’s son, the now struggling Stephen Dallas (John Boles). Though he’s no longer in high society, she doesn’t stand a chance until the woman he loves turns him down. Stella and Stephen marry and have daughter Laurel, the light of both lives.
Committed on the rebound to a woman who seems unable to learn refinement, Stephen’s increasingly regretful. When her husband is offered a job in New York, Stella tells him to go alone and doggedly raises Laurel for a better life. He renews his relationship with Helen (Barbara O’Neil), the woman who rejected him. Laurel (Anne Shirley) visits her father and Helen in a lovely house where she feels at home.
Every extra penny and moment go into furthering Laurel’s education and polish. Her mother, however, is a public embarrassment. When Stella discovers this, she takes multiple noble actions so that her daughter might achieve what she couldn’t. Get out the handkerchiefs. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Meet John Doe 1941 Directed by Frank Capra. As an act of revenge when her newspaper fires her, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) prints a letter from fictional “John Doe” who threatens suicide on New Year’s Eve as protest to society’s ignoring the needy. She’s rehired due to interest in the letter, writes several more missives, and suggests they exploit the “subject” by hiring someone to stand-in for society’s hero. Ann and her editor choose John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former baseball player, now a tramp. He’s given $50.00, a suit of clothes and hotel rooms with his friend “The Colonel” (Walter Brennan).
The newspaper’s publisher decides to capitalize on John’s appeal with a speech Ann will write for national public radio. Though he’s offered a bribe from their competition to say the set-up is fake, he makes the speech. The audience goes wild. Torn by conscience, John and his buddy jump the rails and exit. Several towns over, he’s is recognized by a man who says he was inspired to start a John Doe Club promoting better values. The idea catches fire all over the country.
The stand-in returns to help a cause in which he now believes. Behind the scenes, publisher D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) has a secret political agenda. When John finds out…Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote “Mr. Capra has produced a film which is eloquent with affection for gentle people, for the plain, unimpressive little people who want reassurance and faith.” Perfectly summed up. Free with Amazon Prime.
The Lady Eve 1941 Based on a story about a mismatched couple by Monckton Huffe called “Two Bad Hats.” Directed by Preston Sturges. Father and daughter con artists Colonel and Jean Harrington (Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck) are sailing from Europe with the intention of swindling shy ornithologist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir to the Pike Ale fortune. On his way home from a year up the Amazon, Charles doesn’t know what hit him, or rather who tripped him as the beautiful Jean profusely apologizes.
The grifter is surprised to like the bumbling mark and protects him from her father’s card machinations. Just when things are going well otherwise, Charles’s minder/valet Mugsy (William Demarest) gets suspicious and breaks them up. Jean is furious. She masquerades as “Lady Eve Sidwich,” niece of another con man near the Pike home in order to exact revenge. Though Mugsy tells him this is the same dame, Charles doesn’t believe she’d show up undisguised. Once again, Jean has him at her feet. They marry. It’s time to take advantage of him, but…The ending is sweet and clever.
In his biography of Stanwyck, author Axel Madsen wrote, “The set was so ebullient that instead of going to their trailers between setups, the players relaxed in canvas chairs with their sparkling director, listening to his fascinating stories or going over their lines with him.” Results are effervescent. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Double Indemnity 1944 Based on James M. Cain’s novella which in turn was based on a 1927 murder perpetrated by a married New York woman who persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband after taking out a large double-indemnity insurance policy. Directed by Billy Wilder. The seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) asks insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowing. If he died, she purrs, I’ll be rich and available.
Walter concocts a plan by which the policy is issued with a double indemnity clause – necessitating an accident for extra payout. He murders Phyllis’s husband, masquerades as the man on a train, and finally, leaves his body on the tracks. Agent Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) and the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) are suspicious. Neff starts seeing Lola to keep her in check and tries to get Phyllis to keep a low profile. He then finds out she’s betrayed him. Lies and guns provoke a finale.
Cain said, “It’s the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of. Wilder’s ending was much better than my ending…” Sheer noir. Rent on Amazon Prime.
East Side West Side 1949 Based on the novel by Marcia Davenport. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Attractive socialites Jessie and Brandon Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason) seem loving and well suited. After his affair with beautiful Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), she went away and the Bournes regained ground. One evening Brandon stops for a drink before going home. Having returned, Isobel inquires after him. He flirts with 21 year-old Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse). “What is it with guys like you?” she asks. The model knows who he is and has met Jessie in the salon where she works.
Conversation is interrupted by the rude appearance of Isabel, who has abandoned her date. Brandon tells her he’s uninterested, but she talks him into a catch-up walk during which magnetic effect is obvious. She’s self-ware and immensely seductive (an adroitly written bad girl). When he’s knocked cold by her escort, Brandon is whisked away by Rosa concerned for his wife. Nonetheless the incident ends up front page news. Brandon tells Jessie everything conveniently omitting Isabel, about whose presence she fearfully reads in a gossip column.
Her errant husband is unwilling/unable to extricate himself from Isabel’s web. Jessie again accepts lies and apologies. Brandon compares his mistress to a drug. Meanwhile, straight arrow journalist Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin), on whom Rosa’s had a crush since girlhood, returns to town. He’s sweet, but thinks of her as a child. Jesse on the other hand, is his kind of woman. Murder brings everything to a head. Jesse finally acquires self respect. The film ends with adult behavior, not rose colored glasses. Formulaic, but entertaining. Heflin is particularly solid. Rent on Amazon Prime.
A Man of Her Own 1950 Based on the Cornell Woolrich novel, I Married a Dead Man. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. A full blown noir soap opera. Eight months pregnant, single, and rejected by boyfriend Steve (Lyle Bettger), Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) has only a ticket home to her name. En route, the train crashes killing also pregnant Mrs. Hugh Harkness and her husband. As Helen wearing the stranger’s wedding ring (having admired and tried it on), the dead couple’s family assume she’s Hugh’s bride Patrice. They take her in.
The family is warm, solicitous, and well heeled. Memory lapses are attributed to the train wreck. Hugh’s brother Bill (John Lund) falls in love with Helen. Her future seems secure until Steve is asked to identify a body thought to be her. Smelling money, he tracks Helen down with blackmail intentions. There’s a murder…Watch her face. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Crime of Passion 1957 Directed by Gerd Oswald. Sophisticated San Francisco advice columnist Kathy Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) meets straight arrow Los Angeles police detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) in passing and spends, as far as I can tell, a single evening with him. They’re both smitten. On the eve of her flying to New York for a new job, Bill calls and suggests she route through L.A. to have dinner with him. She responds with school girl enthusiasm, arrives, gets married and stays. They’re strangers, really.
Kathy tries to be a docile suburban housewife, but gatherings segregated by sex and featuring only small talk make her crazy. It never occurs to her to work. She throws herself into Bill’s advancement with the drive of a salmon going upstream. (He couldn’t care less.) The ambitious new bride arranges a slight car accident with Alice (Fay Wray), wife of police commissioner Tony Pope (Raymond Burr). She then ingratiates herself with the couple – Alice is oblivious, Tony knows what she’s doing, but lets it pass. There’s innuendo, but one realizes when Kathy beds him later in the film, that’s the first (and only time).
Next, she cleverly eliminates influence of the captain’s wife and has the man himself (Bill’s competition) transferred. Bill is advanced to head of homicide. When Alice has a breakdown due to danger and overwork in Tony’s life, the commissioner decides to retire. Kathy expects him to appoint Bill, but he doesn’t believe her husband is qualified. She erupts. A hard-edged feminist message with which one can’t help but be frustrated by the heroine. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Top photo: Bigstock