My all-time favorite classic Hollywood actress is Barbara Stanwyck. Hands down. Stanwyck graced the big and small screen from the silent era up until a few years before her death in 1990 and during all that time, she was never anything but professional, stylish, and powerful. Unlike equally great actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, you didn’t hear a lot about behind-the-scenes diva antics with Stanwyck. She always took herself seriously and those she worked with seriously and she never let her ego get in the way. It’s no wonder that other actors like William Holden and Kirk Douglas credited her for helping them on their paths down the Hollywood yellow brick road.
So naturally when Crystal at The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood blog asked me to participate in the Remember Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, I was ecstatic. I could talk about Stanwyck and her work in every Flicks Friday blog post without a problem and in fact have discussed one of Stanwyck’s earlier films here. But for this blog post, I decided to focus more on one of Stanwyck’s later films, a melodrama called East Side, West Side (1949). This film, coming so close after the end of World War II, straddles the fence between 1940’s marriage ethics and post World War II awareness that women’s place wasn’t just in the home anymore as compliant and supportive housewives.
The film is a little reminiscent of the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950’s in that the romantic drama is layered on a bit thick but well carried over by an all-star cast. Stanwyck plays the rather insecure but elegant and good-hearted socialite Jessie Bourne. She is married to Brandon Bourne, played by James Mason. Mason portrayed many charming but dangerous villains throughout his career and although he isn’t exactly evil in this film, his charm does get him into trouble. The film focuses on the way in which the Bournes’ reconciliation after Brandon has strayed crumbles when his old girlfriend, Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner) comes back to town after a year of absence.
Where Stanwyck shows off her talents is in the way that she portrays the transformation from forgiving and dutiful wife to independent woman. When the film opens, everything is peachy between the Bournes, though we’re made to understand that things weren’t always like that between them and that Brandon’s straying a year earlier caused friction in the otherwise happy marriage. But although Jessie is forgiving, she is not blinded to forget his indiscretion. We see this when her friend Helen Lee (played by Nancy Davis – aka, the future Nancy Reagan) tells her that Brandon’s old fling, the woman who almost drove a wedge between them the previous year, is back in New York. Jessie already knew this, having seen an item about it (along with the usual insinuations) in the society column of the newspaper, which she tries to hide from Helen. Nonetheless, in true blue-blood high society fashion, Jessie covers her worry, insisting that she trusts her husband.
However, once it becomes clear that Brandon has resumed his affair with Isabel, the reality of who he really is sets in for Jessie. It doesn’t happen overnight and this is one of the ways in which Stanwyck’s brilliance shines through. In an era when the quick change, emotionally, that is, was the order of the day (think: two people who absolutely hate each other discover they are the love of each other’s lives halfway through the film), Stanwyck always kept it real, displaying a realistic emotional build up so that she doesn’t suddenly appear to have realized what a jerk her husband is. Before this happens, Jessie meets and befriends a young aspiring model Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse, in one of her few non-singing and dancing roles) who introduces her to the man she’s been in love with all her life (but who is not in love with her), Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Although the two never really develop a romantic relationship, the chemistry between them is unmistakable (just as it was in an earlier film they did together three years earlier The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers) and Dwyer represents the exact opposite of what Brandon is – a street kid who made good from the Lower West Side. In addition, Isabel makes clear what her intentions are with Brandon in a showdown (which doesn’t turn into a smackdown, thanks to Jessie’s self-control) between the two women.
At the end of the film, when Isabel is murdered and Jessie is exempted from having done it, we would expect her to pull a Norma Shearer move (that is, forgive her husband once again and hold out her arms to him as Shearer did at the end of The Women ten years earlier), now that the woman who came between them is gone. But not this time. Jessie calmly packs her bags and announces that she wants a divorce – no drama, no bitterness. She simply realizes that she is better than the man she married and deserves better (though the film leaves it open-ended whether she will end up with Mark or not.
It’s true that East Side, West Side is not on the list of one of Stanwyck’s best films. But, as all great actors, even when the film isn’t the best, her performance is always stellar. Her character not only stays true to Stanwyck’s own sense of independence and ability to face reality but it also hails in a new era of women that were no longer willing to fall for the illusion that marriage should always be all butterflies and candy.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041327/ (IMDB page for East Side, West Side)
http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/2214/East-Side-West-Side/ (TCMdB page for East Side, West Side)
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/east_side_west_side/ (Rotten Tomatoes page for the film)
http://journeysinclassicfilm.com/2015/07/23/east-side-west-side-1949/ (a great review from the Journey In Classic Film blog)