Friday, May 16, 2014

Two Neglected Gems from 1935: Annie Oakley and Private Worlds

Melvyn Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck and Andy Clyde in Annie Oakley (1935)

George Stevens became a distinguished director in the post-war years, turning out prestige pictures, and though I like some of them very much – I Remember Mama with Irene Dunne, the rigged but deeply affecting A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor – it’s the less encumbered Stevens of the 1930s I love. This is the era in which he turned out Alice Adams with a heartrending Katharine Hepburn as Booth Tarkington’s small-town social climber, and the most sublime of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, Swing Time. And in between he made the handsome, satisfying entertainment Annie Oakley.

Annie Oakley mixes the conventions of several genres. Officially it’s a film bio of the celebrated late-nineteenth-century Ohio-born sharpshooter who became the leading attraction in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, though John Sayre and John Twist’s charming script is considerably fictionalized. It’s also an offbeat western, like Ruggles of Red Gap (also made in 1935) and 1939’s Destry Rides Again. And, like Destry, it contains elements of romantic comedy, though the filmmakers scramble them up with a little melodrama. Annie (Barbara Stanwyck) challenges Buffalo Bill’s star attraction, Toby Walker (Preston Foster), to a shooting contest, and he’s amused to find that this “rube from the tall timber” is a girl. (The proprietor of the general store, the Scots MacIvor, played by Andy Clyde, who has been buying fresh quail from her, has been thinking all this time that he’s dealing with a crack shot named Andy Oakley.) At first Toby condescends to her, but as she matches him shot for shot, he starts to look unsettled, his pride dampened. She lets him win when her mother (Margaret Armstrong) whispers anxiously that “that young man” might lose his job, but Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas), the manager of the Wild West Show, comes around later with an offer to join the show. Toby is a wised-up celeb from New York’s Bowery and a boastful egotist, but there’s another side to him: he’s sweet, generous and courageous. But only Annie gets to see those qualities; he’s alienated the rest of the Wild West Show, whom Annie has won over by dint of her talent and her modesty – triumphing in a traditional boys’ club – and who now want to see her make him look bad.

When Annie hears her mother’s quiet request that she blow the match, Stanwyck conveys an array of feelings with an economy of means – a moment of wounded pride, then acquiescence, unhappy resignation, and buried irritation when Toby compliments her performance with an excess of ease and confidence. Stanwyck was one of the only two great actresses of the thirties (the other was Sylvia Sidney) whose appeal was based on her proletarian authenticity. And though Annie is different from the other signal roles she played in this decade – the embittered evangelist based on Aimee Semple McPherson in The Miracle Woman, the Yankee missionary who falls for a Chinese warlord in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who sacrifices everything for her daughter in Stella Dallas – she’s an inspired choice for the part, and in fact it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have played it in 1935. The now-forgotten Preston Foster and, as her other suitor, the elegant Melvyn Douglas offer her able support, and the strong, individualized supporting cast includes Moroni Olsen as Buffalo Bill, Pert Kelton as Toby’s girl friend Vera Delmar and Chief Thunder Bird as Chief Sitting Bull, Annie’s great fan and the beneficiary of Toby’s unsung heroism, who brings the sundered lovers together again in the final reel.

The story is irresistible. It continued to be when Irving Berlin and Dorothy and Herbert Fields turned it into a hit 1946 Broadway musical vehicle for Ethel Merman, Annie Get Your Gun, which reached the screen in an immensely likable version in 1950 with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel as her competitor and romantic partner Frank Butler. These two are relegated to supporting characters in Robert Altman’s 1976 Buffalo Bill and the Indians, where they’re played by Geraldine Chaplin and John Considine and provide some of that movie’s few pleasures. But fond as I am of Hutton’s boisterous Annie and Chaplin’s nervous, distracted version, Stanwyck’s portrait is the one that’s closest to my heart.

Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds (1935)

The hysteria-ridden The Snake Pit, released in 1948, with Olivia De Havilland as a patient in a mental hospital that doesn’t seem far removed from the Bedlam of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is generally thought to be Hollywood’s earliest foray into the subject of psychological illness. Private Worlds predates it by thirteen years. Adapted by Lynn Starling, Gladys Unger and director Gregory La Cava from a novel by Phyllis Bottome, it’s set in a remarkably forward-looking private institution called Brentwood Hospital where the patients benefit from the humane approach of two young doctors, Jane Everest (Claudette Colbert) and Alex McGregor (Joel McCrea), who have revolutionized the treatment of the mentally ill. While the impulse of the prickly, punitive, self-involved matron (Esther Dale) is to throw into solitary any patient who acts out, Everest and McGregor rely on a combination of Freud and the calm, loving ministrations of nannies soothing wounded children – and their patience and warmth bear fruit, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the condition of the patient.

At the beginning of the film, Dr. Charles Monet (Charles Boyer) arrives to take over as Brentwood’s director and throws Alex’s nose out of joint by refusing to support him for promotion to superintendent while restricting Jane’s access to the hospital population out of a professional prejudice against women. But though Monet’s observation of Jane loosens those biases, the movie isn’t primarily about winning over the new man, who turns out to be an intelligent and sensitive doctor who instinctually trusts his colleagues but is cautious enough to take a wait-and-see attitude. What the filmmakers do that you don’t expect is to parallel the personal struggles of the doctors with the more extreme state of the patients to suggest how close we all live to the line beyond which our lives can spin out of control. The screenplay’s thesis is that everyone simultaneously inhabits several worlds – those we share with our significant others, those we share with intimate colleagues, and the private worlds that are fueled by our fears and insecurities and that we retreat to in order to escape. The pivotal character is Alex’s wife Sally (Joan Bennett), who feels useless and sidelined by her husband’s career, and though she and Jane are close friends, she’s afraid that the non-romantic relationship Jane has with Alex means more to him than his marriage. When, in a fit of pique driven by his disappointment over not being promoted, Alex begins to squire Monet’s wild sister Claire (Helen Vinson), Sally comes apart. At the other end of the spectrum of characters from Sally is Dr. Arnold (Samuel S. Hinds), who spent some time at Brentwood as a patient and is now on the medical staff. The script is layered and very cleverly worked out: all three of the doctors are just as much in danger of losing their footing. Alex nearly does when he starts to act like a rebellious teenager. Monet’s protectiveness of his sister, who was implicated in a murder, puts a lock on his ability to live freely. And Jane is still tied to the lover she lost in the war; as Monet points out, she’s living with a ghost. Monet and Jane both have to liberate themselves before they can answer the mutual impulse that draws them to one another.

Esther Dale and Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds
Looking at Private Worlds more than three-quarters of a century after it was made, you might be struck by its unquestioning endorsement of the Claudette Colbert character’s professional qualifications. Like Stanwyck in Annie Oakley, Jane Everest rises to the top of what has always been a man’s world, and the objections of anyone who suggests that she doesn’t have the right to do so are treated as unreasonable. At this vantage point it’s easy to forget that right up to the war years actresses like Colbert, Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jean Arthur, Margaret Sullavan, Sylvia Sidney, Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell got to play a wide and fascinating array of strong, multi-layered women. In Hollywood the Second World War threw women back to the Victorian age and it took them another twenty-five years to break through again, when a generation of actresses that included Diane Keaton, Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli reflected the new feminist leanings. The contrast between the attitudes toward women during the era that produced a movie like Private Worlds and what followed in the forties and fifties is as startling in its way as the contrast between the sexual freedom of the pre-Hays Code movies and the tamped-down, infantilizing attitudes of the decades that followed the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.

Though Private Worlds is open-hearted toward the patients, their characters aren’t presented with much complexity and the actors don’t get to go far enough with them. (However, Jean Rouverol is striking as Carrie Flint, who hasn’t recovered from childhood abuse and whom Sally identifies with, with nearly disastrous consequences.) And Helen Vinson simply isn’t a good enough actress to lift the role of Claire above bad-girl caricature. But Colbert, Boyer, McCrea and Bennett, all splendid actors, bring the fresh ideas in the writing to life. Considering that cast, it seems bizarre that the movie has more or less vanished from memory; it’s never even shown up on Turner Classic Movies. But for a while you could find a DVD of it in Paramount’s made-to-order collection. (The last time I checked it was unavailable, but it may crop up again.) The print is terrible, but the picture is worth a look.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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