Jane Wyman

All That Heaven Allows (1955, Douglas Sirk)

The third act of All That Heaven Allows is all about agency. Who has it, how they avoid it, why they avoid it. For a while it seems like it’s about Jane Wyman having it, then about Rock Hudson having it. Wyman’s always implied agency, right from the start. Hudson, who doesn’t have a scene from his own perspective until the third act, has always had an air of agency but not an active one. At least not where Wyman’s concerned. The third act suggests it’s going to mix everything up.

And it does… sort of. Until it stops and gives up on the whole idea.

All That Heaven Allows is the story of somewhat recent widow Jane Wyman who starts a clandestine love affair with her gardener, Hudson. He’s younger (though barely looks it, which says more about Wyman than Hudson) and doesn’t subscribe to the fifties rat race. He’s happy being a gardener and going into tree growing, which Wyman’s friends and neighbors from the country club find to be a disgusting rejection of good capitalist ideals.

Of course, they’re all buying their Christmas trees from Hudson and his tree-growing pal Charles Drake, but whatever. The film never even slightly implies often drunken WASPs should be taken seriously. The only good one is Agnes Moorehead, who’s stuck in the life–the film implies–because she hasn’t got any children; she’s Wyman’s best friend. Though she kind of disappears in the third act when Wyman’s got to do her thinking and feeling (and living) for herself.

The film rarely lets Hudson and Wyman have a peaceful moment. During the initial courtship and flirtation, sure. Wyman’s unsure of Hudson’s affections–though never for the reasons everyone else is worried about–while Hudson is too good to be true. He’s six feet, four inches of thoughtful, considerate, zen man meat. The scenes where Wyman’s female friends are mortified by Hudson are hilarious, given all their husbands are grossly out of shape and completely bores. If not burgeoning rapists. So when it comes time for Wyman to have to chose between Hudson and her pals, the choice should be clear.

Especially since the film establishes from the start the only one she actually cares about is Moorehead. The rest are incapable of actual human concern.

But Wyman’s got two kids. There’s proto-feminist social worker Gloria Talbott and Princeton man William Reynolds. Talbott talks a big talk but pushes Wyman in front of a bus while gushing over her dimwit suitor, an uncredited David Janssen. Reynolds wants Wyman to live in reverence of his father’s memory. Peg Fenwick’s screenplay has very little time for Talbott and Reynolds, though they have a lot of scenes and a lot of dialogue, but it’s pretty clear they’re complete heels from their first scene. Sure, the townspeople are bores, drunks, and gossips, but Talbott and Reynolds actively feed off Wyman’s emotions. They drain her from the start.

And they don’t much like Hudson. He lives on some undisclosed acreage of prime, undeveloped land–which has been passed down generations–but he’s got to be after Wyman’s (i.e. her dead husband’s) money. Talbott’s exasperating but not malicious. Reynolds is malicious and woodenly so. Especially given the way director Sirk shoots the film.

Heaven has a lot of color and a lot of shadows. Outside it’s always a clear, sometimes snowy day. Inside there are various colors, warm and cool, and shadows. The shadows usually fall on whoever’s opposite Wyman, a way of focusing a spotlight on her but a somewhat naturally occurring one. Russell Metty’s photography is phenomenal.

Those shadows make most of the men in Heaven into caricatures, at least the ones in Wyman’s life. Not sweet doctor Hayden Rorke or even sweet, unexciting standby suitor Conrad Nagel, but everyone else. Reynolds is the harshest, because out of those shadows he’s firing daggers at mom Wyman. Ones she apparently has no defense for.

Hudson is apart from the gross displays of blue blood machismo–when he and Drake talk about masculine responsibility in the third act, it’s an actual surprise. Then it turns out to be some manipulative narrative efficiency and the damage is slight, but still there. Every misstep and short cut in the third act resonates because the film ends so perfunctory. The whole thing promises Wyman this fantastic arc, starts delivering it, dodges and implies Hudson’s going to get the feature arc, dodges him too and just finishes things up. It could go out happy, it could go out sad, it could go out cynical, instead it just… goes out without any ambitions. But satisfactorily enough.

Wyman’s great. Hudson’s really good. She gets a much better part. He remains a partial enigma until the end. He too got the shadowy face during some interiors. But he’s also got some great moments where he’s breaking through the mystery to reveal himself. The film really wants to be about Wyman realizing the shadowy faces don’t matter as much as her own, metaphorically speaking, but never quite gets there. It’s simultaneously five minutes too long and ten minutes too short.

The supporting cast is all good. Moorehead, Nagel, Virginia Grey. Grey even manages to get through Fenwick’s worst scene, talking through a series of generic colloquialisms in an exposition dump–which Fenwick, nicely, never repeats. Reynolds not so much. He’s effective, but he’s nearly as villainous as Donald Curtis’s country club sexual predator.

Outstanding music from Frank Skinner. Fantastic direction from Sirk. Heaven always looks amazing and the way Sirk, Metty, and Skinner (and whatever composer Skinner occasionally borrows from) come together to focus on the characters (read: Wyman) and the weight of their unspoken burdens and constraints… it’s awesome.

It’s also a shame the ending is so pat.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Sirk; screenplay by Peg Fenwick, based on the novel by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Frank Gross; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jane Wyman (Cary Scott), Rock Hudson (Ron Kirby), Agnes Moorehead (Sara Warren), Gloria Talbott (Kay Scott), William Reynolds (Ned Scott), Virginia Grey (Alida Anderson), Jacqueline deWit (Mona Plash), Charles Drake (Mick Anderson), Donald Curtis (Howard Hoffer), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Dan Hennessy), and Conrad Nagel (Harvey).


Magic Town (1947, William A. Wellman)

Magic Town is too much of one thing, not enough of another, but also not enough of the first and too much of the latter. There’s a disconnect between Wellman’s direction and Robert Riskin’s script. While Wellman can handle the broad humor of the script–there isn’t much of it and it stands out like a sore thumb–he also finds the humanity of the characters. Riskin’s not so much interested in the small h humanity of leads James Stewart and Jane Wyman; he’s more interested in the big story.

Stewart is a cutthroat–or so we’re supposed to believe–New York pollster who descends on an idyllic small town. It has the perfect ratio of people and opinions to match the national opinions and trends. With him, Stewart brings sidekicks Ned Sparks and Donald Meek. Sparks gets a couple things to do, but he and Stewart’s relationship is never clear and needs to be. Meek barely gets anything.

Of course, being a pollster, Stewart knows if the people learn they represent the national average, they’ll spoil. Following the Prime Directive, he pretends to be an insurance agent. The only one of the townsfolk in on the scheme is Kent Smith, who’s one sidekick too many. Riskin’s script gives Stewart two and a half external consciences for the first half of the picture, while he’s romancing Wyman, apparently thinking have too many external consciences will make up for Stewart not having an internal one.

Riskin’s wrong.

The first half of the picture is mostly Stewart and Wyman courting. They’re often lovely, thoughtful scenes completely out of place even in the first half. Looking back on them after Magic Town changes gears in the second half, they make almost no sense. It’s around the halfway point it becomes clear Wyman doesn’t really get to have a character in the film either. She doesn’t even get to take responsibility for her actions. And the last act treats her plain awful.

But she’s still good. Better than Stewart, who’s always likable, even when he’s being a complete jackass, if only because the film doesn’t recognize him having the ability to be responsible for his own actions.

Wellman approaches the filmmaking seriously when it comes to Stewart and Wyman’s ordeal. Magic Town looks like a dark noir, Joseph F. Biroc’s moody photography, Roy Webb’s emotive score. It’s just the script doesn’t recognize the ordeal. Riskin has some exposition he wants to get into the characters’ dialogue. He doesn’t have time to make the human drama work.

Nice support from Ann Shoemaker and George Irving.

Magic Town tries too hard with what its got without ever fixing what isn’t working.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Riskin and Joseph Krumgold; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Sherman Todd and Richard G. Wray; music by Roy Webb; production designer, Lionel Banks; produced by Wellman and Riskin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Rip Smith), Jane Wyman (Mary Peterman), Ned Sparks (Ike), Kent Smith (Hoopendecker), Donald Meek (Mr. Twiddle), Ann Shoemaker (Ma Peterman), George Irving (Senator Wilton), Wallace Ford (Lou Dicketts), E.J. Ballantine (Moody), Howard Freeman (Nickleby), Mickey Roth (Bob Peterman), Mary Currier (Mrs. Frisby) and Harry Holman as the mayor.


Crime by Night (1944, William Clemens)

Jerome Cowan’s detective in Crime by Night slides through the film soaked in bourbon. While the film’s mystery isn’t a bad one, perfect for a seventy minute running time, the suggestions of off-screen actions are a lot more fun to think about. The detective, with his love interest secretary along (played well by Jane Wyman, who manages ditzy humor without coming off dumb) manages to find time to romance the hotel operator, get to know all the bar staff intimately, and generally just settle himself in to small town life, enough he doesn’t seem alien to it when he’s investigating in it. The film rarely deviates from the era’s standard–we follow the detective, finding clues with him (not always getting to piece things together as quickly as he does, though all the necessary information is actually presented to the audience in Crime by Night, it’s so obvious), but the private life of the detective is–to a degree–kept from the audience. It’s a different approach, especially since Cowan’s detective is only likable in his dealings with the country bumpkins (he uses electoral competition to get paid more for investigating) and it’s Wyman who’s the likable character throughout. Given Cowan’s practically goofy performance, it’s easy to read the detective as a drunk jerk. The best thing about him is he brings Wyman around and he’s better than the country bumpkins. Still, at the end of Crime by Night, I still found myself wishing Warner had done more films with Cowan and Wyman.

I’m trying to think if the film does one unexpected thing, or even one unique thing, but, like most of the Warner b-movies from the early 1940s, it’s really a crock pot of reused ideas. The competing politicians are a comedic subplot out of something else, the family troubles precipitating the falsely accused client of Cowan’s (which is a recycling of a Thin Man plot, probably two or three or six of them) are such a non-starter the kid in the custody battle never even shows up… which is unfortunate, because Eleanor Parker, at this age, is always worth seeing working with kids–but what’s more interesting is the film forgets about the kid, just like it forgets about the inheritance after it’s introduced in the case set-up. obviously, there’s a far amount of editing incompetence, maybe there were cut scenes or maybe everyone forgot, because those scenes weren’t fun. Cowan hadn’t come out as a drunk in the opening; he wasn’t very serious, but he certainly wasn’t as goofy as immediately following. In any event, it doesn’t matter… the seventy minute b-movie needs to entertain and engage, which Crime by Night does, mostly with its cast.

Wyman’s incredibly personable performance aside, there’s also Parker as the suspicious, shady daughter of the victim. She’s one of the film’s villains, the detective’s foils, throughout, and she manages to bring some depth to a shallow role (you almost believe she has a kid somewhere, while she’s off with the nightclub singer). At the end, for her big scene, director Clemens makes his only terrible directing misstep–he inexplicably shoots her from the ground up. It looks funny; the camera on the floor appears to be the perspective of Cowan’s left shoe. Faye Emerson is unfortunately disappointing as one of Cowan’s extracurricular activities and Charles Lang is too bland, but Stuart Crawford is good as the falsely accused and Cy Kendall is amusing as the slow-witted sheriff.

I just checked IMDb and Night is the only one with these characters. Too bad. It’s a fine setup for a series.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Clemens; screenplay by Richard Weil and Joel Malone, from a novel by Daniel Mainwaring; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by Doug Gould; music by William Lava; produced by William Jacobs; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jane Wyman (Robbie Vance), Jerome Cowan (Sam Campbell), Faye Emerson (Ann Marlow), Charles Lang (Paul Goff), Eleanor Parker (Irene Carr), Stuart Crawford (Larry Borden), Cy Kendall (Sheriff Max Ambers), Charles C. Wilson (District Attorney Hyatt) and Fred Kelsey (Dad Martin).


Flight Angels (1940, Lewis Seiler)

When the studio system collapsed, so did the B-picture promotion system–a star of a B-picture could end up the star of an A-picture… For example, Jimmy Stewart started out in B-pictures, so did Eleanor Parker, so did Humphrey Bogart (I think). Occasionally, B-pictures made A-picture money (The Thin Man). It was a good system and there hasn’t been anything like it since–the rash of soap opera actors going mainstream did have a few good results (Alec Baldwin, Anne Heche) but none lasting–and that phenomenon has ended. It was never as successful as the promotion system and its disappearance is unfortunate, because it did produce good actors.

Flight Angels has an odd mix of actors, career-wise. Virginia Bruce, the star, was on the downswing. Her romantic interest, Dennis Morgan, was on the upswing (he ended up in musicals no less). Jane Wyman has a supporting role and runs wild with it, making the best of the script and turning in the film’s best performance. These actors’ success in light of the script–which alternates between a commercial for American Airlines and an astoundingly sexist portrayal of working women–is Flight Angels biggest surprise. The film doesn’t start out as anything but the commercial, so when the flight attendants–sorry, stewardesses–all get together to talk about marrying rich passengers and scream and run around and… fight (there’s a cat fight in Flight Angels), I couldn’t help but dream of a showing of Flight Angels with a debate afterwards between Margaret Cho and some female Conservative. Many A-features, for example, have a strong sexist attitude running through them (The Women, The Philadelphia Story), but I guess studios reserved the blatancy and cat fights for the B-features. Maybe not many theaters on the coasts played B-features. I suppose it’d be worth investigating. Oh, I forgot… not a history major anymore.

Still, Flight Angels is a well-handled film. Director Seiler has a lot of experience and the film even had one really nice shot. The special effects by Byron Haskin (who later directed) aren’t as nice as the aerial photography. On one hand, Flight Angels is an interesting historical document, on the other, it does have some nice performances from a likable cast. Either way, it’s a diverting seventy minutes.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Maurice Leo, from a story by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay; director of photography, L. William O’Connell; edited by James Gibbon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Virginia Bruce (Mary Norvell), Dennis Morgan (Chick Farber), Wayne Morris (Artie Dixon), Ralph Bellamy (Bill Graves), Jane Wyman (Nan Hudson) and John Litel (Dr. Barclay).


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