“MY REPUTATION” ( 1946 )
Strength is a hallmark of BARBARA STANWYCK’s screen persona. She usually plays women determined to get what they want, whatever the cost, whether the character is good or evil. Think of the independent, career-minded journalists of “Meet John Doe” and “Christmas in Connecticut,” or the ruthless villainesses of “Double Indemnity” and “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.”
At first glance, Jessica Drummond, the sheltered young upper-class widow of “My Reputation” ( 1946 ), appears to have little in common with the tough dames so often personified by Stanwyck. But the actress and Catherine Turney’s script show Jessica’s strength emerging under difficult circumstances, as she learns to live on her own terms.
The film, based on a novel called “Instruct My Sorrows” by Claire Jaynes, is set in 1942. It opens the day after the funeral of Jessica’s husband, Paul, whose death came after a long illness. She’s 33 and has never been on her own, having gone from the care of her domineering mother to that of her husband. Her sons, ages 12 and 14, are about to leave for boarding school. She has no idea what to do with herself.
That dragon of a mother ( Lucile Watson, in a terrific performance ) has worn widow’s weeds since her own husband died 25 years earlier, and she thinks Jessica should either embrace perpetual widowhood or perhaps go after the family’s nice but unexciting lawyer, Frank Everett ( Warner Anderson ).
Neither choice appeals to Jessica, nor does resuming activities with her social circle in Lake Forest, an old-money suburb of Chicago; as a lone woman, she feels very much out of place when surrounded by couples. The only friends who don’t make her feel like a fifth wheel are Ginna and Cary Abbott ( Eve Arden and John Ridgely ), who live in the city and aren’t part of the Lake Forest crowd. When Jessica comes to their home one night, feeling like she’s falling apart, they invite her to join them on a trip to California.
The trip sets in motion major changes to Jessica’s life. While skiing at Lake Tahoe, she meets a handsome soldier on leave, Major Scott Landis ( George Brent ). He’s charming but a bit aggressive, what then would have been called a wolf. “You know, if you hadn’t been poured into that icy mold of conventionality, you’d be a good egg,” he tells her. “You’ll hatch one of these days.”
Maybe Jessica should have punched him for that, but she’s intrigued by him, even though she pushes him away when he attempts to kiss her. Still, she can’t get him out of her mind, and when Ginna and Cary spot him in Chicago a few weeks later, Jessica arranges to “coincidentally” run into him. He’s stationed in the city while he awaits orders to go overseas, and after a couple of false starts, he and Jessica begin seeing each other. It’s one of her first steps toward becoming her own person; she’ll pursue the relationship simply because she’s attracted to him and enjoys his company; never mind his protestations that he’s not “the marrying kind” and won’t make her happy.
Unfortunately, their relationship provides plenty of fuel for the small-minded gossips in the big houses of Lake Forest, as well as for the harpy friends of Jessica’s mother. It’s so soon after her husband’s death! She’s been seen going to his apartment…alone! She came back on the train from Chicago at 4 in the morning! The Production Code being in full force, the script makes clear that Jessica hasn’t made whoopee with Scott, but there’s been the appearance of impropriety and in her world, appearance is what counts.
Jessica doesn’t become aware of the gossip until her sons, home on Christmas break, overhear it at a New Year’s Eve party. That leads Jessica to confront the trash-talkers, to no avail. “Why did you bother to come here at all?” asks one of them, Riette Van Orman
( Leona Maricle ). “Because I was still coward enough to want to save my reputation,” Jessica replies.
That experience is even more freeing for Jessica. She resolves to keep right on seeing Scott, despite the gossip or even her sons’ objections, whether their relationship will have a future or not. Of course, there are complications, involving the sons and Scott’s wartime duties, but without giving the whole ending away, we’ll just say that not only does Jessica assert her right to live and love on her own terms, Scott learns to appreciate her more “conventional” qualities, such as her devotion to her boys, and overcome his fear of commitment, as we’d call it these days.
The fact that they both adjust a little for the sake of the other is one reason to admire this movie, and so are the performances. Stanwyck lives up to her reputation for playing strong women; in Jessica, the strength just takes a little longer to emerge, and Stanwyck makes the character’s evolution thoroughly convincing. One wonders if Stanwyck’s way with strong characters is a reflection of how tenacious she had to be to rise from impoverished Brooklyn orphan to major movie star.
Brent, while lacking the charisma to be a major star, was a serviceable and competent actor, and his performance as Major Landis is just fine. As a contract player at Warner Bros., he was often cast opposite top actresses such as Stanwyck and Bette Davis, most likely because he wouldn’t outshine them or because the notoriously stingy studio wanted to skimp on salaries. It seldom put two first-tier players together. Eve Arden is a joy as always, supportive yet no-nonsense. Who wouldn’t want her for a best friend? And she gets to have a husband in “My Reputation,” and they’re even shown in a double bed! Watson, as previously mentioned, is a treat as the mother you love to hate, and the ever-reliable Jerome Cowan adds spice as the oily married man who puts the moves on Jessica even though his wife’s supposedly her friend too.
As a former Chicagoan, I’m always glad to see a movie set there, although of course “My Reputation” was shot mostly on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. ( Wrightwood, a ski resort closer to Los Angeles, stood in for Tahoe. ) Most classic-era movies defaulted to New York or L.A. for big-city settings, so Chicago’s a refreshing change.
Also, “My Reputation” is the rare 1940s film that features adolescents in any meaningful way; you’d think teenagers didn’t exist until they started rocking around the clock in the ’50s. Sons Kim
( Scotty Beckett ) and Keith ( Bobby Cooper ) are believable adolescent boys, obsessed with sports and just getting interested in girls, trying to balance their love for their mother with their desire to hang out with friends. It is a bit jarring to see boys their age dressed for travel and parties in suits, ties, and hats; I’ll borrow a friend’s joke and call this “the onset of early adultism.”
Oh, speaking of clothes, Stanwyck looks fabulous in a variety of Edith Head designs; I particularly love the beaded number she wears for her New Year’s date with Scott. Other pleasures include Max Steiner’s music, lush as always, and the beautiful cinematography of James Wong Howe. It’s all under the capable direction of Curtis Bernhardt, a refugee from the Nazis who had a way with so-called women’s pictures; another of his credits is “A Stolen Life,” with Bette Davis playing twins.
All told, “My Reputation” is well worth seeing for any Barbara Stanwyck fan. It may even heighten your appreciation of her impressive talent.
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CINEMAVEN’s NOTE: This post is in conjunction with the REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK Blogathon held by IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD today and tomorrow.
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