Friday, December 14, 2012

Banjo On My Knee/Remember the Night

Barbara Stanwyck is the Star of the Month this month on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and because she's my favorite actress, I'll talk about some of the airing movies throughout this month - notably the ones I've never seen before. To see other posts about Stanwyck, type her name into the search bar or click on the "movie stars" label.

The recent biography Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan briefly goes into her period as a New York chorus girl. She followed in the footsteps of her older sister Millie, having learned how to dance from Millie's vaudevillian boyfriend. A gig at the Strand Hotel as a teenager led to Broadway revues and nightclubs, and eventually, the Ziegfeld Follies in 1922. Callahan runs a quote attributed to Stanwyck, in which she says of her Broadway period, "How my memories of those three years sparkle! My chorine days may not have seemed perfect to anyone else, but they did to me."



Seeing her in the quasi-musical Banjo On My Knee was a nice reminder of her showgirl days: she sings, she dances, she plays a little piano. She was no Ginger Rogers, but she could hold her own on a dance floor. As for her singing, again, it was nothing spectacular, but it was pleasant enough. She had a low singing voice, smoky and velvety, the kind you wouldn't hear on the radio today (unless you were listening to a jazz station, perhaps).

Movie musicals are not as in demand as they were back in the 30s, but when they pop up (like the current revival of Les Miserables), it's always interesting to see actors get the chance to sing - nobody seems to have their voices dubbed anymore. Stany has sung and/or danced in other movies, such as Ball of Fire, but her character in Banjo doesn't start out as an entertainer of any kind. I call it a quasi-musical because it's not wall-to-wall singing and dancing - there are long stretches without music - but at the same time, there are enough musical moments that it should probably still qualify as a musical.


Stany shares a duet with contemporary singer-turned actor Tony Martin.
It's set in the American South, but no attempt at an accent is made on the part of either Stany or Joel McCrea. Sometimes I wonder what she would've done with accents. Today we applaud actors who can sound English or Scottish or German or what have you, but back then, I suspect audiences weren't as interested in such thespian trickery. I thought the movie overall was okay, though I was uncomfortable with all the wife-beating jokes!

Remember the Night was written, though not directed, by Preston Sturges, one of the most prominent comedy writer/directors of the 30s and 40s, but this felt little like a comedy; indeed, I was genuinely surprised at how dramatic and moving it was. Stany plays a career petty thief who, when put on trial, is allowed out on bail for the Christmas holiday until her trial can continue in the new year. Fred MacMurray is the prosecuting attorney who bails her out, and seeing that she has nowhere else to go, opts to take her back to his mom's place in Indiana for the holidays. 



Sparks fly between the two, as you might expect, but the combination of the holidays, the small-town atmosphere, and MacMurray's loving family has a profound effect on her as well. This could've been cloying and overly sentimental, but I bought it - especially after seeing the decision she makes once she and MacMurray return to New York and the trial.

Sturges' script goes for some laughs in the beginning (including an unfortunate black manservant stereotype), but once the action moves to Indiana, the mood changes significantly. As a director, Sturges was known for his zany, fast-paced romps such as Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve (another Stanwyck film), and the deeper into the film I got, the more I kept waiting for a return to the funny stuff, but it never really happens; in fact, the movie ends on kind of a down note, but it had me hooked the whole way. Night came out in 1940, the same year Sturges would make his directorial debut with The Great McGinty.



Stany has a great pivotal scene with MacMurray's mom that's so heartfelt and emotional. You can see the change in her character as it happens. The mom is played by veteran character actress Beulah Bondi, who was terrific in the whole film. You may have seen her in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life.

Seeing Stanwyck and MacMurray together naturally made me think of Double Indemnity, though their relationship here is quite different. At one point I kept trying to think of ways to connect their roles in both movies, as if characters could be reincarnated from one movie to the next. In fact, I'm fairly certain I remember reading part of an article where the writer tries to draw a thematic line connecting the characters from Indemnity to the ones in the later flick There's Always Tomorrow, also starring the duoI'd have to see that again to decide on my own.

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